As Russia fans the flames of war, can the West win without a shot being fired?
To be sure, Russian roulette is a high stakes game. If you’re unfamiliar with the rules, the game involves loading the barrel of a pistol with a single bullet. Each player spins the barrel, loads the chamber, points it to their temple and pulls the trigger. If no-one dies, you play again. It’s a bloody game which originates from a country with a penchant for high risk and vodka – a deadly combination at the best of times. People actually play this in Russia so, for the record, don’t try this at home.
Losing at Russian roulette can be fatal but the odds of winning are fairly high – 83%, if the pistol has a six-bullet chamber. It’s the kind of game tailor-made for President-elect Donald J. Trump and his soon-to-be Russian counterpart Vladimir V. Putin. High stakes, good odds.
You might say, why play such a deadly game? Or as the computer, Joshua, eloquently concluded about nuclear war in 1983’s WarGames, “The only way to win is not to play.” But what if your opponent has already loaded the chamber? What if he attacked Syria’s moderate rebels, invaded a neighboring country and is threatening to invade another? What if he meddled in your elections? Let’s say, you’re forced to play? How do you win?
Putin’s goals in seeding the November elections, were not just anti-Clinton, as asserted by the intelligence briefing. The Russian president wants to reshape the world where Russia is a global super-power (a massively ambitious goal considering the Russian economy is the size of Italy’s) and where the US is weakened and its values are no longer a hallmark of democracy.
Trump wants to reorder the world, too. Whatever you may think of the new occupant of the White House, his goals are to bring back jobs to the US, renegotiate global trade deals and tackle some of the world’s biggest problems. One thing Putin and Trump do agree on, is the threat that radical Islam poses.
If they help each other meet this mutual goal, there’s a chance they can both walk away winners. If something goes wrong, it could be disastrous for the world. And in such a high stakes game, in an unstable world, with two fragile egos, there’s a higher probability that things get so tense, they turn on each other.
Every President since Ronald Reagan has tried to improve relations with Russia, so when President-elect Trump tweets only “stupid people” don’t want to improve relations with Russia, he’s following in the path of the last 5 presidents. President Obama recently told ABC News, “Putin is not on our team” but even he tried to famously “reset” relations with Moscow at the start of his first term. Improved Russian relations are a good goal, but Putin is not a reliable partner. This is also his Achilles’ heel.
The Russians and the Trump transition team have had extensive talks. Let’s assume the symmetry on positions like hacking, radical Islam, NATO, Syria and Israel is not coincidental and the two sides have already started spinning the barrel in our game of Russian roulette? Every time the chamber remains empty, they both win. In the event it loads a bullet, both sides will want to make sure it’s not a blank.
If past is prologue, Putin will at some point self-implode, but how does a President Trump work towards success in his goal – working with Russia to solve the world’s problems – without coddling an adversary? Let’s start by understanding Putin’s long-game.
The Russian leader wants to increase his country’s profile globally and weaken the United States and keep him in power. At home, where democracy is starved, Putin fears the idea of what the Russians call “color revolutions”. The kind which swept through the Arab Spring and which led up to the Ukrainian crisis and which could ultimately depose him.
Gen. Valery Gerasimov is the architect of what’s dubbed “Gerasimov’s Doctrine” which is often cited as the underpinning of Russia’s asymmetrical war against the US. The doctrine became public in 2013 after Gerasimov studied US campaigns in ethnic Bosnia, Iraq and Libya.
Here’s a simplified version of how it’s done according to Charles K. Bartles, an US military analyst.
- A hostile state uses propaganda in the form of traditional and social media, fake news websites and NGO’s to stoke political opposition – like the campaign used during our recent elections.
- The state amplifies the dissent with undeclared special ops and conventional or private military forces like the Russian troops who invaded Ukraine in unlabeled green uniforms.
- The local government is forced to quell the dissent by using increasingly aggressive methods to maintain calm.
- The hostile state then uses the pretext of the clampdown to impose economic sanctions, political embargoes and military force.
“In a couple of months, even days, a well-functioning state can be turned into a theater of fierce armed conflict, can be made a victim of invasion from outside, or can drown in a net of chaos, humanitarian disaster and civil war,” Gerasimov wrote.
Molly McKew says in Politico “It’s a mistake to see this campaign in the traditional terms of political alliances: rarely has the goal been to install overtly pro-Russian governments. Far more often, the goal is simply to replace Western-style democratic regimes with illiberal, populist, or nationalist ones.”
As I write this, Putin is amassing nuclear weapons and forces in Kaliningrad across the border from Lithuania and Poland. The US is responding by sending in dozens of Special Operations forces into the region. From the Baltic states to Ukraine and from Georgia to Moldova, the Russians are playing the same type of war games in order to further her expansionist plans. Add to this, Moscow’s meddling in US and European elections, the Syrian conflict and a new military pact with Philippines leader, President Rodrigo Duterte, (alarmingly, a favorite of Trump’s) and you start to get a picture of Putin’s plan.
The tactic is dubbed by some as “reflexive control” which is about bating a target into reacting in a predictable way to a manufactured event. In Syria, the Russians triggered a Syrian refugee crisis in Europe when the US failed to act. “We are sleep-walking through the end of our era of peace. It is time to wake up,.” says Eerik-Niiles Kross, an Estonian member of parliament.
Putin has even used the same tactics at home. He is believed to have orchestrated the 1999 Moscow Apartment bombings which gave him the pretext to relaunch a deadly clampdown of internal rebels including the Chechen war. As McKew points out, “Today, Russia is little more than a ghastly hybrid of an overblown police state and a criminal network with an economy the size of Italy — and the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.”
So back to our game of Russian roulette. Every time the US allows Russia to spin the barrel, we allow Putin to leverage up. If we ignore him, we do it at our peril as Russia will continue to grow her power around the world. If we oppose Putin, he’ll continue to spoil any attempts to expand American power and values across the globe. Left out in the cold, he is “permanent disruptor — hacker, mercenary, rule-breaker, liar, thief,” says McKew .
So, what do you do when your guest has too much vodka at your party and challenges you to a game of Russian roulette or else? You play.
Keep your friends close
Putin sees a tremendous opportunity with President-elect Trump. If Trump follows through on his promises to distance himself from NATO and other allies like Mexico, Great Britain, Canada and China, then Russia can expand its Ukrainian-style campaign to other states along Russia’s border. It will also leave the US isolated and weakened. “When you erode the trust between nations it becomes much harder to deal with world crises,” says political scientist Ian Bremmer.
A better approach would be, as the saying goes, to “keep your friends close, your enemies even closer”. There is a lot to be said for maintaining appearances while building a solid defense.
If Trump truly distances the U.S. from our friends, this will be a reason for the world to fear. As Senator Lindsay Graham told Chuck Todd on Meet the Press after the release of the intelligence dossier on Russian hacking, “If after the briefing he is still unsure, that will shake me to my core about his judgment.” Trump moderated his position after receiving the briefing, but his future posture towards Russia remains positive.
Lean towards Justice
Martin Luther King famously paraphrased Theodore Parker, when he said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” It never hurts to be on the right side of history.
While Vladimir Putin may want to outsmart and outwit the United States with his complicated game of global chess, he won’t succeed without justice on his side. Human beings crave it, we are hard-wired to fight for it and no madman has ever won history without it. The United States is the leader of the free world, it’s important to still advance the US values of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – even while playing nice with your friends and enemies. If all else fails, it’s the people who will win.
Trump’s antagonistic response to President Obama’s use of foreign policy to advance global human rights could mean a radical departure from more than half a century of US policy to advance democratic values around the world. It’s the best calling card America has, and failing to use it, will be costly.
Unpredictability is unpredictable
Russia and Putin like using reflexive control. It works when they get the desired response. Otherwise, it can backfire disastrously. Trump plowed through 17 Republican nominees and a Democratic candidate by being completely unpredictable in last year’s elections. This is normally a very unappealing character trait for a President. In this case, Trump’s unpredictability, may be of value.
Goose, meet gander
If you know your opponent uses a strategy, chances are it will be effective against them. Trump doesn’t lose anything by flattering his Russian ‘friend’. He could exact some big wins because of it. He may even want to look the other way as Russia plumps her feathers. The result could mean a solution to some pervasive global issues, including a united approach to counter-terrorism and the Middle East but he should guard against giving anything substantial away.
The odds of winning Russian roulette are reduced every time the trigger is pulled. Pulling the trigger last is an advantage. Putin has already started sending out war smoke signals obscured by an array of modern-day mirrors. It would be fool-hardy to let him continue unabated and in the real world, there’s much more at stake than a game. He cannot be allowed to get away with it. The first round has already been fired by the Russians. How Trump reacts, will prove if Putin has met his match.