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Brace for Putin’s next move

After the battle for Ukraine, Russia’s foreign policy will be devoted to smashing by any means necessary the coalition that imposed crippling sanctions.

By Arieh Kovler

Ukraine is putting up a stiff fight against the invading Russian army. The first few days of the invasion stuttered as columns of Russian tanks and personnel carriers ran out of fuel or were destroyed by Ukrainian forces.

The Russian military, though, is huge and can afford the losses. They’re shelling Kharkiv and masses of tanks, artillery and rocket launchers are closing on Kyiv. Sooner or later, Russia will enter Ukraine’s big cities. Whether (and how) it holds them remains an open question, but the Russian army isn’t going home.

The rest of the world has imposed genuinely crippling sanctions on Russia, cutting off Russian banks, banning imports of many electronics and machine components, closing airspace, blocking flights and freezing assets.

Perhaps Putin will withdraw from Ukraine with his tail between his legs. Perhaps he’ll be removed from office through a quick coup, or suffer a mysterious and convenient heart attack of the sort previously reserved for his opponents. None of these are the most likely scenario. He’ll probably hold on for a couple of years at least, fighting to occupy Ukraine, facing guerrilla attacks and urban warfare and watching Russia’s economy suffocate under sanctions and isolation.

Once the ferocious battle for Ukraine is over, once it moves into an occupation phase, Putin’s top priority will be — will have to be — breaking the sanctions.

Some of that effort will be old-fashioned sanction-busting via smuggling, fake end-user licenses and corruption. But that won’t be enough. To survive and keep Russia from becoming North Korea, Putin needs more than just to bust sanctions. He needs to break them, remove them, end them. And that means that Putin’s foreign, intelligence and security policy for the next few years will be devoted to destroying the anti-Russian bloc that has formed to oppose his invasion, by any means necessary.

That should be frightening, because we’ve already seen what Putin’s Russia has been willing to do so far, from hacking to influence campaigns to killing dissidents abroad. That, potentially, is just the start. Countries applying sanctions to Russia should prepare for the worst.

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On 11 September 2014 messages started to spread that Isis had bombed the Columbian Chemicals Plant in Louisiana, sending a toxic cloud of chemicals into the air that threatened the residents of several states. The attack was reported in a local Facebook group, on Twitter and there was even footage on YouTube. Local residents began receiving SMS messages warning them to stay indoors.

There was no such terror attack. The whole thing was a hoax of uncertain purpose — at the time. In 2015 the New York Times fingered the culprits, a little-known Russian project called the Internet Research Agency. Other hoaxes spread by the agency included a supposed Ebola outbreak in the United States and a faked police shooting.

The Internet Research Agency is now most famous for its efforts to elect Donald Trump and smear Hillary Clinton, but throughout the 2016 US election campaign it also worked more generally to open up the fissures in American society. In May 2016 the agency organised two competing Houston rallies on Facebook: one from a front group called United Muslims of America urging the defence of a new Islamic centre; the other from a Texan secessionist front group to “Stop the Islamisation of Texas”. The rallies happened. People came.

There are dozens of similar examples. They established and controlled online groups like Blacktivist, Tea Party News, Back the Badge and Don’t Shoot Us, and used them to promote division and conflict.

Imagine these campaigns but in overdrive: better funded, better fronted, more credible and in every country that backs sanctions on Russia, from the US to Japan, Germany to Poland, stoking every ethnic and political tension, picking every healing scab of the past. Yes, Russia’s been doing all of this already, using Russia Today, Sputnik, influence campaigns and more. A recent campaign tried to promote Covid anti-vaccine propaganda by paying influencers and buying Facebook ads, for example.

But the next few years could be more intense, with more focused and nastier campaigns of misinformation, destabilisation and division. It can always get worse.

***

The Internet Research Agency was best known for supporting Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, through astroturfed online campaigns, local events, some paid targeted ads and other activities. But, of course, the agency was only one small part of Russia’s campaign to elect Donald Trump. Much more significant was Russian intelligence’s operation to hack the Democratic National Committee, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta. Releasing their stolen materials at key times hurt Clinton and boosted Trump, even though the contents of the emails themselves were largely innocuous.

Russia’s support for Trump, detailed in the hundreds of pages of the Mueller Report, also included corrupt relationships with senior Trump campaign officials such as Paul Manafort, and multiple offers to co-ordinate with the campaign and feed them dirt on Clinton.

Russia’s best hope for breaking the sanctions is for Trump to be re-elected as president in 2024. His personal admiration for Putin, his antipathy for Ukraine, his hatred of the Nato alliance and his poor relationships with European leaders would make Trump the weakest link in the new alliance. So we shouldn’t be surprised if Russian efforts to boost Trump and damage his opponents restart as we approach the 2024 US presidential election.

If Trump doesn’t run, or if he’s not a viable Republican candidate by 2024, Russia will back whoever Putin thinks will be the most divisive and least likely to maintain the sanctions. If Joe Biden doesn’t run for a second term, they’ll look to do the same with the Democrats. Remember, the Internet Research Agency also tried to promote both Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein in 2016 to undermine Clinton’s candidacy.

This sort of activity won’t be limited to the US. We should expect Russian interference in the politics of every nation that opposes it. That interference could be funding extremist parties on the right or left in those countries, or boosting extreme factions within more mainstream political parties.

It could be targeting leaders who back sanctions for hacking and smearing. Perhaps they’ll face mysterious accusations of past wrongdoing, with no real evidence but just enough stink to hurt them. Maybe it’ll be real: some 20-year-old love affair will be dug up from nowhere or politically damaging emails will emerge where they insult their colleagues.

Or it could be more drastic options too.

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Putin’s Russia kills people. Overseas assassinations are common in spy novels and movies, but the real thing was pretty rare until Putin declared open season on Russian dissidents. The murder of Alexander Litvinenko in London using tea poisoned with radioactive polonium wasn’t subtle. Nor was the attempted killing of Sergei Skripal using the Novichok nerve agent. Skripal survived; a woman who found the perfume bottle used to plant the poison was not so lucky.

Not every assassination was such a spectacle. Several Chechen rebels have met grizzly ends in Turkey, Germany and Austria at the hands of Russian contract killers. And there are many more whose names don’t appear on the lists, the ones who fell out of windows (a remarkably common fate for critics of Russia everywhere) or died in unexplained circumstances.

Until now, though, Putin’s mostly restricted himself to killing Russian dissidents or Islamist terrorists. That could change. A bullet to the head, a fall from a window or an unexplained heart attack might remove inconvenient political leaders and allow Russia-friendly rivals to replace them.

I’m not saying this will happen. But it’s something governments and intelligence agencies should be preparing for.

Relatedly, we should expect Russia-backed coup attempts, especially in central and eastern Europe. In 2016 Russia was accused of backing a coup attempt against the government of Montenegro, which was then considering joining Nato. The case is still tied up in legal controversy, but it seems like something bad was planned and backed by the Kremlin.

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One of the Soviet Union’s weapons against the West was terrorism, backing the Baader–Meinhof Group in Germany through the Stasi, the Red Brigades in Italy, and various Palestinian terror groups that operated in Europe, hijacking airlines and carrying out bombings.

In recent decades Russia has fought terrorism, being a target for Salafi-Jihadi groups and Chechen nationalist-Islamists. But if Putin decides to direct terror back to the West, he has options. One possibility would be backing far-right extremists in Europe and North America. These groups already exist and want to commit racial violence. With funding, encouragement and logistical support they could carry out terror attacks.

Another, more remote, option would be an alliance with Iran and Hezbollah. Russia, Iran and Hezbollah already fight alongside each other supporting Bashar al-Assad in Syria. The relationships exist. For now, their interests don’t overlap enough to make this a particularly likely possibility but even the thought is a troubling one.

***

I don’t know which of these tactics Putin will choose in which countries and when. Sanctions should limit Russia’s ability to execute all the plans it wants to; operating abroad costs money and anyone linked to Russia will be under extra scrutiny. But assuming Putin stays in power and doesn’t withdraw from Ukraine, everything Russia does will be about ending the sanctions by any means necessary. There aren’t going to be any rules.

We all need to be ready.

This article originally appeared on Arieh Kovler’s Substack.

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