Vladimir Putin may well have played himself. By blatantly intervening in a U.S. presidential election, he has greatly increased his notoriety, which is no small thing. In doing so, he might have awakened a sleeping giant.
Like the proverbial dog chasing after a car, Putin has long tried to interfere in the political life of rival countries whether by seeking to buy off politicians or by using clumsily designed disinformation campaigns to move the discourse in a more pro-Putin direction. Though a victory by Donald Trump in 2016 might have seemed unlikely, Putin presumably thought it would be worth his while to take Hillary Clinton down a peg or two regardless of the outcome of the election. When Trump actually won, well, the dog finally caught the car. So, how well has Putin’s maneuvering worked out for him and for Russia?
To many, the answer is obvious: This has been an absurdly successful gambit. There is a widespread fear in Europe that the Trump presidency has already damaged NATO, which in turn has created an enormous opportunity for Putin’s Russia. This is not at all a ridiculous notion. As someone who has long believed that the U.S. ought to increase its defense budget to counter the Russian threat, I take it very seriously.
But let’s consider the possibility that Putin has made a terrible mistake.
Just a few years ago, Mitt Romney was widely ridiculed for claiming that Russia was America’s chief geopolitical adversary. The notion that the U.S. ought to redouble its efforts to counter Russian aggression and to shore up the NATO alliance was seen by many as an anachronism—a throwback to Cold War–era thinking that had no place in the 21st century. During his first term as president, Barack Obama sought to “reset” relations with Putin’s Russia by, among other things, dropping plans to deploy a missile defense shield to protect U.S. allies in Eastern Europe and agreeing to an arms control agreement that was frankly a much better deal for Russia than it was for the U.S. At a summit in Seoul in March 2012, in an exchange not intended for public consumption, Obama assured his Russian counterpart, then-President Dmitry Medvedev, that he might be willing to go even further in accommodating Russia’s interests, but that he needed some breathing room as he ran for his second term. “This is my last election,” Obama explained. “After my election, I have more flexibility.”
Suffice it to say, Obama soon realized that Romney had a point. Shortly after Putin returned to the presidency, he embarked on a series of astonishingly aggressive moves, including but not limited to the invasion and annexation of Crimea; using “little green men” special operations forces to bolster ragtag pro-Russian separatist militias in eastern Ukraine; launching a massive intervention on behalf of the Assad regime in Syria, partly as an opportunity to show off its new military hardware; and stepping up its efforts to threaten and intimidate the Baltic states. Whereas anti-Russian sentiment was once concentrated among GOP hawks, Democratic foreign policy thinkers, including those surrounding Hillary Clinton, started talking tougher about Putin. Then after Clinton’s defeat in November, the Democratic Party as a whole truly caught anti-Russia fever.
Strikingly, a new Pew survey finds that support for NATO has surged among Democrats, rising from 58 percent in 2016 to 78 percent earlier this month. While support for NATO has slipped somewhat among Republicans, falling from 52 percent to 47 percent, the net effect is that there is now an increased awareness of the importance of America’s alliances. While there are some Republicans, among them California Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, who openly express their admiration for Vladimir Putin, anti-Russian sentiment among rank-and-file Republicans remains pretty robust. Either Trump will have to adapt to changing public opinion or his Democratic successor will devote his or her energies to shoring up NATO and keeping Russia in check, employing Romney-esque rhetoric about Putin’s perfidiousness all the while. That is not a great outcome for Vladimir Putin.
In the grand scheme of things, it wouldn’t be all that hard to tame Russia. Russia is a power in precipitous decline with an economy one-tenth the size of America’s and less than 40 percent the size of Germany’s. Despite a recent uptick in the Russian birth rate, the country still has an old undereducated population plagued by chronic disease, and its economy isn’t exactly an innovative dynamo. No one expects Russia to come close to China’s military potential a decade or two from now, even if we assume Chinese economic growth stagnates in the coming years. Russia’s chief geopolitical weapon, its rich endowment of oil and gas resources—which it has long used to wring concessions out of its European neighbors and to finance its geopolitical ambitions—has been devalued by the shale energy revolution in North America and increased production in Saudi Arabia and other major oil-producing states. It’s no exaggeration to say that in a long, drawn-out conflict with the U.S. and its allies, Russia is screwed.
The great game Vladimir Putin is playing is ultimately a futile one.
For years, Putin has played this weak hand impressively well. How has he leveraged his country’s meager resources to make itself a force on the world? It’s simple: He has forced Russians to bear enormous sacrifices by forcing them to rely on shoddy Russian-made goods instead of higher-quality European imports, holding down wages and consumption more broadly, and imposing rigid spending constraints that are starving public services. So far, the Russian public has been willing to make these sacrifices in the name of national glory. But how much longer will they be able to stand it? Add in the fact that the real threats to Russia’s territorial integrity come not from the West, where Europe’s rich market democracies are content to be left alone, but from the South and the East, where the forces of militant Islam and China pose far greater challenges.
What the U.S. and its allies need to do is remind the Russian people that the great game Vladimir Putin is playing is ultimately a futile one. Russia would be much better off making its peace with the Western alliance than trying to tear it apart. To convince the Russians of this, however, the U.S. would need to make meaningful investments in defending the nations of central and Eastern Europe, and it would need to do this in partnership with Germany. Right now, the German government devotes 1.2 percent of GDP to defense expenditures, which is lower than the 1.6 percent they were spending in the late 1990s when the security environment in Europe was not nearly as menacing. Contrast Germany’s military spending with U.S. spending, which currently amounts to 3.6 percent of GDP as compared to 3.2 percent in the late 1990s.
When Donald Trump’s dismissiveness towards America’s European allies leads German Chancellor Angela Merkel to start talking about how “the times in which we [Europeans] can completely rely on others are partly over,” my first reaction is dismay, for all the obvious reasons. The U.S. needs Germany and vice versa, and it’s a shame to think that Merkel considers the U.S. a less-than-reliable friend. My second reaction is, What took you so long, Angela? Of course Europe can’t depend on others to ensure its security. If Germany and our other European allies had consistently spent 2 percent of their GDPs on defense instead of relying on the U.S. to pick up the slack, there is no way Russia would have dared to behave so recklessly.
Strange as it may sound, Trump may have inadvertently done some good by reminding Europeans that they can’t always count on American largesse and by rallying American Democrats against a uniquely insidious threat. If I were Vladimir Putin, I’d be scrambling for a Plan B.