Will the Kremlin go beyond election interference?

The Kremlin
The Kremlin AFP / Scanpix

Once the Kremlin is persuaded that Joe Biden will become the US’s next president, it may go for the jugular. Already today, not election manipulation, but triggering civil conflicts in the United States could be the main aim of Moscow’s mingling in American domestic affairs.

Over the last 15 years, the Kremlin has played with politicians and diplomats of, above all, Russia’s neighbors, but also with those of the West, a hare and hedgehog game, as known from a German fairy tale. In the Low Saxon fable’s well-known race, the hedgehog only runs a few steps, but at the end of the furrow, he has placed his wife who looks very much like him. When the hare, certain of victory, storms in, the hedgehog’s wife rises and calls out to him “I’m already here!” The hare cannot understand the defeat, conducts 73 further runs, and, in the 74th race, dies of exhaustion. 

Ever since Russia’s anti-Western turn of 2005, governmental and non-governmental analysts across the globe have been busy discussing and predicting Moscow’s next offensive action. Yet, in most cases, when the world’s smart “hares” – politicians, experts, researchers, journalists et al. – arrived with more or less adequate reactions, the Russian “hedgehogs” had already long achieved their aims. Such was the case with Russia’s invasion of Georgia’s South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008, “little green men” on Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014, hackers inside Germany’s Bundestag in 2015, bombers over Syria since 2015, cyber-warriors in the US elections of 2016, or “chemical” assassins at England’s Salisbury in 2018. 

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Across the world, one can find hundreds of sensitive observers able to provide sharp comments on this or that vicious Russian action. For all the experience accumulated, such insights have, however, usually been provided only thereafter. So far, the Kremlin’s wheeler-dealers continue to surprise Western and non-Western policymakers and their think-tanks with novel forays, asymmetric attacks, unorthodox methods and shocking brutality. More often than not, Russian imaginativeness and ruthlessness become sufficiently appreciated only after a new “active measure,” hybrid operation or non-conformist intervention has been successfully completed.

Currently, many US observers – whether in national politics, public administration or social science – may be again preparing to fight the last war. Russian election interference and other influence operations are on everybody’s mind, across America. Yet, as Ukraine has bitterly learnt in 2014, the Kremlin only plays soft ball as long as it believes it has some chance to win. It remains relatively moderate as long as a possible loss will – from Moscow’s point of view – only be moderately unpleasant. Such was the case, during Russia’s interference into the 2016 presidential elections in the US.

The Ukrainian experience during the last six years suggests a far grimmer scenario. At some point during the Euromaidan Revolution, in either January or February 2014, Putin understood that he may be losing his grip on Ukraine. Moscow’s man in Kyiv, then still President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych (though very much assisted by Paul Manafort), may be kicked out by the Ukrainian people. As a result, Russia’s President drastically changed track already before the event. 

The Kremlin’s medal awarded to the anonymous Russian soldiers who took part in the annexation of Crimea lists the date of 20 February 2014, as the start of the operation to occupy a part of Ukraine. On that day, pro-Russian Ukrainian President Yanukovych was still in power, and present in Kyiv. His flight from Ukraine’s capital one day later, and ousting, by the Ukrainian parliament, on 22 February 2014, had not yet been clearly predictable, on 20 February 2014. But the Kremlin had already switched from merely political warfare against Ukraine to preparing a real war – something then largely unimaginable for most observers. Something similar may be the case, in Moscow’s approach to the US today too. 

To be sure, Russian troops will hardly land on American shores. Yet, that may not be necessary. The possibility of violent civil conflict in the United States is today, in any way, being discussed by serious analysts, against the background of enormous political polarization and emotional spikes within American society. As in Putin’s favorite sports of Judo – in which he holds a Black Belt! – a brief moment of disbalance of the enemy can be used productively, and may be sufficient to cause his fall. The United States may not, by itself, become ripe for civil conflict. Yet, an opportunity to push it a bit further is unlikely to be simply missed by industrious hybrid warfare specialists in Moscow. And the game that the Russian “hedgehogs” will be playing may be a different one than in the past, and not yet be fully comprehensible to the US’s “hares.”

Hillary Clinton was in 2016 a presidential candidate very much undesired, by Moscow, as America’s new president. Yet today, a democratic president is, after Russia’s 2016 hacking of the Democratic Party’s servers and vicious campaign against Clinton, a truly threatening prospect for the Kremlin. Moreover, Joe Biden was, under President Obama, responsible for the US’s policy towards Ukraine, knows as well as likes the country well, and is thus especially undesirable for Moscow.

Last but not least, Moscow may have had more contacts with Trump and his entourage than the American public is currently aware of. The Kremlin would, in such a case, even more dislike a Biden presidency, and a possible disclosure of its additional earlier interventions, in the US. The stakes are thus higher, for the Kremlin, in 2020 than in 2016. If Trump has no plausible chance to be elected for a second term, mere election interference may not be the issue any more. Moscow may already now implement more sinister plans than trying to help Trump. If Putin thinks that he cannot prevent Biden, the Kremlin will not miss a chance to get altogether rid of the US, as a relevant international actor.

Pavlo Klimkin was, among others, the Ukrainian Ambassador to Germany in 2012-2014 as well as Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine in 2014-2019.

Andreas Umland is a researcher at the Ukrainian Institute for the Future in Kyiv and Swedish Institute of International Affairs in Stockholm.

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