The waning weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency must feel like victory laps in the Kremlin. As Trump keeps trying to subvert the results of November’s election, with wild calls to impose martial law now coming up in paranoid White House meetings, he is also downplaying a huge cyberattack on America’s most critical computer networks, widely attributed to Russia. Moscow’s greatest nemesis and former arch-rival is laying coat after coat of fresh muck on the once-shiny patina of its international reputation and prestige.
They were built on notions that once seemed almost unshakable: universal-seeming values of democracy and the rule of law. Beyond such things, there was also an American example that other countries were urged to aspire to but few could quite match—of solid institutions, unswayed by the political winds of each season.
But recent days have shown that, despite presumably celebrating the ongoing American spectacle, Putin has also been busy preparing for what’s next. The recent revelations about the deep and widespread Russian breach of American computer networks should be understood as a mere preview.
The message of this latest Russian cyberattack seems to be less about the harvesting of U.S. intelligence—even though that appears likely to be considerable—as it is about sending a message to the world. The United States will not be returning to anything like “normal,” one can almost hear Putin saying, if by normal one means returning to its stable and relatively invulnerable past.
From his early days in power, a thread has run through Putin’s record—not always as blatantly on the surface as it is today, but nonetheless clear. As a former KGB agent who rose through the ranks in the late stages of the Cold War, his desires have never been limited to merely restoring some of the erstwhile strength enjoyed by the Soviet Union. Revanchism and revenge aimed at the country he blames for causing Russia’s loss of empire also count high in Putin’s scheme of things.
Putin cannot remotely match American power, no matter how one measures such things, so he would like to avoid the riskiest forms of confrontation. Breaking into the networks of the U.S. government is an almost perfect example of what that leaves him with. As long as the pretense can be maintained that this was an intelligence operation and not an act of sabotage, or even economic theft, Washington’s options for reprisal will be very limited. For public consumption, in other words, however breathtaking, chalk this down to the games states play and have always played. In the meantime, given the reported scope of the hack—affecting numerous U.S. government agencies, including the Pentagon and the Treasury Department, and many major American businesses—it is likely that Russia has acquired the capability to do real, direct harm to its adversary if things begin to escalate between the two rivals.
The first order aim, though, consists of sending a message to the rest of the world about how dysfunctional and impotent the United States has become. As a first act, four years of Trump as president were a rousing success in this show. With its virtual bang, the invasion of America’s computers opens the second act.
The United States will not be returning to anything like “normal,” one can almost hear Putin saying, if by normal one means its stable and relatively invulnerable past.
What, then, can we expect of Putin during the Joe Biden years? Anything that can bring the United States down a few pegs further, starting with feeding disinformation and thereby distrust among Americans over the legitimacy of the recent election, including on American social media and broadcast networks like Fox News and its even more conservative brethren. This Russian disinformation campaign is also aimed at increasing enmity between racial groups in the United States. Few Americans may recall this, but Putin’s thirst for revenge on this score is probably based on Washington’s constant harping about ethnic division in the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s, especially involving Muslim and Central Asian minorities, and perhaps on Western intelligence efforts to sow dissent along these lines.
Look for Putin to probe the soft underbelly of America’s foreign policy commitments with the same aims in mind: to show up the United States as the dispensable nation, in a twist on the famous Madeleine Albright phrase. Russia has already recently done this in Syria, where Trump opened up a vacuum that Putin gladly filled. Look for much the same with the rapid withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan. Although Russia is unlikely to send troops to fill that void, given its own defeat in Afghanistan decades ago, Moscow is still left with the option of undermining the weak client and ally that Washington has sought to stand up in Kabul.
But over the next four years, Africa may be the continent where Russia makes the biggest push to show up the United States and its allies. Moscow had already begun paying more attention to Africa during the Trump years, and that seems only to be accelerating, with recent news of plans to build a naval base in Sudan, its ongoing diplomatic initiative in Libya at the expense of the European Union, and a growing, meddlesome role in the Central African Republic. With Washington incapable for so long of articulating a more ambitious plan to engage the world’s fastest-growing continent, in population terms, this kind of opportunism will accelerate.
The trickiest area for Russia, though, is its own eastern back door. For seven years running, a tactical near-alliance with China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has been Putin’s most powerful card. There is nothing that lies within Russia’s own capabilities that can rival the power of alignment with China in limiting the power of the United States. Both Moscow and Beijing share a profound desire to reduce the aura of prestige and universality that surrounds electoral democracy, and to revive the appeal of authoritarianism by promoting a sense of unity, decisiveness and competence.
But given the vast disparities in size between their economies and populations, Russia is increasingly at risk of becoming a client that is dependent on China as a market, but for just two types of goods: energy and weapons. On top of this, Russia’s Far East has recently become host to substantial populations of economic migrants from China, who farm that region’s vast, lightly settled lands, and increasingly operate all sorts of other businesses, as well.
Putin knows this, and he knows, moreover, that as global warming proceeds, it will only make him and his own country vulnerable to another kind of revanchism altogether: long-muted Chinese claims of having been cheated out of lands that it believes history grants it a right to. With climate change taking China’s limited farmland out of production, and disparities growing between these two temporarily friendly neighbors, trouble will return to their relationship sooner or later.
The days after an unprecedented infiltration of America’s computer systems may seem like an unpromising time to raise an option like this, but Washington’s best play for the medium to longer term may be appealing to Russia’s vulnerability and trying to gradually loosen its bear hug with China through revived economic relations with the United States and perhaps even political guarantees. This may not come about under Putin, but it may be time to start laying the groundwork.
Howard W. French is a career foreign correspondent and global affairs writer, and the author of four books, including most recently “Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power.” You can follow him on Twitter @hofrench. His WPR column appears every other Wednesday.