Putin’s Endgame

“America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves”- Abraham Lincoln

By now, you have probably gone numb to all of this talk concerning Russia’s interference in our election, who could blame you? For the past year, it’s seemingly been the only thing anybody in the media has deemed important enough to talk about. Part of the reason the media keeps bringing it up is that there really are so many questions surrounding Russian interference in our election. However, one question that does not get nearly enough attention is one concerning how Russia’s efforts to impact our election is part of a much bigger, scarier plan. This plan, in my estimation has three phases:

  1. Turn the American people against their government.
  2. Infiltrate American politics and influence policy in a manner that prohibits us from properly responding to the Russian threat.  
  3. Subvert American interest at home and abroad.

You see, Russian interference in our election was not a standalone act. This was merely the beginning of a long term plan intended to fundamentally weaken the tenets of American democracy. Much of this is strategic, and some of this is personal, but all of it matters. This applies not only to the United States, but to all of Europe and much of the Middle East as well. In order to get a better understanding of what Vladimir Putin is doing, and what his endgame is, we need to take a look at the entire picture.

Before we begin, let’s take a look at the following chart from the IMF, which measures countries by their GDP:

Screen Shot 2017-10-25 at 10.37.03 AM.png

A country’s GDP, as you may know, is one of the indicators used to determine the country’s economic standing. So, it stands to reason that the higher their rank, the more global economic influence they have. Now, take another look at this list, and think about the relationships the United States has with the countries on it. You’ll see that after China, each country on this list is a strong US ally. Of these allies, many are members of the EU/NATO. This means that much of the world’s economy is heavily influenced by a united western alliance, this is what Putin seeks to undermine. Then there’s Russia, with an economy less than 1/10th the size of ours. This means that Russia lacks what is known as “soft” power; that is, the ability to influence the behavior of other international actors via the use of economic measures like sanctions or embargoes.

So, we can look at Russia’s recent military buildup and assertive actions on the world stage as a measure of compensation for their lack of soft power. It is clear that Russia is trying to muscle their way back into being an unquestioned superpower, and the only feasible way they can do that is with asymmetrical, aggressive tactics. To put it simply, Putin’s endgame is to put Russia on even footing with the United States; so that his country can sit at the table with us as an equal international power.

Why does he want this?

To answer this question, it is important to first understand the balance of power that used to exist between the USSR and the European Union. Much like the west has a defense treaty known as Nato, the USSR had a similar treaty known as The Warsaw Pact. The Warsaw Pact was a mutual defense treaty signed between the USSR and seven other communist countries, allowing for the USSR to greatly increase their sphere of influence and challenge NATO countries to the west. The USSR was also incentivized to negotiate this treaty in order to give themselves a geographical buffer between themselves and NATO. We could most likely point to the Warsaw Pact as one of the driving forces behind the Cold War, but the most important aspect of this conversation is how the end of the cold war impacted Russia.

Between 1989 and 1991, a vast majority of the Warsaw Pact countries had overthrown their communist governments. By the end of ‘91, the Warsaw Pact was completely disbanded, leaving the USSR and its Communist movement fractured and weakened. In a few years time, NATO began expanding further and further east, much to the ire of people like Vladimir Putin. In fact, by 1999 many of the countries that had previously signed into the Warsaw Pact had become NATO member states. For clarity, the gif below will illustrate the expansion of NATO after the Cold War’s conclusion (refresh if needed).

Enlargement_of_the_European_Union_77.gif

This was a cultural shift as much as it was an economic one. In addition to the USSR viewing this movement as an aggressive tactic by the west to weaken them strategically, they also viewed this as a threat to their Eastern Orthodox way of life. What is more, is that after NATO had already began to bring in the Warsaw Pact countries into their alliance, a number of USSR territories broke off to form their own countries, effectively killing what was known as the USSR. This westward expansion was, and still is, an enormous threat to Russia, and understanding this is key. 

From the ashes, Russia re-emerged as a greatly weakened shell of its former self. It’s economy was in shambles, its military was cut significantly, and their influence on the world stage was practically non-existent. The Soviet state that it had been seeking to build for over 30 years was reduced to rubble, and the Russians were left to build it back up.

With this perspective in mind, it is much easier to understand why Russia is acting in this manner today. What is interesting, is that Putin is trying to weaken the West in the same way the USSR was weakened: by dividing it. That is why Vladimir Putin has been so aggressive to undermine the European Union and Nato every chance he gets. We’ve seen this in the 2016 US election, as well as the 2017 French election where Russia backed a candidate who had floated the idea of leaving NATO. We saw this in the run up to the UK Brexit vote, when Russia engaged in a similar campaign to influence voters to turn against the European Union.

Putin’s calculus is as follows: If Russia can weaken the post World War II alliances the West has relied on for decades, he will be able to weaken the west’s military and economic clout around the world. With these countries now weaker than they were before, Russia will be able to exert more influence globally and pay less of a price for it. So when Vladimir Putin hears of a candidate in a country like the US, France or Germany question the EU or NATO, it is sweet music to his ears.

What else has been done?

In late December of 2016, then President Barack Obama expelled 35 Russian “diplomats” from the United States. The word “diplomat” is quite a euphemism, as the expelled individuals were actually Russian intelligence officers.

What exactly were they up to before being expelled?

When a foreign diplomat is sent overseas, they are generally given diplomatic immunity, and their whereabouts are usually tracked. According to one Politico report, the United States grew lax in their tracking of Russian “diplomats” and ended up discovering that they were miles and miles away from where they were supposed to be. One was found in the middle of a sparsely populated area of Kansas, and another was found literally in the middle of the desert. In both cases, the spies were deemed to have been attempting to map out critical infrastructures like power grids and communication systems.

What is more concerning, is that this effort to map out communication systems occurs from both land and sea. This New York Times report from 2015 highlights how Russian spy ships have been “aggressively operating” near vital undersea fiber optic cables that connect the Internet throughout the globe. It is safe to assume that Russia’s mapping out the critical infrastructure of the West is an imperative part of their strategy to regain global legitimacy.

Over the past 20 years, the Western world and its governments have grown incredibly dependent on the internet, and Russia sees this area as the West’s biggest weakness. It is clear that Russia has put themselves on a path towards broader conflict with the West, and if we want to know where that path leads, we can look no further than Ukraine.

In March of 2014, Russia used a state-developed cyber weapon to cripple the Ukranian government, essentially paralyzing large swaths of their national government. In late 2015, Russia launched a cyber attack on Ukraine’s power grid by hacking into the computer systems of 2 of Ukraine’s largest utility companies, leaving roughly 200,000 people without power.

It is almost as if Russia’s actions in Ukraine are a dress rehearsal of sorts. The parallels are difficult, if not impossible to ignore. Russia targeted Ukraine’s power grid. Russia is targeting our power grid. Russia hacked into the highest levels of the Ukrainian government. Russia hacked White House computers. The list of parallels goes on and on. We didn’t even get into Russia’s hacking of over 10 US power plants, or their cyber attack that briefly crippled dozens of international companies – both of which have happened in the last few months.

Has he succeeded?

Yes.

And honestly, to this point, it is actually quite unsettling to see just how perfectly his plan has played out. The first step of Putin’s Plan (it’s so catchy I made it a proper noun) was to turn Americans against their government and cast doubt on our electoral process. What has happened? Well, we had Donald Trump saying the only way he would lose the election is if there “was cheating going on”, and just recently, Hillary Clinton said she would be open to challenging the legitimacy of the 2016 election. What does this mean? This means that leaders from both sides (and I use that title loosely) have publicly called into doubt our electoral process.

But wait there’s Moore!

That’s right, Moore! As in Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore and the other Republican candidates/ officials who have been made in the image of Steve Bannon. These Republicans Bannonites are intentionally dumbing down our politics and perpetuating false narratives to advance their own agenda. They are, quite intentionally, distorting facts so that they can bend our perception of reality. This is not normal.  Just yesterday, a second Republican, Sen. Jeff Flake, announced he would retire after his term ended, and this is because the Republican party, of which I am a registered voter, has been hijacked by “anti establishment” ideologues, and the climate has gotten so toxic that officials who speak out against the president are being forced into retirement. This also is not normal!

Do you recall the three point Putin Plan listed at the beginning of the article? Let’s see where we are in that plan:

  1. Turn Americans against their government? Check
  2. Infiltrate American politics and influence policy in a manner that prohibits us from properly responding to the Russian threat? Considering the fact that Donald Trump still hasn’t imposed the new sanctions on Russia that Congress sent to his desk at the end of July… Check Check Check
  3. Subvert American interest at home and abroad? You can be the judge of that for yourself.

As it stands today, Lincoln was spot on. We will only lose our freedoms if we falter from within. Where we go from here is up to us. Putin’s endgame will only come to fruition if we continue our behavior in future election cycles. You can bet that Russia will continue to interfere in our elections, and that is why it is so important to stay informed, and not buy into propaganda. I do my best to give an impartial assessment of issues, while also putting solutions out there for the sake of discussing and refining them. Growing up, we were all told that knowledge is power, and that trite sentence rings more true today than it ever has before.

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