The Kremlin wants to destroy the trans-Atlantic alliance. Does Trump want to save it?
When Angela Merkel meets with Donald Trump on Friday, she won’t just be representing Germany. She’ll be bringing all the hopes and anxieties of an anxious continent—one whose fears have been stoked by the fervor sweeping from Amsterdam to Rome, Paris to Berlin. It’s no exaggeration to say that this meeting between Trump and Merkel could set the tone for the very future of the Western Alliance.
For a specter is haunting Europe—the specter of populist nationalism. Ideologically indeterminate, it manifests across the Continent in the form of France’s right-wing National Front, the post-communist German Left party and the Italian Five Star Movement, which defies any traditional political label. While these parties, and the intellectual currents to which they give voice, may not align on everything, they are invariably anti-establishment, opposed to the European Union, and hostile to America. They are also all supported—either materially or through other, less tangible instruments—by Russia.
This is not incidental. As Europe’s political stability, social cohesion, economic prosperity and security are more threatened today than at any point since the Cold War, Russia is destabilizing the Continent on every front. Indigenous factors – whether long-extant nationalism, design flaws in the Eurozone lack of a common foreign policy, or incapability at assimilating immigrants – certainly lie at the root of these crises. But all are exploited by Moscow and exacerbated by its malign influence. Fomenting European disintegration from within, Russia also threatens Europe from without through its massive military buildup, frequent intimidation of NATO members and efforts to overturn the continent’s security architecture by weakening the transatlantic link with America. If a prosperous and democratic Europe is a core national security interest of the United States, as it has been for the past 80 years, then the Russian regime is one to be resisted, contained and ultimately dethroned. For none of the existential problems Europe faces will dissipate until the menace to its East is subdued. The road to a Europe whole, free and at peace, in other words, goes through Moscow.
Just at the moment when the West requires unity, however, it’s disintegrating. Brexit foretells the potential demise of the EU, a democratic bulwark to authoritarian Russia’s predatory strategy of divide and conquer. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, Americans have chosen a president who abjures his country’s traditional role as linchpin of the liberal world order and wishes to ally with the very power threatening to dismantle it. Unlike any president of the postwar age, Trump’s 19th century worldview and narrow conception of America’s national interest seems to accord with a Russian sphere of influence in Europe. For the next four years at least, it is an open question whether there will be any American leadership to corral Europeans together against Russian aggression and subversion. On the contrary, Trump wants to gain Moscow’s partnership in pivoting back to the Middle East, a strategic realignment that may sacrifice European security as the cost of Russian collaboration.
“The End of Europe,” the title of my book, portends not necessarily the dissolution of the EU or something so catastrophic as a conventional war (though these are real, if remote, possibilities), but rather something more ethereal and imaginable: the slow, gradual reversion to the European state of nature prior to the postwar integration project, and the rise of amoral, prostrate, nationalist governments that no longer project the liberal values upon which the Euro-Atlantic community is grounded, and that are willing to engage in purely transactional relationships with Moscow. Should this future scenario come to pass, it will be the fault of apathetic Europeans, absent Americans and aggressive Russians.
Unlike during the Cold War, Russia seeks not the military and political domination of Europe through the advance of the Red Army and spread of communist ideology, but rather a resetting of the Continent’s security order. The Kremlin hopes to achieve this through meddling in European and American politics so as to install governments acquiescent to its primary objective: supplanting the values-driven, rules-based international system with what Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently called a “post-Western world order” wherein might makes right. In this order, Russia’s neighbors will have to accept limited sovereignty within a Russian sphere of influence.
Moscow desires nothing less than a reversal of the momentous historical processes begun in 1989, when Central and Eastern Europeans peacefully reclaimed their freedom after decades of Russian-imposed tyranny. For President Vladimir Putin, who witnessed the downfall of Russia’s empire as a KGB officer stationed in East Germany, and for whom the Soviet Union’s collapse was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” this revulsion for everything that 1989 represents is deeply felt. Putin is implacably hostile to the United States, blaming it for bringing down the Soviet empire and humiliating Russia. Because the European Union and NATO – both of which have welcomed countries once dominated by Moscow – serve as obstacles to the reassertion of Russian hegemony, the Kremlin’s long-term strategy is to undermine and ultimately break these institutions from within, thereby neutralizing the concert of nations that has traditionally been necessary to restrain Russian expansion on the Continent. The Kremlin’s ideal outcome is the “Finlandization” of the West, whereby Europe and America abandon their principles, sacrifice their allies and accommodate Kremlin prerogatives without Russia having to dispatch a single soldier abroad. A West that is divided, inert and unsure of its own basic values is not one that will resist Russia’s revisionist agenda. Which is precisely by the Russians backed Trump—and why Merkel is so worried.
Befitting a judo master, Putin is pushing on open doors across the West, exploiting fears over Islam, immigration, economic inertia (blamed on a catchall “neoliberalism”), and globalization to “nudge” Western publics in a more Russia-sympathetic direction. Through means both covert (internet troll factories) and overt (a €9 million loan to Marine Le Pen’s National Front), the Kremlin aids and abets a wide variety of disruptive movements and figures in the Western world, no matter how radical or seemingly hopeless the cause, on the calculation that such a strategy is low risk and high reward. The most prominent example of this phenomenon was Brexit, which Russian state media outlets touted ceaselessly, as they have a variety of European secessionist movements from Catalonia to Venice. Frequent Russia Today guest, Putin-admirer and Brexit cheerleader Nigel Farage’s recent meeting with WikiLeaks impresario Julian Assange at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London epitomizes what British journalist Nick Cohen calls the “shameless illiberal alliance” Moscow is nurturing all over the Western world. For a more extreme illustration of the Kremlin’s spoiler role, consider the leader of a movement seeking independence for California, who just happens to live in Yekaterinaberg. Secession by the Golden State may seem like a foolish and wasteful endeavor for the Russians. But when the ultimate prize is splitting off the world’s 7th largest economy from the “main adversary,” why not throw a few rubles its way?
Beginning with President Trump, many Western leaders have difficulty accepting the strategic necessity of treating Moscow like the pariah that it is. They labor under the illusion that it’s our own hubris, our arrogant post-Cold War imposition of security and political arrangements on an emasculated post-Soviet Russia, that’s primarily standing in the way of good relations, and not Russian revisionism and aggression. Like the titular leader of the free world, a fair number of European political elites, stuck in a mindset that still considers Russia a potential partner, bend over backwards to explain Russian conduct as the predictable and not entirely unjustified reaction of an “encircled” power whose “interests” must be “respected.” They counsel us to bend the rules of the international liberal order to the claims of a revisionist power that wants to overturn it completely.
This credulity marked the previous administration, many of whose members have suddenly awoken to the paramount threat Russia poses to our security and values, and who are engaging in a bout of selective amnesia regarding their own solicitousness to Moscow while condemning the current president for his promises to “get along with Russia.” Barack Obama was far too late to realize how the Putin regime constituted a threat to Western values and interests. His first diplomatic gambit as president was a “reset” with Moscow initiated just six months after Russia invaded and occupied Georgia. Six years later, after Russia perpetrated the first armed annexation of territory on the European continent since World War II, Obama insisted, “This is not another Cold War that we’re entering into. After all, unlike the Soviet Union, Russia leads no bloc of nations. No global ideology. The United States and NATO,” he declared, “do not seek any conflict with Russia.”
To paraphrase Leon Trotsky, the West may not seek any conflict with Russia, but Russia seeks conflict with the West. That is because the Putin regime— nationalist, revisionist, territorially expansionist—cannot coexist alongside a democratic Europe willing to stand up for its principles. Moscow sees liberal democracy as a threat and therefore must defeat it, either by force of arms in Ukraine and an attempted coup in Montenegro, or through non-violent means in the West, bringing us down to the Kremlin’s own, depraved level through corruption, disinformation and support for nationalist political movements. If the Kremlin’s intention has been to bring about “a civilization-warping crisis of public trust” in the American body politic, as Sen. Ben Sasse recently described the increasingly hysterical debate over President Trump’s alleged relationship to Russia, it’s clearly winning.
Obama was also dead wrong to say that Russia does not lead a “bloc of nations” or disseminate a “global ideology.” Shorn of Marxist-Leninism, the Kremlin today is driven by an ideologically versatile illiberalism willing to work with any political faction amenable to its revisionist aims. Whereas once Moscow allied with local communists and other fellow travelers, now, in addition to those left-wing allies, they can also count upon a growing number of sympathizers on the right. Russia has reverted to its place as, in the words of the writer Paul Berman, “the historical center of world reaction.” Only now, after Russia’s audacious interference in the American presidential election, have Obama and his allies in the Democratic Party belatedly awoken to the ideological challenge posed by Putin’s counter-Enlightenment, one that exports kleptocracy and disorder through a European fifth column of front organizations, political parties, media organs, reactivated KGB networks and plain hired hands.
The avatar of the Kremlin-friendly conservative is Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who, over the last quarter century, has undergone one of the more remarkable transformations in European politics from liberal, anti-communist firebrand to Putin’s closest ally in the EU. Despite being the leader of a proud nation brutally invaded and occupied by the Soviet Union, Orban is the most vocal opponent of EU sanctions placed on Russia over its meddling in Ukraine (a neighbor of Hungary) and has signed a major nuclear power deal with Moscow. Orban also aligns with the Kremlin on a more profound level, championing “illiberal democracy,” echoing Russian-promulgated narratives on Western decline, the advantages of “ethnic homogeneity” over cosmopolitanism, and the threat posed to Christian civilization from Islam. The embrace of the Russian strongman by Western leaders like Orban, Le Pen—and yes, Trump—is the culmination of Moscow’s assiduous, years-long cultivation of the global right.
Washington and the World
All of Trump’s Russia Ties, in 7 Charts
By Michael Crowley
One of the most potent narratives Russia has utilized in this regard is that of a Judeo-Christian civilization under siege from a rising Islamic threat. A powerful vector through which Russia blends its informational and kinetic warfare is migration, the consequences of which threaten the future of the European project perhaps more than any other crisis. Russia’s military intervention in Syria and support for the warlord ruling Eastern Libya have created what Russian political analyst Leonid Futini calls a “crescent of instability” around the continent. Having colluded in the conditions driving massive numbers of migrants to Europe through its support of the Assad regime, Moscow then “weaponizes” their presence in the EU by aiding and abetting xenophobic populist movements. Long before the term “fake news” was on everybody’s lips, Moscow ginned up the infamous “Lisa” case, wherein Russian state media falsely alleged that a gang of migrant Muslim men had raped an ethnic Russian girl in Berlin and that German authorities had covered up the crime. As fears of demographic and societal change have taken hold in Europe, Russia has subtly insinuated itself into Western politics to an extent unprecedented since the collapse of the Soviet Union, its narrative of impending civilizational doom increasingly (and often unwittingly) adopted in the parts of Europe traditionally most resistant to Russian meddling and by conservative Central and Eastern Europeans with stalwart anti-Soviet pedigrees.
The Kremlin’s overall strategy to dismantle the Western alliance is best encapsulated in a 2013 Russian military journal article, where what’s since become known as the “Gerasimov Doctrine” was laid down in writing. Adopting tactics of subterfuge traditionally associated with “non-linear” or “hybrid” war, the doctrine calls for the use of non-military over military measures by a four-to-one ratio, thus allowing a conventionally weaker power like Russia (whose military budget is one-tenth that of NATO’s) to fight asymmetrically by exploiting its adversaries’ weaknesses. Ignored at the time of the article’s publication, the Gerasimov Doctrine was essentially the blueprint for Russia’s strategy in the annexation of Crimea, where special-operations troops without insignia carried out a bloodless takeover while a confused and listless West sat stupefied.
A primary component of hybrid war is disinformation. Finely attuned to the particular grievances of a diverse array of Western audiences, Russian psychological operatives produce narratives that find fertile ground in Europe, where resentment over the Iraq War, fallout from the 2008 financial crisis and revelations of National Security Agency surveillance continue to breed anti-American sentiment and undermine societal resilience to Russian agitprop. Kremlin “active measures” (Soviet-style lies aimed at influencing an adversary’s decision-making) about Western political and financial corruption, the subservience of Western leaders to shadowy and unaccountable corporations and America’s insatiable quest for global domination— disseminated through social media bot networks that, by manipulating algorithms, create the impression that such information is at the very least widely believed if not factually valid—find resonance across the ideological spectrum, uniting everyone from left-wing anti-globalization activists to right-wing cultural traditionalists.
Part of what makes Russia’s war on truth so ominous is that it transcends ideology.”
Part of what makes Russia’s war on truth so ominous is that it transcends ideology. Once Moscow had Pravda and espoused the virtues of the international proletariat. Today it uses “fake news” as part of a long-term strategy to transform Western publics into conspiracy-addled zombies. Take the case of the disturbed young man who shot up a Washington, D.C. pizza parlor last year, convinced it was sheltering a child sex ring run by associates of Hillary Clinton. The assailant came to this conclusion after marinating in a stew of conspiracy websites that developed the story based upon email correspondence stolen by Russian hackers from Democratic Party servers. While this was a lone wolf incident, it is not difficult to fathom the prospect of more aimless, politically malleable young men in the West (a demographic disproportionately supportive of Trump and other far-right movements) “self-radicalizing” through the path of inflammatory material propagated by Russia or its proxies on the internet, ŕ la wannabe warriors for the Islamic State.
Less implausible is Russia’s ability to alter the political trajectory of Western politics in a way that suits its geopolitical aims. Last year in the Netherlands, a motley collection of Russian expatriates, far-right nationalists and left-wingers banded together to defeat a referendum on an EU trade agreement with Ukraine. Though the Dutch intelligence agency could find no hard evidence of direct Russian government support to the opposition side, it did conclude that the Netherlands is a target in Moscow’s “global campaign to influence policy and perceptions on Russia,” and that the Kremlin has mobilized a “network of contacts built up over the years.” Speaking of Russia’s suspected involvement in this week’s parliamentary election, a Dutch foreign policy analyst told the New York Times that, “A little effort goes a long way” and could “destroy the European Union from inside.”
While waging a nonviolent war against the West from within, Russia is rapidly building up its military capacities and engaging in kinetic action along Europe’s periphery. Over the course of Putin’s 17-year reign, Russian defense spending has increased 20-fold. Arms procurement grew by 60 percent in 2015 alone. Kremlin rhetoric over the past several years has also shifted in a disturbingly confrontational direction. Putin’s recent justification for the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union—stating, alongside a stunned Merkel, that the infamous agreement which divided up Eastern Europe between the two totalitarian powers “ensur[ed] the security of the USSR”—epitomizes the moral failure of Russian elites to come to terms with the Soviet past. Other Russian officials, meanwhile, engage in shockingly loose talk about using nuclear weapons and Russian military exercises frequently end with simulated nuclear strikes on NATO capitals. The West has neither acknowledged the threat from Russia nor adequately prepared to defend itself against potential aggression. Only four European members of NATO commit the recommended 2 percent of their GDP to defense; so poorly equipped is the Bundeswehr that its soldiers infamously had to use broomstick handles instead of guns during a training exercise.
This is why Russia’s war in Ukraine is about far more than Ukraine. The annexation of Crimea and invasion of Eastern Ukraine is a warning shot across the bow of the West, a message, written in blood, that the old ways of doing business are over. “Protecting” ethnic Russians was never the issue for Putin; Russian intervention was about exerting a veto over Ukraine’s Western path. Moscow’s highly sophisticated execution of hybrid war, a forecast of conflict to come, belies the haughty complacency of people like Obama and his hapless secretary of state, John Kerry, who scoffed that Russia is trapped in “the 19th century.” On the contrary, it is the allegedly backwards Russians who have adapted their war-fighting capabilities to the future, and the supposedly advanced Westerners who have been caught in their dust.
To quote another Russian revolutionary, what is to be done? To avert catastrophe, it is imperative that the United States pivot back to Europe. As a collective political entity, Europe is America’s most important ally, with whom we share values and interests. Abandoning Europe at this time would create a political and security vacuum on the Continent, one that would inevitably be filled by Russia.
In response to Brexit, the U.S. election and the rise of populists across Europe, many in the West are beginning to question the assumptions upon which the postwar liberal world order stands. While introspection is necessary, we do not need to rethink first principles. Protectionism remains wrong, both morally and economically. NATO remains the bedrock of our security, no matter how many times certain individuals call it “obsolete.” The postwar international system has benefited America enormously; it’s not a rip-off. Lavrov’s call for a “post-Western world order” is not new; Russian leaders have frequently floated proposals aimed at diluting the Western-led international system by incorporating a non-democratic Russia into its structures.
Increasingly, these calls for reassessing the liberal world order are finding an audience on this side of the ocean, where voices posit that it has outlived its usefulness. In a combination of astonishing historical illiteracy and sinister prophecy, the president’s senior counselor says he wants to make the world “as exciting as the 1930s” and that “strong nationalist movements in countries make strong neighbors.” Meanwhile, a leading figure in what passes for the pro-Trump intellectual movement, who now serves as a high-ranking national security official in the administration, asks of NATO, “What is the alliance for once its original purpose has evaporated?” The original purpose of NATO was “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” With the exception of that last part about Germany, whose neighbors want it to play a more assertive role in continental defense and security, the founding rationale for the Atlantic Alliance endures. The fundamentals remain; the arrangements we have are working. They need strengthening, not a redesign.
The West wants peace and Russia wants victory. These desires are incompatible. Those who cherish liberal democracy and wish to see it endure must accept the fact that a Russian regime is once against trying to debilitate and subvert the free world. While Russia today may not be as conventionally strong an adversary as it was during the Cold War, the threat it poses is more diffuse. Russia is as much an enemy as it was a generation ago, and we need to adopt a more hardheaded, adversarial footing and mentality to defeat it. In a globalized world where the cancerous influences of Russian money and disinformation can more easily corrupt us than when an Iron Curtain divided Europe, and where the ideological terrain is more confusing than the Cold War’s rigid bipolarity, containing Russia presents different challenges than it did a generation ago, not the least of which is maintaining Western unity against a more ambiguous adversary skilled at fighting asymmetrically. We must steel ourselves once again for a generational, ideological struggle in defense of liberal values and open societies and avoid self-inflicted wounds. Never during the Cold War, for instance, was there such a traumatic break within the Western political alliance as Britain’s departure from the European Union—nor, for that matter, did an overtly pro-Russian leader ever capture the presidency of the United States.
If the Putin regime cannot live alongside a democratic West, a democratic West cannot live with the Putin regime. A genuinely democratic Russia would feel no threat from Europe, and thus lack the impulse to debase and disrupt it. To be sure, the illiberal movements currently roiling the EU would exist regardless of Russia; anyone remotely familiar with the Continent’s bloody history knows that Europeans don’t require outside instigation to fall for the siren songs of chauvinism, populism and other illiberal forces. But only absent the revisionist and belligerent regime in Moscow is a Europe whole, free and at peace possible.