Vladimir Putin is often called a chess player because he plans his moves far in advance. Such an interpretation not only gives him too much credit, it encourages an incomplete understanding of Russian psychology and goals. Putin’s decisions can broadly be understood through three concepts: his reactionary maintenance of power, his fear of democracy/the people and his desire to return Russia to greatness.
Consider how Putin has reacted to a number of perceived threats during his presidency. In 2008, at a Nato summit in Bucharest, Georgia was promised eventual membership into NATO. Russia protested the expansion of NATO for both economic and strategic reasons. Two regions of Georgia on the Russian border were in a state of frozen conflict after the breakup of the Soviet Union, with Russia recognizing their independence and Georgia claiming them as part of Georgia. On August 7 of that same year, Georgia sent in troops to occupy the regions. On August 8, Russia invaded Georgia and occupied the regions. Considering there was only a ceasefire, and Russian troops still occupy ‘Georgian’ territory, adding Georgia to NATO could trigger article five; forcing members to declare war on Russia or discredit the alliance. The situation only escalated in direct response to the NATO declaration at the Bucharest Summit. The Russian annexation of Crimea was a direct response to the Maidan revolution, while the intervention in Syria was in response to the U.S. air strikes in Libya and support for the Arab Spring. In all of these instances, Putin sees a threat to his power and reacts to mitigate it or retaliate.
Second, Putin was in Dresden during the fall of East Germany. Putin watched first hand the revolution sweep away everything he worked for as a part of the KGB: maintenance of Soviet Power. He watched protesters storm the Stasi headquarters and almost storm the KGB quarters where he was stationed. From this event, living through the fall of the Soviet Union and watching Russia wallow under Yeltsin, Putin developed a disregard for democracy and a fear for popular uprising.
Finally, we must consider Putin’s goals and vision. Putin has overseen a significant increase in Russian military spending, along with increased activity on the world stage. In his own words “Any man who regrets the fall of the Soviet Union has no heart, but any man who wants its return has no mind.” Although he does not hope to bring back the Soviet Union, he still hopes to revive the prestige, power and influence of Russia on the global scale.
It is only by understanding this background that we can effectively analyze Russia’s interference in U.S. elections.
First, consider how is this a reactionary event. In Russia’s mind, the U.S. has constantly mistreated and disrespected Russia. Supporting a ‘coup’ in Ukraine, expanding NATO, overthrowing autocrats and violating countries sovereignty in the process and even using soft power to undermine him. Any or all of these reasons contribute to Putin’s desire to hit back at the United States.
His desire in hitting back is to prove democracy ineffective. If by using free speech and liberal methods he can sow disinformation or encourage radicalization in order to undermine western liberal democracy, Putin wins. If the West reacts violently and shuts down free speech for radical segments of the population, it will both encourage polarization of those groups and undermine their claim of superiority to autocracies because of values such as free speech. If this occurs, once again Putin wins. His methods are designed to show the world the weaknesses of democracy and the superiority or equivalency of autocracy.
Finally, his methods expand his own power and influence by weakening the United States. Delegitimizing democracy strengthens his internal position by legitimizing autocracy as superior or equal to democracy.
On the global scale, a polarized U.S., or a “United States first” president means a less engaged U.S. in the global system. What the U.S. and other liberal democracies lose, is gained by countries such as Russia. A power vacuum will be left open for Russia to fill on the global scale. As an added bonus, this internal discord threatens NATO, an organization viewed by Russia as an existential threat, while showing Russian influence extends even to the strongest nations in the world.
A balanced policy of recognizing strategic interests, while maintaining support for our interests and values is not only possible, but necessary. We need to stop unnecessarily provoking Russia. This means no more NATO expansion, and no more missile defense systems in East Europe. Those who point to the annexation of Crimea and South Ossetia for an expansionist Russia misunderstand that these are reactionary policies. Understandable doesn’t mean acceptable, but our responses must be calculated, not haphazard.
Alexander Screaton ’19 (firstname.lastname@example.org) is from Lake Elmo, Minn. He majors in chemistry and political science.