Democratic systems are facing real challenges here and in Western Europe, and, we need to understand more clearly understand what is happening. This is not revival of the old Cold War with Russia. The Cold War was about containment. After World War II, we would build a string of alliances around the Soviet Union to block its expansion and to block the spread of communism. Because the Russians had stifled democratic systems in Eastern European and had replaced them with communist “puppet” governments, moves to block further communist expansion seemed necessary. Viewing what was happening as a struggle between communism backed by the Soviet Union and democratic capitalism promoted by ourselves made that struggle seem necessary. Implicit in that argument for containment was that if we could contain communism we would somehow win. We did win but not because of containment, at least not because of containment alone. We won because the centralized economy in the Soviet Union simply did not work and because Ronald Reagan with his “Star Wars” program could threaten to spend them to death.
Still, containment remains part of out mental vocabulary. So, when Vladimir Putin takes over the Crimea and threatens the rest of Ukraine but stops there, we think we have won. When Putin bombs Syria to keep Bashar al-Assad in power but seems to go no further, the reaction here often is to blame Barack Obama for not having us going in more forcefully ourselves. And, we comfort ourselves by saying that Putin has made a mistake, that he will “own” the problem in Syria and that ultimately he and his money starved regime will be hurt because of it.
We really are wrong to think in terms of containment. Moscow is still separated from Western Europe by hundreds of miles of swamps but the Russians are not contained. There is really no doctrine like Communism that they want to spread that we need to contain. The cabal that is at the top of the Russian government doesn’t really care that much about political ideas. They and Putin face real concrete problems. Put yourself in the place of Vladimir Putin at the top of the Russian government. He knows how vulnerable his regime and his economy is. The Russians, huge exporters of fossil fuels, are quickly running out of money. The state supported industries, enormous industries, badly run by his cronies, constantly need infusions of money from Putin’s government to survive. The two sovereign funds in which, during the oil boom, the government set billions of rubles aside for “rainy days” are rapidly running out of money. With $30 to $50 a barrel oil, those funds can’t be resupplied (In 2008, oil topped out at $140 per barrel.). And, the Russians have lost hundreds of billions of dollars as Russians take their money out of the country. Capital flight is an enormous problem.
So, what can Putin do? He can turn to what he knows best. Vladimir Putin grew up in the KGB (Committee for State Security). The KGB and some predecessor security services kept the Communists in power for 74 years through the infiltration and the brutal suppression of any political opposition. When Communism ended in 1991, the KGB, headed by Putin, had 800,000 official agents. What happens when you have a security agency with almost a million members and the regime that hired them suddenly ends? With all their training as political saboteurs, they can hardly just be cut loose to cause trouble. And, they certainly cannot be instantly retrained. Angry sadistic types are not easily turned into engineers and school teachers. What really happens is that they continue to be hired to do what they were doing before, under a new name, with new management at the top. In this case, both the old and the new director was Vladimir Putin. His goal was to cause the new democratic experiment to fail. And it did. The old Communist regime ended up, after several years of uproar, being succeeded by a regime headed by (surprise!), Vladimir Putin and a group of his old associates from the KGB. And, those people are still in power.
In the West the assumption has usually been that Russia would benefit by becoming more economically integrated into Western Europe. Unfortunately, all of the western efforts to have Russia become more a part of Western Europe will probably fail. In order to function with the current regime in place, Russia needs to remain separate. Putin cannot allow Western Europe and the United States to become the dog that wags the Russian tail. The more industrially backward Russia would become economically tied to the West, the less important it would be.
What is really left for Vladimir Putin is to use the talents of his security services to weaken the West. If citizens in the western democracies can be set against each other and if they can be made to doubt that their institutions are honest or their elections fair, then Russia can sell itself to the credulous as the preserver of western values. That is the substance of the Gerasimov Doctrine, and, if we really look at Western Europe and ourselves, we can see why the Russians would feel encouraged with their efforts so far. Political actives in nearly every country seem to have given up serious governing in favor of attacking each other.
As the brave men and women who fought in World War II, and, the people who formed NATO as a bulwark against Russian communist expansionism begin to fade away, we face something new and different. That challenge will seem unreal to several generations who have not really faced any external threat. From Vladimir Putin’s point of view this new tactical approach has the advantage of being safe and inexpensive (Hackers don’t cost much.). For many here, the challenge will be to realize that there is a challenge. Ideally, our political leadership would reduce their partisanship and take greater responsibility to be sure that our government and our economy work well and work fairly. If we can do that the Russian challenge will begin to fade away. If we do not, then serious times lie ahead.