There is no denying that the U.S. election season of 2016 and its outcome was one of the weirdest in the history of the nation.
First there was the clown car of Republican hopefuls, ranging from the widely loathed Ted Cruz with his high school creeper smirk, to Ben Carson who combined two of the seven dwarves into one: Sleepy Doc, to the befuddled milquetoast Jeb Bush who was a one-man garbage disposal for the “smart money.”
On the other side we have the ongoing spectacle of the bungled machinations of the Democratic Party elites in overriding the wishes of their constituents by consigning Bernie Sanders to the dustbin of history in favor of anointing the establishment’s darling Hillary Clinton–despite Sanders consistently polling miles ahead of her, and despite her heavy baggage, as well as her general tone-deafness in a moment when people wanted change rather than the tired old insider politics she represents.
Then of course there’s Donald Trump, widely ridiculed and derided by party adherents on both sides right up until election day, and who is now of course President-elect. He was the result that no one saw coming–possibly not even Trump himself–and he has the establishment in a tizzy over what might be coming next.
Now take a moment to imagine the view of this absurd morass from the catbird seat of the Kremlin.
Never before in the history of U.S.-Russian relations, and certainly not in the period following the collapse of the Soviet Union has the U.S. power structure been in such a shambles. This is a sobering reality that should cause lawmakers and even members of the shadow government to lay awake nights in a cold sweat.
Indeed, the ghost of that long-moribund cold war rival of the U.S. looms large over the election’s outcome. Russia may be under new management, and it may no longer be an experiment in communism but rather one of oligarchy and kleptocracy, but nonetheless we are witnessing a singular time in the intertwined histories of the U.S. and Russia.
And in case you haven’t been paying attention, it doesn’t look so good for the good old U.S. of A in terms of how this new game is playing out.
Especially now, given the surreal moment we find ourselves in with Russia, we would do well to revisit Vladimir Putin’s behavior both covert and overt with regard to the former Soviet republics to try to get some clue as to what we might be facing going forward.
Indeed, if you have any questions about what it’s like to deal with an empowered Russia gleefully interfering in your sovereign affairs, you could direct them to Ukraine and especially to Georgia.
As we will see, the parallels between what is happening in the U.S. and what happened in Georgia are stunning. More on that in a moment.
One thing we know for certain of a man like Donald Trump–despite the admiration with which he is showered in some quarters for his bluntness and lack of artifice as well as his ability to portray himself as an outsider–is that mentally he is no match for the ex-spook that runs the vast criminal enterprise that is modern Russia. Neither intellectually nor in terms of sheer gamesmanship, nor in his ability to manipulate people into producing the outcomes he desires.
In other words, when it comes to Vladimir Putin, Trump is badly outgunned–which is just the way Putin likes it.
To begin to get a grip on who we’re dealing with in the person and personage of Putin, by all rights we need to go back to the New Year’s Eve 1999 handover of power when he received the presidency as the reward for years of long work reorganizing the 800,000-agent strong KGB into a covert political force to be reckoned with.
Over the eight year interregnum between then and the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, the KGB morphed into the Putin-headed FSB, a vast network assimilating elements of the elite, the criminal underworld, and the military. That group came into its own as the alleged authors of a series of apartment bombings that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of citizens and culminated in Putin’s ascension to the presidency.
And all of this was veiled under a thick smokescreen of propaganda painting him as a hero, with intertwined narratives swirling around, creating distrust of the press and official sources, and an atmosphere in which truth itself was questioned–in other words, psy-ops, propaganda, or spycraft, whatever you want to call it–much the same as what is currently occurring in the U.S. with regard to the election.
This is the Russia we are dealing with today: a vast security state powered by oil money and the kleptocrats who control the looted riches of some 40 percent of the nation’s wealth–not to mention one of the world’s greatest militaries. It is an organization untethered, devoid of restraint when it comes to dealing out realpolitik consequences to neighbors as well as distant rivals it finds inconvenient.
If we then flash-forward to 2008 and look at the example of Georgia we can perhaps better grasp what Putin’s worldview might yield for the future.
By early August of 2008, tensions between the government of Georgia and separatists in its South Ossetia region had reached the breaking point. The administration of the region had been arguing for years for its legitimacy as a separate nation, a proposal that was soundly rejected by the international community–save Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin.
Seeing the conflict as an opportunity to flex Russian power in the face of NATO’s proposed expansion to Georgia and Kosovo, Putin fanned the flames by not only recognizing the breakaway region, but also by dropping in paratroopers to support the fighters there.
On August 8, following a period of increasing but still sporadic clashes between Georgian troops and South Ossetian fighters, Georgia president Mikheil Saakashvili pleaded for a cease-fire: “We do not want to return fire,” he said on national television. “Please do not test the Georgian state’s patience…Let’s give peace and dialogue a chance.”
But only a few hours later, the fighting had escalated well beyond that of a skirmish. Reports of “volunteer fighters” pouring in through the Roki tunnel connecting South Ossetia to Russia began that morning, and by afternoon there were Russian troops by the thousands along with tanks and other support in South Ossetia. Shortly thereafter, Georgia responded in kind with aerial bombing and increased troop actions of its own, amid widespread reports of ethnic cleansing and other war crimes committed by the Russian troops and their mysterious “volunteer fighters.”
The story to this day remains murky as to which side escalated first–but the haziness of cause and effect isn’t the only parallel to other conflicts involving (orchestrated by?) Putin.
For one, the “volunteer fighters” story may sound familiar to those who paid attention to Putin’s Crimean putsch in Ukraine in 2014. “Green men” in military garb but lacking any identifying insignia were widely reported to be among the first on the ground in Crimea, leading the lightning strike incursion that eventually ended up with Russia controlling the region.
Another parallel that should ring alarm bells across the U.S. today can be found in former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s pleadings before the U.N. for justice following the South Ossetia conflict in September 2008. In that address, he cited not only the Russian aggression in its blatant invasion of sovereign Georgian territory and interfering in its internal affairs with the South Ossetian separatists, but also Russian cyber-attacks on the communications system of Georgia during the attacks, as well as “…a campaign to cripple my country’s economy.”
In light of reports of Russian hacking of the Democratic Party’s email servers, and the as-yet unverified reports of an alleged attack on the power grid infrastructure in Vermont, one can only hope that Americans are paying attention.
Despite the self-inflicted wounds of the Democratic establishment’s haplessly inept campaign, and their self-serving, exculpatory eagerness to lay all the blame for their loss on Putin’s hack job, whatever the level of Putin’s involvement in the U.S. election may be signals a dangerous new shift in the balance of power in the world.
In sports they always talk about momentum. And what all these recent developments add up to is a Putin and Russia with a full head of steam, feeling confident and stepping forward into a new paradigm of global power relationships that they have helped to forge on the ground, even as the U.S. appears to be caught flat-footed–if it isn’t fully up against the ropes.
Fresh in everyone’s memory, one hopes, is the lesson of Syria, in which U.S. dithering and foot-dragging–not to mention enlisting the dubious assistance of fighters from groups we simultaneously claim as enemies like al-Qaeda and ISIS–has led to the ridiculous pass of Secretary of State John Kerry advising caution for the world’s most powerful military even as Putin acts, swooping in and changing the reality on the ground in a few short days.
Today, following four years of half-heartedly laying waste to that ancient and formerly vibrant country through proxies, the U.S. is left with nothing for its trouble but being forced to accept the humiliating proposition of the continuing rule of the odious President Assad, backed by the muscle of Russian troops and fighter jets.
Playing by the rules as laid out by the U.N. and the U.S. is not something Putin feels compelled to do. Nor is he beholden to any norms of international behavior when it comes to warfare, overt or covert. Indeed, the big picture of Russia’s resurgence as a genuine player on the world stage has far greater implications beyond fears of an emasculated U.S. foreign policy and Assad retaining power in Syria.
The example of Georgia as a place and a people whose destiny Putin has managed to overtly and covertly control unjustly continues to fester to this day. For one thing, Russian troops remain in the South Ossetia region, nearly nine years after the clashes there.
And while Georgian leaders continue to plead with NATO for full membership for their nation, NATO continues to dither. The opposition is driven largely by Germany and France’s objections that membership for Georgia would mean enraging Putin and unleashing retaliation for other member states who voted them in.
But really, the problems Georgia faces with regard to Russia are tailor-made for remedy with NATO membership–not to mention U.N. intervention. Facing foreign troops on their soil, over 200,000 people displaced through warfare or ethnic cleansing, and nearly a decade of this situation continuing as it has is untenable. It would not be tolerated were any other power behind it besides Putin’s Russia, and it certainly wouldn’t be tolerated for a NATO member.
So in a way, Putin has already won in Georgia. By instilling fear, confusion and intimidation, and by applying lightning strokes of brute force, he managed to get his troops into South Ossetia in Georgia’s sovereign territory, and he hasn’t left in nine years. In addition he has also kept NATO out of Georgia, and he controls the narrative to no small degree.
This isn’t to say all is lost for Georgia, not by a long shot. But the failure of imagination by NATO and the U.N. has cost lives and hardship there that is impossible to appreciate from the outside looking in.
Going forward, NATO must once and for all recognize Georgia’s claim to membership, as it was promised back in the mid-1990s. The delays and lack of support in the face of very real threats from Russia belie the organization’s charter, its purpose, and indeed its very soul.
Again, Georgia is just one example. But if we in the west fail to look at the New New World Order that Russia and Putin are creating on the ground even today in places like Georgia, Ukraine, Syria–and perhaps now even in the U.S.–we run the risk of preemptively allowing him to project his power in as-yet unknown and unthinkable ways.
The deep state of the new Russia is dangerous indeed, coming as it does from people with the resumes of spies and thugs.
We should not presume to think there are any normal constraints on their actions should any nation stand in the way of their desired outcome.