Has the world underestimated russia's political influence?

Saint Basil's Cathedral as seen within the Kremlin complex.

By Justin K. Thomas

March 22, 2018

In its long and storied history, Russia has proven to be a formidable opponent whether it be on the battlefield against Napoleon or Hitler, in the space race with the United States, or conducting clandestine intelligence activities around the world from Catherine the Great to Vladimir Putin.

There have been failures of course, too, not the least of which was the seventy-year attempt to maintain the Soviet Union. Partly as a result of that Union’s collapse in 1992, many nations simply “wrote off” Russia.

They began to underestimate Russia’s ability to maintain its global political relevance.

Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell and Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and Public Policy at the College of William & Mary, believes this underestimation of Russia is a dangerous error.

In this Question & Answer article, Wilkerson discusses the consequences of misjudging both Russia’s power and the skill with which its current leader employs that power.

He also believes U.S. and Russian cooperation on issues of common interest is essential to a stable, peaceful and prosperous world.

A Russian military honor guard drawn from the 154th Commandant's Regiment stand at attention during a ceremony in Moscow, Russia, June 26, 2009.

Photo by Chad J. McNeeley

Is the world under-estimating the Russian Federation's ability to maintain its relevance on the global stage?

Governments around the world are severely underestimating Russia's intent and ability to maintain its political relevance. The metaphor of Moscow as a "global gas station” is indicative of the West’s attitude toward this 2,000-year-old civilization.

The country that defeated the Teutonic Knights, France’s Napoleon, and Germany’s Hitler is very much still in the grand strategic game and should not be taken lightly. True, Russia has many domestic challenges. These challenges range from a declining life-expectancy to an economy that is too heavily dependent on a single resource, as implied by the previous "gas station" metaphor.

But President Vladimir Putin, through a cunning and aggressive foreign policy, has exploited a number of opportunities to put Moscow in a position of success, often at the expense of a United States that is losing its leadership role in the world.

And we must never forget that Russia is a nuclear power and, like the U.S., massively so.

The Russian and American flags.

Photo courtesy of Mashabuba / Getty Images

Is Russia trying to disturb or dismember U.S. alliances?

There is no doubt that Russia is taking advantage of an American government that is poorly led, quite often dysfunctional, confused and in many ways unwilling to face reality.

Russia is very pleased with the fact that the European Union is suffering structurally and culturally which is exemplified by Brexit, the rise of extremely right-wing political parties, the lack of democracy in Brussels, and, ironically enough, the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to the point of inutility.

Much of what we see today regarding Russia's political maneuvering was preordained by comprehensively bad U.S. foreign and security policies at the end of the Cold War. Sticking our fingers in Moscow’s eyes at every opportunity, from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty’s abrogation to the building of missile defenses, to announcing the possibility of future NATO membership for Georgia, was colossally bad foreign and security policy.

Add to these bad policies, the rape and plunder of Moscow and its environs by U.S. financiers and bankers from Goldman Sachs and elsewhere, all making outlandish fees off the fire sales of Russian assets, it is no surprise that a strongman like Putin has come along to correct the problems.

The U.S. is single-handedly helping Putin in other areas as well.

For example, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan is increasingly growing skeptical of the United States' trustworthiness and is considering what Japan’s future should look like without American support. Mr. Abe wants a fully-fledged Japan that can sell its domestically-made weaponry to the world, field a standard and powerful armed forces and eventually attain nuclear weapons.

Prime Minister Abe is hedging his bets with major powers like Russia and China and no longer counting on the United States as Japan did in the past.

Likewise, Germany is looking to hedge some bets as well. Angela Merkel, the nation's chancellor, has said that the United States might not be trustworthy as an ally.

For the time being, these hesitations by our allies are music to Putin’s ears. But he has to be careful because a resurgent Japan and a more mature and self-reliant Germany might eventually present Moscow with challenges.

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Did the United States underestimate Russia's ability to conduct information warfare operations in respect to our elections and will it happen again?

First, Russia did not have the influence in the 2016 U.S. presidential election political pundits and others are claiming. It is even questionable that the Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA) of Jan. 6, 2017, was anything more than a politicized statement of “facts”—as when then-Secretary of State Colin Powell presented arguments to the United Nations Security Council in Feb. of 2003 about “facts” regarding Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.

Russia did conduct its usual disinformation campaign in 2015-16, but I don’t believe it had any substantial impact on the election’s outcome. Russia will likely try similar operations before and during the 2020 elections. I doubt they will be decisive either.

Second, the United States has conducted comparable—and even substantially effective—disinformation operations in every decade since the end of World War II all over the globe.

For example, in 1948, President Harry S. Truman ordered the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to help defeat the communists in Italy. During that action, the CIA bought-off newspaper editors and writers to help sway public opinion.

And most recently, the CIA tried to influence the elections in Venezuela in 2002 to stop Hugo Chavez from winning the presidency, and under the direction of former President Barack Obama, the CIA used disinformation campaigns to facilitate turmoil in Kiev, Ukraine—turmoil that is ongoing to this day.

We could say that what is good for the goose is good for the gander, or we could change “good” to “bad” in the eyes of those to whom the U.S. or the Russians do what they do.

President Donald Trump (Right) and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands during the 2017 G20 Summit in Hamburg Germany.

Photo courtesy of Rolling Stone Magazine

What can be done to get the White House and Kremlin working together?

The first action would be to sit down and seriously talk about our collective security and foreign policy interests. At the top of that list would be our nuclear weapons, and the conflict in Syria would be a close second.

But there are other issues of common concern as well. These issues range from the freedom to navigate the world’s international waterways which promotes free-trade and commerce, the escalation of tensions in Kosovo and the change in climate affecting the Arctic Ocean.

President Donald Trump needs to set aside his domestic political troubles with “the Russia scandal” and meet with Mr. Putin. This likely won’t happen because, in my opinion, Mr. Trump is a coward at heart, both personally and politically.

And perhaps even Mr. Putin has something of interest on Mr. Trump and were he to reveal that something is, Mr. Trump would be sorely displeased—or worse.

Map depicting the location of allied NATO countries and their geographical proximity to Russia.

Courtesy of The Sun Newspaper

What does Russia want in the long term?

First and foremost, Russia wants respect from the West and the world community-at-large. Moscow is also seeking to improve and diversify its economy while making as much money as it can from its oil and gas assets in the meantime.

From a national security standpoint, Russia wants its sovereignty acknowledged and to feel safe, especially along its western borders.

And so long as NATO led by the United States, continually encroaches on Russia’s natural spheres of influence, in such places as Georgia, Ukraine, the Baltic states and even Finland, Russian leadership will continue to feel apprehensive and take actions accordingly where and when they can.