The White House implicitly rebuked Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday by announcing that President Donald H. Trump would not hold an official meeting with his Russian counterpart on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Vietnam, although the Kremlin has repeatedly announced the meeting. It is clear that the dialogue between the United States and Russia is far more impaired than the Kremlin realizes.
The question is this: Has Putin made a strategic mistake by publicly harassing the United States and other Western democracies, at a time when vital elections were being held in 2016 and 2017? Intelligent people see that this has already happened.
Among them is Mark Galeotti, one of the Western academics most interested in Russian affairs at the moment, who recently wrote an article in The Guardian: "Tactically, Putin made a great performance, but strategically made a mistake by raising the indignation of many of the big powers in the West, the same countries where Russian money is being laundered." [please see note.]
In fact, over the years, there has been a debate among Western experts about which is Putin's greatest strength: strategy or tactics? If you see that the efforts to instill chaos and promote popular candidates in the presidential elections of some countries have been counterproductive to Russia, this shows that Putin is a tactical person who plays short games brilliantly at the expense of the longer game.
For my part, I have been following Putin since he took power, and I am not really sure about this. I think the Russian president has tried to play two long-term games throughout his first eight years in office.
During his first term, Putin tried to follow the rules of the so-called "Pax Americana" with the aim of economic prosperity, forcing his government to work to double economic growth and to occupy advanced ranks in global classifications, such as the World Bank Group's Ease of Doing Business Index. These efforts were fed by the possibility of Russia's accession to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Although his domestic policies at that time were not liberal, the truth remains that Putin during his first term was different from other foreign leaders, such as Victor Europe in Hungary, Jaroslav Kaczynski in Poland and Silvio Berlusconi in Italy.
During his second term in office, Putin appeared to be getting bored with Western rules and was trying to stand on equal footing in his talks with the United States and European powers. During those years, Russia gained enormous wealth as a result of rising oil prices. Russian wealth spread internationally, which bolstered Putin's own confidence.
This culminated in Putin's 2007 speech at the Munich Conference on Security Policy, in which he accused the United States of being too eager to use force in international relations. At that time Putin was still a partner to the West, given his participation in G8 and the War On Terror.
During his four years away from the presidency from 2008 to 2012, Putin’s clear conviction was that the two previous partnership strategies had not worked. This explains the bitter public spat that broke out between him and then-president Dmitry Medvedev about Western intervention in Libya in 2011. With the Russians out protesting against election fraud, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly announced her support for the demonstrators, thus ending the second long game of Putin which Medvedev had continued.
Not surprisingly, Putin did not act erratically over much of his reign. In fact, Mr. Putin may be more strategic than any contemporary Western leader, perhaps because he did not care about winning the election. For this reason it seems unlikely that he suddenly turned into an opportunist during his third term. Indeed, the game he is currently playing is a dark journey toward the unknown, and it seems to raise the fear of those working under his command - and perhaps even Putin himself - from time to time.
Some tend to describe everything Putin has done since the Crimean invasion of 2014 as a series of wrong opportunistic moves. They claim he seized Crimea because he found that he could do so, and ignited a secessionist war in eastern Ukraine because he found it easy. He entered Syria because he found a vacuum there and ran propaganda campaigns and "active measures" in the United Kingdom, the United States and other Western countries because these countries were not prepared to do so. He pushed the workers under his leadership to establish friendly relations with extreme right-wing politicians across Europe simply because they needed friends. In the case of Marine Le Pen in France, money was also needed. Putin has exercised influence over people and as a result, he has not gained any new friends, but in fact he seems to have acquired new enmities with every step he takes.
Unfortunately, this is Putin's third long game. He does not believe that there are any positive aspects of cooperation with the West. It has often been repeated over recent years that the sanctions against Russia will not be lifted no matter what his country does. Putin is now trying to prove that the West, led by the United States, is so fragile that even a small push causes it to lose its balance. The target audience behind this show is the rest of the developing world. It is supposed to propagate the audacity of Asian, Middle Eastern and Latin American countries so that they stand up to the American hegemony.
It seems that this game may work sometimes. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte is a fan of Putin. Mr. Putin's attempts to show the weakness of the West within China, which seems increasingly to have given up any effort to become more liberal, may succeed.
The West's best answer to Putin's game at the moment is to prove that democratic institutions are still functioning, that they still reflect the wishes of their citizens, and that the West is still able to act as an example and a moral compass to the developing world as well as the Russians.
However, to date, the United States and the United Kingdom have failed at this test. Major parts of the European continent seem to have a better performance, although their weaknesses are becoming apparent to the world at large.
* In agreement with Bloomberg.