Putin is waiting for Washington to go silent


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Vladimir Putin was in East Germany, working for the KGB, when the Berlin Wall fell. 

In his memoir First Person, published in 2000, Putin recalls asking a nearby Red Army unit to protect the KGB headquarters in Dresden. The answer he received shocked him: “We cannot do anything without orders from Moscow. And Moscow is silent.” Putin later said: “I got the feeling then that the country no longer existed. That it had disappeared.”

Searing experiences like that are formative. The lesson that Putin seems to have drawn from 1989 is that great empires can collapse because of internal political disarray. Having seen Moscow fall silent, Putin may now hope to see Washington fall silent and the “American empire” collapse in its turn.

Viewed from Moscow, the possibilities must look tantalising. The election of Donald Trump to a second term as US president would place the western alliance under unprecedented strain. Policy changes that could be initiated by Trump — such as a complete withdrawal of support for Ukraine or an American pullout from Nato — are just one potential route to the achievement of Russia’s goals.

A second, less discussed route does not depend on conscious changes in policy from the White House. In this scenario, the aftermath of a Trump election would see American government and society fall into disarray. Preoccupied by their own internal conflicts, the American elite would lose the will or the ability to project power around the world. 

That period of disarray might not have to last long to have world-shaking consequences. As Putin later recalled: “We lost confidence for only one moment. But it was enough to disrupt the balance of forces in the world.” 

A period of “lost confidence” caused by post-election turmoil in the US seems very plausible. If Trump wins, he has made it clear that he intends to seek vengeance against his political enemies. He has encouraged talk of putting prominent Democrats and even former officials in his own administration on trial for treason or corruption. The targets include Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and Mark Milley, who was America’s most senior military officer under Trump.

Plans are being drawn up in pro-Trump think-tanks to purge the senior ranks of the US government. Officials in the Pentagon worry that Trump regards the top levels of the US military as disloyal because they resisted his demands to deploy troops on the streets of America. They fear that Trump will appoint real authoritarians to the top jobs in the intelligence services and the military — and might also seek to turn Maga-supporting lower ranks of the military against the top brass.

Even if Trump loses to Biden, there is a strong chance of political turmoil in the US. Who can believe that Trump or his supporters would accept defeat? A replay of the insurrection of January 6 2021 — only this time with added support from politicians and courts at the state level — seems quite likely.

All of this would be a recipe for turmoil in the US and for what Putin called, in the Soviet context, “the paralysis of power”. A paralysed Washington would then spell opportunity for Moscow and Beijing. 

What form this opportunity would take cannot be known in advance. The unravelling of the Soviet empire in 1989 was characterised largely by unforeseen events and improvisation. But for Putin the prospect of reversing the humiliation of 1989 and re-establishing some kind of Russian sphere of influence in Europe must feel tantalisingly close.

However, Putin’s view of what happened in 1989 — and therefore his ambitions for 2025 — suffer from a major blind spot. The causes of the collapse of the Soviet empire were not simply confusion and a failure of will in Moscow. The more profound reason was that Soviet rule was reviled in eastern Europe. The USSR had sent tanks into Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 to suppress dissent. Mikhail Gorbachev’s decision not to crush eastern European aspirations for a third time was a moral choice — not a moment of weakness as Putin sees it.

It was the old brutal Soviet model of domination that Putin was reaching for in 2022, when he launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine. But the world had changed in ways that he did not understand. The Ukrainians fought back and the west supplied them with weapons — unlike in 1956 and 1968, when the US and its allies had stood aside and failed to oppose Moscow’s intervention. 

America’s alliance system in Europe — unlike the Soviet bloc in 1989 — rests on consent. It is an “empire by invitation”, in the phrase of the political scientist Geir Lundestad. While the Poles and Czechs longed for Soviet troops to withdraw in 1989, EU nations would be appalled if American troops pulled back today. 

A great deal has changed since 1989, in Moscow, Washington, Berlin and Warsaw. But one thing that remains constant is the determination of Europeans to resist Russian domination. The EU nations are painfully aware of how dependent they have become on US military power. But they are determined to do something about it. 

It is possible that Washington will fall silent in the coming year. But that does not mean that Moscow will be able to turn Europe’s clock back to 1988.

gideon.rachman@ft.com



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