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This year of anniversaries presents Vladimir Putin with a particular problem. In March (February on the old Russian calendar) it will be a 100 years since the last Romanov Tsar was deposed. Later in 1917, Lenin and his band of Bolshevik bastards subverted what more moderate Russians had hoped would be a switch to a form of democracy and unleashed on poor Russia one of the most catastrophic experiments in human history. In the Soviet decades that followed, tens of millions were killed and basic rights denied and freedoms suppressed in the name of a crazed ideology.
Surely President Putin, a product of the Cold War who describes the fall of the Soviet Empire as a tragedy, will be celebrating such a significant centenary? Not quite, no. Putin is in a complicated position. Not only is the legacy of the Revolution disputed. A demagogue such as Putin offering order, who wants to retain tight control, would be signally unwise to hail the historical example of violent revolution in 1917 as a praiseworthy blueprint. The people might get ideas. The people might get rebellious.
Putin – being smart, as Donald Trump would put it while surely not quite getting the point that he is being played – prefers instead to concentrate on rebuilding Russian prestige, channeling older pre-Revolution notions of Mother Russia as a great power worthy of international respect, menaced at its extremities by uppity regional types and Islamist brigands, all in need of firm leadership sustained by an updated Soviet-style security apparatus.
In this propaganda effort to rebuild the Russian reputation for greatness the canny Putin has struck it lucky with two American Presidents in a row. They have made his job considerably easier. First, from 2008 an arrogant Barack Obama failed to anticipate that if the US stepped back (leading from behind, or not leading at all) then Putin would step up. This he duly did, latterly in Syria with the results we see now.
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Even better for Putin, next came Trump. The President-elect has proven so useful to Putin (probably unintentionally) that it seems he should have had a different slogan on those famous baseball caps during the 2016 election, but perhaps “Make Russia Great Again” would not have had quite the same ring to it on the campaign trail in the patriotic American Midwest.
Anyway, Trump’s romance with strongman Putin in the campaign seemed at the time like just another quirk of his unconventional, outsider schtick, and of a piece with his narcissism. Putin was nice about Trump, hence Trump likes Putin, because for Trump it is all about Trump, always. But that love-in has led the President-elect, and the country he will soon govern, to a dark place in recent weeks in the over allegations that the Kremlin ordered hacking to influence the recent election.
Trump got so used to prospering by defying convention that it has caused him, spurred on by advisers and wackier supporters who encourage his pro-Putin antics, to cross a patriotic line in which it has become clear he puts America and its own agencies second, not first, in favour of a foreign power that terrorises opponents, disrupts elections by hacking and menaces Western Europe.
The realisation that this is the position, and that Trump does not understand the seriousness of what is going on, is already having consequences, even before he is inaugurated on January 20th.
The former CIA director James Woolsey has been a respectable and steadfast supporter of Trump, but this week he finally decided that he had had enough of the buffoonery. Trump’s endorsement this week of the ghastly Julian Assange, boss of the anti-Western spying outfit WikiLeaks, was too much for Woolsey, it seems, and his conviction that Trump would grow up and into the job seems to have been undermined beyond repair. “Effective immediately, Ambassador Woolsey is no longer a Senior Adviser to President-elect Trump or the transition,” Woolsey’s spokesman wrote on Thursday. “He wishes the President-elect and his Administration great success in their time in office.”
That’s an interesting choice of words: in their time in office. At this rate, and without a rapid change of direction back towards a policy that is more pro-American, rather than pro-Russian, Team Trump’s time in office could be short.
In a darkly amusing sub-plot, WikiLeaks has moved meanwhile to defend itself from allegations that it is a cipher operation for the Kremlin. In this spirit, the organisation has even taken to protesting about… leaks. In a tweet on Friday it issued a protest:
“The Obama admin/CIA is illegally funnelling TOP SECRET//COMINT information to NBC for political reasons before PEOTUS even gets to read it.”
Either someone at Wikileaks has a sense of humour (Julian Assange’s barber perhaps?) or Assange’s infamous operation is so consumed with paranoia that it is incapable of seeing the irony in an outfit with leaks in its name complaining about other people leaking.
By the time Trump saw the leaders of the intelligence agencies for a briefing on Friday, something, or someone, had almost got through to him amid the commotion. We have seen this behaviour before when he is seriously threatened, most obviously when he agreed to redesign his struggling campaign in the late summer and stuck on public platforms from then on much more to a script. In that spirit, the statement Trump issued immediately after his intelligence briefing on Friday did not accept that the Russians had attempted to influence the election, but it contained a belated endorsement of the work of the intelligence agencies and expressed concern about hacking.
Although the unclassified sections of the document presented to Trump do not provide a smoking gun (Big Vlad says mess with the voting machines in Wisconsin) the judgments and assessments about the propaganda effort are clear. Russia and its surrogates set out to use cyber warfare to damage Trump’s opponent, and its spies passed anti-Clinton leaks to WikiLeaks for dissemination. This was backed up by a clever public campaign of disinformation by anti-Western Russian media outlets, pushing out stories and misinformation during the campaign that made their way into the anti-social social media echo-chamber where many angry pro-Trump voters were going for a daily fix of anti-Hillary fury. Trump was poisoning the democratic well for his own ends, and the Russians helped pour in more poison to be sure.
The winner here is Putin, of course, a century on from the Russian Revolution surely the most successful geopolitical operator of his era, who grasps that if he humiliates the democracies, and seeds discord, then his attempt at home to boost the reputation of orderly Mother Russia is made relatively easier.
What can the West do? That is for another time, and Western European security and collective defence will be one of the major themes of the year, and probably the next decade. What we should certainly not do is flip wildly into outright confrontation and strutting about. It is far better, surely, to pay attention to the lessons of history when it comes to dealing with Russia. Here are a few observations that Europeans might think about while Trump continues his bold experiment in launching a war on the CIA.
Few countries are more used to thinking in centuries and more sanguine about punishment and hardship than Russia. It is vast and impossible to invade successfully. Repeated attempts by enemies and the enormous sacrifices made to expel the invaders have created an understandable and justified suspicion on the part of the Russians, who have long memories. Only once since the Second World War has the West soundly defeated Russia, when the Soviet Union collapsed. Within a decade that humiliation had produced a counter-reaction in the form of the election – in 2000 – of Putin, a KGB man as President who had risen to be the chosen successor of Boris Yeltsin, once the great hope of the US and the West.
In the face of the hardheaded Russian mentality, all that tends to work – the post-1945 experience shows – is a firm Western alliance, greater investment in our collective defence and a dedication to monitoring and matching Russian intelligence to project strength, defend our interests and send the message that the West is no weakling, creating a deterrent effect. If the Americans under Trump are not to take part in such a renewed effort, then we Europeans will need to start organising much more of it ourselves. The EU cannot be the vehicle because it is notoriously hopeless in this field. A reconfigured Nato, or an off-spring of Nato, is needed. Oh, and everyone change their computer password.