Streetwise Professor

February 18, 2017

Putin Is So Smart That He Outsmarted Himself–You Should Have Listened to Me, Vlad

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 2:29 pm

Apparently there is buyer’s remorse in Moscow, as Putin and his coterie are disappointed at Trump’s failure to change dramatically the relationship between the US and Russia. Don’t believe me? The WaPoo and the FT say so.

This is no surprise to me at all. Indeed, from the time that the hysteria over alleged Russian manipulation of the US election broke out, I said Putin should be careful what he asks for, because it was be unlikely that Trump would behave as expected–and hoped, in Moscow, apparently. There are several reasons for this, some of which I pointed out at the time.

The first is Trump’s mercurial nature. Counting on what he says at time t to be reliable information for forecasting his behavior at T>t is a mugs’ game, because much of what he says is for tactical value and to influence negotiations, and because he changes his mind a lot, in part because he does not have strong ideological convictions.

I think Trump’s stand on Nato–an issue of particular importance to Putin–is a classic example. There is good sense at the core of Trump’s position: European Nato states have been free riding for years. He wants to get them to stump up more money. What better way than to threaten to ditch Nato? He has quite clearly put the fear into them. Then he dispatches his reasonable emissaries–Mattis and Tillerson–to lay out the framework of a modus vivendi.

The second is that Trump’s assertion of an independent United States with attenuated ties to traditional multilateral organizations is hardly helpful to Putin. This is especially true because part of Trump’s program along these lines is to revitalize the US military. Russia has strained mightily to overcome the decrepitude of its 1990s military, and has managed to recapitalize it sufficiently to make it a credible force. Even after these efforts, however, it can only dimly see the tail of the American military in the distance. If Trump goes into super-cruise mode, Russia’s expenditures will have largely been for nought. Closing the military gap required the US not to compete. Trump made it clear he would compete. How could Putin have desired that?

Nato was already the US military plus a few European military baubles hung on for decoration. A stronger US military makes Nato stronger, regardless of what the Europeans do. If the Europeans kick it up a bit too, well that all really sucks for Vlad.

The third is something that has only become manifest in the past months. Namely, the Democratic loss left them desperate to find a scapegoat. Russia has become that scapegoat, and anything said that is remotely positive about Russia unleashes paroxysms of fury–not just from Democrats, but from many Republicans as well. Any positive move that Trump would take towards Russia would be seized upon as evidence of a dark bargain with the Kremlin. So (as he acknowledged in his press conference) he has no political room to deal with Russia. Indeed, if anything he might be forced to being more Russophobic Than Thou in order to put this issue to rest.

That is, the dynamic created by his intervention has completely undermined Putin’s purpose. A self-inflicted wound.

There is yet more irony in this development. Along with their spawn, 1980s peaceniks who shrieked that Reagan’s robust stance with the Soviet Union threatened the earth with nuclear annihilation now sound like those in the hard right in the ’80s who thought Reagan was a wimp, and a traitor for talking with Gorbachev. Trump, of all people, is the one lamenting that defusing conflict and talking with the Russians would reduce the risk of nuclear holocaust.

All this calls into considerable doubt Putin’s vaunted tactical and strategic acumen. If indeed Russia intervened heavy-handedly in the US election, it is not turning out well for Putin. And evidently he recognizes this, and is sharply reducing his ambitions. Maybe, pace Stalin, we’ll see him write an article where he claims Russia is dizzy with success, and needs a respite to consolidate its gains.

Truth be told, I do not think that Putin thought that his machinations (whatever they were–and I am skeptical about some of the more lurid claims) would result in Trump’s election. I surmise that his objective was to damage Hillary, in the full expectation that she would win and it would be advantageous to deal with a weakened president. But, he was too clever by half, outsmarted himself, and now has to deal with an unpredictable dervish capable of turning any which way.

Viewed in this light, Putin is less Sorcerer, than Sorcerer’s Apprentice, who cast a spell he could not control: authoritarians who have been in control too long have a tendency to do that, because they are convinced of their own greatness. Whatever his intent, the unintended consequences of his actions have arguably left him worse of than if he had left well enough alone. I do not believe that it was his intent to elect Trump. When Trump was elected, he let his mind run wild with the possibilities, but he has now come crashing to earth.

Wiley Coyote comes to mind. That Acme Election Kit (or would it be the Acmeski Election Kit) hasn’t worked quite as planned, has it Vlad?

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  1. Common childhood dream in the central US is being a SEAL. In the EU and US coastal areas a common childhood dream is being a barrista and whipping up a mean latte.

    Comment by pahoben — February 27, 2017 @ 6:33 am

  2. Top Ten Dreams of the EU

    10.Immigrants from the Middle east will do all our work
    9. Immigrants from Eastern Europe will do all our work
    8. Immigrants from Asia will do all our work
    7. Our national government will give us more benefits
    6. The EU will give us more benefits
    5. Our national government will shorten our work week
    4. The EU will shorten our work week
    3. Our governments will make all bad things stop
    2. The oppreesors in the US will FOAD
    1. The US will protect us

    Funny some pro Jihadi company bought the rights to be makers of childhood vaccines in Denmark and got a swwet heart deal from the government besides. The electorate in Denmark think maybe this isn’t such a good idea.

    Comment by pahoben — February 27, 2017 @ 8:53 am

  3. @pahoben,

    be careful what you wish for about that average Russian citizen watching your back: his grandpa from zagradotryad has taught him a trick or two, so you may unexpectedly (for you anyway) find some extra holes in that back of yours.

    Uniting with terrorists to fight terrorism makes a lot of sense, too. Remember that FSB “sugar” inadvertently discovered by Ryazan cops? Remember what happened to Litvinenko who exposed it? Oh, and Russian is the working language in many ISIS units, so steady supply of terrorists to unite against is guaranteed.

    As long as Russia keeps paying a steep price for the externalities it is creating by the occupation of Crimea, I don’t care either way. But the US under Obama made Merkel look like a leader, FFS. Trump administration (post Flynn) looks much better. Let’s see.

    There is no bigger fish to fry than maintaining a rules-based international order dominated by the West. Alternatives don’the work and will not work.

    Comment by Ivan — February 27, 2017 @ 2:43 pm

  4. That was “don’t work and will not work”

    Comment by Ivan — February 27, 2017 @ 2:45 pm

  5. @Ivan
    There are Russian speakers in ISIS including many Chechens so what’s new. I remember the outrage of the west in how the cousins of these poor fighters were brutalized by the Russian occupation of Chechnya. Whats a brutalized Chechen fighter to do if not travel to Syria and join ISIS. No future in being a Chechen fighter in Chechnya-life span is too short.

    Comment by pahoben — February 27, 2017 @ 5:11 pm

  6. @Ivan
    Interest rereference to zagrad otryad and similarly the US should continue to supply a kind of shtrafbat for the EU.

    Comment by pahoben — February 27, 2017 @ 5:39 pm

  7. I have daily contact with ex British special forces and have a standing inivitation to overnight at the SAS club in Knightsbridge for which I am honored. They often tell me how modern veterans are treated with contempt in the U.K. If with contempt in the U.K. I can imagine how elsewhere in the EU. They were amazed at the end of American Sniper how Kyle was honored in Texas on the way to burial. Just the opposite in the U.K. I don’t see why the EU is worth defending. Just a weak nanny state culture.

    Comment by pahoben — February 27, 2017 @ 5:54 pm

  8. @pahoben,
    strafbat to the EU? You mean all those unarmed Americans being shot in the back by EU police with machine guns? Get a clue! Speaking of honoring the military: the Russian “tractor drivers vacationing in Donbas” are routinely buried like dogs, with families intimidated and/or paid off into silence. So much for the “warrior culture” you are hallucinating about. Drug gangs in inner city gettoes have more of a culture.

    Mattis already told the Eurocrats they had to pay for their own security. They have been living in a bubble for too long, while smugly disregarding the serious Russian threat that Eastern Europe has been desperately screaming about like forever. So the US has been doing nobody a favor by ignoring the problem for so long.

    Last time I checked there were like 80k well-equiped “Chechen fighters” in Chechnya, all ready to make sure Russia keeps paying that tribute on time. And if a police state like Russia keeps sending thousands of fighters to ISIS, while missing them in air raids and occasionally leaving them a nice bounty of military equipment, as during that hasty retreat from Palmira – that’s all pure coincidence, of course.

    Comment by Ivan — February 27, 2017 @ 10:18 pm

  9. @Ivan

    They are non denominational with respect to weapons-Russian, US, Israeli-it doesn’t matter till the ammo runs out.

    Comment by pahoben — February 28, 2017 @ 10:56 am

  10. In fact you might say they are the Unitarians of weapons.

    Comment by pahoben — March 2, 2017 @ 4:26 pm

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