Opinions expressed are solely the author’s own and do not express the views or opinions of his employer.
Step-by-step and bit-by-bit, Vladimir Putin’s Russia is chipping away at the West’s core while restoring its influence in the post-Soviet space and reinforcing the image of Russia as a global power on par with the United States. Many in the West, downplaying the post-Cold War reality and Russia’s capacity to spoil, continue to focus extensively on the numbers, graphs, and technicalities and ignore the realities on the ground. Policymakers and analysts constantly emphasize Russia’s backwardness, corruption, declining demographics, and relatively small gross domestic product (GDP) as the defining factors for its looming demise. However, they widely dismiss the relevance of its hard power, the significance of its will to fight, as well as the effectiveness of its hybrid tactics designed to confuse, subvert, and undermine democracies while avoiding conventional response.
Putin’s Attack on the West
Putin has from time-to-time showed that he can be an effective adversary even when he is dealt a bad hand. He has identified the vacuum of power and absence of the Western leadership and worked to fill the void and test Western resolve. On the one hand, by resorting to military means in Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova, Moscow expanded a ring of conflicts, buffers zones, and gray areas, effectively halting both NATO’s Eastern enlargement and the European Union’s Eastern integration. On the other, by funneling money and resources into European politics, the Kremlin’s influence operations in the far right/anti-establishment movements finally started yielding results for Moscow.
In recent years, these groups not only entered European Parliaments—an idea many thought to be inconceivable only a few years ago—but they also have played a role in government policy formations. In Germany, Alternative for Germany, which is largest opposition party in the Bundestag, and in Italy, the Five Star Movement, coupled with Northern League, are spearheading efforts to help Russia break out of the isolation it has found itself in after annexing Crimea. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, during the campaign, regularly called for the lifting of sanction against Russia. Although the Italian leader went along with a recent six-month extension of the sanctions by the EU, his statements and cozy relationship with Moscow remain alarming.
By utilizing a host of digital tools in targeted areas aimed at fomenting discord and dissension in transatlantic community, Putin has found a way of undermining the very unity of the alliance from within. Moscow has been exploiting existing political, economic, social, and cultural conflicts and grievances to partly increase polarization and distrust towards democratic institutions and to partly undermine democratic comity and consensus. In recent years, the Kremlin has meddled in nearly every election in major Western countries. Elections in Germany, France, and the U.S. as well as referendums in the United Kingdom and Catalonia are high-profile examples. By interfering in democratic elections, Moscow has dealt a great blow to the very foundation of democracy.
A Much Needed Western Response
Despite Russia’s continued meddling in the political processes of the Western democracies, there has not been a coordinated response from the West. They have yet to formulate a policy that would deter behavior that threatens global peace and security. The West must to start hitting back and hitting hard, especially in cyberspace. Although the EU’s Eastern Stratcom, NATO’s Stratcom, and the newly established national Stratcoms are great tools available at West’s disposal, they still lack resources, coherence, and coordination to stop Russia’s malicious activities. Given the depth and sophistication of the challenge that Putin’s Russia poses to the West, the Western response must be adequate in complexity and sophistication and should be coordinated by an interstate or international body. Such cooperation would mobilize and better consolidate Western efforts to weaken, outmaneuver, and outplay Russia’s sharp power.
Additionally, the response must include media outlets, the tech and private sectors, and civil society to saturate cyberspace with independent voices. Experience shows that an independent message is more credible and effective, and people are ultimately more receptive when these messages come from non-state actors.
These measures must go hand-in-hand with coordinated economic sanctions. The sanctions should be enforced for the long term and increased in severity because Russia’s internal dynamic shows that Putin’s neo-patrimonial system is vulnerable both to the political pressure and sanctions imposed by the West. A recent report by the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) found that the Western sanctions have deeply undermined Moscow’s capacity to distribute wealth among its supporting factions in exchange for political support. With fewer carrots to distribute, the Kremlin has been forced to use the “stick” more often to avoid instability in the country. In the past few years, a great number of officials at the municipal, regional, and federal levels have been detained. Since 2012-13, approximately 600 of such officials have been arrested every year. Billionaire Ziyavudin Magomedov of the Summa Group has been charged with embezzlement and racketeering, and former Minister of Economic Development Alexey Ulyukaev, one of the first of these examples, was sentenced to eight years for accepting a bribe. Even oligarchs and bureaucrats at the highest levels of government are not immune to long jail sentences, hurting stability of the system.
Western leaders must understand that no policy is going to deter Russia unless it is backed up by hard power. Putin knows that Russia has no resources to take on the West militarily. So, his constant reference to NATO’s military buildup in the region needs to be understood as a rhetorical rallying point designed for domestic consumption. In this context, the deployments of U.S. forward engagement tools in regional allied and partner countries will not escalate the conflict or trigger a full blown war with Russia, but it will make Moscow merely more rule-bound player.
Overall, Putin’s attempts at making overtures at the Helsinki Summit in July 2018 and his vocal desire for remedying ties with the West, particularly the United States, is nothing but a red herring. Putin is not interested in making a friend out of the West. Instead, by increasing tension and creating constant crises, Moscow seeks a source of legitimacy to galvanize domestic support for its imperialist policies and to grab more chips for further bargaining with the West. This pattern will likely continue until the West finds out where the boundaries are and until it takes coordinated and concrete steps in response and Putin suffers real consequences for his actions.