At his annual live call-in show late last week, Vladimir Putin wryly offered political asylum to James Comey “if he faces prosecution of any kind” in the United States, asking, “What’s the difference between the FBI director and [Edward] Snowden?” There is, of course, a clear distinction between slipping your own unclassified memo to the press and leaking a massive trove of data about classified National Security Agency programs. There’s another important difference: the latter redounded to Russian president’s benefit, whereas the Justice Department’s Russia investigation decidedly has not.
Putin surely recognizes this. But he has been striving to maintain his air of unruffled equanimity in what has been a rough stretch for him, from the massive protests across Russia to the near-unanimous vote in the U.S. Senate, which imposed new sanctions against Russia and curbed the president’s power to lift them unilaterally. True to form, Putin has coolly described these sanctions as “harmful” to U.S.-Russia relations, but called any talk of retaliation “premature.”
Donald Trump’s election was supposed to be a boon to Putin. Instead, things have been going quite poorly for him. Whatever goals the Russians had in meddling in the U.S. presidential election last year, be it to elect a president more favorable to lifting sanctions, punish Hillary Clinton, discredit Western democracies, or, as many analysts say, sow chaos in Washington and disrupt the international liberal order, Putin seems to be failing on most counts.
There is indeed chaos in Washington, though largely contained to the White House, and Trump has injected some uncertainty into longstanding relationships with allies. His refusal to affirm the mutual-defense commitment of the NATO treaty and his withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement are sowing divisions between America and Europe that could do long-term damage. The Trump administration seems uninterested in promoting democratic values abroad, and surely any time the U.S. retreats in its leadership role, it benefits other world powers such as Russia and China.
But earlier fears of a dramatic shift in U.S. foreign policy, driven by Trump’s isolationist rhetoric and friendliness toward strongmen, are not panning out. Trump stacked his national security and foreign policy teams with establishment picks who have largely stuck to conventional Republican positions: punitive policies against Russia, Cuba, and Iran; cooperation with China on deterring North Korea; more troops in Afghanistan, and more bombs in Syria.
It seems Putin may have misjudged just how powerful our presidency is. Even more so, he seems to have severely misjudged the power of the American media, which is determined to overturn every rock with regards to the Russian hacking story. Back home, Putin is used to receiving far more favorable press—and when Russian media doesn’t fall in line, he simply shuts them down or finds ways to change the subject.
But the subject stubbornly refuses to change in America, and is getting worse by the day. The domino effect since the Russian hacking revelations—starting with national security advisor Michael Flynn’s firing, then Comey’s, and now the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller—have not only forced Republicans to double-down on their anti-Russia rhetoric, but have even forced the president to abandon any hopes for a Russian reset, for fear of corroborating the collusion narrative. As defiant as Trump can be, even he must realize that any overture toward Russia now will be viewed as suspect.
Putin’s troubles are hardly limited to the U.S. Trump’s election and Brexit were supposed to herald a new era of nationalism and isolationism in the West. Instead, pretty much every election this year, from the Netherlands to France, has seen a backlash to the popularity of far-right parties that presumably would be more favorable to Putin.
The current wave of protests in Russia, by far the largest since 2011, should give Putin the most pause. Driven by young Russians on social media, these protests bring to mind the populist enthusiasm of Bernie Sanders’s rallies, especially when opposition leader Alexei Navalny rants about Russia’s “corrupt billionaire class.” There is little doubt that these Russians, contemptuous as they are of Russian state media, have seen the massive anti-Trump protests in America and are feeling emboldened.
Putin may be hoping that Trump’s troubles in America will convince the Russian people that American democracy is in disarray. But there is another narrative that might prevail: that a democracy, led by a free press, may be able to hold power accountable. Should Trump resign or be impeached—or simply be cut down to size by Congress—this will only reinforce that Western democracies are functioning, and that with enough resistance, those who abuse their authority can be taken down to size.
One has to wonder if Putin still believes his gamble with Trump was worth the effort. He may have thought he was helping to elect an American puppet, but it turns out he’s not holding the strings. Instead, Putin seems to have pulled off the nearly unthinkable—pushing a historically partisan and divided Senate to come together for a lopsided 98-2 vote in favor of sanctions. Trump’s election was supposed to bring chaos and discord, but at least when it comes to Russia, the U.S. and Europe are moving toward consensus. And Putin, alone again on the world stage, has only himself to blame.