Russia’s back, bigger and badder than ever

Back in March 2014, with Russian-speaking forces patrolling the streets of Crimea, until then a part of the sovereign country of Ukraine, I wrote an article arguing that, “We have entered a new Cold War.” Fast-forward to this surreal moment in American — and global — history, and it appears that Vladimir Putin’s Russia is handily winning this Cold War 2.0.

This is no longer a battle between Communism and capitalism/democracy. This is Putin against the West, against democracy, and Putin is winning.

It’s no secret that Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted Donald Trump to win. He also wanted Hillary Clinton, whom he despises, to lose. But Putin has larger objectives. His victory in helping Trump — which the CIA believes Russia actively worked to secure — was only one of his aims.

Russia is pushing on many fronts and making enormous progress toward a decisive victory in the new Cold War. By all indications, the Trump administration will simple step aside from the battle, remove the United States as a geopolitical block against Russian goals. Putin may have just achieved a version of “regime change” in the United States, but his work is not yet done.

There’s still Europe, where the same tactics that worked in the United States have also produced results in many other elections, notably across Eastern Europe. Even in France, the land of the enlightenment, the two top contenders for the presidency are fans of the repressively authoritarian Russian president.

And there are indications that the Kremlin already has its sights on Angela Merkel, who is running for re-election next year in Germany, as the next target for defeat through Russia’s disinformation, social media and cyber-hacking operations. Terrorism and refugees in Europe help his propaganda. Terrorism and crimes by refugees help him the most.

Putin is conducting a multi-objective campaign. As his own democratic credentials fade and he becomes a prototype, almost a caricature, of an authoritarian strongman, he benefits from painting democracies as weak and unreliable. The more he undermines the electoral process and the efficacy of democracies in choosing qualified leaders and keeping their countries safe, the less he has to worry about internal dissent, about Russians who call his rule illegitimate.

At the same time he grows stronger by steadily undercutting and helping defeat Western leaders who have championed sanctions against Russia for its illegal capture of Ukrainian territory and criticism him for dismantling of democracy and conducting a brutal military campaign in Syria.

With critics in the West losing power, it will be easier for Putin to get those sanctions lifted. Without sanctions, Russia’s sharp economic contraction could end. Renewed growth would also help strengthen Putin’s domestic standing.

The Russian state is fully deployed to win this re-run of the Cold War. For a while it looked as if it might end the way the first Cold War went, in ignominious defeat for the Kremlin. But the tables have turned, in part because President Obama did not respond forcefully enough to Putin’s advances in Ukraine, Syria and in U.S. cyberspace, and in part because Putin has cleverly exploited the vulnerabilities and challenges facing Western democracies.

To be sure, this Cold War is not an identical reprisal of the decades’ long shadow war that followed World War II. That war between East and West, between Soviet Communism and Western-style capitalism and liberal democracy, was an ideological battle of the highest order. By the time it ended in the early 1990s, it wasn’t just the Soviet Union that was in tatters, its economy a shambles, its people demoralized. It was its ideology, above all, that suffered the most lethal defeat. Practically the entire world , agreed that some version of representative democracy, combined with a meaningful dose of market economics was the preferable path forward.

Putin came to power after several years of turmoil under an erratic Boris Yeltsin. Russia was adrift, and Putin, anointed by Yeltsin, managed to right the ship of state. The economy prospered on the strength of oil and gas exports, and Putin’s merciless response to terrorist attacks gave reassurance to troubled Russians. Putin slowly consolidated power, and he steadily decimated Russia’s nascent democracy.

Now Putin has turned Russia into a major geopolitical player. Trump has even dismissed the work of America’s own intelligence agencies. One can only imagine Putin’s glee. He launched the second Cold War and is so far winning, undermining democracy and its institutions in the U.S. and elsewhere. It’s not over, of course. For one thing, we still don’t know if the U.S. Congress will also surrender.

Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review, and a former CNN producer and correspondent. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

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