Putin’s power, arrogance lead to costly Russian miscalculation that unites West

Vladimir Putin has spent years trying to divide the West by undermining elections, invading neighbors and aggressively using Russian oil and gas as a ham-handed bargaining tool. These concerted and clever efforts have suddenly, however, revealed the New Putin: Despite his best efforts and plans, he’s become a uniter, not a divider of the West.

Early 2018 had Putin heading towards a staggering, but not surprising, electoral victory against dead and disqualified opposition candidates. This dominance allowed Russia’s president to ride his eventual 76.6 percent final poll tally to a new level of cavalier confidence on the global stage. Political dominance at home and fawning support from President Trump gave him a delusional sense of invincibility. It led him to overreach and miscalculate.

Now, well over 20 Western countries have joined together to give Putin the one-finger salute for a U.K. chemical agent attack he is suspected of either directing or condoning. The targets in the assassination attempt in Salisbury were a former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter Yulia.

Before the assassination attempt, and Prime Minister Theresa May’s unequivocal and articulate assigning of blame to the Russians, the countries that banded to take action on Putin’s Russia seemed only nominally allied in a challenged NATO and fracturing EU. The ones still fighting together with NATO in Afghanistan wanted to quit and get out. The ones still in the EU were trying to figure out how to amputate their British arm, but save their European body.

Previously, these now collectively-acting Western countries were practically at each other’s throats, blaming each other for trade transgressions, immigration policies, free-riding on defense, and welshing on subsidized welfare programs. Tough economic times and rising populist sentiment built fraternal resentment and, at times, outright animosity.

Russia, in the meantime, kept raising the temperature from a simmering pot of measured and unassignable meddling to a rapid boil of wars, airplane downings, coup attempts, WikiLeaks partnerships, coordinated cyberattacks and election interference. Ukraine, MH17, Montenegro, Podesta emails, American power plants, and the 2016 US presidential election — any one of these aggressive Russian-led or sanctioned actions would have normally been enough to call for a more forceful joint Western reaction instead of a collective yawn, up until the Skripal poisoning, May’s outrage, and Putin’s subsequent posturing.

Putin ignored one of the oldest rules in politics, a Napoleon maxim to never interfere with an enemy when he is in the process of destroying himself. Putin clearly couldn’t help himself — or stop those who thought they were trying to help him — and has succeeded in uniting the independently-minded, liberally-oriented, collective-averse Western allies who were on the path to dissolving their ties.

A weakened West was clearly comfortable accommodating Russia, building more gas pipelines and energy dependencies while also congratulating Putin on his power, politics, and personal magnetism. Felling a former spy, however, was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It catalyzed a coordinated, collective Western response.

Whatever Russia does to react to the diplomatic expulsions of its diplomat-spies will only work to heighten East-West tensions and add to the resolve of the U.K. and it’s allies to stick together. Even worse for Russia, its reactions will be self-defeating because the loss of Western diplomatic missions and personnel will cost Moscow more than Russia’s consequent moves will inconvenience NATO, the EU, or the U.S. The biggest loss? Russia’s spying capacity and tech-theft — from San Francisco to Seattle — will suffer a significant disruption.

Down the street from my home in San Francisco, the Russians were kicked out last year for previous transgressions, their consulate closed and their premier Silicon Valley listening post shut down, despite President Trump’s inclinations. The former “Reds on Green Street” had a rooftop bristling with antennas and personnel populating local tech hangouts. Instead of building on-the-ground kompromat and recruiting spies at cafes, they now need to Google open-source intelligence.

Of course, Western allies will also lose in this tit-for-tat game by giving up their limited eyes and ears in Russia. But the Western economic consequences and political fallout are likely minimal, with Russia needing foreign exchange from energy sales more than the West needs reliable Russian wheat productivity figures.

Markos Kounalakis, Ph.D. is a senior fellow at Central European University and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. Contact him at markos@stanford.edu or on Twitter @KounalakisM.