Speculation regarding the foreign policy of President-elect Donald Trump has been on the rise for quite some time, with focus on topics concerning the EU and Eastern Europe. Most speculation emanates from the lack of understanding of the rational and irrational mix in his populist rhetoric and reality checks during his presidential candidacy, as well as once he is in office.
Some of the uneasiness surrounding what Trump might engage in after he walks into the White House is based on his purported privileged relations with Russia’s Putin, which supposedly allow him to circumvent the European Union, Eastern Europe and the US Congress. This is nothing new in the history of US presidential races in which there is only one prize that matters – the Oval Office. Anything goes as far as the means to get there are concerned. The fact of the matter is that, despite his critics and opponents, Trump made it and his Russia-related parlance seems to be generating increasing concerns across the globe.
Most analysts refer to a likely new round of realpolitik, based in interests and not values, only this time the aperture between geopolitics and business will be slightly altered – this is not the era of Kissinger with the grand opening to China 40 odd years ago. Putin has done it before so many times with Western European leaders and businessmen – influence and favors to the Russian elite in return for deals and contracts to the West. There is, however, one major difference – the role models, Berlusconi and Schroeder, had nothing to offer as a geopolitical trade off. Donald Trump has, and the stakes are on a totally different plane.
Putin did the utmost to develop his geopolitical offer to the next US president and to make it attractive, once it became clear that under Obama’s administration the chances for a breakthrough in bilateral US-Russia relations are slim to nonexistent. He strengthened his bargaining power trying to bring the West to the negotiating table. The annexation of Crimea, the invasion of Eastern Ukraine and the military operation in Syria follow identical pattern and purpose – to impress and be noticed. President Putin repeatedly warned that he will revert to asymmetrical response to the challenges of the West as it was crystal clear that he had nothing to match the West’s military, financial, technological and economic superiority.
His team identified the key vulnerability gaps in the EU and NATO defense shield, focusing not only on the key systematic and institutional deficits, but above all on the loopholes in the Internet based and web reliant services and processes. The asymmetric nature of the assault did not require at any time an overwhelming power across the frontline of interaction with the West, but a dedicated and focused workforce and approach, operating below the radar of the threat warning and response systems of the EU and US.
The US initially did not top the list of attack targets – the Kremlin had plenty of time to muscle its technique and strategy – with the likes of Brexit, the Scottish and Dutch referenda, the elections in Austria, Greece, Bulgaria, Moldova and Montenegro. Moscow developed and tested its full range of hybrid weaponry – from directly financing Marine Le Pen to media campaigns and cyber-attacks. Only when Putin had full confidence in his media, intelligence, military and political levers did he decide to launch the final hacker assault during the US presidential campaign.
The West needed time to come back to its senses after years of denial and neglect of both its internal flops and the nonchalant “ignore Russia” policy. The failure of its political system to respond to challenges at global and regional levels, coupled with the seemingly irreversible denigration of the its financial system, gave the Russian president a window of opportunity which he did hesitate to jump through. Both the US and the EU seemed unable to elect leaders capable of matching Putin’s resolute and cunning grip on power. Instead of confronting the Russian leader in areas where his potential was limited and declining, the West granted him the first strike option and the right to pick the time and the place.
On top of that, Vladimir Putin fully benefited from the privilege of an authoritarian rule, virtually sealing off the Russian public opinion to information and direct influence via Western channels, cutting off supply lines to independent media and politicians within Russia. While the West generally complied with the tacit code of engagement after the end of the Cold War, the Kremlin took full advantage of its new hybrid war potential, penetrating the West’s virtual defense lines. Moscow unfolded its full capabilities to influence Western politicians and the public, not via cross border channels that were relatively easy to detect and neutralize, but primarily from within the US and the EU. The task was made easy with an adversary who was reluctant to admit that Putin is an enemy, excelling in the art of hybrid and internet warfare. The West’s overall superiority complex – that Russia is just a gas station — concealed the fact that Russia had cyberwarfare power that could match anything that the EU and NATO had.
It took President Putin at least five years of concise and dedicated actions both at home and abroad before he decided to project his power and launch his ultimate blow against the integrity of the EU – the Brexit and the epicenter of Western Power, the White House.
Before launching the decisive strike, the Kremlin propaganda and information assault groups infiltrated the Western media space, the NGO segment and political parties, building a solid proxy and partner base. While the US and EU were prepared to detect and defend against the military threat, response mechanisms were seriously handicapped when having to deal with internal and virtual space threats.
The editor-in-chief of Russia Today, Margarita Simonyan, in a blatant display of insolence, objected to limitation of RT’s operation in the US, quoting freedom of speech rights enshrined in the First Amendment. Former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, who has recently joined the list of banned ex-ambassadors to visit Russia, called for applying reciprocal measures and declaring RT a ‘foreign agent.’ McFaul is the same diplomat who initiated and later defaulted on the reset plan for US-Russia relations.
The self-confidence of Putin grew with each successful leg on the hybrid operation against the West. He executed and made good on an almost unbeatable chain of self-amplifying lethal threats – direct involvement in Syria, triggering fresh refugee waves to the EU, giving perceptional purpose and direction to new terrorist acts and concurrently nourishing extremist nationalism and anti-refugee sentiments that almost crippled the crisis response ability of EU governments.
While launching direct strikes against the Western political establishment, Putin made sure he sustained the image of a cunning and ruthless dealmaker, capable of delivering on promises to Westerners – cash and electoral winners in exchange for recognition of his newly aspired status as a global leader, much in line with the classics of the balance of forces.
Putin’s endeavors are reminiscent of the policies of the Russian tsars Alexander I and Nicholas I in the 19 century, which tried to blend liberal rhetoric and absolutist iron fist. Much in line with his predecessors, the current Russian tsar is offering the present European leaders his seeming altruistic help in suppressing present day ‘revolutions’ – terrorism, refugees, internal and external threats – in a new Holy Alliance. At the center of the strategy, the present Kremlin’s ruler suggests an encore of the classic theme in Russia’s Western policy – to ignore and circumvent Eastern Europe.
It is not by accident that in the early maps of the ‘civilized’ part of Europe, dating from the days of the Ottoman Empire, almost all of Eastern Europe has been treated both by the Russian tsars and Western monarchs as a territory of barbarians, the land of chaos, or for short, designated as Tartaria, spanning between France and Italy to the West and Kiev, Moscow and St. Petersburg to the East. There is a very good book by Larry Woolf, “Inventing Eastern Europe,” that details the history of the evolution in mapping civilization in Europe amid an interplay between western and Russian monarchs, largely at the expense of Eastern European nations.
The words of praise and intellectual guidance sought from Western intellectuals that could be distilled from Putin’s public flirts with Western intellectuals at the Valdai forum — businessmen (CEOs of energy companies), top politicians, political scientists, writers, historians and media stars — are just an integral part of his master plan to mingle with the Western public, thus undermining the isolation effect of the sanctions and allowing RT and Sputnik to communicate freely the Kremlin’s message. Then and now, the preferred mode to engage with Moscow and to sympathize with its imperial aspiration has been to engage from the safe distance of Western capitals. Few intellectuals at the time dared and bothered to traverse the continent and enjoy the hospitality of the Russian tsar and his court.
Catherine the Great and her inner circle had a penchant for the encyclopedists – Voltaire and Diderot – who at that time were considered the spiritual beacons of European public opinion. The Kremlin willingly took advantage of their intellectual pursuits tailored to their own monarchial interests. In those day, writers played a pivotal role in shaping public opinion, very much in the way today opinion leaders use social networks and media channels to define the new mainstream of modern societies. Western intellectuals have always been used by the Kremlin as key allies in persuading Western governments. Nothing or almost nothing in the exchange between Western intellectuals and the Tsar’s court was left to chance or to idealism. Catherine the Great is known to have regularly ‘burdened’ French intellectuals with generous gifts and financial injections, very much in the manner today President Putin is trying to charm and incentivize Western media and pop stars and political scientists and politicians.
The ideas of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution did resonate among Russian intellectuals — Herzen in 1865, wrote that we “experienced Rousseau and Robespierre as Frenchmen.” Rousseau himself, unlike Voltaire, used to criticize Peter the Great for his reforms, which he claimed run counter to Russia’s traditions and lead to the Russians sinking into a deeper introversion.
The relevant upgrade to this strategic line with the West, regarding Eastern Europe, came in the second half of the 19 century, focusing on the Pan-Slavic and Orthodox Brotherhood doctrine building on the centuries-long claim of Moscow as the Third Rome.
The idea that Russia has a special mission as a beacon of monarchism defines the range of legitimacy of its imperium beyond its borders. Putin is offering a redivivus of the old school of Russian monarchs’ absolutist power, branded as modern neo-conservatism.
Russia is not only offering billions in potential business deals and geopolitical camaraderie in settling regional conflicts. Putin is also ready to sacrifice soldiers’ lives and spend cash from his own depleted resources in order to befriend anew the EU and the US. Something EU and US leaders (at least under President Obama) seemed unwilling and unable to do — send in their ground troops and risk losing lives of their own citizens, while the tsar in the Kremlin seemed decisive and purposeful in actions in and out of Russia, free of public discontent or media discomfort. It is not by chance that Putin finds willing listening ears in the West, notably with politicians who envy his grip on power and his luxury of being spared the “pesky” details of democracy and concern for human life, rights, freedoms, etc.
Putin is offering his own authoritarianism for proxy or partners’ use.
He might be a leader of a country that is gas station – but even with an inferior resource and power base he has been able to score wins against the West.
In this context, the latest attempt of yet another Russian tsar to offer a grand strategic deal to the West in order keep its spheres of influence and power at the expense of other nations comes as no surprise.