Why has Moscow gone, for lack of a better term, war-crazy? Much has been written about Putin’s paranoia and conspiratorial view of the world. But there also is a certain logic in “the demonstration of your ability to carry yourself more or less like a madman,.”“Russia entered into this new Cold War without the resources the Soviet Union once did,” Golts said. “But what does Russia have? It has nuclear weapons. So it must constantly convince the United States, and the West as a whole, that it is a little crazy.”
In other words, a measured dose of faux insanity is being used to make up for a gaping disparity in conventional military and economic strength. (“We have no chance,” one Russian defense expert told a radio interviewer last week, when asked about the prospects of an actual clash between Russian and U.S. forces in Syria. “Our detachment would be destroyed in two days in a single air offensive.”) It is a way for a “regional power,” in Obama’s purposefully insulting formulation from 2014, to act like a global one. And it may work, at least in part.
Projecting a half-lunatic readiness to blow up the world is, in essence, a cover operation: a way to make a lot of noise while the Kremlin goes about creating a lot of new facts on the ground, whether in Syria or the Baltics. Putin likely believes—perhaps correctly—that, for reasons of both character and political reality, Obama is unlikely to risk a potentially dangerous escalation with Russia during his final months of office. For Obama, Putin was always a nuisance and a mystery, better avoided and marginalized than confronted head-on—a logic that might hold doubly true in the lame-duck period. That gives Putin three months to work through his geopolitical wish list, trying to set in place a number of faits accomplis that will be hard for the next U.S. President to overturn.
Putin must know, for example, that sooner or later diplomatic talks over the war in Syria will resume. But, when they do, he would prefer to see Aleppo in regime hands, which would strengthen Assad’s position in any negotiations.
And in the Baltic states, a zone of perennial rivalry and latent conflict with the West, Putin and his military advisers see an opportunity to undermine nato defenses. Now that the Iskander missiles are in place in Kaliningrad, they’re unlikely to be relocated, and will complicate nato defense planning for years to come.
There are also the Kremlin’s alleged efforts “to interfere with the U.S. election process.” At this point, any Russian efforts to meddle in the election are likely not about trying to throw the election to Donald Trump, whose candidacy most serious Russian officials now believe is doomed. The goal, instead, is to confuse and discredit the American election process, in an attempt to weaken the country’s institutions and the likely future Clinton Presidency.
Although the Russian self-image of a scorned and offended partner is, in part, a cynical pose, it belies a very real sense of injury and betrayal.
Earlier this week, to get a whiff of the new atmosphere, I went to the studios of Channel One, the country’s main state broadcaster, to appear as a guest on a daytime political talk show. Russian television stations have long devoted much of their time to dissecting the minutiae of America’s every political hiccup, a consequence of the Russian ruling class’s simultaneous fascination and revulsion with the U.S. political system.
Russia obviously sees itself as fighting against U.S. hegemony, I said, but what is it fighting for? What is its strategic vision for itself and the world?
Another guest, a Russian parliamentary deputy, began to shout, “For Yugoslavia! For Libya! For Syria! For everything you have done these past twenty years!” He was nearly hysterical, but his answer was truthful:
Putin’s foreign policy at this moment is, in large part, about avenging the wrongs inflicted on Russia over the past decades, the insults and grievances borne by a generation.
It may be a tall order to achieve by January 20th of next year.
But Putin may certainly try.
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