Putin, the Great Disaggregator

Not since his acidic invective at the Munich security conference last February have the words of President Vladimir Putin been so widely discussed among media, policymakers, and observers. The staggering onlookers still can’t believe their own ears: the Russian head of state has just issued a direct threat to aim nuclear warheads at European cities. Perhaps Putin had thought his bellicose bravado would be met with applause from other disgruntled nations like it was in Munich, but this time, the opposite result occurred. While seeking to aggravate tensions, he instead succeeded in sacrificing his rented goodwill (courtesy of Gazprom), and overextending his rhetoric to expose himself as an irrational, aggressive, and hubristic leader. Following that interview, it becomes harder and harder for Putin and his supporters to credibly argue that he is a victim of some sort of malicious anti-Russia bias. It would seem that the real goal of his harsh words was not to produce a different policy outcome, but rather contribute to the disaggregation of Europe – this time over the common EU policy toward the United States. In an interview today with Radio Free Europe, Garry Kasparov went so far as to say that the moment in which Europe and the United States stopped harping on about democracy and human rights, Russia would drop this whole missile problem (so perhaps in fact those warheads aren’t pointed at European cities, but rather targeted at Russia’s endangered civil society activists and dissidents). The technique is not without historical precedent. It bears a remarkable similarity to the co-optation of the European peace movement against nuclear deployment on the continent during the Brezhnev era, which sought to exploit the very benefits of Europe’s democratic values and influential weight of public opinion, instrumentalizing proxies to promote Soviet interests. Back then it was a strategy which proved to be tremendously successful at inflicting significant damage to the West at a minimum expense to the Russians. Today it is so far proving to be no different. While I believe that the latest Putin threat was a serious strategic misstep, likely to galvanize, rather than shatter Western unity, one has to admire the breathtaking effectiveness of the Great Disaggregator. Putin’s uncanny ability to create, encourage, and nurture divisions between formerly allied countries has been tremendously successful in the overall projection of Russia’s influence, restoring the country’s role as a great if not central power. The fact that he is doing this with an incredibly weak hand (the military is in shambles, and most of the energy threat actually lays untapped beneath the ground) is a testament to his skills as one of the most manipulative political leaders of his generation. And while the disaggregation strategy was at first a means to an end, used primarily in energy relations to help Russia re-assert its control over what it perceives to be its “spheres of influence,” the division of Moscow’s perceived opponents is almost beginning to resemble a goal in itself – and we should all fear what this means for the hard-fought sovereignty of Eastern European and Central Asian states. The events this week serve as a reminder that we are witnessing an important historical moment in Russian affairs – and it is high time that we began to imagine some coherent and plausible scenarios to go from where we are right now to where we want to be.