Putin Might Be Playing Us For Suckers

While the DNC email hacks have everyone’s attention, Russia is making some very bold moves. This may not be a coincidence.

Disclaimer: I am not a foreign policy expert, and I do not pretend to be a foreign policy expert. I’m just a writer with an academic background in European History and some peripheral knowledge of world events.

This past month has been a pretty exciting one for those of us keeping an eye on the news. As the US Presidential Elections reach their final stage, a key topic of conversation has been the content of a number of e-mails released by Wikileaks, found within the network of the Democratic National Committee by a group of infiltrators. Many, including a large number of private cyber-security firms and the US Government, say that the culprits work for Russian Intelligence, who are attempting to destabilise the election proceedings. Others dispute this claim, accusing Hillary Clinton’s campaign and others “implicated” in the e-mails to be resorting to a retread of the “Red Scare” which so shamefully persecuted left-wing intellectuals and government employees at the height of the Cold War to deflect attention and to justify the current administration’s stern opposition to Russian moves in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

I have the suspicion that both sides are at least partially wrong.

The United States and her actions do not exist in a vacuum. This is something that American commentators often forget about. Possessed of a certain Imperial Privilege, Americans often forget that the world exists outside of their borders and informal empire, and that not every move by every geopolitical actor must revolve around them. The dissenters are wrong in thinking that Russia is not behind the DNC hacks, but the majority are wrong as well: the destablisation of the US elections was not the Kremlin’s end-goal, merely a means to an end.

In short, the DNC hack was a distraction.

This past month has also been an interesting time for those of us with an eye on international relations, especially international relations with regards to Russia:

On October 3rd, Russia announced it would be no longer complying with its nuclear disarmament agreements with the US.

On October 7th, Russian aircraft violated Finnish airspace in an attempt to intimidate Helsinki, which is currently considering a defensive pact with the United States.

On October 8th, the Russian military reinforced its garrison in Kaliningrad with Iskandar-M ballistic missiles, putting most of Eastern Europe under the shadow of nuclear-capable platforms which are believed to be able to effectively penetrate NATO missile defences currently deployed in Eastern Europe.

On October 20th, Elements of the Russian Northern Fleet, including its flagship, the carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, and the missile-battlecruiser Pyotr Velikiy, set sail, bound for the eastern mediterranean with the intended purpose of joining the Russian and Assad-backed forces currently bombing the contested Syrian city of Aleppo into rubble.

Ian Fleming once wrote that “once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times it’s enemy action.”

What does that make four?

These actions can’t be interpreted as anything other than aggressive. Any one of these actions would have been a bold attempt to project Russian power against US allies or volatile hotspots. Any one of these moves would have qualified as an international incident in its own right, the sort which tends to raise strong protests from Western governments, and action (or at least, the threat of action) from Washington.

But from Washington, we have heard almost nothing.

Washington, and the American public, are too busy arguing over the validity of months-concluded primaries, and watching journalists fend off harassment and spurious claims of corruption.

In my opinion, there is almost no doubt that Putin’s government is behind the DNC hacks, not because of anything the CIA or the FBI say, but because of the facts on the table.

Fact: As already established, the Russian government is throwing their weight around boldly, and in multiple places.

Fact: Some of these moves would have taken weeks, if not months to prepare, especially given the decrepit state of the Russian Navy. That means it’s unlikely that Putin made these moves opportunistically.

Fact: These moves have all been directed at places which the US would normally have its attention fixed upon: Poland and the Baltic States, Finland, and Syria.

Fact: Wikileaks claims it publishes whatever it receives, as soon as it can, which means that even if it is not working for Russian Intelligence, Putin would still have direct control over the timing of the leaks.

My conclusion, given these facts, is that Moscow was not only behind the DNC hacks, but that their purpose was solely to distract the American government and public with the spectre of Russian interference so that the Kremlin could have a hand to move freely in places where it would normally be stymied by American counter-strokes. Each of these moves was prepared in advance, to be executed all at once when the American public would be at its most preoccupied. Once the controversy died down, the Russians could present the US and her NATO allies with a fait accompli: Finland intimidated, nuclear platforms in East Prussia, a Russian carrier group off the coast of Syria.

This conclusion is further supported by the force of historical precedent, especially when it comes to motives. Putin’s Russia does not have ambitions to take over the world, as some paranoiacs might claim. Perhaps it does not even wish to supplant the United States as the world’s reigning hegemon. What it definitely wants to do is restore the imperial sphere of influence which it has worked to maintain and defend since the days of Catherine II. All one has to do to see what Russia, the Soviet Union, and now Russia again is willing to do to maintain this sphere of influence is look at the history of Russian policy regarding its neighbours. From the partition of Poland in the late 18th century to its more recent military adventures in Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria, the acquiescence or submission of its neighbours is one of the cornerstones of Russian foreign policy. The fact that most of those same neighbours are now US allies is likely as much a source of insecurity for them as a Russian-allied Canada or Mexico would be for the United States.

In method too, does history support this conclusion. Russian policymakers and military leaders place high emphasis on Maskirovka, or deception — as well they should, for it has served them very well throughout their history. Geopolitical Maskirovka served them well in the partitions of Poland in both 1792 and 1939. Operational Maskirovka won the Red Army some of the most stunning victories of the Second World War. In a more recent example, Putin has employed Maskirovka again to conceal the presence of Russian troops in Ukraine. To make a great deal of noise in one place so that one could move boldly and unnoticed in another is the basic form of Maskirovka. That may, in fact, be what Putin is doing right now.

Vladimir Putin does not want war with NATO, and NATO does not want war with Russia, probably for the same reason: because war is a horrifying atrocity against civilisation which drives human beings to murder each other in large numbers, in barbaric ways, for often-inconclusive results. However, Putin does want Russia to be secure, which in his interpretation and the interpretation of those segments of the Russian people who support him, means the restoration of Russia’s “security blanket”: the same layer of geographical “armour” which blunted the armies of Charles XII, Napoleon, and Hitler. This is a perfectly understandable motive which is regrettably against the interests of the United States and her allies in Eastern Europe, who generally seem to remember the days of Russian and Soviet rule with sentiments ranging from bitter loathing to apocalyptic hatred (Poland, which has recently activated a territorial defence force, in the face of a perceived threat of Russian invasion), and who entered into NATO in the first place out of fear of Russian aggression.

Thus, it would follow that Putin would be willing to take measures, even ones which we might consider extraordinary, to restore what he would consider the existential security of his country and his people, but that he would not be willing to start a shooting war to do it. What he would require was an event which would draw the eyes of the West elsewhere while he made his moves, to the widespread consternation of nobody but his would-be targets. Once his actions were taken, NATO (which does not want a shooting war with Russia either) would have no choice but to accept them, unless they were willing to escalate the situation precipitously towards war.

This is exactly what he has provided himself with the DNC email hacks.

The theft and release of those messages was never about the US election. It was never about undermining US democracy or US security, but very much a method of reinforcing Russia’s perceived security. When the elections end, the winning candidate becomes President of the United States; but Putin will still have nuclear-capable missiles in East Prussia, a fleet off the Syrian Coast, a quietly growing nuclear stockpile, and neighbours who have been deftly reminded that Russia is fully capable of violating their airspace at will. If Trump wins, then he is likely to let these actions slide. If Clinton wins (as is far more likely), there is nothing she can do about them.

Vladimir Putin has committed what might be considered the perfect crime: he has gotten away with it not because nobody suspects him, but because he has ensured that nobody with the power to stop him has the time to care.