In a rare bipartisan move, the United States Congress has voted to intensify sanctions against Russia, and President Trump has signed them into law. Even before the American leader put pen to paper last week, President Vladimir Putin of Russia fired back by demanding the removal of hundreds of Americans and Russians from the staffs at American diplomatic missions in Russia.
Mr. Putin had watched the United States turn an already painful list of sanctions from an easily reversible presidential decree into a law that would be next to impossible to repeal any time soon — a sorry result of a policy that the Kremlin had adopted in hopes of lifting sanctions altogether.
Indeed, Moscow had suspended an earlier threat of a symmetrical response when, in 2016, President Barack Obama upgraded sanctions in reaction to indications that Russian hackers had interfered in the American election to help Mr. Trump. With a Trump presidency about to begin, Mr. Putin was waiting for a possible improvement in Russian-American rapport. But now the only conceivable source of those hopes, Mr. Trump himself, is not delivering.
So the debacle left Mr. Putin with no option but retaliation. On Wednesday, the Kremlin softened the impact a bit by saying it would not retaliate beyond the measures already announced. But that still left a paradox: While Mr. Trump’s hands in conducting a Russia policy were now tied by Congress, Mr. Putin was left free to experiment.
To be sure, America can inflict more economic pain on Russia than Russia can on America. But recent experience shows that Russia does not let debacles faze it. Instead, it often unleashes a creativity born of desperation, rather than acceptance of being trapped in a foreign-policy cul-de-sac.
Another way to say that is that the Kremlin makes drastic policy moves when pushed by a ticking clock. Spurred by the moment, Mr. Putin often finds a new feat to perform.
Annexing Crimea in March 2014 was such a move. The debacle then was the collapse of a Russia-supported political coalition that had ruled Ukraine since the mid 2000s. The Kremlin had been increasing its pressure on Ukraine’s president at the time, Viktor Yanukovych, who then encountered only more resistance — and finally an ouster — from Ukrainians.
One reason for the Kremlin’s behavior may have been its strong belief that any popular movement has “weapon-grade” potential — an outlook that depicted the Ukrainian resistance to Mr. Yanukovych as an act of global political warfare, with the West manipulating Ukrainians against Moscow.
The Kremlin’s response was telling. It did not try to build bridges with Ukrainian society or its new government. In other words, Mr. Putin was not addressing his response to Ukrainians as much as he was responding to a strategic challenge from “the West.” His move was designed to deal a blow to a Western-sponsored security architecture in Europe, and to its double-standard-bearing underwriter, the United States.
In Syria as well, Moscow has been responding not so much to that small divided nation as to the West. This is the move of an embattled grandmaster of geopolitics, not just a new actor belatedly entering a regional drama. In 2015 it was becoming clear that Russia’s Syria policy was failing; the regime of its ally, Bashar al-Assad, was on the brink of collapse. As Kremlin thinking went, it was not Moscow whose policies were failing; it was the United States and its sidekicks who were preparing another debacle like Libya — the murder of a secular ruler that would open the floodgates for all kinds of dangerous new forces.
Mr. Putin had long opposed Western interventionist policies and explained many of the world’s political crises as Western-sponsored regime-change operations. So a demise of his ally would have been a personal defeat for his worldview. This is why Russian military intervention in Syria, starting in September 2015, was not, from Moscow’s vantage point, about Syria proper; it was and is about Russia’s opposition to the West. While the United States tries to deal with Russia one on one, Russia sees itself dealing with a global conspiracy led by Washington.
The sanctions approved last week are a new debacle commensurate with the failures of Russia’s early Ukraine or Syria policies, both of which Moscow mitigated somewhat with surprise comebacks that humbled the West.
But this time the standoff is more principled and, in the eyes of Americans, much closer to home. Moscow is accused of an attempt to hack or influence not just a bunch of computers but the United States’ executive office itself. I remain an agnostic as to whether the Kremlin has really attempted to intervene in the thick of America’s electoral process, but there is little doubt that Moscow was heavily invested in the outcome of the 2016 elections. Hillary Clinton was seen in Moscow as an initiator of an attempt to use Russia’s 2011 parliamentary elections to overthrow Mr. Putin’s regime. Whatever Moscow was doing to try to disrupt the American election was, in Moscow’s view, a tit-for-tat — the usual thing a self-respecting world power would do to foreign conspirators.
One recent conversation I participated in illuminated these issues and brought, at least in my mind, some historical perspective to Mr. Putin’s vision. With the historian Timothy Snyder, the author of “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century,” we were discussing the political and economic sensibilities the Soviet rulers had when they were taking over Eastern and Central European societies after World War II.
Mr. Snyder put it this way, referring to the Soviet political police: “When the N.K.V.D. arrives in Eastern Poland, the essence of their reports back to Moscow is something like this: ‘We have found some Poles, and we have found some Ukrainians, and they are part of the same conspiracy, they are run by the international capitalism, they are all taking orders from the British.’ Now, that was completely incorrect. The British are not in charge, the Poles and Ukrainians are fighting against each other, the various groups the N.K.V.D. encounter have different and usually incompatible goals.
“But the important thing,” Mr. Snyder continued, “is that ideology gives the N.K.V.D. certainty about what they see and confidence about what they are going to do, which is to penetrate and destroy these groups. So, you can be totally wrong and you can be effective.”
With formal official ideology long dead, we may never know precisely what theories the Kremlin adheres to these days, but we may be sure that it has full confidence in its presumptions. In fact, Mr. Putin may be right about many things. International relations are no place for moralists. Many political, business and military projects do have global reach and are competitive in nature.
But the problem with his type of approach, in its Kremlin variety, is that it seems to equate international competition with a Darwinian fight for survival.
The very audacity of Moscow’s moves must be driven by a feeling of an existential threat. Many of the world’s countries may compete for dominance in specific markets and for political influence, but Russia is distinct in that it seems to fight for survival in situations that no one else sees as existential.
This, to me, serves as an explanation of why Moscow often stands out as one of the world’s most unpredictable actors. The costs are mostly paid by the Russian people and, obliquely, by most other nations, especially Russia’s neighbors, because the price of constant uncertainty is punishingly expensive military spending and rising threats to peace and prosperity.
Maxim Trudolyubov is an editor at large for the business magazine Vedomosti in Moscow and editor of The Russia File, a blog published by the Kennan Institute in Washington.