With the world’s attention fixed on the astonishing victory of Donald Trump in the American presidential election, grossly insufficient attention is being paid to another and potentially very dangerous development.
Trump may end up being a disaster of continental proportions or he may be just what the doctor ordered for a country that has been drowning in debt and political correctness, as brilliantly set forth in these pages by David Goldman. But halfway around the world a crafty master of negotiation, propaganda, subversion, and military display is making huge strides towards the achievement of his immediate and long-term goals.
Vladimir Putin is playing a difficult hand masterfully. The Russian economy is weak and getting worse as the market for its principal mainstays, oil and gas, is increasingly unstable. This explains why the preceding list of the elements of statecraft used by Putin does not include economic strategies. Despite this and a serious demographic meltdown, Russia is expanding its power and influence in every direction.
It is obvious why a great connoisseur of negotiating skills such as Trump finds Putin a fellow spirit. The Russian armed forces are engaged in a massive display of military might, up to and including engaging in ongoing hostilities in Syria, where naval and air bases have been acquired and ships and aircraft deployed, now including its single aircraft carrier. In a very short time Russia has become a recognized player in the eastern Mediterranean and the Near East.
Turkey has been humbled and has sued for peace. Chalk up another Putin victory. Moldova and Bulgaria are now governed by pro-Russian regimes and no-one will be surprised if Moldova now merges with the Russian enclave Transnistria and then applies for reincorporation into the Russian empire. Whether that happens or not Ukraine is now threatened on both its western and eastern flanks.
The dismemberment of Georgia and Ukraine have become accepted facts subject only to occasional toothless denunciations from the West. That stalwart of post-Soviet progress on both the political and economic fronts, Estonia, is now suddenly politically unstable. Former Soviet satellites Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic are now governed by anti-Western regimes as well.
While all that is going on, Russian ships and planes incessantly violate the waters and airspace of neighboring (as well as some non-neighboring) countries. Again, reaction has been feeble.
Despite its economic weakness, Russia has been able to devote sufficient resources to its armed forces so that they can deploy state-of-the-art equipment (at a time when Western defense establishments are starved of resources) and of course a massive nuclear arsenal inherited from the Soviet Union.
There is nothing backward about Russian science and technology, as demonstrated by constant hacking of an assortment of Western targets, both governmental and non-governmental. Blatant interference in the recent US election has elicited not much more than a tepid response and of course Edward Snowden is still plying his trade in Moscow.
The significance of all this activity resides in the confluence of economic weakness and demographic decline coupled with brilliant statecraft and military might. Having to depend on the pride of the Russian people in their enhanced international standing for his popularity may well lead Putin to engage in ever-increasing levels of challenge to the West. Any number of circumstances could set off a military confrontation, escalating to open warfare and even the use of nuclear weapons.
A friend in the White House is not necessarily a bad thing under these circumstances. Putin may feel that escalating conflicts might jeopardize his relations with Trump. We must hope so, because the alternative—a Russia hurtling towards armed confrontation with the West, is a prospect that should thoroughly frighten us all.