Why you should care
Because we could be on the precipice of another Cold War. Or not.
Forget winding down at the end of the year. The last days of 2016 were filled with enough geopolitical drama for a couple seasons of The Americans.
Last week, outgoing U.S. President Barack Obama announced a series of sanctions against Russia over its meddling in the presidential election, booting out dozens of Russian diplomats. President Vladimir Putin declined to retaliate. U.S. President-elect Donald J. Trump, who has pooh-poohed the intelligence community’s assessment of Russia’s involvement in the election, took to Twitter to praise the Russian strongman.
So: Is Putin playing Trump or the other way around, or neither? How serious are these sanctions anyway? And what kind of relationship should we expect between Russia and the United States under a Trump presidency? To get a handle on it, we turned to senior contributor John McLaughlin, former acting director of the CIA. A condensed and edited version of our interview follows.
What should we take away from all of this?
Well, commentators and experts will chatter about this for days, but the key point is that we are in uncharted territory. To be sure, we’ve had spats with the Russians for years and with the Soviets before that. But this is the first time we’ve been in a public brawl over cyber issues, with few precedents about how to behave.
How should we interpret Putin’s decision not to retaliate?
Russian president Putin’s decision not to retaliate at this time — at least not overtly — is typically clever. He is playing a shrewd game of chess with incoming President-elect Donald Trump. On the one hand, he’s done Trump a favor by limiting the mess he inherits. On the other hand, if Trump just continues to applaud Putin for this, he risks seeming indifferent to Moscow’s clear interference with our democratic process — and sowing dissension within the Republican Party, where many senior leaders share the alarm over Russia’s intrusion. Your move, Mr. Trump.
Putin’s move should not be taken as more than tactical at this point, particularly as we simply do not know what he may be doing covertly. Given that cyber is a new competitive arena, it’s worth recalling that it took years of complex arms control negotiations and hard “lessons learned” from confrontations like the Cuban missile crisis to work out some informal “rules of the road” with Russia on nuclear issues. We have nothing like that yet for cyber, so where this goes over the longer term and how it stops — or not — will have enormous consequences for the future relationship. And not just with Russia, but among all countries that have a serious cyber capability.
What effect will the sanctions have on Russia?
Putin hates the sanctions of course, and those already imposed have hurt the Russian economy — but I have to say that so far, they have had little impact on Russia’s actual behavior. I’m thinking mainly of Ukraine, where sanctions were intended to punish Moscow, but Russian forces remain active, and where the cease-fire called for in the Minsk agreement remains elusive.
In concrete terms, the expulsion of 35 Russian personnel from the U.S. and the closure of some of their recreational property here is likely to bite deeper.
For Putin personally, the impact is mixed. On the one hand, it has to sting because what he craves most is respect for himself and for Russia as a major power. Sanctions are the opposite of respect — they signal a kind of international shunning.
On the other hand, some Russians tell me that sanctions have the perverse effect of strengthening Putin’s domestic power in two ways. First, they allow him to blame Russia’s growing problems on an external bogeyman. Second, some Russians say businessmen realize that Putin is the only one with the power to shield them to a degree from the financial impact of sanctions, so they therefore become more dependent on him. Nothing is ever simple with Russia.
How is Trump likely to play this?
It depends a lot on what kind of relationship he and his advisers really want with Russia over the longer term. The realists among them will know that Russia calculates interests in a hard-headed way, and that personal compliments, however pleasing to Putin, will never displace a goal Moscow earnestly seeks. With Putin, it’s all transactional: You do this, then I’ll do that. To Trump, that may sound pleasingly like The Art of the Deal.
But the president-elect and his confidants should also engrave in their minds the wisdom of Ronald Reagan: “Trust … but verify.” You can make a deal with Russia but attend to the fine print, because artful wordsmithing and sometimes sly dissembling is also part of the culture.
What does the longer term look like?
Putin can afford to be magnanimous right now. As New York Times columnist David Brooks said, he “has the wind at his back.” His gambit in Syria, however deplorable in human rights terms, has paid off. He has protected his ally, President Assad, and has convened settlement talks that include Iran and Turkey but not the U.S. Meanwhile, he has not paid heavily for increased and blatant harassment of U.S. officials in Russia, including a physical attack by Russian guards on one entering the U.S. embassy — something unprecedented in my 30 years of following Moscow’s tactics.
Where this goes in coming months could also be affected by upcoming elections in Europe — Holland in just three months, then France, Germany and others through the spring and summer. If Russia mucks about in those and is discovered, it will color transatlantic reaction and make it hard for Trump to maintain any rapprochement he might establish with Moscow.