WWVD? Part II

[If one intends to review this post, but has not yet read Part I (which is immediately below), I would start there  😉 ]

Russian President Vladimir Putin obviously prefers to have President Trump pull off what will be viewed as a second upset Electoral College victory over former Vice President Joe Biden, and is undoubtedly using every means at his disposal to try to help bring that result about.  A re-election of Mr. Trump seems likely to lead to the emasculation if not dissolution of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and will enable President Putin to take less provocative gradual steps over the next four years to further what he views as Russia’s strategic interests.  Mr. Putin has probably concluded that Mr. Biden’s succession to the U.S. presidency will make such incremental Russian advances more difficult.  I suspect that Mr. Putin sees what we see:  while Mr. Trump might still pull out an electoral victory, the odds – despite the best efforts of the American alt-right propaganda machine and Russia – currently remain in Mr. Biden’s favor.  Mr. Putin is, as well documented by Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy in their book, Mr. Putin, a survivalist and superb contingency planner.  What does President Putin do if Mr. Biden is indeed certified the winner of the U.S. Presidential election?  Perhaps a few options:

American domestic relations:  the use of social media and other outlets to spread incendiary disinformation among Trump supporters that the election was “stolen” from Mr. Trump, in an effort to incite violence by the Trump fringe elements and to persuade traditional Trump supporters that Mr. Biden’s presidency is illegitimate, perhaps thereby hobbling a Biden Administration’s ability to thwart Russian initiatives.  A divided enemy is a weak enemy.

International relations:  During the interregnum between any certification of a Biden victory and Mr. Biden’s inauguration, Mr. Trump’s narcissism, bitterness, incompetence, and erraticism will reduce American foreign policy to its most impotent state in over a century.  Although Mr. Putin has certainly relished dabbling in and – due to American missteps during both the Obama and Trump Administrations – having Russia arguably supplant the United States as the most influential outside power in the Middle East, Russia’s strategic interests lie in the former Soviet Socialist Republics — referred to by Russian officials as the “near abroad” — and Europe. Hill and Gaddy report that Mr. Putin indicated in 2014 that he sought to extend Russian influence “… to all the space in Europe and Eurasia that once fell within the boundaries of the Russian Empire and the USSR.”   When (given Mr. Trump’s inadequacies, adding “if” to this sentence is absurd) Mr. Putin sees American response effectively neutered during the interregnum period, these are some of the areas in which he might consider proceeding:

Create a pretext, invade and annex the parts of east Ukraine in which the ethnic Russian population exceeds one third of the overall population.  Ukraine, a former Soviet Socialist Republic, is not a member of NATO, and thus, such an overture would not result in the invocation of NATO signatories’ collective defense obligations under Article 5 of the NATO Treaty.

Provide troops to actively help Russian puppet Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko put down the continuing Belarusian opposition against his recent fraudulent election victory.  Belarus is a former Soviet Socialist Republic.  Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is reported to have called the continuing protests against Mr. Lukashenko a geopolitical struggle over spheres of interest (dismissing the notion of an intra-national dispute between Belarusians).  The European Union’s recent award of the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought (ironically, named after Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov) to Belarusian Opposition Leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and her followers is almost certainly seen by Mr. Putin as an EU effort to undermine Russian influence in Belarus.  Mr. Putin might anticipate that Russian military assistance to Mr. Lukashenko would receive international condemnation, but be very unlikely to trigger a more aggressive Western response in what is a non-NATO intra-national dispute. 

Consider stirring unrest in the Baltic States:  Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, all former United Soviet Socialist Republics.  Since all three are now NATO nations, they present very different challenges and opportunities from Ukraine and Belarus.  Given the NATO Treaty’s Article 5, Mr. Putin would probably deem overt military operations too risky even with a distracted and figuratively disarmed United States.  Still, covert efforts through infiltrated agents to sow discord in the Baltic States’ civil affairs might increase Russian influence and disrupt NATO relationships, provided that they can be undertaken with Russia’s plausible deniability.

Make Germany a very advantageous offer with a short acceptance window on a long-term arrangement for Russian oil and natural gas.  This would cement the German-Russian energy relationship as the two nations’ Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, which will provide Russia with additional distribution avenues and greater capacity to provide energy to Europe, nears completion.  The project is bitterly opposed by the Trump Administration and will be by a Biden Administration.  German Chancellor Angela Merkel has consistently rebuffed Mr. Trump’s efforts to kill the project, undoubtedly primarily because (whether or not correctly) she views the arrangement in Germany’s best interest, but perhaps with less heed to American concerns than she might have had five years ago given Mr. Trump’s obvious disdain for NATO, the EU and her personally.  Germany is the EU’s economic bedrock.  Mr. Putin understands that there are some areas in which use of military power isn’t feasible; use of energy leverage to unravel NATO and wean core EU nations away from the United States significantly furthers Russia’s interests.

Too dark?  Paranoid?  Perhaps; it is the Halloween Season, and I did indicate at the outset of this note that Mr. Putin is a scary book  ;).  That said, it is a seminal work; it enables one to see through Mr. Putin’s eyes.  It seemingly behooves us to consider how well over the last 20 years a man who came from nowhere has played what was in reality a very weak hand when he came into office.  President Richard Nixon reportedly once told Communist Party General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev that he respected what Mr. Brezhnev said, but made policy based upon what Russia did.  I submit that Mr. Putin’s record suggests that we ignore the measures he might take at our peril.  I suspect that they will be sufficient to keep a President-Elect Biden awake at night.

Trick or Treat.

2 thoughts on “WWVD? Part II

  1. Jim while one can’t deny Putin’s ill intent, I think you are overstating his capabilities and understating the USA response. While it’s true Trump has accepted (either explicitly or implicitly) Putin’s “help”, and while Trump has attacked NATO allies for failing to live up to their treaty obligations (in the main, they have not lived up to their obligations), it’s also true the USA has given lethal aid to Ukraine (Obama did not), and moved USA troops into the Baltic states and Poland. This is an unambiguous statement the USA (and, thus, NATO) will support both NATO and non-NATO countries subjected to Russian attention.
    Further, Russia’s long term prospects are not good. Demographically, its people are unhealthy and its population continues to shrink. Economically, as the world moves away from oil and gas to other forms of energy, its failure to diversify its economy will further reduce its ability to exert power beyond its border.
    As for the Russian influence in the Middle East, you are seeing a fundamental realignment of interest. It’s moving to a three power balance, Iran, Turkey, and a growing alignment against those two. That alignment includes the Sunni Arab states and Israel. The USA is clearly and unambiguously aligned with Israel and the Arab states (and secondarily, Turkey). Russia, in Syria, is aligned with, um, well, with Assad. The Russian influence in the the Middle East, I would argue, is non-existent, with the exception of in Syria. Syria’s importance in Middle East power approaches nil.
    Russia is yesterday’s adversary. It certainly can do mischief. Yes, I think you’re paranoid. (Which, of course, doesn’t mean Putin’s not out to get us!). That said, as Obama knew, China is a growing power and the next geopolitical challenge the USA will face long after we’re gone. Economic and demographic power, as well as nationalistic tendencies will mean growing competition and confrontation in the coming years. Sort of like the beginning of the Cold War in late 1940s.

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    1. Actually, as malign as Vladimir is, I found it a relief to post about anything but politics ;). We could do a point – counterpoint like we did in the old days 🙂 on a couple of arguments you make in the first paragraph. I don’t think the points you made in the second paragraph about Russia long-term – with which I agree, although you can never discount a nation with as many nukes as Russia has – are inconsistent with my concerns about Vlad and Russia in the immediate term. As to the Middle East: in the long run, I think any outside power is going to have trouble asserting much influence. I’m in the camp that the Iranians, while a theocracy, have traditional aspirations to extend their sphere of influence throughout the Middle East, and are using the Russians to counter the Americans (as the Vietnamese were happy to have China’s help 50 years ago), will keep Assad around as a puppet, and will get rid of the Russians when they’re no longer useful. That doesn’t, however, mean that we’ll have the influence in the region we had in the past. Erdogan is a wild card; watching him try to forge an independent foreign policy leveraging both sides has been fascinating. I suspect he sees more value to staying in NATO than leaving, and NATO probably sees more value to having him on the inside than out, but he’s hardly a reliable ally. I absolutely agree that China is our long-term strategic adversary, but I think Xi has already made his pre-American election move with the crackdown in Hong Kong, and will stand pretty still during the next week, and REALLY still – so as to not give Trump any pretext – between Election Day and January 21 if Biden wins.
      All serious and intellectually challenging issues – but none will be moved in a good direction if Trump wins. I’m ready for it to be over.

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