Vladimir Putin has had a good year, and it just keeps getting better. He now is collecting his winnings on multiple fronts.
Even Mr. Putin must be amazed at how well he is achieving his goal of sowing discord within the U.S. political system. First, his agents interfered in the 2016 election. Now they can sit back and watch as their efforts to deflect blame away from Moscow and toward Ukraine are bearing fruit, in the form of a bitter American debate that is driving pro-Trump and anti-Trump forces further apart.
Fiona Hill, until recently the top Russia expert on the staff of President Trump’s National Security Council, summarized the Russian success on this front succinctly in her testimony before a House impeachment hearing last week: “The impact of the successful 2016 Russian campaign remains evident today. Our nation is being torn apart. Truth is questioned. Our highly professional and expert career foreign service is being undermined.”
Mr. Putin appears so confident in his success on this front that he actually is publicly gloating about it. “Thank God no one is accusing us of interfering in the U.S. elections anymore; now they’re accusing Ukraine,” he said at a conference in Moscow last week.
Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, heads early next month into his first meeting with Mr. Putin—whose forces have invaded his country and lopped off part of it—knowing that American support for Ukraine can be, and was, caught up in domestic U.S. political fights. Ukraine’s leader thereby enters talks with Mr. Putin less certain of support from Washington in his country’s confrontation with Russia.
But these successes on the American front are only the top of the list of trends moving Mr. Putin’s way.
The British political system is being torn in similar fashion by a debate over how much Russian disinformation was unleashed in an attempt to convince citizens to vote in 2016 to leave the European Union.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, a Brexit advocate, is declining to release a sensitive report by the Parliament’s intelligence committee on Brexit interference, setting off a partisan argument just as Britain heads toward a new national election.
Regardless of whether Russia actually influenced the Brexit vote, the reality, three years later, is that Britain appears to be on the road toward exiting the EU in the messiest, most damaging way possible. What’s bad for European economic and political unity is good for Russia, so Mr. Putin can put the continuing Brexit mess as a big entry on the positive side of his 2019 ledger.
Meanwhile, the most important members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization are descending into an argument about the functioning and future of the 70-year-old alliance, originally formed to deter expansionist moves by Moscow.
French President Emmanuel Macron, articulating what other NATO leaders are reluctant to say, has criticized Mr. Trump for his decision to pull back American forces in Syria and open the way for a greater Syrian role for both Mr. Putin and Turkey’s authoritarian leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
In fact, Mr. Macron has said that NATO is suffering from “brain death” and questioned the current validity of its pledges of collective defense. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has taken exception to her French counterpart’s public airing of NATO’s dirty laundry. Bottom line: NATO members France, Germany, Turkey and the U.S. are, well, not quite in sync.
From Mr. Putin’s point of view, discord within the main Western military alliance is good news of the first order.
At the same time, that American retreat in Syria has helped further a trend in which Mr. Putin is becoming the man to see about Middle Eastern affairs.
In fact, Syria has worked out smashingly well for Mr. Putin: American troops and their Kurdish allies did the lion’s share of the work to extinguish Islamic State and its caliphate there, which Russia actually opposed, too. Now, having finished the dirty work, Washington has essentially ceded oversight of Syria to Moscow and allowed its Kurdish allies to be obliterated or pushed aside.
Russia’s most reliable regional proxy, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, now appears secure in his position and certain to survive his country’s civil war. Having assumed a new position of prominence in Syria, Mr. Putin has Middle Eastern leaders of all varieties—Saudi Arabian, Iranian, Turkish and Israeli—beating a path to his door for consultations.
Mr. Putin is a former KGB operative, and it shows. He learned during the Cold War how to use disinformation and propaganda to exploit weak spots in Western democracies, and the dark space of the internet has opened a whole new playing field for him. He is a master of his craft.