The scary truth about what Putin really wants (and Obama’s willful ignorance)

What is Vladimir Putin up to? Evidence of Russian ambition seems to mount by the day. Seizing its neighbor’s territory.  Russian bomber overflights of NATO member states. Sophisticated cyberattacks aimed at influencing America’s presidential election. Missiles fired at civilian aircraft. Devastating air strikes on hospitals and relief convoys in Aleppo as the ink dries on a U.S.-Russian cease-fire agreement for Syria. American accusations of bad faith and the suspension of diplomatic talks.

Russia’s agenda should appear clear by now. But the U.S. intelligence community is apparently divided over whether President Putin’s provocations are “tactical,” that is, the result of geo-political opportunities that he has cleverly seized, or “strategic,”part of a coherent plan to undermine America and, as one American presidential nominee might put it, make Russia great again.

Having failed yet again to predict most of Putin’s startling diplomatic and military gambits, a majority of intelligence analysts reportedly continue to insist that Putin has no grand scheme to confront America, that his policies have been aimed at boosting his personal image at home and Russia’s international standing abroad to deflect attention from the country’s grave and growing economic woes. The escalating clashes between Russia and America and its allies, as David Sanger recently wrote in The New York Times, echoing the White House’s and intelligence analysts stubborn consensus, fall far short of a new Cold War. There is no “great ideological struggle underway,” he writes.

Veteran Democratic pollster (and Fox News contributor) Douglas E. Schoen, with Evan Roth Smith, his colleague and co-author, adamantly disagree. In this new book, “Putin’s Master Plan, (Encounter Books, September 27, 2016)” they argue forcefully, and convincingly to many observers, that Putin’s global goal is to undermine the West and liberal democracy and that he has a clearly defined strategy for doing so.

The United States and its allies, Schoen asserts, play into Putin’s hands by failing to resist Russia’s aggression. Washington, in particular, has failed to exert the “clearheaded, decisive Western leadership” essential to halting such conduct, especially in Europe. “In the face of Putin’s naked aggression in Europe, the West has shown a level of incompetence that approaches impotence,” they write. A harsh, but not unfair verdict.

Putin seeks to “usher in a new world order” reminiscent of that during the Cold War, they write, by systematically attempting to “destroy Europe, divide NATO, and restore Russian power and global influence,” the subtitle of the book.

The United States and its allies, Schoen asserts, play into Putin’s hands by failing to resist Russia’s aggression. Washington, in particular, has failed to exert the “clearheaded, decisive Western leadership” essential to halting such conduct, especially in Europe. “In the face of Putin’s naked aggression in Europe, the West has shown a level of incompetence that approaches impotence,” they write. A harsh, but not unfair verdict.

Rather than unearth reams of new intelligence, Schoen and his co-author make their case largely by mining public sources, describing case after case of Russian aggression, and documenting Putin’s extensive use of  “hybrid warfare” – conventional force plus unconventional forces, cyberwar, subterfuge and propaganda.

Five of their nine chapters are devoted to the techniques Putin has used to promote his goals –covert and overt support for left-wing groups, predictably, and unpredictably, for right-wing parties which also oppose NATO and the European Union.

The book cites warnings from Europeans and other targets of Kremlin intrigue that are so often ignored in the U.S.. The cost of failing to counter Russian probing, provocation, and aggression, they maintain, is high.

Schoen, one of the most influential Democratic campaign consultants for thirty years, blames the last three American presidents for the failure to confront Putin. But President Obama receives the brunt of this withering critique of America’s foreign policy.

Schoen is most knowledgeable, and passionate, in decrying America’s policy towards Ukraine, a country he knows well thanks partly to his role as an adviser to the country’s leading pro-Western oligarch, Victor Pinchuk.

Because of Russia’s seizure of Crimea, its support for the ongoing war in the industrial heartland, and other steps aimed at strangling the state economically, politically and militarily, Schoen asserts, “Ukraine is on the brink of collapse.”

Yet apart from supporting sanctions to punish Russia for its seizure of Crimea and the provision of some modest non-lethal aid, Washington has remained seemingly indifferent to the death and suffering of Ukrainians and to Russia’s continued occupation of territory whose sovereignty Putin has long refused to recognize but which the West had repeatedly guaranteed. Particularly “shameful,” the book states, is America’s unwillingness to provide Ukraine with the weapons it needs to defend itself.  But he and his co-author say little about what America and Europe could do to address another of Ukraine’s gravest challenges – reducing the systemic corruption which along with the war has undermined investment and disillusioned so many of the millions who filled Kiev’s main square in 2004 and 2013 to oust their corrupt government and demand government accountability and democracy.

Across the board, Schoen favors a more robust response to Putin’s policies – a permanent NATO troop presence in Eastern Europe, America’s destruction of Russian arms caches if Putin continues funneling weapons to Syria and Iran, and other military steps “to force the cessation and eventual reversal of Russian acts of aggression.”

Is there hope that Russia’s mounting economic and demographic troubles might moderate its behavior? In his recent book, “America in Retreat: The new Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder (Sentinel, November 18, 2014),” Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens shares Doug Schoen’s alarm about America’s unwillingness to shoulder its historic, global responsibilities.

He, too, argues that America’s retreat is exacting a devastating price for American security and prosperity. But Stephens seemingly takes comfort in Russia’s growing economic and demographic plight. Russia’s $2 trillion GDP is roughly the same as Italy’s, a country with half Russia’s population, one fifty-fifth of its landmass, and almost none of its resources. Russia’s average monthly wage is $804, about a third of Italy’s.

Once a scientific powerhouse, Stephens notes, since of the Cold War, only seven Russians have won a Nobel Prize, three of whom made their careers outside of Russia. With declining oil prices, America’s rise as the world’s leading oil and gas producer, widespread corruption, high taxes, and thuggish behavior towards foreign investors, strong growth is unlikely.

Analyst Ilan Berman agrees. In “Implosion: The End of Russia and What It Means for America,” (Regnery Publishing, September 16, 2013) he argues that Russia’s sub-replacement-level birth rate, short lifespan and emigration could prompt the country’s population to fall to 52 million by 2080.

Well aware of these trends, Schoen argues that what makes Russian conduct under Putin so ominous is that the country’s intense military buildup is occurring despite such challenges. Putin has boosted defense spending, in ruble terms, twenty-fold. In 2015, Russia’s defense budget reached a record high of $81 billion, a $20 billion increase over 2014. Putin plans to acquire and develop 400 new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM’s), more than 2,000 next generation tanks, 600 modernized combat aircraft, eight nuclear submarines, 50 warships, and 17,000 new military vehicles.

Another internal threat to Russia is growing radical Islamism. Leon Aron, the American Enterprise Institute’s director of Russian studies, recently noted that Russia has contributed more fighters to ISIS than any other European nation. After Arabic, he writes, Russian is the second most popular language of the Islamic “emirate.”  With an estimated 20 million Muslims, or 14 percent of its population, Russia is the largest Muslim country in Europe. With an estimated 300-500 ISIS recruiters in the Russian capital, Moscow has become a key hub and way station to Syria for foreign fighters.

While Christian Orthodox Russia has cooperated with European and U.S. officials to counter Islamic terrorism, fear of radical Islam has not led Putin to shift strategies or embrace deeper cooperation the west to defeat the growing Muslim militancy which threatens both western democracies and autocratic Russia alike. Nor is he likely to do, Schoen argues.

At a recent Brookings Institution seminar, Schoen seemed equally dubious about prospects for the American policy shift he champions. While he respects Hillary Clinton’s “intellectual judgment,” he said, “She is not a strategist who thinks two of three steps ahead.” As for Donald Trump, questions about his financial ties to Moscow, his insecurity and isolationist pronouncements make a return to robust interventionism unlikely.

If the next American president continues President Obama’s complacency, Putin will have already won.