March 21, 2018 | By Ivo H. Daalder

This Week's Reads - Putin on a Roll

Putin is on a roll. Last Sunday, defying no one's expectations, he cruised to victory in what goes for elections in Russia these days. According to official results, he won more votes than ever before, never mind that he had barred the opposition from running, prevented a real campaign, and all the evidence of ballot stuffing and turnout inflation. Putin won. Or as his campaign slogan would have it—"Strong President – Strong Russia.”

It’s all part of an increasingly brazen, increasingly confident Russian leader, who is no longer concerned with getting caught engaging in illegal acts, but in fact wants the world to know how easy it is to break the law and get away with it.

He's ordered the assassination of political opponents for years, but now he does it with Soviet-era nerve agents that can easily be traced back to the Kremlin. He doesn't just want to kill his opponents. He wants the world to know he did it.

His cyber forces penetrated and "sat" on US electric facilities, which officials say is a signal by Moscow that it can disrupt the West’s critical infrastructure at any moment. And he wants us to know it.

He interfered in the US election and the elections of our allies. While he playfully denied it during an NBC interview with Megyn Kelly, it was all designed to show Putin winking at the world.

He once used little green men to pave the way in Crimea, now his uniformed military is engaged in support of rebels in Ukraine and a government in Syria engaged in war crimes against innocent civilians.

No one can doubt that Strong Russia is acting like a major international threat, and Strong Putin's reelection means that the threat is here to stay. Fortunately, we are seeing signs of the West beginning to step up.

Last week, the Trump administration imposed its first sanctions on Russia for Moscow's election meddling and its actions in Ukraine. Theresa May expelled Russian diplomats from her country in response to the hit on Putin's target in Salisbury. And in solidarity, Trump joined May, France's Emanuel Macron, and Germany's Angela Merkel in condemning the attack.

Yet, welcome as these steps are, they are hardly sufficient. Putin is breaking the law, causing havoc, death, and destruction — and bragging about it — and the global community is giving him a slap on the wrist. Worse, President Trump and EU Commission President Juncker, rather than isolating Putin, just congratulated him on winning a rigged election. We have to do better.

Last year, Congress overwhelmingly passed a law mandating new sanctions on Russia for its interference in the 2016 elections. It called on the administration to compile a list of Putin’s top cronies and consider going after their financial and other assets to make them pay. Last month, the Treasury department released a list of names seemingly copied from the Kremlin’s website and the Forbes list of Russian billionaires. But a classified list, backed up by sensitive intelligence, was also prepared and sent to Congress. Those on that list should now be targeted with new sanctions, visa restrictions, seizure of assets, and other steps to increase the pain on those have benefitted the most from Putin’s rule. It's time to hit back where it hurts.

As always, I welcome your thoughts and comments.

Boris Johnson: Britain Needs Its Allies to Stand with Us against Russia

Boris Johnson / The Washington Post

Experts have identified the chemical weapon used in the March 4 Salisbury attack against former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia as novichok, a banned Soviet-era nerve agent. In response, UK Prime Minister Theresa May expelled 23 Russian diplomats. Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson calls on the country’s allies to stand in solidarity and support saying, “All responsible nations share an obligation to take a principled stance against this behavior. Britain is striving to uphold the rules on which the safety of every country depends. I hope and believe that our friends will stand alongside us.”

Putin Has Finally Gone Too Far

David Ignatius / The Washington Post

Russian President Vladimir Putin is notorious for manipulating foreign powers, enabling widespread carnage in Syria, and compromising national elections – among other condemnable activities. But the recent chemical attack on a former Russian spy on UK soil is being termed an “international tripwire” from which Putin should proceed with caution. Ignatius argues that if the United States is serious about holding the Kremlin accountable for its transgressions, a coalition should be formed of NATO allies and the United Nations to inflict appropriate sanctions and strain – perhaps by targeting Russia’s vulnerable dependency on Saudi Arabia’s oil and gas dealings.

Cyberattacks Put Russian Fingers on the Switch at Power Plants, U.S. Says

Nicole Perlroth and David E. Sanger / The New York Times

The Department of Homeland security recently released more evidence of Russian cyberattacks targeting American and European nuclear power plants and water and electric systems, adding to evidence of meddling revealed last year. While American plants have not yet been sabotaged, intelligence agencies warn that the hackers have the foothold they need to shut down industrial infrastructure. As hostilities between the United States, European nations, and Russia escalate, the Russian cyberstrikes serve as an ominous warning of what is at stake.

Vladimir Putin’s Politics of Eternity

Timothy Snyder / The Guardian

Snyder provides a lengthy, in-depth analysis of the changing global political climate. He explains a shift from the politics of inevitability, wherein there are “promises [of] a better future for everyone” to the politics of eternity, a system in which the “government cannot aid society as a whole, but can only guard against threats.” Eternity politicians generally seek to manipulate their constituents or belittle achievements made by others to improve human welfare. President Putin’s governing style employs all the characteristics of the politics of eternity, and given its impact on a global scale, it threatens the politics of inevitability in most western countries.

Before Meeting with Kim, Trump Should Look Back to Reykjavik

David E. Hoffman / The Washington Post

In October of 1986, President Ronald Reagan met with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland without much preparation to discuss potential plans for the abolition of nuclear weapons. The deal fell apart, but the takeaway from the meeting lives on: “Know your adversary’s intentions and capabilities before stepping into the room. Improvisation can be smart and effective; but…there must be serious staffing to make sure gains are for real, and can be sustained.” As President Trump prepares for his meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the moral of Reagan-Gorbachev is worth remembering.

The Foreign Capital Rex Tillerson Never Understood: Trump’s Washington

Susan B. Glasser / Politico

Following the abrupt Twitter firing of Rex Tillerson—“Rexit”—Susan Glasser seeks to explain what went wrong for the soon former Secretary of State. Although Tillerson received much attention for the offense in which he called Trump a “moron,” Glasser suggests that this was simply the last straw precipitating Tillerson’s inevitable downfall. “He didn’t get the world wrong; he got the president wrong – and his own staff too.” Glasser argues that a combination of excluding his staff from decision making, clashing with the president, and self-denial lead to this moment.

Populism’s Challenge to Democracy

William A. Galston / The Wall Street Journal

Amid recent political trends suggesting populism is on the rise around the world, Galston warns that the populist movement tears down measures meant to prevent autocracy. He outlines populist motivations that have contributed to the movement’s growth and proposes a three-step approach to responding to this risk: Counter threats to institutions while reforming them to act more effectively; legitimately exercise national sovereignty through controlled borders; and pursue inclusive economic growth.

In a Trade War Germany is the Weakest Link

Wolfgang Münchau / Financial Times

“If your target is Germany…a trade war is easy to win.” Münchau discusses the three ways in which a “debilitating shock” could be delivered to Germany by use of trade policy: US tariffs, such as those recently imposed by Trump on steel and aluminum; UK tariffs on EU imported cars; or a continued decrease in diesel car sales due to electrical car advancements. Trump’s position to initiate a “geopolitical power game” by way of trade tariffs, giving him sway over EU trade policy and member state defense spending, is equated by Münchau to “the fool’s mate in chess: the game could all be over in two moves.”

A Parable of Self-Destruction

Nicholas Kristof / The Wall Street Journal

Nicholas Kristof draws a parallel between Easter Island and “the whole modern world” to warn of the consequences of resource exploitation. When originally explored, the island was distinguished by thousands of guardian-like statues surrounding its landscape, but the land was barren and its inhabitants impoverished, making the origin of the statues all the more mysterious. Scientists and historians have worked to solve the puzzle of their creation, learning that the exploitation of natural resources began a chain of events causing the society’s demise. Kristof argues that Easter Island has since become a warning of what could become of our collective society should we similarly mistreat the planet that sustains us.

Thinking Zbig: America’s Grand Strategist

Edward Luce / The New York Times

Zbigniew “Zbig” Brzezinski gained his nickname as a result of how largely he dictated President Carter’s agenda as his national security advisor. Luce provides an overview of Justin Vaïsse’s biography on Brzezinski, whose story is not well known despite being as influential as his counterpart, Henry Kissinger. The biography includes positive highlights of Brzezinski’s career, such as the Camp David Accords in 1977 between Israel and Egypt, as well as some negatives, such as his support of the Iranian hostage crisis rescue mission. Overall, Vaïsse leaves the reader with a positive take on Brzezinski as a smart man who accomplished “Zbig” things.

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The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

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