On 12/15 Donald Trump received “A very nice letter from Vladimir Putin,” to which the then President-elect added: “His thoughts are so correct.”
On 12/16 the Russian military reportedly launched a missile capable of destroying low-orbit satellites:
“The high rate of testing is an indication the program is a military priority and is progressing toward deployment.
The new anti-satellite missile is among several new strategic weapons systems being developed by the Russian military.
The Nudol is viewed by the Pentagon as a so-called “direct ascent” anti-satellite missile. Russia, however, has sought to mask the missile’s anti-satellite capabilities by claiming the missile is for defense against incoming ballistic missiles.
The Pentagon is worried about the development of anti-satellite weapons by both Russia and China.”
“Russia Conducts Fifth Test of New Anti-Satellite Missile” | The Washington Free Beacon | Bill Gertz| 12/21/2016
About this, Trump has said nothing.
Oblivious to this development, he sewed more confusion by hinting at a new nuclear arms race. But in a speech delivered hours before Trump tweeted, Putin said, “We need to strengthen the military potential of strategic nuclear forces, especially with missile complexes that can reliably penetrate any existing and prospective missile defence systems.” Afterwards, Putin highlighted Russia’s military accomplishments in 2016, which (for better or worse) were considerable. For instance, the “Satan 2” intercontinental ballistic missile weighs 100 tons and can devastate France. All of it. Or Texas.
Russia’s military is the second most lethal in history. If one of the Baltic states were invaded, a war with NATO is a doomsday scenario that ends with mushroom clouds. But while America’s economic, diplomatic, strategic, and military advantages make direct conflict unlikely, indirect conflict along non-kinetic fronts is inevitable.
What Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum calls Putinism has become a new and different challenge to the way a global player operates:
“[T]he institutional and ideological underpinnings of Putinism are in fact quite sophisticated and are becoming more so with time. Containing elements of managed democracy and of corporate capitalism – and reflecting the culture and values of the 1980s KGB – Putinism is now taught to Russian children and propagated in the media. It comes complete with a foreign policy and an interpretation of recent history, and it has an ostensible goal: Along with protecting the power and wealth of Putin and his inner circle it proposes to make Russia strong and feared again.”
“Putinism: The ideology” | London School of Economics | Anne Applebaum | 02/19/2013
President Trump has barely responded to how Putin has transformed the Russian state and its institutions and can now open new ways of competing with and confronting the West:
“One distinctive aspect of recent Russian campaigns, from political operations against the West to military operations in Ukraine, has been a blurring of the borders between state, paramilitary, mercenary, and dupe. The Putin regime evidently believes that it is at war with the West — a geopolitical, even civilizational struggle — and is thus mobilizing every weaponizable asset at its disposal. This extends to mining society as a whole for semi-autonomous assets, from eager internet trolls and “patriotic hackers” to transnational banks and businesses to Cossack volunteers and mercenary gangsters.”
“Russia’s Hybrid War As A Byproduct Of A Hybrid State | War On The Rocks | Mark Galeotti | 12/06/2016
There are advantages that a kleptocracy with vast natural resources like Russia has over a liberal democracy like America. One is that the whole of Putin’s Russia itself becomes a military industrial complex in which all sorts of oblique, indirect engagements are fair game in what’s called hybrid warfare, non-linear warfare, or active measures:
“[A] military strategy that blends conventional warfare, irregular warfare and cyberwarfare. By combining kinetic operations with subversive efforts, the aggressor intends to avoid attribution or retribution. Hybrid warfare can be used to describe the flexible and complex dynamics of the battlespace requiring a highly adaptable and resilient response.”
“Hybrid Warfare” | Wikipedia
The deeper one dives into 21st century advanced, multi-lateral conflict, the more a “chess vs. checkers player” narrative emerges from the optics of the Putin/Trump relationship.
Perhaps it’s good that neither president is “ideological.” Trump, the business mogul, is more transactional in a way that might redefine Republican politics and perhaps the presidency. However, Putin, the KGB lieutenant colonel, thinks asymmetrically and geopolitically. That’s a completely different level. President Trump sees history unfolding like a board game with winners and losers because it’s ultimately about clear-cut wins. Putin sees history as a grand, generational struggle with myriad subplots, where moves and counter-moves, advantages and disadvantages may not be revealed for years. For Putin, power is more important than wins.
Trump seems too easily swayed by flattery and pissed by criticism. I’m concerned he doesn’t grasp that Putin’s smarts are different than his, the kind he may believe plays to his strengths, when they actually exploit his insecurities:
“From the very beginning of his presidency, Putin has bet on personal relationships with world leaders as the basis for his foreign policy. It is almost as if he has tried to recruit all of them, trying to find each one’s personal key. He realized very quickly that all foreign leaders can be divided up into two important categories: those who believe in certain values (usually, democratic ones) and those who are totally cynical, concerned with self-advancement and power for its own sake. Sooner or later, attempts to build a relationship with leaders of the first category run aground on the rocks of mutual incomprehension. With leaders of the latter category, everything is on the table.”
“Why Putin Prefers Trump” | Mikhail Zygar | Politico | 07/27/2016
Putin gives four and a half hour question and answer sessions. Trump tweets, got tired during election season debates, and refused regular presidential daily briefs. If the passage above is on point, in which group would you put him? Probably the same one Vladimir would.
In geopolitics, someone’s always getting played. So, who’s playing whom? What if Putin wants America spending a trillion dollars in Chinese and Japanese financed debt on modernizing nukes, building 100 million dollar F-35s, and ramping up to a 355 ship navy, because he knows he’ll never face them head-on?
Here’s a brief documentary by Adam Curtis on Putin’s chief “political technologist,” Vladislav Surkov. In 5 minutes one learns the essence of how Putin plays “the grand game” at home and abroad:
Meanwhile, except for James Mattis, no one from Trump’s proposed national security team has publicly connected a dizzying collection of dots: little green men in Ukraine and Crimea; the Kiev black-out of 2015; cyberwarfare in Georgia and Estonia; the annexation of Crimea; Russia’s increased role in Syria (and therefore, the Middle East); Russia’s rapprochement with Turkey; its overtures to the Philippines; the millions in loans from Russian banks to French far-Right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen; Putin’s dead opponents; satellite killer missile launches; information warfare in unexpected places like Sweden; the tons of gold Russia is building up; and perhaps even the rash of electronic bank heists using the SWIFT network.
But wait, there’s more! What I call a counterweight coalition of leaders and countries Putin is taking shape as the world transitions from an unipolar to a multi-polar phase. In no particular order, they include Belarus, Moldova, Turkey, Syria, Iran, China, South Africa, Venezuela, Brazil, South Sudan, Ethiopia, and North Korea. Among particular leaders, I include Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, and Viktor Orbon in Hungary.
These nations and leaders have been denied prime seating at the cool kids table otherwise known as the liberal world order:
“The world order that was created in the aftermath of World War II has produced immense benefits for peoples across the planet. The past 70 years have seen an unprecedented growth in prosperity, lifting billions out of poverty. Democratic government, once rare, has spread to over 100 nations around the world, on every continent, for people of all races and religions. And, although the period has been marked by war and suffering as well, peace among the great powers has been preserved. There has been no recurrence of the two devastating world wars of the first half of the 20th century.”
Strengthening the Liberal World Order | World Economic Forum | page 2
There are signs that this arrangement isn’t eternal and is winding down:
“The liberal world order that has been in place since 1945 is showing signs of deterioration. The turmoil and multi-sided conflict in the Middle East; Russia’s invasion and seizure of territory in Ukraine; the pressures on the liberal political and economic order in Europe; China’s growing power and ambition in Asia; the tenuousness of the international consensus on free trade and multilateral economic institutions – all these combine to put this order at risk.”
Strengthening the Liberal World Order | World Economic Forum | page 13
Anti-liberals see an opening for their alternative visions and grievances because of an antipathy towards the US and Europe. They’re angling to exploit cracks in the liberal world order that the U.S., Europe, and aligned institutions have held in place since the end of WW II. Granted, the counterweight coalition is hardly the Soviet bloc along with its proxies and satellites. However, its true strength is in the loose and informal relations among many cynical, power hungry or tyrannical regimes.
Put it all together and the question “what does Putin want?” is easily answered—he wants the sanctions lifted, the European Union weakened, NATO off Russia’s doorstep, Ukraine returned to its sphere of influence, Russia as an arms dealer for countries that need value more than the highest tech, and a world in which not much of the really important stuff happens without the Kremlin’s input.
Perhaps most of all, like the KGB man he is at heart, Putin wants a head of state he can work with in such a way that “work” seems to mean “cooperate,” but really means “influence.” I call that The Berlusconi Effect.
Putin’s psy-op will be one of the deep narratives of the Trump administration. What’s harder to predict, should Putin’s plans come to pass, is what The West’s reaction will be. At some point, sanctions produce diminished returns, particularly for southern European countries like Italy that have lost a lot in trade as its banks drift towards crisis. Military operations in relatively close proximity such as in Syria or the South China Sea make war by accident more likely.
We should all remember that trade wars have a nasty history of turning into shooting wars. Similarly, cyber-warfare will get more lethal as it gets more ubiquitous.
And so, the nightmare scenario of the next four to eight years is that what Trump has done to 62 million voters, Putin has done and will continue to do to Trump.