“I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia,” Winston Churchill famously said in 1939. “It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.”
The Russian national interest today isn’t much of a riddle. In the chilly, sinister eyes of President Vladimir Putin, it’s to stir up trouble for the West, particularly the United States, which he sees — and as a once-and-forever KGB officer has always seen — as his country’s principal enemy.
“Putin for the last decade or more has been looking to undercut us in all ways,” former Central Intelligence Agency officer John Sipher said in an interview. Sipher spent much of his 28-year CIA career focused on the Soviet Union and then Russia, including time in the U.S. embassy in Moscow. “He has a foreign policy of sabotage and subversion. He’s interfered in our elections and spread disinformation. He’s murdered people in Europe, potentially put bounties on U.S. soldiers, engaged in cyberattacks and more.”
The long game for Putin, who has called the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the (20th) century,” is hardly a mystery: to divide the West, undermine the NATO alliance and weaken confidence in democratic institutions. It would be inaccurate to say he hasn’t made progress.
You may recall that former President Donald Trump was a fan of Putin, for reasons that remain speculative. “I respect him,” he told Fox News in 2017.
President Joe Biden doesn’t. And yet Biden will sit down with Putin Wednesday in Geneva.
Why? Biden said he wants Putin to know that his actions have helped drive U.S.-Russia relations to the lowest point in decades. Putin himself agrees that relations between the two countries are bad, but in an interview with NBC gave no indication that he’s the least bit responsible for it.
Not surprisingly, Putin also denies knowing anything about cyberattacks including the ones against Colonial Pipeline that crippled fuel shortages to much of the U.S. East Coast a month ago, or the U.S. operations of JBS, the world’s largest meat company. U.S. intelligence officials have said that these, and other attacks, like December’s massive “SolarWinds” attack — which Microsoft has called the biggest cyberattack in history — originated in Russia.
For much of our history, geography has long been America’s best defense against its enemies. Two vast oceans to the east and west, two friendly neighbors to the north and south. Missiles capable of spanning continents in minutes rendered these buffers insignificant, and now cyber hackers have made the U.S. even more vulnerable.
In fact, Russia has done more damage to the U.S. through its unrelenting cyberattacks than it did during the entire Cold War. As far as I can tell, it has done so largely with impunity. Given the ease with which the Russians can seemingly, from thousands of miles away, attack us at will, who doesn’t believe that America’s power grid, water systems, transportation financial and communication networks and more aren’t vulnerable to sudden, devastating disruption?
Silent, hidden, and deadly, cyber is the new warfare. There’s no question that the U.S. has significant offensive capabilities of its own, and it’s believed that malware has been placed within parts of Russia’s infrastructure, capable of inflicting crippling attacks on the Russians, should we choose to do so. Putin knows this.
He also knows that Biden comes into Wednesday’s meeting having followed a deliberate, months-long strategy of rebuilding ties with America’s European allies, emphasizing the shared values and unity that Putin has been trying to cleave.
Biden’s efforts are paying dividends. A Pew Research Center survey of citizens in 16 nations says the percentage who have confidence in the U.S. president “to do the right thing in foreign affairs” has jumped 58 points to 75% since Biden took office. The percentage who have a “favorable view of the U.S.” is up 28 points to 62%. The picture is clear: America’s traditional allies in Europe and Asia are hungry for a reassertion of American leadership.
There are a few important things to remember about Putin and the Russians:
There is an inherent insecurity to the Russian mindset. Most Americans may not know that two devastating invasions of Russia —by Napoleon in 1812 and Hitler in 1941 — still loom large in Russia’s national psyche (in between they also lost a war to Japan).
Thus there’s a sense among Russians of being ringed by enemies, and Putin, who is inherently distrustful of our motives and hostile to our system, believes that the best defense is a good offense. This helps explain his rationale for grabbing parts of Georgia (a former Soviet republic) in 2008, seizing Crimea in 2014, launching cyberattacks on the West and more. We correctly see these things as dangerous and destabilizing, but Putin sees them as ways to stir national pride, maintain power and deflect Russians’ attention from a weak and dysfunctional economy (Russia’s per capita GDP is about one-sixth of America’s, according to the World Bank).
Despite these weaknesses, or perhaps because of them, Putin — beginning with President Bill Clinton and continuing through Trump — has always managed to punch well above his weight on the world stage. Now the cyberattacks are getting worse. Putin is tweaking us everywhere. He sees, and rightly so, an America weakened by internal division, tired of being the world’s policeman — witness our pending withdrawal from Afghanistan — and distracted by an even more formidable rival in China.
Putin also is thrilled about Biden’s decision to loosen sanctions on Nord Stream 2—the controversial natural gas pipeline that will link Russia and Germany. Biden has been against the pipeline, but CIA veteran Sipher says Biden’s broader priority is to rebuild U.S.-German ties by allowing it to proceed, and the president made a hard call.
“The Russians will use this to their benefit,” Sipher says. “But I think it’s a mistake by the Germans.” It’s also a mistake for Biden. Instead of giving in on the pipeline to placate our German friends, why couldn’t the Germans give in on the pipeline to placate us?
Vladimir Putin has had his way with America for many years. Why should he think that things will be different under Biden? This is one of our new president’s greatest challenges: to show the thug in the Kremlin otherwise.