Vladimir Putin. Press Association/Dmitri Lovetsky. All rights reserved.Though often misquoted, Vladimir Putin has said that the disintegration of the Soviet Union was “a great geo-political disaster of the twentieth century.” In late 2016, he insisted that the Soviet Union did not need to disintegrate but could have been “reformed”.
Rebuilding this vital power has been a long game for Putin and one with real ideological resonance.
To be clear, his strategy does not involve putting the USSR back together in the old sense. He is creating something stronger: capable of excelling at the guerrilla warfare of the rogue digital network (outside the jurisdictions of individual nation states).
Putin is reasserting Moscow as the world’s major superpower. To do that, he knows the need to clear the field of competition (dominant and ascendant). Because of America’s considerable political divisions that have often brought the government to gridlock or shutdown, Putin correctly assessed the United States as being a soft target susceptible to election disruption. It now seems apparent to US intelligence agencies that Putin himself has been involved in this.
He has correctly assessed the rhetoric of reflexive China-bashing in the US as well as Trump’s inability to control his impulsive behaviour. Knowing that Obama's "Pivot to Asia" coincided with a period of increased Chinese confidence and that the Chinese government saw the motivation behind it as a US attempt to contain their economic and military growth, Putin understood that China is already feeling cornered. And the Chinese have a tendency, like many governments including Putin’s own, to mask their own failings by cultivating and manipulating an increasingly nationalistic sentiment among the populace. Unwise as it would be, there would come a point at which aggressive engagement between China and the United States would be unavoidable if Xi Jinping and his top brass gauged that a defence of Chinese honour would be necessary in order to maintain the legitimacy and mandate of the leadership in the eyes of heightened nationalistic fervour among the populace.
From the call to Taiwan to his online goading of China on Twitter, Trump has reflected almost ideal behaviour as Putin’s preferred candidate. The sheer proliferation of strange and unprecedented happenings has caused would-be-damning incidents and conflicts of interest to either be forgotten or glossed over. One such incident was Trump enjoying an extended post-victory conversation with Putin before speaking to US officials.
Putin has studied Trump’s character and understands his lack of self-control.
It is unclear what the two spoke about in this conversation (the only thing close to a read-out we have is a brief from the Kremlin) but it has been clear for some time that Putin has recruited Trump as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation (former CIA Director Mike Morell articulated this back in early August). Putin has studied Trump’s character and understands his lack of self-control.
Putin also understands that the US is fully confident in its military supremacy. The ability to guarantee victory in armed conflict looks good on paper but military victories require more than a superior army. The fact is that the US is overextended and short of breath. The country is more divided than it has been in recent memory; the trust and confidence that must flow between the intelligence community and the incoming leadership is frayed; the confidence of top military brass (those generals that Trump 'knows better than') is under duress; the two major political parties that must drive US political discourse are gridlocked and have driven the country into disability; US global alliances have become progressively more strained over the last 16 years. All this, together with the fact that the US maintains 1.3 trillion dollars in debt to China would make any sort of aggressive engagement, let alone war, devastating to both sides.
Trump is appointing people to lead departments like defence and national security who are hawkish in addition to having parched histories when it comes to running bureaucratic organizations. If crude escalation (like we saw in Trump’s recent Twitter engagement) continues then the only way to avoid military engagement would be by turning the volume down through the channels of diplomacy. But Trump also has an incoming Secretary of State who is in possession of no diplomatic or foreign-policy experience whatsoever. Tillerson is also Putin’s perfect choice to lead the State Department since his $500 billion dollar oil deal with Russia’s top oil company (owned by Putin) was halted by US sanctions imposed in the aftermath of Putin’s annexation of Crimea. The appointment of Tillerson is an all but sure-fire method to get those sanctions lifted, and lifted quickly.
That’s where the most risky part of the chess game would begin. Aggressive engagement between China and the US would devastate the United States and curb China’s ascendancy to dominance, thus clearing the way for Russian hegemony.
And just like that, Putin would become the most powerful man in the world.
The remaining fronts to be contained are the traditional theatres of Europe and the Middle East. Putin’s engagement in the Syrian Civil War came at the moment when traditional US allies in the Middle East were about to deal Assad a decisive blow. By supporting the Syrian dictator, Putin guaranteed a continuation of the destabilising exodus of refugees (Russia avoids granting them asylum altogether) into Europe, Turkey and other Middle Eastern nations. This destabilisation is both economic as well as security-based and must include the motivational and recruitment incentives granted to terrorist organisations in the Middle East as well as right-wing extremists in the west resulting from the humanitarian catastrophe and it’s repercussions.
Trump may have been named Time magazine’s Person of 2016 but it’s clear that the distinction belongs to Vladimir Putin.
Putin’s funding of right-wing nationalist or isolationist parties throughout Europe has also proven lucrative. From his support of UKIP which led to the economic shock waves of Brexit, through to his support of far-right parties throughout Europe, Putin might soon have a Soviet 2.0 dream scenario with Brexit’s anxiety looming over the integrity of the UK and it’s connection to Europe; Marine Le Pen taking France and a renewed chipping away at Austria (the recently vanquished leader of the Freedom Party has just signed a sort of memo of understanding with Putin’s party). That would leave Angela Merkel as the lone wolf in Europe’s winter, if she survives the impending tempest. For someone who, like Hillary Clinton, has inflamed Putin’s ire through their feminine assaults on his machismo-driven worldview, this must be a deeply satisfying prospect especially given Donald Trump’s relatively newfound notion that US commitments to NATO needn't be iron-clad.
Trump may have been named Time magazine’s Person of 2016 but it’s clear that the distinction belongs to Vladimir Putin. Though I suspect Putin wanted it that way. Trump dominated the news headlines from covers to cable news while Putin clandestinely realised the fruits of long-term geopolitical calculations, some of which may have been in motion since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Some of Putin’s manoeuvres have been quite deliberate, while others have resulted from quick-footed, shrewd and prescient readings and reactions to shifts in global tectonics. Other things have worked out in his favour through sheer luck. But Putin’s KGB training served him well. He’s hardly ever as stupid as he might want to seem. His political instincts are uncanny. Some of the most exquisitely tuned minds in modern statecraft, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama among them, have underestimated his geopolitical calculus. That should only be attempted at our own risk. I’d praise Putin’s long game as utterly brilliant if the ruthless result of his equation, the outcome of Putin’s perfect storm, wasn't so terrifying.