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There also is a pressing need for (virtually non-existing) assistance in containing and removing Russia’s “meddling” (putting it mildly) in Ukraine’s internal political, economic, media, etc… affairs, especially with the elections on the horizon. This is a tougher issue since much of that meddling is tolerated and accepted by the political and economic elites that are permeated with the 5th column. However, drawing attention to this can negatively impact the weapons issue. As Mykola will recall, we were told in DC a while back by a senior advisor to a powerful Senator: “You want weapons or you want to fight corruption. Pick one.” Namely, hard to call for weapons for a corrupt regime that is rife with enemy agents. Of course the reality is quite different. Much progress has been made in rooting out FSB in many government agencies, as well as among the elites. This is real progress and should be trumpeted. Despite these positive efforts, it is estimated that pro-Russian monopolies control 25% of the Ukrainian economy and much of the media.

Of course, all of the air has been sucked out of DC by the N Korea story. And, talk about chorus. Most of the media is going way over the top to undermine the President’s warning to N Korea. Putin must be laughing and anticipating a big media backlash against any action by the US administration against further aggression, escalation in ATO, or saber rattling. Good thing everyone in DC is on vacation. Otherwise, we would be witnessing the politicization of the Korea issue along the lines of Gov. Richardson (former Gov. of New Mexico and Amb. to UN) who on CNN accused the President of saber rattling.

Borys Potapenko


Putin’s Goal: Revenge and Restoration

What ties hacking and election meddling to Syria and Ukraine? A nostalgia for Soviet-era power.

At a meeting in the Russian Far East, Aug. 3.
At a meeting in the Russian Far East, Aug. 3. PHOTO: TASS/ZUMA PRESS

As the Russian hacking and “collusion” sagas consume Washington elites and the media, a more important question has gone unanswered: Why is Vladimir Putin engaging in such activity, and what should Americans expect next?

By temperament and KGB training, Mr. Putin is not an easy man to read. Secrecy is an integral part of the regime he has forged, as in all authoritarian states. Yet surmise about his motives and goals we must, since the alternative is to be unpleasantly surprised every time he acts.

“Who is Mr. Putin?” was the refrain in the early 2000s after this obscure director of the FSB—the post-Soviet successor to the KGB—became first prime minister and then a phenomenally popular president. Seeking clues to his behavior, experts labeled him an “authoritarian modernizer,” a spy-agency “operative,” a “bureaucrat” and a Russian “nationalist.”

Yet what seemed to explain his policies most consistently was another gradually emerging identity: that of an ardent Soviet patriot. Mr. Putin’s speeches and off-the-cuff remarks seem to indicate that, unlike Western and Russian democrats, he never bought into the narrative that there were no winners in the Cold War. He appears to view the global order as unfair and immoral, having been hijacked by America. This conviction solidified in 2003 after the U.S. invaded Iraq. Then in 2011 the West helped topple Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, an intervention Mr. Putin likened to the Crusades.

The Russian president acts as if he imposed on himself a historical mission to rebalance the world’s “correlation of forces,” as the Soviets used to say in Brezhnev’s time. Resentment and restoration looked like his twin mottos. While leaving the door open to cooperation with the U.S. on antiterrorism, arms control and nuclear nonproliferation, Mr. Putin came to view the rest of geopolitics as largely a zero-sum game: If the West wins, Russia loses—and vice versa.

What happened during the 2016 presidential election, then, was not an anti-American one-off. It was part of a sustained policy, a tile in the giant geopolitical mosaic of Russian resurgence that Mr. Putin has set out to construct.

Moscow has perpetrated cyberwarfare, hacking, fake news and political interference for years. Last year, in addition to meddling in America’s election, Russia was behind an attempted coup d’état in Montenegro meant to prevent it from joining NATO. Since 2007, Russia has hacked the servers of government, industrial or financial institutions in Estonia, Georgia, Lithuania, Bulgaria and Ukraine. The International Olympic Committee and unclassified computers at the U.S. State Department have been attacked as well. Now Germany’s leaders are alarmed enough about potential interference in their September parliamentary elections to have issued stern warnings to Moscow.

Judging by all this—and especially by what followed Mr. Putin’s election to a third term in 2012—his overarching foreign-policy objective is to weaken Western democratic institutions and alliances by relentlessly chipping away at their legitimacy and popular support. His answer to the Russian saying protiv kogo my za?(“against whom are we for?”) looked more and more like “against the West!” and “for Russia!” Mr. Putin would avenge the Soviet Union’s fall and lead Russia to reclaim its glory as a geopolitical, military, and moral counterbalance to the U.S.

His policies bear out this reading: Ukraine wants to join Europe? This would be a gain for the West (Mr. Putin once called Ukraine “NATO’s Foreign Legion”) and must be reversed by seizing Crimea and initiating a proxy war. The U.S. wants to remove Bashar Assad from power in Syria and supports pro-Western rebels? Russia will ally with America’s sworn enemy, Iran, to keep Mr. Assad in power. Hillary Clinton is likely to be elected president? Moscow must find and release kompromat (compromising materials) to hobble her campaign and delegitimize the election.

This is a dangerous game. At home Mr. Putin has come to depend on foreign-policy successes and military triumphs for his legitimacy. The Russian economy is stagnant, incomes are falling, poverty is up, and revulsion at the regime’s corruption is widespread and intense. The next presidential election comes in March, and Mr. Putin’s victory is assured, but he wants more than a win. He wants a resounding affirmation of his popularity, an outpouring of loyalty and adulation that can carry his regime through the next six years.

Russian proxies have upped their attacks on Ukrainian troops since last month’s Trump-Putin summit in Hamburg. Another catalyst for Russian patriotic hysteria could be Belarus, a “fraternal Slavic state,” which would be “saved” from imminent NATO conquest by valiant Russian soldiers and local “patriots.”

But the largest score would be to invade, most likely by proxy, Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania, thereby exposing NATO as a paper tiger, unable or unwilling to mount a military response. As the world passes the 55th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, Mr. Putin may overreach and miscalculate, bringing Russia and the U.S. to the brink of war, just as Nikita Khrushchev did.

Addiction to victories must be among the hardest habits to break. Doubly so if one perceives them, as Mr. Putin does, as a means to right an enormous wrong done to his country—and to remain in power. America’s newly adopted anti-Russian sanctions, though morally correct and damaging in the long term, will not change Mr. Putin’s strategy today. If anything, he could up the ante.

The West’s best option, the only one that has a chance of forcing Mr. Putin to abandon his zero-sum game of revenge and restoration, is to engineer for him unambiguous setbacks and reversals—in Ukraine, Syria and wherever else he chooses to go next. If only the West can muster the will.

Mr. Aron is director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Appeared in the August 9, 2017, print edition.

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