For Putin, Pressure Pays Off in Facing Weak, Divided West

(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. and Europe appeared last week to be lining up alongside the U.K. for a new round of pressure against Vladimir Putin over Russia’s alleged use of a nerve agent to poison a former spy outside London.

But the West’s united front didn’t last long. President Donald Trump didn’t even bring up the case in a call to congratulate Putin on his election landslide Tuesday. The same day, the European Union said no new sanctions are on the table over what Western leaders call the first offensive use of a nerve weapon in Europe since World War II.

For Putin, Pressure Pays Off in Facing Weak, Divided West

That’s just the reaction the Kremlin seems to have been counting on.

“Putin’s bet that the West is weak and divided is being confirmed,” said Valery Solovei, a political scientist at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations. “The Russians very adeptly take advantage of this.”

There was more evidence of the divide Wednesday. As U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May planned to warn allies of Russia’s malign intent and call on them to expel Moscow’s spies, Trump tweeted that “getting along” with Russia “is a good thing.”

Putin’s increasingly aggressive approach -- from alleged cyberattacks on the U.S. power grid to video displays of missiles heading for Miami to the poison attack, which Russia denies any role in -- has caught many in Western capitals off guard.

Dividing Opponents

But according to insiders and analysts in Russia, the Kremlin’s push is driven by more than the desire to appear to be standing up to the West ahead of last Sunday’s presidential elections. By highlighting divisions and weakness among those who would seek to isolate Russia, Putin is demanding a new detente, but one on his terms.

“It’s based on a belief that he has to knock them against the wall before they will sit down at the table,” said Igor Bunin, a political consultant who advises the Kremlin.

Initially, the Kremlin was euphoric about the election of Trump, who praised Putin publicly and called for warmer ties. But the enthusiasm soon faded as the new president proved unable to deliver on his promises.

Now, the pressure is back on to deepen differences among Russia’s rivals, with no hint of concessions, especially since Kremlin officials credit the tough line with the West with helping Putin at the ballot box.

“Putin’s victory has shown the West his popularity and that pressure is pointless, so now the ball is in the West’s court,” said Gleb Kuznetsov, a political consultant who works for the Kremlin. “In this situation, when the West is talking about Russia as evil, no change or steps toward reconciliation can come from the Russian side.”

Western officials seem to be struggling to respond. Just before he was fired, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson admitted that efforts to work with Moscow after Trump’s election had failed.

“Quite frankly, after a year, we didn’t get very far,” Tillerson told reporters March 13. “Instead what we’ve seen is a pivot on their part to be more aggressive. And this is very, very concerning to me and others that there seems to be a certain unleashing of activity that we don’t fully understand what the objective behind that is.”

Clear Strategy

Solovei, the political scientist, said Putin’s goal is clear: “Recognition of the new foreign-policy status quo, lifting of sanctions and setting the conditions for an unobstructed transfer of power” in Russia when his term ends in 2024. “And his strategy is clear: strategic patience in difficult conditions,” he added.

Western analysts say the approach seems to be working. “So far Putin has been proven right,” Joerg Forbrig, senior program director of the German Marshall Fund of the U.S., said by phone from Berlin. “He must feel the West is splintering.”

Publicly, Russian officials deny trying to weaken the western alliance, but they do little to hide their joy when that’s what seems to happen.

“Everyone has different interests. They can’t just line up and follow lock-step,” Vladimir Dzhabarov, first deputy chairman of the international affairs committee in the upper house of parliament, said in a telephone interview. He especially welcomed Trump’s call to congratulate Putin and the idea of a summit. “That would be great.”

The Kremlin also touted the apparent success of Putin’s video displays of new missiles he said rendered U.S. defenses useless, a display Trump mentioned in his account of the call.

“In Washington, they heard the president’s state-of-the-nation speech,” spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday, noting that Putin and Trump had agreed on the need to avoid a new arms race.

Declining Power

Putin “wants to improve relations with the West,” said Vyacheslav Fetisov, a member of parliament from the ruling party who’s played hockey with the president regularly for years. “But he understands his responsibility that when he turns the country over to those who come after him, it must have authority. The only thing better than a victory is another victory.”

But while Putin’s tough approach may help win him support among voters at home and highlight his opponents’ weakness in the short term, it may not be as effective at delivering him the recognition of Russia’s resurgent power that he seeks.

“No one is interested in having a conversation in which one side expects that you’re simply going to cave into all their demands,” said Thomas Graham, who was a top White House official on Russia policy in the George W. Bush administration.

“The prevailing attitude in Washington and in Europe is that Russia remains a power in decline. It may be resurgent at this point, but if you look at the economic and technological issues, Russia is not going to be able to sustain this over the long haul,” so there’s no incentive to make any concessions, he said.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.