Staunton, VA, December 11, 2016 – As evidence mounts that Vladimir Putin used a variety of covert means to promote the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, it is critically important to remember that that outcome is only part of the Kremlin leader’s agenda, one that calls for so weakening Western countries that they can’t stand up to him.
Many people assume that Putin wants to hide the role the Russian security services played in promoting Trump, but that is wrong. Since at least the times of the Cheka’s “Trust” operation in the early 1920s, Moscow repeatedly has sought not only to gain by its machinations but also planned to gain by their exposure at a time and place of the Kremlin’s choosing.
Such a time is now because Putin never viewed Trump’s election as an end in itself but rather as part of a broader effort to subvert public confidence in elections and free societies by suggesting that in the new information environment, outside powers like Russia can interfere with impunity.
Indeed, from Putin’s perspective, the best possible outcome is that Trump does take office but with an increasing number of Americans convinced that at least in part the Republican’s victory was the result of Russian actions. If a large enough group of Americans do become convinced of that, then confidence in democratic procedures will decline.
But even more than that, the American system – like other Western countries where Russian covert activities are ongoing – will be divided and weakened if not fatally then at least for a time; and that outcome will give Putin the chance to continue his policy of promoting chaos and disorder, the only environments in which his objectively weak country can win out.
There are no easy answers as to what Americans and others concerned with democracy and freedom should do, especially since the more people talk about Russian meddling, the greater Putin’s victory is likely to be. But there are at least three lessons from the past that may prove useful.
First, it is critically important to understand just what Putin, a not-so-former KGB officer, is about and why he plans for “failures” as well as successes in his covert operations. Most Western intelligence services plan only for success as they define it, but Russian intel always plans for failures.
That means that those tracking what Putin’s agents have done need to be very careful to document everything they have done and are doing, to do so with a minimum of hyperbole and a maximum of legal precision, documenting everything in ways that do not permit denial by the fair-minded much as the WADA has done with Moscow’s athletic doping policy.
Second, the West must avoid becoming like Russia in response to Putin’s actions. Listing Russian news outlets as foreign agents, as some are proposing, is exactly what the Kremlin leader wants: if the West does it, in Putin’s calculations, then Russia can; and the fundamental differences between his Russia and Western democracies are reduced in the eyes of many.
Democratic countries, including the United States, are stronger than Russia not because they have more weapons or larger economies but because their basic values ultimately win out over those who seek to enslave people. It is always tempting to go for a quick fix, but the best response to such threats is to avoid falling into the trap those making them have laid.
And third, it is absolutely essential that Americans and other Western nations recognize that what Putin is doing is an existential threat to the West. All too many in the US and Europe have foolishly convinced themselves that after the end of communism, the disintegration of the USSR, and the decline of the Russian economy that Moscow cannot play that role.
But that assumption is also false: weaker powers often pose threats to stronger ones at least for a time not only because they feel unconstrained by the rules of the game the stronger ones have sought to put in place but because the stronger and democratic ones don’t want to believe until very late in the game what they are up against.
The history of the last century should have been enough to disabuse people of their misconceptions on these points. Unfortunately, what is going on now shows that many have a lot to learn and that Putin and his agents are counting on that to pursue victories they do not deserve and must not be allowed to claim.