Given the title, it seems appropriate to open analysis of the evolving international security landscape with a quote from former chess Grand Master Gary Kasparov. He sums up Putin’s entire grand geopolitical strategy in one eloquent quote: “At the end of the day, every dictator, after eliminating all the enemies inside his own country, will look for enemies outside… [Putin has made] confrontation with the free world the core of his domestic propaganda.”
Putin is arguably the most effective statesman on the world stage today, having deftly taken advantage of every opportunity to expand his sphere of influence, hobble and embarrass his opponents, and score points in the battle for hearts and minds.
The New York Times has helpfully compiled a list of 307 things, places, and people that President Donald Trump has insulted on Twitter, which includes a great range of victims from the Associated Press to Jeff Zeleny. What is as striking as the length and depth of this list is who and what are missing from it. Whilst China (as an entire country), President of the Phillipines Rodrigo Duterte, and the Iranian nuclear deal are all described as ‘terrible’, there is no mention of Putin, Russia Today, or indeed any substantive criticism of Moscow. This is despite the fact that the Kremlin has been implicated in electoral fraud both at home and across the West (including in the US, UK, and Bulgaria); illegally annexed territory from Ukraine, a UN member state; attempted to stage a coup in Montenegro, and is testing the air and sea defences of numerous Western states.
In fact, Trump praised Putin for not retaliating to America’s expulsion of Russian diplomats after systematic interference in the US Presidential election came to light. Trump even went as far as to say “when it comes to civil liberties, our country has a lot of problems, and I think it’s very hard for us to get involved in other countries when we don’t know what we are doing and we can’t see straight in our own country”. Whilst America is far from perfect – no nation is – it seems absurd to equivalence America’s issues with those of Russia.
To illustrate the sharp contrast between these two countries it is important to note some highlights of Russia’s colourful human rights record. The Russian military indulges in the widespread torture and abuse of military conscripts in a practice called ‘dedovshchina’, decried by Human Rights Watch as having ‘devastating and lasting consequences for the physical and psychological well-being of conscripts’. It is believed to have committed war crimes in Chechnya, Syria, and Ukraine, to name but three places where civilians have been murdered outside of the laws of war. It ranks 148/180 in the world for press freedom from Reporters Without Borders, gets an aggregate score of 20/100 for civil liberties from Freedom House, and ranks 131/176 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. By comparison the United States ranks 41/180 for press freedom, has an aggregate score of 90/100 for civil liberties and ranks 18/176 for corruption.
Despite this stark contrast, Trump has still surrendered America’s moral high ground to the Russian tyrant. When you also consider the resignation of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn over shadowy Russian links and the alleged blackmail dossier the Kremlin has on Trump it is clear that Russia is well aware of the Trump White House’s various pressure points and is grabbing them with the deft aplomb of a martial artist. With Estonia alleging that Russia has become more aggressive toward the Baltic States since Trump’s election, it is certainly clear Putin is in no way intimidated by the new bull in the White House china shop.
Of the 28 NATO countries only 5 are meeting their commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defence. The Czech Republic, Italy, Slovenia, Belgium, Spain, and Hungary spend less than half of what they committed, with defence spending under 1% of GDP. Not only this, but with the election of Trump, many countries are focusing their attention on criticising and protesting against him, whilst Putin’s own approval ratings continue to go from strength to strength. The overall picture is a Western world that is increasingly fractured, navel-gazing, ill prepared for conflict, and, to use the delightfully descriptive German word: schwerfällig, or ponderous.
Russia on the other hand has re-established itself in the Middle East after being kicked out by the US for decades, securing President Assad and maintaining its Mediterranean naval base in Tartus. Putin was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for Russia’s work on destroying Syria’s chemical weapons, despite CIA reports indicating Russia provided Syria with chemical weapons in the ‘80s. Russia has successfully annexed the Crimea with little if any international response, and has been pounding the world with carefully crafted propaganda to shroud its actions in uncertainty.
The direction of travel is very worrying indeed, but any Western leaders looking to halt or reverse Putin’s onward march should look back to Kasparov. His advice is to strengthen civil institutions ‘steadily and legally’, to press ahead with sanctions because ‘he [Putin] doesn’t care about Canada or any other country trying to play softball with him’, continue probes against the illegal activities of Russia’s commercial fronts like Gazprom, and to diversify our energy sources to prevent Putin wielding the power of the tap against us.