Putin May Have Gone too Far in Antagonizing the West

Terry F. Buss, PhD |

Putin May Have Gone too Far in Antagonizing the West

Three weeks ago, Russia allegedly used nerve agent in the attempted murder of a Russian spy, Sergei Skripal and his daughter, in Salisbury, England. Western intelligence agencies believe that Russia was sending a message to other spies who were contemplating defecting to the West. The timing of the murder attempt fell just before Putin was elected President, extending his reign to 20 years.

The response to the Skripal attack was quick and intense. This Monday-Tuesday, the British expelled 23 Russian diplomats. The US followed with the expulsion of 60 Russian intelligence officers, 48 in Washington, and 12 in the UN in New York. The US also closed the Russian consulate in Seattle. So far, 18 European nations expelled Russian diplomats and the European Union condemned the Russian actions. In a latest move, Nato is expelling seven Russian diplomats in response to a nerve agent attack

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Nato expelling seven Russian diplomats (Images: Reuters)

According to observers in the West, Russian leaders retain power by responding to real or perceived existential dangers from abroad. And the Russians use various tactics to destabilize adversaries abroad as a way to expand Russian power. They believe that Putin has been employing this tactic since ascending to power in 1999. The Skripal incident is the latest in a series of provocations under Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Cold War seems to have undergone a rebirth. Perhaps it never really ended. What are the Russians up to? How has the West, and particularly Donald Trump, responded? And what are the implications for peace?

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Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Russians hacked into the Democratic National Committee’s email system, releasing sensitive information. Attempts were made to hack into voting machines in several states. According to the Washington Post, Russians launched suspected cyber attacks on 19 European nations. US intelligence services announced that Russia was attempting to launch cyber incursions on the US electrical grid and other infrastructure.

Putin, March 2018, announced that Russia was building up and modernizing its nuclear weapons arsenal targeted at the US and Europe. It has been conducting major military exercises along the Eastern and Central European borders. Russia is modernizing its main battle tanks to be competitive with US armaments. Russia is becoming involved in the East Sea dispute to counter US efforts.

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The US accuses Russia of secretly helping North Korea evade UN sanctions applied because of its nuclear weapons program. Russia is reportedly building a bridge into North Korea to increase prohibited trade.

Russia, along with China, has blocked sanctions, cease fire attempts and humanitarian efforts in the UN Security Council related to the Syria civil war in which it is a strong ally of Syrian dictator Bashir Assad and allied with Iran. Russia has also established bases, supplied weapons, and provided ground troops and air power against Syrian rebels. In 2017, the US claims that Russian troops attacked US forces in Syria, and that the US killed 300 during the assault.

After retaking the Crimea and Sebastopol from the Ukraine in 2014, Russia continues to support incursions into eastern Ukraine in an effort to destabilize the country. Western nations accused Russia of shooting down a civilian aircraft over the Ukraine.

What is Putin’s motivation for antagonizing the West? Putin may have believed that the tepid response to some of his earlier actions in Ukraine and Crimea met with such a weak response that he thinks he can get away with even more provocations, like interfering in Western elections. He may have been right. The Ukraine affair produced only moderate sanctions from Europe and the US. No weapons were supplied to Ukraine. A few thousand US troops were deployed to the Baltic states, but none to Ukraine. President Obama withdrew missiles from Poland hoping to appease Russia. Obama also downsized the US military to all time lows and began dismantling the US nuclear weapons arsenal. The EU has severely underinvested in its military so much so that it is not much of a threat to Russia.

Putin’s ultimate motivation may be that he regrets the demise of the Soviet Union and wishes to make Russia a global power once again. Even more likely, Russia’s economy under US-EU sanctions and extremely low oil prices is decrepit, and Putin wants to draw attention away from that.

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The role of Donald Trump viv-a-vis Vladimir Putin is interesting. Throughout his campaign for president in 2016 until very recently, Trump denied that Russia had anything to do with influencing the US presidential election. He continued his denials even after US intelligence agencies and the US congressional committees concluded that Russia had interfered. At the same, Trump and Putin praised one another to such an extent that it drew criticism from Trump critics and supporters.

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(Images: Reuters)

In 2016, the FBI began investigating Trump’s campaign organization for possible "collusion" with Russian agents in an effort to discredit Hillary Clinton and promote Trump. The investigation eventually turned into a highly public criminal investigation with its own special prosecutor. Trump’s campaign advisors are now in legal trouble over their collusion. A congressional committee recently concluded that the Russians had tried to influence elections, but that Trump’s campaign had not colluded. Trump denies these charges and allegations. The process has paralyzed the Trump administration.

Last week, Trump and Putin made news again. Trump called Putin to congratulate him on his recent presidential victory. Trump did not criticize Putin over the Skripal attack. Trump’s national security staff specifically warned him not to congratulate Putin, but to admonish him for the attack. Trump, being Trump, did the opposite. Someone in the White House leaked this call to the news media, causing great embarrassment to Trump.

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Although Trump treats Putin as a great friend, Trump’s actions have become increasingly hostile to Russia. The expulsion of 60 intelligence agents over the Skripal affair was more extreme than any other country’s. Trump has increased US troops in the Baltics. He has approved increasingly harsher sanctions against Russia. He intends to sell antitank missiles to the Ukraine. He has called out Russian actions in Syria. Some of this was at the prodding of Congress, because at times, Trump appears reluctant to confront Putin.

Trump seems to be taking national defense seriously, much more so than had Obama. Trump pressured Congress into restoring the Defense Department budget drastically cut by Obama. Trump is modernizing the military and rebuilding US nuclear weapons capacity. In the 2018 National Military Strategy, the Defense Department proclaimed that Russia was the greatest threat to the US and its allies. Trump has also pressured the EU to build up its military as a deterrent to Russia.

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It seems that the Russians and Americans are engaged in a Cold War. As in the past, the Cold War at any time could turn into an armed conflict, as both adversaries engage in an arms race. So, the world has nothing to gain and everything to lose.

Western intelligence agents believe that Putin may have misjudged the more or less united response by Western nations. Perhaps he will see this as an opportunity to pull back.

Russia may come under increasing pressure from the US side to back off. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, as noted, recently identified Russia as threat #1 to the US. Trump recently fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was very adverse to military power. He was replaced by Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA, a strong adversary of Russia. Pompeo will be replaced by John Bolton, who is perhaps the most extreme "hawk" against Russia.

What the world does not need is a clash of wills to see who can force the other to withdraw, or compromise. It does not look good.

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