Putin’s Russia is an adversary of the United States; the Kremlin needs to have an external enemy to distract the Russian people from the problems plaguing their country, argues Alina Polyakova. This piece originally appeared in SFChronicle.com.
The revelation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections caught Americans by surprise. As we learn more about how the Russian intelligence agencies, state-controlled media and various proxies worked to influence the U.S. elections in an effort to undermine trust in the electoral process and further divide Americans, many are asking if the United States and Russia are in a new Cold War.
But, as we know, the Cold War didn’t end in the Soviet Union’s favor. Why is Russian president Vladimir Putin once again pitting his nation against the West? And is Russia winning this time?
During the Cold War, the world seemed more neatly divided into a competition between two superpowers. Americans were taught that the Communists were the bad guys (and Soviet citizens were taught about the evils and hypocrisy of the West). After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, however, the United States reigned as the sole superpower. Without the “evil empire” to oppose, successive U.S. administrations vacillated on the level of focus on Russia and in offering a strategic vision for the newly liberated post-Soviet republics.
Each president seemed convinced that he could “fix” the Russia problem through a close personal relationship with the Russian leader.
President Bill Clinton developed a close bond with Boris Yeltsin, and sought to integrate Russia into international institutions, such as the G-8, while at the same time pursuing policies that Yeltsin categorically opposed, most notably the U.S.-led bombing of Serbia.
After Yeltsin’s handpicked successor, Vladimir Putin, took the reins in the Kremlin, President George W. Bush infamously said that he looked into Putin’s eyes and saw his soul (a comment he would later come to regret). Putin invaded Georgia at the end of Bush’s term.
Yet, just a year later in 2009, with Putin briefly handing over the presidency to Dmitry Medvedev (but undoubtedly remaining as the decision-maker), the Obama administration was ready for a fresh start. The Obama “reset” soured quickly however when Putin returned to the presidency in 2012, intent to redefine the relationship with the West as an adversarial one. Relations between Russia and the West took a nosedive in 2014. As Ukrainians rose up in a mass democratic movement to depose a corrupt, Kremlin-controlled leader, Viktor Yanukovich, the Kremlin seized the opportunity to invade Ukraine, taking over Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and starting a proxy war in Ukraine’s east. The United States and Europe responded by imposing economic sanctions on Russia and providing financial and military support to help the Ukrainians defend themselves against further Russian aggression.
Similarly, President Trump came into office seeking closer and better relations with Russia. Despite those stated intentions, U.S.-Russia relations have continued to unravel: Congress forced his administration to impose more sanctions on Russian businesses and oligarchs; the U.S. expelled 60 Russian diplomats in response to the attempt by Russian agents to poison a former Russian intelligence officer in the U.K.; and, the White House has pulled out of a Soviet-era arms-control treaty citing rampant Russian violations.
It is no wonder, then, after decades of both Republican and Democratic administrations going back and forth on what Russia is — an adversary? a partner? a convenient occasional ally? — that the American people are more confused about U.S.-Russia relations than during the Cold War years.
Putin skillfully plays with this ambiguity: He has carefully crafted an image that often contradicts reality. In this image, he plays the roles simultaneously of defender of Christian values (even though the majority of Russians are not religious); savior of Russia from economic destitution (even though under his rule the Russian economy entered a period of stagnation and 25 percent of Russians are too poor to have an indoor toilet); and a strong leader as compared with the weak democratically elected leaders in the West (even though most Westerners who visit Russia outside the glitz of Moscow would likely not want to live there).
If it wasn’t clear before, it should be clear by now: Putin’s Russia is an adversary of the United States. The Kremlin needs to have an external enemy to distract the Russian people from the problems plaguing their country.
Putin, however, is no fool — he understands the limits of Russian capacities and ability to project power. Russia is no match to the United States economically, militarily, or in terms of its appeal to others. The Russian president understands that to win, you don’t have to be better than everyone else; everyone else just has to do a little worse.
And this is why the Kremlin has launched a strategy of political warfare against the West in the form of disinformation campaigns, support for far-right political parties in Europe, cyberattacks, money laundering, and other tools of influence that allow Moscow to undermine its perceived adversaries at very little cost.
After all, it’s cheaper to open an internet troll farm than to build tanks and invest in sustainable economic growth. And if the Russians can cause so much damage with so little, others who see the United States as an enemy are sure to follow suit.