Putin Sees a Happy New Year

Throughout Eastern Europe, Moscow has been implicated in cyberattacks and election interference from Estonia to Bulgaria. Germany, which will hold elections in September, is experiencing cyberattacks and fake news.

Even more surprising than Russia’s aggressive behavior has been the timid response of the West, which has let Moscow engage in cyberwarfare with impunity. President Obama said this month that during their meeting last September, he told Mr. Putin “to cut it out.” That hardly sounds like a president concerned with a grave threat to American democracy. His warning to Mr. Putin may have forestalled even more brazen Russian attacks, but enough damage had already been done. In Italy, Mr. Renzi’s campaign privately complained about Russia’s interference but declined to go public. And when Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, was asked on Nov. 27 about Russian meddling in Germany’s electoral campaign, she replied, “We just have to learn to live with it.”

Throughout Eastern Europe, Moscow has been implicated in cyberattacks and election interference from Estonia to Bulgaria. Germany, which will hold elections in September, is experiencing cyberattacks and fake news.

Even more surprising than Russia’s aggressive behavior has been the timid response of the West, which has let Moscow engage in cyberwarfare with impunity. President Obama said this month that during their meeting last September, he told Mr. Putin “to cut it out.” That hardly sounds like a president concerned with a grave threat to American democracy. His warning to Mr. Putin may have forestalled even more brazen Russian attacks, but enough damage had already been done. In Italy, Mr. Renzi’s campaign privately complained about Russia’s interference but declined to go public. And when Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, was asked on Nov. 27 about Russian meddling in Germany’s electoral campaign, she replied, “We just have to learn to live with it.”

 President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia during his annual news conference in Moscow last week. Natalia Kolesnikova/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia during his annual news conference in Moscow last week. Natalia Kolesnikova/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

To live with it? This is not routine cyber intelligence, which many nations practice. Russia’s cyber activity seeks to confuse, destabilize and ultimately bring to power foreign governments pliant to Russia’s aims. That is an attack on the values and institutions of democratic societies, and, if successful, it achieves the same result as a military invasion to install a new government.

In his recent interview on Russian television, the Kremlin’s chief propagandist, Dmitri Kiselev, stated it in bald, cynical terms: “Today it is much more costly to kill one enemy soldier than during World War II, World War I or in the Middle Ages,” adding that “if you can persuade a person, you don’t need to kill him.”

The Russian military views an information war as part of its military doctrine, and Americans need to consider Russia’s cyber activities as an act of war that requires a forceful and united response. President Obama’s response — at least until now — has proved inadequate.

Unlike the Cold War, this one has no Iron Curtain and no ideological battleground. In this new hybrid warfare, former K.G.B. men have become oligarchs, Mr. Putin refers to Western nations as “partners,” and the government sells stakes in state companies to Western businesses and relies on Western markets and other financial institutions. Yet behind the smoke and mirrors, Russia remains a Potemkin village that hides a police state and an expansionist empire, steeped in systemic corruption and governed by up-to-date techniques of repression and manipulation.

This, too, is not new for Russia. Unhindered by public opinion, laws and opposition political parties, Russia’s autocrats have historically derived strength from territorial expansion and geopolitical aggrandizement. Starting with Ivan the Terrible, the Russian empire expanded for at least five centuries — by some calculations annexing each year territory the size of Belgium — until the Soviet Union finally collapsed in 1991. That dramatic denouement is what Mr. Putin is desperately trying to reverse, resorting to the same tool kit used by Soviet leaders since the formative days of the Soviet state in the early 1920s. At that time a destitute and hungry Russia was recovering from revolution and civil war. Still, the Bolshevik government spared no resources when it came to propaganda and repression.

Today, Mr. Putin focuses the shrinking resources of a beleaguered Russian economy on the twin agendas of restoring Russia’s position among the world’s powers and undermining Western institutions. For him it is a zero sum game. Moscow can easily deploy thousands of hackers and trolls to achieve maximum disruption while Western democracies awaken too slowly to the dangers. And the dangers are grave. From state-sponsored mass doping in sports to corrosive business practices, from silencing political dissent at home to supporting brutal regimes abroad, Russia’s policies are rooted in deceit, graft and violence — a combination that presents an existential challenge to democracies.

Mr. Putin’s greatest success has been to help place in the White House a man who shares many of his values and seems happy to do his bidding. But Mr. Putin is not done yet. He seeks to promote anti-establishment candidates in next year’s elections in the Netherlands, France, Italy and Germany. If this new cold war comes to an end with a Putin-Trump alliance, it will do so on Russia’s terms, with Russia no more democratic and the United States becoming a little more like Russia.

Next October will mark a century since the Bolsheviks violently seized power. That first totalitarian regime, in which Mr. Putin would later be trained, arguably provoked the rise of other political movements that together defined the rest of the 20th century, leading to unprecedented political violence and wars that took the lives of tens of millions.

We simply cannot allow Moscow to define the direction of another century by orchestrating a parade of Western democracies on their way to becoming corrupt, autocratic societies.

Michael Khodarkovsky, a professor of history at Loyola University Chicago, is completing a book titled Russia’s Twentieth Century.

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