Vladimir Putin has a grand strategy for Russia, and he has not exactly been secretive about its goals.
“First and foremost, it is worth acknowledging that the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” Putin said in a 2005 national address. Through bodies like the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Eurasian Customs Union, he has sought to build Russian-dominated institutions to rival NATO and the European Union as part of his plan to return Russia to its 20th-century glory.
Putin’s efforts have met with some success. Russia is a far bigger player on the international stage than it was 20 years ago, and some former Soviet republics have maintained or returned to close ties with Moscow, including Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan. But others, like Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and Azerbaijan have, in varying ways and to varying degrees, rejected Russian involvement in their affairs and sought closer ties with the West.
The single biggest obstacle to Putin’s goal of a Eurasia united economically and militarily behind Moscow has been the persistent global consensus that democracy is the best form of government. This consensus, most firmly established in 1991 when the Cold War ended on American terms, has taken root across the globe, even in countries profoundly hostile to democracy. Most modern autocrats do not claim dynastic legitimacy or divine authority or historical materialism as the basis for their sovereignty; they rely on bogus elections to legitimize their rule, which is itself a testament to the broad acceptance of democracy as the only legitimate form of government.
This global Democratic Consensus has hindered Putin’s global aspirations in two ways. The first and more obvious is that sometimes the citizens of former Soviet republics choose to elect governments that promise to align with the West, rather than Moscow. In response, Russia has sought to undermine such governments through promoting corruption and organized crime, mounting cyberattacks on telecommunications and power infrastructure, inciting local ethnic Russians to rebellion, and even intervening militarily with the Russian Army.
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The other challenge that the Democratic Consensus poses to Putin’s strategy is more abstract. In democratic contests between pro-Moscow and pro-West candidates, the pro-West candidates have a rhetorical advantage: EU members are democracies, and Russia and most of its allies aren’t. It stands to reason that people voting in democratic or semi-democratic elections are inclined to choose the path that is more likely to preserve democracy in their own country, at least as long as democracy is associated with the relative peace, prosperity, and freedom currently enjoyed by EU members.
So at some point, Putin set out to break that association. In 2008, he sent the Russian Army into Georgia to punish its citizens for electing a pro-Western president and attempting to join NATO, and to demonstrate to the Georgian people that they should associate democracy and the West with fecklessness and betrayal, not freedom or prosperity. After all, Germany and France had only months earlier blocked Georgia from receiving a NATO Membership Action Plan, and then the alliance stood by while Russian troops dismembered the country.
In 2013, Ukrainian protestors took to the streets after pro-Russian President Yanukovych refused to sign a popular EU Association Agreement. Putin, again eager to demonstrate the costs of democracy, worked behind the scenes to escalate the conflict until he had a pretense to invade and annex strategic parts of the country. This naked aggression frightened not only Putin’s adversaries, like the pro-West regimes in the Baltic States, but even his allies, like Belarus and Kazakhstan, whose leaders have benefitted from Russian largesse, but who fear falling under Moscow’s domination themselves.
Today, Putin’s ambitions for dismantling the Democratic Consensus extend far beyond the former Soviet states. For the past three years, the linchpin of his strategy has been Russia’s Syrian policy. Promoting chaos and suffering in Iraq and Syria through military intervention and other means serves the triple purpose of a) maintaining Russia’s access to Syrian ports, b) undermining the Democratic Consensus in the Arab world by demonstrating the incompetence of democratic rule in Iraq and the threat of Sunni populism in Syria, and c) weakening the Eastern Hemisphere’s greatest example of and advocate for democracy: the European Union. A steady flow of refugees into the heartland of Europe has ensured a rise in radical politics, a surge in Euro-skeptism, and now the departure from the EU of Russia’s greatest critic, Britain.
Brexit stands as Moscow’s greatest geostrategic accomplishment since the end of the Cold War. Unthinkable only a few years ago, Britain’s abandonment of the European project was a direct result of 18 months of Muslim refugees streaming into the EU. Without a winter of terrorist attacks and refugee flows (unrelated in reality, but closely linked in many voters’ minds), Leave simply could not have won.
Having excised his most vociferous critic from their biggest political and economic rival, Putin now hopes to decapitate its chief military adversary, NATO. Russia scored an easy and costless victory last week when NATO’s largest military attempted a coup d’état, and has now itself been temporarily sidelined while it is being purged. Turkey is now undergoing its biggest retreat from democracy in decades. This unexpected catastrophe is a windfall for Moscow, but Putin’s eyes remain on the real prize, the United States.
Here, we have a major-party candidate who speaks about Putin in glowing terms, and now has begun to question our commitment to NATO integrity, even as American foreign policy leaders call for greater support to the Baltic states most vulnerable to Russian incursion. Donald Trump, like Putin, advocates for strength and sovereignty, rather than democracy and human rights, as the guiding principles of statecraft, and has promised to transform our international presence into a protection racket. Putin has covertly aided right-wing parties and politicians in Western Europe for years, knowing that such movements undermine the social cohesion and political solvency of rival states, but the White House would be a prize beyond his wildest dreams.
A Trump presidency would strengthen Russia’s implicit argument that democracies are too vulnerable to the mob’s baser instincts. It would lend credence to his belief that democracies are too internally divided to commit to long term strategic goals. Most of all, it would leave the NATO alliance leaderless in the face of further Russian expansionism. The Kremlin so strongly favors a Trump presidency that it is actively attempting to sabotage the Clinton campaign, employing the same information-warfare tactics against an American presidential candidate that the Russians have used against Eurasian political adversaries for years. If they are successful, Russian hackers and propagandists will have achieved one of the Kremlin’s greatest strategic victories in a hundred years without ever firing a shot.