What is it Putin really wants? Some would argue he just wants Russia to be left alone within its sphere of influence (possibly including Ukraine and parts of the Baltics). Others believe he aims to return Russia to its place as a global superpower, and halt (or even reverse) the post-Cold War expansion of NATO.
Whatever he wants, he’ll find it easier to achieve if Europe and the United States actively distrust one another, and are sufficiently distracted by internal squabbles within the alliance and fractious domestic politics at home. From that perspective, the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States seems to have been a gift. But has Putin been taking advantage of a wider situation, or has he had a hand in creating the chaos himself?
This, of course, is the subject of an ongoing high-profile investigation in America. In January 2017, the US intelligence community published a report asserting that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered operations aimed at disrupting and sabotaging the 2016 US presidential elections. Was his aim to drive a wedge between the US and Europe?
We had a comment sent in from Laker, who believes that the Western alliance is already fracturing under internal divisions. So, has Vladimir Putin succeeded?
To get a response, we spoke to James Kirchick is an American reporter, foreign correspondent, columnist, and author of The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age. Here’s what he had to say:
I think it’s too early to tell. In some regards, we’ve seen the Europeans come closer together in response to the American election and in response to Donald Trump, who’s the most anti-European president the United States has ever had; who has no respect nor understanding of the transatlantic alliance; who is the most pro-Russian president the United States has ever had. I think these are the reasons why Putin wanted him to win.
I also believe that there’s been a realisation on the part of many European governments that they do need to wake up to the threat of Russia, hybrid warfare, propaganda and disinformation. I also think that, here in the United States, despite what the President has said in his public statements, Trump has not had much impact on the policies of the administration being carried out by other elements of the federal bureaucracy – such as the Defense Department, the State Department, or the US Congress, which has just passed major sanctions on Russia. It’s been difficult for Trump, single-handed, to change US policy on these fundamental questions. The United States is not going to pull out of NATO, and we’ve seen Montenegro just join NATO. So, I think it’s too early to tell, but I do think the transatlantic relationship is certainly at risk.
Next up, we had a comment from Daniel, who believes it doesn’t really matter that Trump is a pro-Russian US President, he has been unable to improve relations with Russia because Congress and the media are tying his hands. In that sense, has Putin’s support for Trump backfired spectacularly? Are the forces lined up against Moscow now even more united because of Russian meddling?
I think you have to understand the real reason why the Russians supported Trump was not for the immediate effects on sanctions policy, on Ukraine, on US foreign policy, or on any of these sort of individual issues. I think the main reason Putin wanted Trump to win was to disrupt US domestic politics…
In the United States right now we have political tension the like of which I haven’t seen in my lifetime. We have political division, and people living in different silos. Trump is the most divisive American president we’ve had in a generation, and he is radicalising the population; he is radicalising the Left opposition, and he’s radicalising the Right. I think this is the reason why the Russian’s wanted Trump to win.
It was primarily to weaken America domestically, to have us fight each other domestically so that we’re not a united people and we don’t have a coherent foreign policy in the world. You’ve heard people, like Jim Mattis, who’s the Secretary of Defense. He was asked recently what is the greatest threat to America’s national security, and he said it wasn’t North Korea or Russia. It was actually partisan division within the United States. I think Trump’s the perfect fomenter of this. This is why Russia wanted him to win. So, I think in that sense [Putin] has been incredibly successful.
Finally, we had a comment from Thomas suggesting that the success of Russian influence on European and US political process shows the weakness of our democracies, and it is more due to the fact that our political leaders cannot effectively counter Russian arguments. Is he right? How much of this is Putin creating a situation himself, and how much is it him exploiting already-existing divisions?
I think he raises a good point. I actually think it’s more the second. We obsess over Russian influence and meddling to our peril. If we think this is purely a problem created by the Russians, then we’re going to fail, because all of these issues are inherent to our societies. We own them. These are our problems. It’s merely that Russia is exploiting them and looking at cleavages within society and making them worse. So, [Russia] is more of an intensifier than the cause of the problem.
If you’re interested in the issues raised by this debate, you can also take part in Debating Security Plus, a global online brainstorm organised by our partner think-tank, Friends of Europe. Debating Security Plus will bring together senior international participants from the military, government and multilateral institutions along with voices from NGOs and civil society, business and industry, the media, think tanks and academia. Register here to take part!
Has Putin succeeded in splitting the Western alliance? Or are we too obsessed with “Russian meddling”? Is Moscow simply exploiting existing tensions and divisions? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!