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.