How does a nation with a weak and vulnerable economy and inferior military go on an international military and intelligence winning streak the likes of which haven’t been seen in years? How does a nation with a fraction of America’s striking power exert its will in the Middle East and Eastern Europe and sow doubts about the legitimacy of American democracy — further polarizing and dividing an already-divided superpower? How does Russia win?
During Barack Obama’s second term, Russian successes have occurred with such frequency that Americans could be forgiven for believing that we’re back in the era of the Cold War, when two colossal ideological, military, and cultural powers faced off in a battle for civilizational supremacy — with the outcome very much in doubt. But today’s reality is much different. Aside from its immense (and immensely important) nuclear arsenal, today’s Russia hardly resembles the old Soviet Union.
Yet, since 2012 — when Obama famously mocked Mitt Romney for declaring that Russia was our primary geopolitical foe — Vladimir Putin has gone on an extraordinary military and intelligence winning streak. He’s invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea with minimal losses, intervened in Syria to stabilize a key ally, cemented an alliance with Iran that has boosted Russian power and influence in the Middle East, helped facilitate a refugee crisis that is disrupting western and central European politics, and interfered with the American election so successfully that he’s created the perception among millions of Americans that the results were tainted and illegitimate.
Even now, Putin is engaging in aggressive military moves in the Baltics and Eastern Europe that are alarming our allies and placing them at an immediate military disadvantage — in a place where geography dictates that allied help would likely be too little, too late.
Compounding it all, Russia’s dictator has achieved all of this while creating sympathy in elements of the Right that mirrors the sympathy the Soviet Union achieved in elements of the Left. In other words, Putin is expanding Russian power and influence while mounting a cultural critique that resonates with some American audiences, casting himself as a defender of Christian civilization against Islam and the godless, decadent West.
There’s no magic to Vladimir Putin: If you understand history you understand his strategy. You see, it turns out that foreign policy wasn’t “progressing,” history didn’t have a side or a pre-set trajectory, and classic great-power politics can be very, very effective when your opponent pretends that game no longer exists.
There’s no magic to Vladimir Putin: If you understand history you understand his strategy.
When John Kerry declared during the Ukraine crisis, “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext.” I knew America was at a profound disadvantage — because Putin had just done what Kerry had said you “just don’t” do, and he knew that no one would move him. American culture-war rhetoric doesn’t work on foreign dictators.
Putin has what America lacks — a comprehensive, long-term strategy that is built precisely and firmly around his own perceptions of his nation’s best interests. He wants to dominate Russia’s “near abroad,” the independent and quasi-independent countries of the former Soviet Empire that have attempted to move out of Russia’s orbit. He wants to place Russia firmly in the pantheon of the world’s great powers. He wants to destabilize NATO and make Russia a central player in European affairs. In other words, he wants to “Make Russia Great Again.”
Moreover, Russia advances behind the strength of an argument that resonates far beyond narrow nationalism and into the realm of civilizational, even eternal values. As the Observer’s John Schindler notes, “It’s not like Putin and his minions have been hiding what they believe.” And what do they believe? Here’s Schindler again, and he’s worth quoting at length:
In [Putin’s] viewpoint, which I have termed Third Rome myth, which became very popular in 19th century Imperial Russia, postulating that it is Russia’s holy mission to resist the Devil and his work on earth.
Putin has reinvigorated such throwback thinking, making the Russian Orthodox Church — the de facto state religion — the ideological centerpiece of his regime. After Communism fell, the country needed a new ideological anchor, and Putinism found it in a potent amalgam of religion and nationalism which has far greater historical resonance with Russians than Communism ever did.
You won’t hear much about this argument in the media, dominated as it is by secular reporters who simply don’t “get” religious arguments or religious belief.
At the same time that Putin pursues a coherent strategy animated by a compelling argument, he confronts a fragmented enemy paralyzed by ideological stupidity. First, he understands exactly what his ally Iran understands — that the civilian leaders of his much stronger foes are the ones who are terrified of military conflict.
Iran negotiated an extraordinarily favorable nuclear deal with the Obama administration when American forces could have swept aside Iranian air defenses in an afternoon, then systematically and methodically reduced Iran’s nuclear program (and military, and economy) to rubble with minimal losses. Why? In part because our political leaders couldn’t tolerate the risk of Iran’s inevitable but (by comparison) pinprick response.
Russia is several orders of magnitude more powerful than Iran, and it displays a similar tolerance for risk. It’s thus capable of several orders of magnitude more international aggression. It’s proven that it can invade a European nation without meaningful military consequence. It’s proven that it can impose its will in a Syrian civil war that has flummoxed the Obama administration. It’s proven that with truly minimal effort it can cause millions of Americans to question the legitimacy of their own republic.
None of this means that Russia truly has the advantage against the United States in a contest of great powers.
When one party creates the perception either that it’s willing to fight or not afraid to fight (and I think it’s only a perception — Putin knows he’d lose, badly) and the other party creates the perception that it would rather do anything but fight, then the advantage goes to the aggressor, regardless of the “true” balance of power. This was the lesson of the 1930s, when a weak Nazi Germany reoccupied the Rhineland, annexed Austria, and dismembered Czechoslovakia all while far stronger powers stood by, terrified of another European conflict. In reality, their terror only postponed the coming war — postponed it until it was far more terrible than they could have imagined.
Putin also understands that his opponents aren’t just weak — they’re foolish. In Western Europe especially, they’re willing to open their borders to millions of Muslim migrants even though they know that jihadists are seeking to radicalize Muslims within their borders, and they know that their existing Muslim populations have proven vulnerable to radicalization. The result is terror and strife that’s not sufficiently violent to launch true urban warfare but is dangerous enough to upend European politics, leading to the rise of nationalist parties that are far friendlier to Putin and far more willing to ease or lift sanctions against Russia.None of this means that Russia truly has the advantage against the United States in a contest of great powers. We’re still so economically strong that sanctions that are largely irrelevant to our economy (and the economies of our leading allies) can cripple Russian growth. We’re still so militarily strong that Putin knows he could only hope to win conflicts that are precisely contained to brief, localized fights where he can bring overwhelming numbers to bear, then place his gains under his still-formidable nuclear umbrella (the Baltics come to mind).
In other words, we can assert our interests, and we can regain the international strategic initiative. It’s within the capabilities of the world’s most powerful nation, but it takes conviction, courage, and strategic vision. Eight years of American retreat have taught Vladimir Putin that he can exert his will on the international stage. Eighteen months of obvious Russian investment in the American political process has raised doubts that the new administration has the desire to reverse course. But until we regain our conviction, Russia will continue to advance, America will continue to retreat, and the world’s long period of relative postwar peace will grow ever-more precarious.
— David French is a staff writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, an attorney, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.