What will Russia's Vladimir Putin do next?

By Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist  |  March 20, 2017 at 6:00 AM
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What might Russian President Vladimir Putin's next steps be toward Europe, the West and the United States for advancing Russian interests globally?

Obviously, the policies of the Trump administration are, at best, unclear if not contradictory. Hence, Putin needs to understand who in the White House and administration is key in making policy.

An iron law of Washington politics is that influence on the president is inversely proportional to the physical distance from the Oval Office. While Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis is by far the most experienced and knowledgeable senior appointee in national security and defense, the Pentagon is metaphorically a million political miles from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has so far been relatively invisible in setting a mark on U.S. foreign policy.

No doubt the FSB has compiled dossiers on the two Stephens -- Bannon and Miller -- who appear to hold sway over much of President Donald Trump's thinking. That should make for interesting reading. Last weekend, the Washington Post ran a lengthy piece on Bannon's personal history, uncovering a man who combined secrecy and a vagabond existence with no clear permanent place of residence. And the new national security adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster has not been in place long enough to detect what his future policy recommendations may or may not be.

Putin has been described as someone who reads and learns from history. If that is correct, the Russian president only needs to go back four or five decades for appropriate lessons. The most relevant is President Richard Nixon's triangular politics balancing the Soviet Union with an outreach to China. The second is Ronald Reagan's firm stand on intermediate nuclear forces that ultimately led to the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty between Moscow and Washington.

For much of the Cold War and certainly during the Eisenhower/Kennedy/Johnson administrations, the main enemy was the threat of "monolithic communism" embodied in the unshakable "alliance" between Moscow and Beijing. Of course, this monolithic threat was nonsense. Nixon understood or at least believed that major fissures existed. Hence, the overture to China not only eased withdrawal from the Vietnam War. Détente with the Soviet Union followed along with the ABM Treaty and Strategic Arms Limitations agreements.

In the face of powerful anti-nuclear forces demanding disarmament in the West, Reagan persisted in deploying both cruise and Pershing missiles to Europe to counter Moscow's SS-20s. Perseverance paid off. The INF treaty led to the withdrawal of these systems. Ironically, the aims of the nuclear disarmament factions were partly achieved because of Reagan's steadfastness.

For Putin, as Nixon exploited the USSR-PRC cleavages, Moscow can do the same regarding the United States and forces in Europe eroding alliance cohesion and the chaos in the Middle East and Persian Gulf. Listening to Reagan, Putin would not back down once he sets his policy course. If Putin heeds these American presidents and act accordingly, he will present a most formidable challenge for Washington.

As Putin gazes across the geostrategic landscape, what does he conclude? First, the seemingly monolithic cohesion of NATO and the EU is in tatters. Brexit, populism, the electoral popularity of both Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders, elections in Holland (last Wednesday) and France and Germany later in the year, and the growing rift between Turkey, Holland and Denmark and possible confrontation with the United States in Syria over the Kurds are indicators that "something is rotten" in these alliances. This "rottenness" can be exploited as Nixon did in the early 1970s with China and Russia.

Second, conditions in the Middle East and Persian Gulf are even riper for Russian engagement than before. As the battle for Raqqa appears to grow closer, U.S. support and reliance on Kurdish Peshmerga and YPG forces enflame vehement Turkish hostility toward the PKK (Kurdish People's Party) and the Kurds. Further, the concern if not alarm of the Arab Gulf states over the P-5 Plus One nuclear agreement with Iran and growing costs of the Yemen intervention provide Moscow an opportunity to play honest broker.

Russian arms deals with Iran, Egypt, possibly Libya and the UAE, along with sales to Egypt, give the Arab states an alternative to the U.S. market. Worse for the United States, greater Russian access to these markets can lead to better understanding of the capability and technology of weapons the United States has sold. Along with arms sales, achieving greater influence is possible.

How then might Putin's fertile mind (or of those around him) be working? The major if not overriding aims are to enhance Russian security geostrategically, politically and economically. That means reducing or dissolving the coherence of NATO and the EU. In the Middle East, it means focusing on eliminating the danger of the Islamic State and other terrorist groups that could or do reach into Russia while reducing the influence of the United States.

A weakened Europe almost certainly could be manipulated to give relief from sanctions imposed over annexation of Crimea. Election of populists such as Marine Le Pen could lead to "Frexit" and very likely the beginning of the end of the EU. Whether Le Pen would attempt a Charles de Gaulle and withdraw from NATO militarily or entirely is surely not impossible. And defeat of Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel by a coalition government more favorably disposed to Russia is likewise not beyond belief.

So, what to expect? If Putin is as clever as some believe, the opportunities are too great to waste. Reliance as in the past on military intimidation through no-notice exercises and increased military deployment to borders with the West and Kaliningrad in the Baltic would be replaced by both subtle and "active measures." As Nixon exploited cleavages between China and the Soviet Union, Putin would leverage the fault lines in the alliance. Closer relations with Turkey would provide leverage both in northern Europe and in Syria especially if Ankara were perceived to be moving toward Moscow's orbit.

Propaganda, fake news, disinformation and misinformation, hacking and the buying of political fellow travelers in these states are tools the Kremlin knows how to use. And if Western cohesion cannot be entirely shattered, it is unlikely that Russian interference would provide a new cause celebre around which NATO and the EU might reunite as during the Cold War. Given the tensions in the Gulf and uncertainty of what comes next when or if Mosul and Raqqa fall, Russian influence without the involvement of large number of military forces surely will grow. A further benefit is that if the Trump administration continues to increase forces in the fight against IS, it might be caught in a quagmire.

Time will tell to see how clever Putin may or may not be.

Harlan Ullman is a senior adviser at Washington D.C.'s Atlantic Council and chairman of two private companies. His next book, due out this year, is "Anatomy of Failure: Why America Loses Wars It Starts," which argues that failure to know and to understand the circumstances in which force is used guarantees failure. Follow him on Twitter @harlankullman.

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