The month of August in Russian politics brings a special mystic connotation. Even more so for President Putin’s rule – most of the major events, crashes, disasters, and political crises happen in August.
This August begins with President Trump’s signing of upgraded sanctions, which turned the Kremlin off balance.
The Cold War between the US and Russia is now officially open on both sides, as of August 1.
The mere fact that Putin deems necessary to turn up in person on Russia’s central TV channel to clarify his policy line on the new US sanctions means only one thing – the bets are the highest possible, this is personal and there is no place left for intermediaries and interpreters.
Some time ago, the Russian MFA spokesperson lifted the lid over the operation “Trump,” saying something to the tune that if she “opens her mouth” for what she knows, there might follow a seismic shift in the United States.
The head of the Kremlin’s strategic think tank – RISI – Leonid Reshetnikov, vaguely alluded to a Russian operation in the West, that would play a crucial role, where all services – diplomatic and secret – are involved, but only the president has the full picture.
Many implicit signs spoke of Putin betting almost everything on President Trump’s election and the ensuing game plan.
There is little doubt that the Kremlin has vested interests in transforming Russian-American relations to Moscow’s liking using Putin’s personal contacts with the new US president. Suffice to recall his exasperation in public with Russia-gate overwhelming the US domestic agenda and virtually blocking the US president from undertaking anything of substance that could be deemed positive for Russia.
The Russian President subdued his pride and chose to ignore the expulsion of Russian diplomats back in December 2016, certain that he had a higher reward in sight and could trust that the new US President would deliver on expectations.
After watching the tide turn against Trump with the bipartisan move in Congress upscaling sanctions against Russia, Vladimir Putin had fewer illusions and had to take a hands-on approach passing unusual comments and opinions on the internal US debate to assist his American colleague. In most of what has been said, the Russian president echoed the adage used by President Trump – the campaign against him and Russia was hysteria and a witch hunt, and the media are biased and unfair and so forth.
Putin’s personal involvement in American politics is a logical sequence of the Kremlin’s overall game plan to engage and shape the US presidential election campaign. Kremlin’s great expectations have been thwarted by the US intelligence community and the institutions, a carefully designed check and balances system, ending up with a rare and highly unusual bipartisan consensus to lift the ante against Russia. Yes, Putin might have been cunningly creative when designing and implementing his blueprints for the US, yet he seemed to have targeted tactical wins, grossly miscalculating the strategic long-term consequences on overrating the capacity of the US president to singlehandedly change the course of US foreign policy. Putin’s statements and policies have provoked a consolidation, an anti-Russian solidarity and a self-defense resolve in the US political establishment, unseen even under Ronald Reagan.
Whether we accept the version that Trump has given promises or hopes to Putin is immaterial. These days the overwhelming majority in Washington seems to believe that the US President would sooner have to leave office than be allowed to deliver what Putin expects.
At this stage, it is hard to know the details of Vladimir Putin’s Trump plan, although we could deduce a lot by the stakes and the strategic value for the Kremlin, implied by the personal involvement of the Russian president.
An indirect indicator of the level of self-confidence in Putin’s game plan was the attitude of the freshly elected Bulgarian president Rumen Radev, who following meetings with special envoys of the RISI, spoke in certain terms about the imminence of the strategic change in Russian-American relations, including the dumping of the issues of Crimea and Ukraine in favor of a global strategic partnership.
This billboard funded by Russian taxpayer money on the streets of Moscow says it all. People familiar with the kitchen of the Kremlin politics know what it takes and what it means for this billboard to appear – who gives the orders.
Pro-Russian circles in Bulgaria were so confident that Putin had already struck a fixed deal with Trump that they started Bulgaria “Trump” societies, on direct instruction from Moscow and under the supervision of Russian diplomatic representations and special services. This display of the certainty in Putin-Trump rapprochement spread across many countries in the European Union.
Putin would not risk his money, image and authority if he did not believe he had sealed the deal. One proof of the resolve involved was the strange sale of a 19.5 percent stake in Rosneft for $10.2 billion, which some believe was an essential part of this high-level bargain.
The new US sanctions have left Vladimir Putin empty-handed, with few options but to discontinue the Trump operation as his key assets have been compromised, his plan has been exposed. His virtual or hybrid war strength, his ability to exploit fears and manipulate the Western public and leaders can hardly be overestimated. Yet he seems to have lost in his crown secret operation of engaging the president of the United States.
Putin’s greatest achievement and mastership lies in the fact that he pursues policies and global goals well beyond his means. Russia’s economic, financial, technological, demographic, political and even military resource base is totally incommensurate to his aggressive and wide reaching foreign policy agenda. The country seems to be in a long-term decline, yet his ambitions seem to defy the gravity of his milieu.
The asymmetry in his retaliatory acts does not stem from exceptional strategic skills, but rather from a lack of choice. Russia does not have the resource pool to respond reciprocally or symmetrically. Imagine, for example, Putin banning Russian companies from exporting Russian technology to the US or ordering Russian banks not to extend long-term credits to US companies.
This does not mean that the Russian president does not hold strong cards in his global poker power play. But the wind is not blowing in his sails and, above all, Russia does not enjoy any more the privilege of the first move and the psychological advantage of the invincible and infallible Putin.
The strongest card in Kremlin’s deck is the impasse and the divisions in US politics. What might take months to reconcile between the different branches of government as shared policy in Washington, takes hours for Putin to translate from inception to act. This is a classic ‘handicap’ of democratic versus autocratic rule.