BoomerCafé’s co-founder and executive editor Greg Dobbs devoted his career as a journalist to covering world events in nearly every corner of the globe. One place where he has particular expertise is Russia, a once Communist country that continues to baffle U.S. government leaders.
What in the world does Russia want?
Well, the answer is right there before your eyes. In fact it’s in the question itself: the world. Russia wants the world, or at least facets of the world it used to dominate before its predecessor, the Soviet Union, collapsed in ashes. But the bigger question that’s not so clear is, what can we do about it?
When I covered news from time to time in the Soviet Union, then returned several times after Russia was all that survived, people were clear about their goals: Russia wants power, influence, allies, respect. Russia wants a place at the table. Russia wants equal footing with its superpower rival, the United States of America. Attempt to assassinate a traitorous countryman, then lose a bunch of people from its diplomatic bases in the U.S.? It fits right in: Russia cannot be ignored.
That’s why you won’t see Vladimir Putin or anyone else there wearing a ball cap with the embroidered inscription, “Make America Great Again.” But “Make Russia Great Again?” That’s what they’re all about. Which is why, there are limits to what we can do about Russia. Punish it for its behavior? Sure. But change that behavior? Not so much.
On my last few visits, I made documentaries. One was about politics and Putin himself, namely, how he got away with slowly slashing the democratic liberties for which people there used to tell us back in the Soviet days they yearned, then briefly enjoyed after the Soviet demise… yet today, aren’t agitating to reclaim.
His technique was telling. He flourished the flag of nationalism. In and of itself, nationalism isn’t a bad thing: it means pride in your nation’s history, pride in its culture, pride in its achievements, pride in its power. As Americans we have a lot to be proud about. But so do the Russians. From their tenacity in World War Two to their talents in literature and art to their triumphs in the space race — they put a man in orbit before we put a man in space at all.
But more than anything, they are proud of the power they wielded in the world before the Soviet Empire disappeared. Back in the day, when the Soviet Union spoke, the world listened. And sometimes shuddered. What Putin has told his people for years now is, we were a superpower once, we will be a superpower again.
Can we change that? No. Neither isolation nor sanctions nor ousting diplomats will alter that uncompromising ambition.
In fact, the Russian people want superpower status so badly, they are willing to accept the semi-Soviet style state Putin has restored. There has been just one reliable polling agency in Russia — it’s called Levada (Putin had it designated as a “foreign agent,” so it couldn’t even do polling on this month’s election) — and the year before last, Levada asked Russians whether they would be willing to abandon Ukraine in exchange for an easing of sanctions against their country, which have enfeebled their economy. Three-quarters of respondents said no. These people are tough; they have endured worse. The year before that, they were asked to assess the murderous dictator Joseph Stalin. 40% responded that things under Stalin were “more good than bad.”
Which is just what Putin wants. Painting him as an iron-fisted dictator is not going to blunt the affection of his base.
This helps explain why Russia has become a covert combatant in cyberwarfare, a.k.a. hacking. Early this month the Trump administration accused Russia of targeting our utilities, not shutting them down but showing that they could. “From what we can see,” said a Symantec security expert, “they were there.” This is the arms race of the future, and Putin wants to be on the leading edge: disrupt, maybe destroy, an enemy’s energy grids, its transportation systems, its financial data and satellite traffic and information webs and communication networks and healthcare records, even its military complex. They could do it to us; we could do it to them. The threat is that one side strikes and the other sees no alternative but to raise the stakes. If that’s the new normal, it won’t melt buildings but it could melt the society on which they stand.
Melting ours, is just what Mr. Putin wants. The best we could do is retaliate. Which is lose-lose.
It helps explain why Russia has disrupted the election processes of sovereign nations, and not just ours. Sometimes with overt Russian support, nationalist parties in Europe, whose populist policies parrot Putin’s, have proliferated in longtime American allies from Italy to Germany, from Austria to Greece, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic. Some are now governing their countries. This is Russia’s insidious way of reviving the Cold War contests for allies and alliances. It puts NATO in peril, which we see as defensive security but which Putin sees as an offensive threat. It weakens Europe, and what weakens Europe weakens us. It also weakens democracy as we define it.
But that’s just what Putin wants. A Putin advisor in Moscow once gave me his definition of democracy: “Just a system designed to undermine the leadership of a nation.” Another Kremlin politician told me, “When the Soviet Union fell apart, what did we get? Unemployment, corruption, inflation, crime. And the name for that was ‘democracy’.” We’re not going to change the minds of Russians by preaching democracy.
It helps explain why Russia has spent so much in Syria, risking global condemnation for war crimes, brutally bolstering a Syrian despot who drops blazing bombs on his people. Putin made a promise to President Assad that he would pull out all the stops to support his regime, and he kept his word. American intelligence sources say he has earned the respect of other Arab leaders for whom clenched fists are more important than human rights. For half a century, the United States has been the go-to nation all over the Middle East. Today, the Palestinians are proposing Palestinian-Israeli peace talks in Moscow. Russia is a player again. And at our expense.
Which is just what Putin wants. And with American influence in the region waning, it’s too late to turn that ship.
Finally, it explains the new arms race. In an early March speech to his Parliament, President Putin bragged about a new intercontinental missile and a nuclear torpedo that he called “invincible,” able to outsmart every counter-defense the United States could throw into the sky. This reinforced the revelation by U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis that our primary focus today is “great power competition,” not terrorism. Forget for a moment that U.S. analysts believe Russia is years away from weapons like those that Putin described. He spoke like a superpower, and the world paid attention.
Which is just what the Russian people want. And short of a nuclear war, what the American people can’t do a whole lot about.
At a forum a few weeks ago in the city of Kaliningrad, President Putin was asked what he most would like to change in all of world history. His answer? “The collapse of the Soviet Union.” That’s why he presents himself to his population as their bold bulwark between superpower status and subservience, which people in Russia told me they call “Putinism.” It shows the world a Russia that must be feared. It reinstates a Russia that cannot be ignored.
That’s what Russia wants. And it’s working. No matter how we respond, Russia’s getting what it wants. Which means our actions are likely to be moot. And its behavior is not likely to change.