In this series of posts I’ve been discussing the backstory to the upcoming Trump/Putin summit meeting. That meeting was first suggested by Putin and now Trump’s own national security advisor John Bolton (who himself is historically not a fan of Putin) is off to Moscow to follow up on Putin’s proposal.
Given the state of chaos in American politics at present, it’s hard to understand why Trump would pursue a meeting which would appear to have the bad “optics” so hated by contemporary politicians. On the other hand, it is hard to overestimate the personal connection that exists between the two men and Trump’s admiration for Putin, who exemplifies the type of tough leadership Trump strives to practice.
Beyond that personal equation, there is also a fundamental agreement in both men’s views on tactics – and tactics are incredibly important to the two, especially since Putin has demonstrated his ability to actually turn around his own popularity and re-establish himself as the single dominant political force in Russia, all within an amazingly brief span of time.
No more than a decade ago, Putin and his supporters reached the conclusion that Russia was under direct political attack by the west, carried out through the actions of various non-government agencies (NGO’s) who had inserted themselves into elections in nations throughout the former Soviet domains and who were increasingly involved inside Russia itself. The history of those democracy initiatives goes back decades, with a resurgence during the post 9/11 Bush Administration.
It involves both federally funded American organizations and privately funded open democracy activist groups. Beginning in 2004, it became increasingly clear that their activities, and those of similar groups from the European Union, were successfully destabilizing elections and established regimes across Eastern Europe. By 2008 Putin and his associates were openly stating that they would either reassert control during the upcoming Russian elections or literally lose the soul of the nation to foreign influence.
Of course, without being too conspiratorial, it’s simply true that open elections and multi-party governments are inherently destabilizing, somewhat chaotic and much less “efficient” than single party regimes. Governments led by long time Soviet era figures would hardly be expected to have welcomed the chaos of fully open democracy and contentious elections under any circumstance. Not surprisingly the Putin establishment responded to political change in Georgia, the Ukraine, and within the Russian Federation itself as foreign “meddling” and increasingly sought to oppose what they considered foreign intervention.
Open democracy does fragment national politics and can become the bane of central control, efforts to spread it can be a seen threat. Throughout the Cold War, America repeatedly intervened to support pro-American regimes that were facing populist, open democracy movements. Stu Wexler and I tell that story in Shadow Warfare and I go much further in exploring it in Creating Chaos. In the 21st Century Putin has responded to the decade of political chaos in Eastern Europe and the Baltic from 2004-2014 in much the same fashion, and arguably, much more efficiently.
Beginning in 2008 Putin began a series of initiatives to oppose the influence of open democracy initiatives inside Russia by rebuilding a centralized power structure, with a great deal of focus on attacking and deconstructing what had become a relatively open media following the collapse of the Soviet Union. He coined the term “fake news”, he began encouraging his oligarchic supporters to buy into control of various media groups and himself reasserting centralized government media control over state owned radio and television networks.
By 2014 that initiative had proved increasingly successful, as had been a complimentary effort to emphasize and differentiate Russian culture, Russian heritage and Russian values from the West. Putin was quite open about his agenda and his views, asserting in speeches that the West – especially America – did not understand the fact that Russia was inherently different and needed to be treated accordingly.
Putin repeatedly and publicly made it clear that Russia deserved the sort of international status and dominion that it had held for centuries under first the Russian empire and later the Soviet Union. The west needed to look back within itself, worry about its own problems and cease interference in the territories that Russia had controlled over the centuries.
In pursuit of that worldview Putin moved to weaponize the type of political chaos that he felt had been directed towards Russia from the West, directing it back towards them. In doing so he encouraged both domestic and foreign activities which have not only fully restored his own power inside Russia but which have created a level of political chaos on his borders, within the NATO nations and inside the United States which could hardly have been imagined only a decade ago.
While those actions have provoked strong response in Europe, the American reaction has been much more mixed. A series of sanctions have created difficulties for certain Russian oligarchs and companies, yet at a less visible level, Russian government activities within the United States and with certain American political figures remain unaffected – and largely unpublicized.
In summary, as the move to a July summit between Trump and Putin proceeds, Putin has placed himself in a position of strategic influence which is actually not justified by either his economy, his military or his alliances. In a classic sense he has gained that position by playing not on his strengths but his opponent’s weaknesses.
All of which leads us to the question of what his agenda in the upcoming summit meeting will be, and how that could be translated to match that of Trump’s own needs. I’ll speculate a bit on that in my final post on contemporary Russian/American relations.