Putin and Russia Will Not Play Fair During COVID-19

Lynx Guest Blogger Kevin Altman

Having arrived at the greatest geopolitical and economic crisis since World War II, every nation is bracing for the full impact of Covid-19. Billions of people in North America, Europe, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and as of last week, South Asia and South America are in lock-down with nations scrambling to provide some semblance of order in the midst of the storm.  As we buckle down for weeks of uncertainty, one political strategist has found an opportunity. 

Foreign policy professionals and scholars often look upon Vladimir Putin as an enigma, a James Bond villain more than a politician.  His personal narrative, a former KGB agent turned statesman, shapes his focus on bringing Russia back to superpower status and to re-enter the great power competition.

To understand Russia’s intentions within this moment of world crisis, one must understand Putin’s psychology, as the two are inextricably linked. In the 1990’s following the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia grappled with economic pandemonium and an inability to control internal policies or foreign affairs. Store shelves were empty, hospitals were crowded, often ill equipped, and little trust remained in the government to serve the needs of the people. These conditions provided the backdrop for Putin’s meteoric rise to power through 2000 and for the twenty subsequent years he has clung to his authority. Still an operative at heart, Putin’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) unrelentingly harasses Western powers; interference in the 2016 Presidential election has been their most successful operation to date. Now in 2020, images of Americans panic-buying, a weakened economy, empty stores, hospitals overwhelmed, and faltering leadership, one can imagine Putin smirking slightly, searching for new opportunities.  

Many have remarked on Putin’s skills as diplomatic chess master. Simply because the world fumbles in disarray, doesn’t mean the great game ceases. Elizabeth Braw recently wrote in her article for Foreign Policy[1]:

“Propaganda outlets supporting Russia and China are already producing a barrage of coronavirus disinformation aimed at sowing further chaos in the West. “Coronavirus could have originated from Latvia,” suggested Sputnik Latvia on March 15, while another Russian propaganda outlet, Geopolitica.ru, posited that the coronavirus may have been created in the United States as a biological weapon. Chinese diplomats are, in turn, engaged in concerted disinformation campaign, for example suggesting that the coronavirus was created by the U.S. Army.  Mostly, though, the coronavirus remains the only major challenge affecting Western countries. As bad as it is, that’s lucky. It’s safe to assume that Putin and his colleagues are watching the bedlam in Europe and the United States with schadenfreude, but more than that, they’re using it for educational purposes.”

 

Ms. Braw is correct in her assertion that it is a teachable moment both for us and our adversaries.  Russia is hell-bent on its resurgence as globally relevant and reducing Western power, a country that will seek to do everything it can to reset the pieces on the board for when this crisis abates. There is little doubt that the United States and its NATO allies will be economically wounded and focused on rebuilding, domestically.  

If projections are correct and the Coronavirus subsides in the summer months, we will then plunge into a heated November election where foreign policy and shoring up our intelligence capabilities will take a sideline to seemingly more immediate matters of the economy and health care accessibility. But we must not make any mistakes in believing that just because we are consumed with one crisis that another may not be lurking with our competitors more emboldened than ever to take advantage of a world shaken to its core.

This comes especially as citizens in the West are working from home, socially isolated, glued to developments within social media headlines while searching for people and places to ascribe the blame. Trust in government leadership is very low[2] and we are more susceptible than ever to supercharged disinformation campaigns specially crafted to stoke our anger, deepen divides, and challenge our patriotism.  

With nothing much to lose as the Coronavirus devastates Western economies and overwhelms health care systems, the West will  experience challenges seen and unseen from Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and others. These actors are emboldened to manipulate our defense posture and turn our ire inward toward our own. Our policymakers, defense and intelligence officials, and key industry leaders must ensure we have the capabilities and comprehensive strategies in place to hold the line, and eventually heal as we enter uncharted territory. We do not know what the end of this looks like, but cannot afford to turn our heads away from a game already in progress, however hidden by turbulent times ahead.

[1] https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/23/as-the-west-panics-putin-is-watching/

[2]https://www.npr.org/2020/03/17/816680033/poll-americans-dont-trust-what-they-re-hearing-from-trump-on-coronavirus