Vladimir Putin is often described as a canny poker player, taking advantage of his opponents' obvious weaknesses to make the best of the rather lousy cards Russia's dire situation has dealt him. As the leaks from the investigation into links between President Donald Trump's team and the Kremlin turn into a steady stream, it's starting to look like for once, Putin has overplayed his hand.
Just a few months ago, after Britain's "Leave" vote in the Brexit referendum and Trump's shock victory in the U.S. elections, it seemed that Putin had laid down a royal flush. He had dramatically weakened the two international organizations he hates the most: the EU, which placed damaging economic sanctions on Russia following its invasion of Ukraine in 2014, and the Western defense alliance NATO, which Putin believes is encroaching on Russia's borders and vital sphere of influence. Instead of the professional stateswoman Hillary Clinton, who had openly criticized his policies, he was to have in the White House an inexperienced braggart who admired him as a strong man who had restored Russia's confidence.
But while the Kremlin's media celebrated Trump's victory in the first few weeks, their accolades have been much more muted recently and news organizations are even beginning to criticize the new administration. It is clear now that Putin, like nearly every other analyst and pundit in the world, did not expect Trump to actually win. Now that he has, the blowback against what was clearly an attempt by Russia to interfere with – if not influence – the U.S. elections could turn out to be extremely damaging to Putin's interests.
One senior Israeli intelligence official, a seasoned Kremlin-watcher, explained that the Russians believe their use of online disinformation and hacking simply mirrors tactics pioneered by the Americans. Essentially, they see it as a defense strategy. In some cases, like the recent parliamentary election in Montenegro, a tiny Balkan nation which Russia sees as within its orbit, it is conceivable that the Kremlin planned to help a pro-Russian party come to power. As far as a powerful adversary as the U.S. is concerned, the Russian intention was simply to muddy the waters and create some internal trouble for the expected President Clinton instead of embarking on her ambitious foreign policy of challenging Russia in the Middle East and other regions.
As a former intelligence officer, Putin knows fully well that even an American president cannot purge his intelligence community and military establishment of tens of thousands of professional officers capable of making independent assessments. While Trump may be surprised at the damaging leaks now coming out of the intelligence and security services he officially commands, Vladimir Putin certainly is not.
In the short term, the chaos in Washington may be working in Russia's favor, giving it more of a free rein to pursue its agenda, but Trump's victory, and the extent to which the unintended success of Russia's online disinformation and hacking may have helped it, is already proving to have problematic implications for the Kremlin.
Here are a few of those unintended consequences:
Resistance to Russia is now bipartisan - In one of the 2012 presidential debates, Barack Obama thrilled his Democratic supporters when he zinged Republican candidate Mitt Romney who considered Russia the greatest foreign threat facing America: "Governor, the 1980s called and they want their foreign policy back." It took over four years, but at least on this issue, the Democrats have firmly departed from Obama's position. President Trump may still yearn for Putin to be his friend, as he once tweeted, but for now both main parties regard him as a major threat.
No chance of sanctions relief - Any prospect of Putin achieving one of his main goals of removing both American and European sanctions from his economy seem increasingly remote right now. Any hint of support for sanction relief from an administration under investigation for ties to the Kremlin will be met with a massive outcry.
NATO has found new purpose and support - During the election campaign, Trump openly questioned the effectiveness of America's military alliances, including NATO. But instead of weakening the alliance, the evidence of Russian interference has put a spotlight in Putin's ambitions. If anything, it has focused minds on the importance of the defense organization that was questioned by some in the quarter-century since the disintegration of the Soviet Union. While Trump's low appreciation of NATO has greatly disturbed European nations relying on the Atlantic Alliance for their security from an increasingly aggressive Russia, Vice President Mike Pence has already traveled to Europe in an attempt to calm their fears. This bad president-good vice president attitude toward NATO partners could well bring about the opposite of the result desired by Putin. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, many European NATO members, even anti-militaristic Germany, are seriously considering boosting their defense budgets for fear of losing the American umbrella, and talk of more robust European military cooperation is turning in to action.
An alternative administration - With more members of Trump's inner circle embroiled in the Russian scandal and becoming potential targets of an investigation, the existing disorder in the White House will intensify. The political vacuum is already being filled by the responsible grown-ups: the vice president, state and defense secretaries and national security adviser and their much more orderly teams. All have seen how former National Security Adviser Flynn was taken down by his own Russian connections and will work very hard not to get tainted in any way. Instead, they will ally with the professionals working to curb Russian influence. There is already evidence of an alternative administration outside the White House gearing into action, and its purpose will be to be much more vigilant of the Kremlin.
Russia's cyberwarfare has now been blunted - To be effective, cyberwarfare needs to remain hidden from the eye until its damage has been wrought, and tracing the perpetrator must be extremely difficult. Whether or not the Russians tried very hard to remain undetected, their modus operandi last year – using hacking collectives, inseminating stolen documents through Wikileaks, spreading false stories both through Kremlin channels like Russia Today and Sputnik or thinly-veiled front sites – has been exposed.
This affects not only how Russian interference in last year's campaign is viewed, but also greatly reduces the potency of Russian cyberwarfare in the future. The campaign of French centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron has claimed it is being hacked by the Russians. Whether or not this is true, Macron is now polling well ahead of the two pro-Russian candidates for the French presidency, Marine Le Pen and Francois Fillon. Being hacked by Russia may soon turn out to be an advantage in western elections.
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