Despite all the might of the US Congress and its ability to block Trump’s move on Russia, the legislative branch still has no executive powers – it can hardly initiate or implement any proactive or preventive policy to secure America’s and the West’s perimeter for independent policies against Russia. The White House is overcommitted to reassuring Trump’s survival in the Russia-gate affair and the investigation kernel is still ahead. The focus on shielding individual members of the Trump family during the investigation, as well as the chaotic cadres’ changes in the White House, are not exactly a mark of the US president’s strength, capacity to lead and change the world.
Putin can further speculate on the disagreements in transatlantic relations, which does not imply immediate enthusiasm and capacity in the West to agree on and pursue common EU/US policy towards Russia. Germany seems to prefer individual protective measures against Russian intervention in the September elections. The Bundes Government formally backs Putin’s pet project North Stream–2, although it helps him sustain his hybrid war against the West.
New US sanctions will hardly be openly defied by the EU, but the way they were adopted, without elementary due consultation process, certainly heightens the chances for stray talk pouring out of Western Europe that could be exploited by the Kremlin.
Eastern Europeans will continue to be radiated with stories about the disloyal and self-centered Western Europeans pursuing a “food genocide” policy – the Kremlin-induced smear campaign with grossly exaggerated facts on different, deemed poorer, qualities of food sold in Eastern Europe.
Thirdly, the implicit weakness of the EU – its defense capacity – provides ample ground for the Kremlin to speculate and manipulate.
On the one hand, over the year, Moscow has mastered the art of pressing on sensitive points in Germany’s historical guilt complex and self-imposed pacifism, which prevents it from becoming a true EU leader. Should Germany decide to substantially augment its military spending and seek to lead the EU army effort, Moscow will instantly fan the story of the re-emerging ‘fascist’ threat.
On the other hand, Putin knows how to “scare” Europeans, who have grown excessively acquiescent over an unprecedented period in their history without major wars. The Russian president could at any time reignite a frozen conflict with a limited display of military power that could be amplified by his propaganda machines and media proxies in Europe as tangible and immediate threats. Although NATO provides a strategic shield, few EU politicians are likely to stand up to Putin and be ready to challenge him militarily by allocating sufficient resources – technological, financial and human or harmonizing weapon systems.
This is evidenced by the Minsk Agreements (brokered without the US), which does not mention Crimea at all, and the EU-sponsored truce in Georgia, which fixed in place the status quo on the ground, giving Russia pretty much everything that it wanted to achieve, tearing the country apart.
The new extreme aggressiveness of Russian foreign policy could be interpreted as an “asymmetrical” response to US sanctions, notably in areas of relative weakness of the West in the post-Soviet space. New cyberattacks could follow – the German elections being a prime target. However, in all such instances Russia will stick to the classic Lavrov doctrine – peace talk garnished with hybrid operation. The more diverse, secretive and wide-reaching the operations, the wider the front and creativity in peace verbiage cover-up.
But there are new constraints.
First, the open cold war between Russia and the United States would inevitably raise the strategic value of Ukraine and other border zones, suggesting a higher threshold of tolerance for corruption and poor governance in Ukraine. The US could finally conclude that arming Poroshenko might be in the best interest of the West. The Ukrainian military, including their paramilitary structures, have managed to sustain the status quo, without US arms support, which seemed to be a wise policy to limit the conflict and the civilian casualties in Eastern Ukraine.
One can only guess what the Ukrainians would have achieved if substantially assisted with arms.
Secondly, although Moscow can dramatically intensify the hybrid war, it is hardly sunshine and roses down the road. Many question the wisdom in the lack of adequate retaliation by the US to the extremely arrogant and aggressive Russian cyberattacks. The newswire is full of successful hacks, yet little if anything comes out in the open that could qualify as an adequate US response. A significant part of Moscow’s hybrid war is conducted by seemingly non-state actors – businesses and individuals that operate within the Kremlin-sponsored and controlled networks. Precise diagnostics and adequate response to hacker attacks are always challenging, notably when providing evidence that could stand in court.
The US enjoys an unrivaled role in the Internet and the global information community, which limits its ability to operate as the global Internet policeman, without jeopardizing the business of leading US software firms and social and business networks. On top the data that needs protection has grown exponentially, dwarfing the capacity of governments to secure it against hostile attacks. If the US chooses to respond in kind, this will expose its capabilities and allow opponents to catch up and regroup in cyberspace. The situation is analogous to nuclear deterrence – the true potential would be known only in the D-Day of the ultimate exchange.
What Moscow is presenting as an asymmetric measure against US diplomatic representations in Russia is nothing short of an information-propaganda exercise using creative accounting. If the exchange goes tit-for-tat, Russian ‘diplomatic’ personnel will not be limited to diplomatic and technical staff, but to Russian businesses operating in the US, including their US companies and partners, that form part of the Kremlin’s secretive networks. They would come under heavy surveillance in the best tradition of the classic Cold War. Washington could reciprocally cut sharply the number of Russian citizens working as technical staff in Russian diplomatic missions in the US without harming the interests of American citizens.
The opposite is not true. A sharp contraction in the number of Russian staff in the US consular offices in Russia will undoubtedly result in greater queues and extended issuance time for US visas for Russian citizens. Moscow’s countermeasures, in general, will do more harm at home than in the US and the West — much like how the contraction of imported goods and services to Russia, in the previous counter-sanctions saga, resulted in higher prices and inflation. The Kremlin again seems to punish ordinary Russians, not the elite, who would like to travel abroad.
Regardless of the counter-sanctions conceived by the Kremlin, drastic cuts in the presence of Russian secret services and propaganda machines in the United States seems inevitable, as is the return to the Cold War days of focused Western information campaigns in Russia.
It is premature to deduce that having lost the battle in operation “Trump” through poor judgment Putin would roll back his hybrid war operations and grudgingly accept his loss. Nor should his ability to inflict further damage and operate beyond Western defense lines, in the most intimate quarters of Western democracies, be ignored.
As the OPEC-Russia deal of controlling oil prices clearly flopped, the core American interests in the US economy, finances or military seem well beyond Putin’s reach.
Thirdly, his veiled threat to use other vulnerable zones – counter terrorism or regional security – in most cases allude to the situation in Syria. The country is perceived to be the key proof of the success of President Putin and the failure of US policies. Ousting ISIS and bringing an end to the conflict brings higher on the agenda the issue of who will win the peace in Syria – reconciling different ethnic groups in Syria and restoring the country.
Winding up the CIA’s opposition assistance program makes sense as it was throwing good money after wrong allies. Erdogan will need to fund these groups out his own purse and the US could focus on the support of a legitimate local player – the Syrian Kurds.
Neither Russia nor Iran, even less so Saudi Arabia, will have the resources and the shared willingness to restore Syria without the leadership of the West.
Without the US and the EU, Syria will not be rebuilt – which makes any future move of Moscow in the region totally conditional upon an agreement with the US and the West in general, which for now seems hardly plausible. In time Putin’s assets in Syria might gradually turn into liabilities.
Operation “Trump” signals a turning point in Vladimir Putin’s rule, clearly defining the limitations of his power and rule.