Most researchers at Western think tanks that are studying Russian “active measures” have to admit that along with the brutal (and often failed) actions of the Russian special services, such as attempts at sabotage and contract killings, Moscow has a high rate of success at some tactical operations. However, Kremlin’s main problem is that its policy goals are contrary to the interests of its own country.
Occasionally, Russia does successfully conduct influence operations, including through politicians loyal to Moscow, technologies that facilitate the rise of such politicians to power, or individual technical operations, such as the hacking of the SolarWinds system, which allegedly gave Moscow access to at least 40 US government structures. Russia’s strategic goals are also quite clear and have been repeatedly stated on different levels. They include a re-partitioning of the world with a clear definition of spheres of influence, as well as the recognition of Russia by Western countries as an equal partner in solving any international issues.
At the same time, the already small chances of achieving such ambitious goals are diminishing each day, since the economic potential of Russia is weakening, the investment climate, against the background of increasing repressions within the country and external sanctions, is becoming more unfavorable and all of this means that Russia is becoming an increasingly less attractive partner for other countries.
Realizing this, the Kremlin is increasingly adopting a “tough” approach, examples of which have been vividly demonstrated by the results of the recent investigations in the Czech Republic and Bulgaria and include assassination attempts on perceived enemies and bombing ammunition depots. In turn, such a policy only leads to Moscow’s greater isolation and makes relations with Russia so toxic for Western politicians that even loyal “friends of the Kremlin” like Czech President Milos Zeman cannot intercede on Russia’s behalf without risking serious consequences, up to accusations of treason.
However, another important weakness of the Kremlin’s tactics is in the complete dependence of Russian foreign and even domestic policy on the United States. It is not only about using the United States as a convenient “external enemy” for the patriotic mobilization of Russians, but also about psychological, irrational dependence. Practically everything the Kremlin does, it does with an eye on the United States: imitating them, doing something to spite “the damn Washington” or hoping to get something from the United States. Such a policy not only fails to consider Russia’s true national interests, but also gives the White House administration a convenient leverage to manipulate Putin, an art that Joe Biden seems to have mastered quite well.
We can distinguish three types of Vladimir Putin’s and his entourage’s behavior which stem from this dependence. First, we are talking about Russia’s copying of real or fictional actions of the United States. Any negative actions that, according to Putin, America perpetrates against other countries or its own people, are perceived by the Kremlin as an indulgence to commit exactly the same kind of actions inside and outside the country. In particular, this pattern was described by the author of the Washington Post, Jackson Diehl, in 2016 in an article titled “Putin’s hope to ignite a Eurasia-style protest in the United States.” According to the author, “Putin developed an obsession with “color revolutions,” which he is convinced… are orchestrated by the United States.
Diehl further stated, “That’s the context in which Russia’s intervention in the 2016 U.S. presidential election must be understood. Putin is trying to deliver to the American political elite what he believes is a dose of its own medicine.”
The belief that Americans interfered in Russian elections and attempted to organize a color revolution in Russia not only became, in the eyes of the Russian leader, a basis for “revenge”, but also a kind of “mandate” to pursue the same policy in other countries. However, without even touching on how different Russian and American soft powers are in their goals and methods, it is obvious that Russia simply does not have enough potential to be one of the world leaders.
The success of the United States among the rest of the world is based not only and not so much on the use of force as on offering an enticing development model and a clear set of principles, while Russia does not offer any model of a desired future or a successful present. As a result, Moscow’s attempts to imitate Washington are turning into a series of aggressive acts that, due to the ongoing degradation of the Russian special services, are becoming more visible.
Another “indulgence” in the eyes of the Kremlin was the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6. Picking up on Trump’s claims of a “massive election fraud,” Russian mainstream channels are falling over each other in their eagerness to demonstrate the example of “lawlessness and repression” the United States had shown to the world. Now, according to the propagandists, Washington has no moral right to condemn what is happening in Russia, which means that the Russian authorities can get away with any behavior – both in the elections and toward the opposition activists.
However, it is quite logical that, regardless of what is happening in the United States, the aggressive behavior of the authorities arouses hostility both from their own population and from other countries. The situation is aggravated by the fact that Putin, as a product of the special services, basically does not understand the objective processes associated with people’s moods and natural reactions to external events. Constantly looking back at the United States, he does not at all think about how those who directly suffer from his actions will react to them, and what consequences this will bring to Russia.
From hate to love
Another form of behavior of the Russian leadership which is psychologically tied to the United States is the constant state of struggle with the “main enemy.” This includes not only “mirror” revenge, but also the desire to do everything in spite of America. It is this desire, and not at all the national interests of the country, that often determine Moscow’s foreign policy steps. For example, a popular point of view in Russia holds that the United States is trying to drag Moscow into a confrontation with China, and, conversely, it is necessary to get as close as possible to its southeastern neighbor.
You cannot argue with a thesis that cooperation is better than being drawn into an unnecessary confrontation. However, under normal conditions, such cooperation should be conducted on a mutually beneficial basis in the interests of one’s own country, and not to spite someone. However, more and more Russian experts point out that the Kremlin is actually “handing over” the country to China, falling into a dangerous dependence on Beijing both in the economic sphere and in the field of technology. In addition, the Kremlin is increasingly interceding for China at the international level in exchange for symbolic support, and, trusting this support, continues to further aggravate relations with the West.
Meanwhile, renowned Russian publicist and political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky believes that China is deliberately pushing Moscow to escalate the situation with Ukraine in order to aggravate the conflict between Moscow and Washington. At the same time, according to the analyst, Beijing will be satisfied with all scenarios. If the US reaction to the new Russian aggression is too mild, it will demonstrate the weakness of the West and will mean the decline of the United States as a world power. A tough response from the West, on the contrary, will mean the inevitable end of the Putin regime, after which an atmosphere of chaos and anarchy will reign in Russia, which, according to the expert, China will not fail to take advantage of – right up to the annexation of the territories of Siberia and the Far East. However, the Kremlin seems to be ignoring these threats, while acting in its relations with the United States on the principle of “cut off my nose to spite my face.”
On the other hand, it is clear that Vladimir Putin is in need of a constant dialogue with the United States, since he is flattered by the vision of himself as an equal partner of the US. It is this vulnerability that Joe Biden is trying to exploit by, on the one hand, imposing tough sanctions and, on the other hand, stating his desire to communicate with the Russian leader and to de-escalate tensions with Moscow. At the same time, any attempts by the Kremlin to use such a conversation for blackmail or “raising the stakes” are firmly blocked by a demonstration of force from the US administration.
In a word, the attitude of Vladimir Putin toward the United States resembles the classic phenomenon of “love-hate”, when the main actions of the subject are performed in imitation, in opposition to or for the sake of the object of this specific “love”. However, it is primarily citizens of Russia and neighboring states that must suffer from such unhealthy behavior.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.