How Russia benefits from America’s crisis
Unrest and mayhem in the United States works to Moscow’s advantage in the escalating struggle for global influence. Following the killing of unarmed black man George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis and the resulting nationwide protests, Russian officials, intelligence services and online trolls are ramping up their attacks on U.S. democracy and on America’s international role.
Any disruptions and conflicts in American society serve at least three geo-strategic goals for the Kremlin, which it magnifies through official channels and an army of digital disinformers. First and foremost, democratic systems can be depicted and discredited as facades for racism, xenophobia and class division. Unlike in communist times, Moscow no longer trumpets its own system as idyllic but primarily seeks to widen the fractures in Western democracies so that they are no longer models for Russia’s neighbors and allies.
Second, U.S. officials can be characterized as hypocrites for criticizing Russian and Chinese crackdowns on domestic dissent and other civil rights abuses. Social networks have been inundated with reports and video clips of violence in American cities. Kremlin officials and commentators are reveling in the portrayal of America as a country on the brink of civil war and impending collapse, thereby justifying their own allegedly successful handling of domestic opposition.
Third, Moscow is eager to diminish the U.S. role in the world not only as the beacon of individual freedom but also as a trusted ally. President Trump has unwittingly helped Russian President Vladimir Putin on various occasions by openly questioning NATO’s purpose and threatening to withdraw U.S. troops from various key regions. Ongoing domestic unrest supposedly underscores that Washington will be too preoccupied with its internal problems to assist any of its allies in a time of crisis.
The Russian government also purveys the notion that U.S. officials believe Russia engineered America’s internal conflicts. This is a classic deception designed to discredit investigations of Moscow’s methods. Positing and then ridiculing the notion that Russia is responsible for every crisis is a form of inverted propaganda intended to depict Putin’s critics as paranoid, while dismissing Russia’s real interventions as fantasies. At the same time, the idea that Moscow is responsible for the U.S. implosion can raise Putin’s domestic stature and Russia’s international posturing as the key anti-American power.
Ultimately, American domestic unrest and civil conflict is not an end in itself for the Kremlin. The main goal is to restrict the U.S. to its own hemisphere, diminish America’s international alliances and enable authoritarian states to carve up the rest of the world into spheres of predominant influence.
And with such ambitious objectives, Putin is keeping a close eye on the upcoming U.S. presidential elections. He calculates that if Trump is re-elected by asserting that he will restore law and order, he will feel more unrestrained in applying his version of “America First.” No longer dependent on Congress for his political survival, Trump would have a freer hand to disregard his national security team. This could result in withdrawing from Western institutions, forging a partnership with Putin, lifting economic sanctions for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and even sacrificing much of Europe’s east to Moscow in a grand bargain to again divide Europe into spheres of influence.
In the midst of the current crises, it is difficult for Russia’s disinformation offensive to focus on attacking Joe Biden, especially as it berates the current American leadership for its domestic failures. Paradoxically, Russian trolls and influencers may actually help the former vice president’s election chances by underscoring and even exaggerating the incompetence of the Trump White House in mishandling several simultaneous crises.
A Biden victory would certainly not be welcome in Moscow. Washington would refocus on transatlantic cooperation and is likely to pursue a tougher policy toward Russia, including stiffer economic sanctions and more intensive strategic pushback. Biden could also capitalize on the necessity of reforming America’s law enforcement institutions to pursue a global campaign in support of ethnic equality and judicial reform. This would precipitate a more intensive focus on Moscow’s repressive domestic policies and its subjugation of numerous nations trapped in the Russian Federation.
Janusz Bugajski is a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) in Washington DC. His recent book, co-authored with Margarita Assenova, is entitled “Eurasian Disunion: Russia’s Vulnerable Flanks,” Jamestown Foundation, Washington, D.C.
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