Ignatius: Russia is weak but still a challenge for next president

By David Ignatius

Whoever wins Tuesday’s presidential election will face an assertive, aggrieved Russia whose risk-taking behavior under President Vladimir Putin is increasingly worrisome to American experts.

Today’s pushy, headstrong Russia presents a paradox: By most measures, it’s a country in decline, with a sagging economy, an underdeveloped technology base and a shrinking population. Corruption pervades nearly every sector. The collapse of the Soviet Union is still an open wound, and many Russians blame the United States for taking advantage of them during their years of decline.

Yet this inwardly weak Russia displays the cockiness of a street fighter. It is waging war in Syria, Ukraine and in cyberspace with a seeming disdain for American power. According to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Russian hackers sought to “interfere with the U.S. election process,” on authority of the highest levels of the Russian government.

“Putin’s definition of risk-taking has evolved in the direction of greater boldness and less attention to how it will affect the U.S.,” argues Dimitri Simes, president of the Center for the National Interest. “Putin thinks that American positive inducements are next to nonexistent, and that the penalties are minimal, and will be imposed whatever he does.”

The next president must assess how to alter Russian behavior, without direct military confrontation. Is that best done by cutting deals with Putin, as Donald Trump suggests? Or should it be a firmer process of asserting U.S. power and interests, as Hillary Clinton has argued? This may be the biggest national-security issue in the election.

Future U.S. strategy should begin with a clear understanding of how Putin’s Kremlin looks at the world. And here, leading American analysts offer some disturbing warnings. Moscow sees itself as the wounded party, fighting back after decades of U.S. supremacy. Putin, the ex-KGB officer, is turning the tools of covert subversion and information operations developed during the Cold War back against the United States.

“The evidence does not seem to suggest that Putin favors one candidate over the other this November. Instead, it suggests that he favors chaos. He wants the American political process to look bad,” writes national security analyst James Ludes in a post titled “The Russians Read our Cold War Playbook.” Moscow’s new propaganda themes include U.S. government surveillance, political corruption that benefits elites and rigged elections, he argues.

Russia’s strategy has been characterized as “hybrid warfare,” but historian Angus E. Goldberg contends in Small Wars Journal that a better term is the Russian word “bespredel,” which means “absence of limits,” or “anything goes.” The word is often used to describe the behavior of the corrupt oligarchs who have prospered in Putin’s Russia.

Moscow’s new weapons range across the spectrum of hard and soft power, overt and covert. “What binds them together as a coherent system is the willingness of the Russian Federation to implement them without any constraints,” writes Goldberg.

Putin himself displays an unusual combination of personal traits. “He can be emotional, headstrong, even impulsive,” argues Stephen Sestanovich, a Russia expert at Columbia University. But Putin is also calculating. “The Russians have a saying: Measure seven times, cut once. He’s that kind of careful guy.”

Over the last few years, Putin’s risk tolerance has clearly grown. “In the history of the Cold War, they never did anything remotely like the intervention in Syria,” notes Sestanovich. Moscow calculates that “the risk of dangerous payback is less than it used to be.”

Putin’s behavior is also shaped by the increasing ascendancy of military and intelligence officials in his inner circle. Like Putin, they are Cold War veterans with a sense of grievance against America. A well-placed Russian recently described to Simes the worldview of these Kremlin insiders: “We are being surrounded. America wants to destroy us. The only thing they understand is force.”

So back to the question for Election Day: Which approach to dealing with this newly threatening Russia makes the most sense? Many analysts fear that Trump’s conciliatory words would be read in Moscow as a sign of American exhaustion, and feed new demands. Cybersecurity expert Dmitri Alperovitch argued in a recent podcast with War on the Rocks that if Moscow’s covert meddling isn’t deterred, it’s “going to be played over and over again across the globe.”

Clinton’s tougher stance sounds like a better way to protect U.S. interests, so long as she doesn’t make Putin feel humiliated or backed into a corner. This Russia is weaker than it looks, but it has been wounded by recent history and is all too ready to lash out.

David Ignatius’ email address is davidignatius@washpost.com.

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