At the end of the Cold War, Russia was a facsimile of itself. Shorn of empire, the Russians appeared to be a weak regional power, if that. Should one examine it through domestic considerations, its economy was weak relying entirely on extractive industries. A contagion of alcoholism raged through the society. HIV cases represented an epidemic. And life expectancy was declining. These conditions still prevail, but Putin has gone global in order to conceal the weakness and failure that exists at home.
Moscow has found numerous openings for exploitation in the West. Its agenda is transparent: Assert Russian influence at the expense of Washington and the liberal institutions that offered international stability since the end of World War II. For Russia, the key target is NATO that impinges on Russian borders. Where the U.S. has failed to sustain NATO’s influence, the Russians have stepped in by projecting military power.
By meddling in the 2016 presidential election, the Russians have forced Donald Trump’s administration into a political crisis. In Syria, Russian planes and bombing have turned the tide in the civil war saving the hide of Bashar al Assad. Elsewhere in the Middle East, Russia is regarded as the strong horse selling arms to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and its advanced S-400 air defense system to Turkey. Putin has even developed close ties to General Haftar’s forces in Libya in the hope Russia can shape the future of this war-torn nation.
On the economic front Russia has coordinated cuts in Saudi oil production in an effort to pump up prices. It has developed facilities in Managua, close to our shores and is working on a number of deals in Cuba including an intelligence operation of the kind that existed in the Cold War. In fact, it has buttressed its spy and intelligence operations all over South America.
The purpose of these operations isn’t opaque. Its aim is to pull as many international actors from the Western and U.S. camp into theirs. It can foment chaos by pointing to the moribund institutional apparatus that keeps Western hegemony afloat. The IMF, the European Union, NATO, the World Banks are clearly Russian targets.
Moreover, these strategic moves bolster Putin’s standing at home. The typical Russian takes great pride in the reassertion of the Russian bear on the world stage. Morale in Moscow is surprisingly high for a failed economic state.
Needless to say, these moves come with risks. Putin shudders at the prospect of a direct confrontation with the United States. Trump is not Obama; in fact, Trump does not suffer from “strategic patience.” Putin might push too hard and too fast prompting a U.S. reaction. President Trump’s Riyadh speech which carved out a Arab NATO could forestall Russian Middle East ambitions. And Russia’s failed effort to assassinate the leader of Montenegro in order to prevent NATO membership, failed miserably and alarmed Montenegro’s neighbors about Russian intentions.
These Russian chess moves are directly related to the ineptitude of an Obama foreign policy that relied on withdrawal, if not retreat, from foreign affairs. The danger for Putin is that he and his military advisers might have overlearned the lessons of the past and have ignored the emergence of a different reality.
Nonetheless, U.S. officials should watch with concern and develop appropriate actions to counter Russian activity. The tectonic actions on the globe have given Russia an opportunity for the future; however, we must counter this hegemonic desire with clever diplomacy and defense before it is increasingly threatening to our basic interests.
Herbert London is President of the London Center for Policy Research, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America). You can read all of Herb London’s commentaries at www.londoncenter.org
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