James Ferguson Web

What was Vladimir Putin thinking? Viewed from the west, the Russian president’s decision to authorise an undercover campaign to destabilise the US presidential election looks risky, even bizarre.

But, viewed through the prism of Russian history, the idea that a foreign intelligence operation could wreck the political system of an adversary is unremarkable. The birth of the Soviet Union, the state that Mr Putin once faithfully served, was midwifed by such an operation. During the first world war, the Germans facilitated Lenin’s return to Russia, knowing that the Bolshevik leader advocated peace between Russia and Germany. The aim was to destabilise the Tsarist regime, and to knock Russia out of the war. It succeeded brilliantly.

A century later, Mr Putin got behind the campaign of Donald Trump for reasons that were not a million miles from the German motivation for backing Lenin. The Russian president hated the sanctions imposed on his country after its annexation of Crimea in 2014. He associated this policy with Hillary Clinton. And he knew that Mr Trump supported rapprochement with Russia.

There was also a broader lesson that Mr Putin could draw from history, but this time from the Soviet Union’s death, rather than its birth. Throughout the cold war, the Soviet bloc and the west had prepared for military confrontation — a climactic tank battle across the plains of central Europe, or even a catastrophic nuclear exchange. But in the end, victory and defeat were decided with scarcely a shot being fired. The Soviet system collapsed internally. The crucial variable was not the military strength of either side — but their internal resilience.

In a similar way, the power struggles of the 21st century — between the US and Russia, as well as China and the EU— are more likely to be determined by domestic resilience than by external strength.

Until recently, this would have been a contest that the US was supremely confident of winning. After all the great strength of the west is meant to be the legitimacy and stability created by democracy as well as the superior economic performance. “Freedom works” was the confident boast of former US president Ronald Reagan.

But in the Trump era, the idea that the US system is inherently more stable than its rivals can no longer be taken for granted. The hatreds on both sides of the US political divide are so strong that even mainstream journals such as the New Yorker and Foreign Policy have run articles on the possibility of a second American civil war. (The experts polled by Foreign Policy came to a consensus of approximately 35 per cent.)

The Russian response to accusations that they deliberately sought to widen these divisions inside America — when it goes beyond simple denial — is twofold. First, they argue that Russia is simply responding in kind to decades of US-led efforts to destabilise foreign governments that it dislikes. Second, they point out that American democracy must be in a pretty parlous state if it can be seriously undermined by a Russian operation with a supposed budget of a mere $1.25m a month.

There clearly is some truth to both arguments. A US democratic system that has twice recently elected the presidential candidate who received fewer votes (in 2000 and 2016) can hardly be argued to be in robust good health.

But another lesson of the cold war is that America’s openness means that its problems are on display. By contrast, the tightly controlled Soviet system convinced some gullible outsiders that it was a model of economic and technological progress. As a contrast, there was a tendency to overestimate the weakness of the west — and to fail to spot the rottenness in the Soviet system.

Something similar could be happening now. It is hard to miss the dysfunction of Mr Trump’s America. But the internal weaknesses of its international rivals might be even more serious — but harder to observe.

The issue of hidden problems applies particularly to China which — these days — is a much more plausible rival to the US than Russia. Modern China presents an impressive face to the world. But it is also expert at repressing discussion of threatening internal problems — from regional tension in Tibet and Xinjiang, to weaknesses in the financial system. The news that the Communist party intends to abolish term limits on the Chinese presidency — clearing the way for Xi Jinping to stay on in power indefinitely — underlines the danger that one-party rule can slip into one-man rule. That is not a model that has worked well for China in the past.

President Putin also intends to stay on in power, and will win another stage-managed presidential election next month. But his effort to reassert Russia’s role as a world power is likely to be undermined by the same weakness that did for the Soviet Union: an economy that is too small and inefficient to sustain Moscow’s global ambitions. And both Russia and China face long-term demographic problems.

Mr Putin knows that Russia has grave internal weaknesses. But he also can see that the US has serious problems of its own. That is why he has adopted a strategy that some analysts call “last man standing”. Its bleak aim is to play up the weaknesses of the west, before Russia’s own weaknesses overwhelm Mr Putin.

gideon.rachman@ft.com

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