March 10, 2017
By Pavel Felgenhauer
Just a couple of months ago, things looked to be going thoroughly President Vladimir Putin’s way. The 2016 elections in the United States gave the presidency to Donald Trump—a flamboyant real estate mogul and reality TV star, a nationalist and an isolationist. Throughout his campaign, Trump promised to strike a deal with Putin, repeatedly called the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) “obsolete,” and appeared ready to weaken long-term US strategic alliances that have constrained Russia since the late 1940s. And last December, in the run up to his inauguration, top members of Trump’s team evidently contacted the Russian ambassador to Washington, Sergei Kislyak. The two sides seem to have discussed improving relations and possible sanctions relief. A possible grand deal appeared within reach, which would grant Moscow dominance over Ukraine and the rest of the post-Soviet space and provide Russia a reprieve from economically damaging sanctions. A new world order looked to be emerging, described by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as “post-West” at the recent Munich Security Conference (February 17–19). Meanwhile the present “post–Cold War order,” which Moscow despises and rejects, seemed on the verge of collapse (Kommersant, February 20).
The price of oil (Russia’s main money-making commodity) has risen after the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and Russia announced a deal last December to cut production (Kommersant, December 12, 2016). In Europe, Putin seemed headed for another lucky strike to add to the Trump victory: The decisive French presidential election runoff, scheduled for May 7, 2017, could be a contest between two pro-Russian politicians—the far rightwing Marine Le Pen and mainstream conservative former prime minister Francois Fillon. Both had announced their opposition to the sanctions regime, imposed on Moscow for annexing Crimea in 2014 and for its involvement in fighting in the eastern Ukrainian Donbas region. Le Pen also promised, if victorious, to pull France out of NATO, the European Union and the euro zone (TASS, February 4).
The breakdown of the EU, the euro and possibly the North Atlantic Alliance could seem to offer a shortcut to the “post-West” world order announced by Lavrov. But on the other hand, an uncontrollable European collapse could harm Russia. The EU is Russia’s main trading partner and a large part of Russia’s currency reserves is denominated in euros. According to pro-Kremlin pundit Alexei Mukhin, the general director of the Center of Political Information, in Moscow, Le Pen is “a demon creating chaos in French and European politics.” At a round table this week hosted by the news agency RT (formerly Russia Today)—the center of Moscow’s information warfare operations—Mukhin announced: “We must avoid supporting Le Pen despite her popularity in Moscow.” He added that incidents between Russian and Western (NATO) militaries are “possible as never before,” and a situation of total chaos in Europe caused by a Le Pen victory “could lead to conflict escalation” (RIA Novosti, March 6).
Moscow would most likely favor a stable and predictable pro-Russian French president like Fillon. But Fillon has become engulfed in an alleged corruption scandal, is lagging in the polls and could fail to make it into the May 7 runoff. Instead of Fillon, the most probable candidate to face Le Pen in the presidential runoff now seems to be independent political newcomer and former investment banker Emmanuel Macron, 39, who is no friend of Moscow. Macron and his campaign have accused RT and its Sputnik talk radio supplement of spreading “fake news” to undermine his candidacy as well as of waging information warfare. Russian state TV Channel One has ridiculed Macron as a liar and a stooge of the US Democratic Party establishment and former President Barack Obama, who despite retirement is routinely portrayed by Russian propaganda as the heart and soul of collective global evil. Russian state propaganda is actively defending Le Pen and Fillon as victims of a witch hunt, supposedly prosecuted by the French press and the globalized establishment for defending true French national interests (1tv.ru, March 5).
Next September, Germany will hold general elections, which could possibly oust Chancellor Angela Merkel, seen in Moscow as Putin’s prime European opponent. Her popularity has suffered as a result of the continent’s ongoing refugee crisis. If Merkel were ultimately replaced by a pro-Russian German politician, and if Le Pen or Fillon were to come to power in France—the thoughts went a couple months ago—Putin could count on friendly leaders in Washington, Paris and Berlin, as well as Beijing, Ankara, Tehran, Cairo, Baghdad, Damascus, Delhi, Hanoi and others. Attempts to isolate and punish Putin for Crimea and Donbas would have been decisively and irrevocably refuted. Russian soft power and “hybrid” information warfare capabilities would have hit the West in its center of gravity. But alas, Putin’s luck seems to have run out: Trump got cold feet, the French elections are going wrong, and independent US shale oil companies have responded to the OPEC-Russia production freeze by expanding extraction. Crude prices have stagnated and may again begin to slip. The OPEC-Russia agreement may collapse, undermining the financial stability of the Putin regime (Kommersant, March 9).
The Trump administration is now seen in Moscow as a disappointment: Team Trump succeeded in spreading early havoc internally and internationally, but failed to move decisively to dismantle sanctions or broker a grand deal with the Kremlin. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev announced that the country should brace itself for continued sanctions into “the foreseeable future” (Interfax, February 28). The Moscow press has not fully written off Trump as a possible friend of Putin’s Russia. But it has been telling the population, “Trump is the victim of a relentless counterattack by the Democratic establishment and the mainstream media, which are whipping up anti-Russian hysteria.” Trump has been forced into retreat by his foes, and if he continues to demonstrate weakness, his presidency is doomed (Moskovsky Komsomolets, March 7).
Of course Moscow will continue to actively troll upcoming European elections in the hopes that Merkel may fall and Macron does not become president. Moscow also has not fully given up on Trump, but the reliance on soft power and information warfare has demonstrated their inherent limitations. Russian generals in charge of threat assessments and national strategic planning surely understand the importance of information and cyber warfare but see it as an auxiliary force that can, at best, supplement “hard” military power. As the possible detente with the West falters, the defense ministry will be pressing the Kremlin for more tanks, jets and missiles—an outcome the Russian military will hardly see as disappointing.