Putin's fights will be won and lost at home
The State Department has finally gotten around to blaming Russia for the Novichok poisonings in England, and sanctions are due by month’s end. For the U.S., that’s a baby step, and all is not well in President Vladimir Putin’s Russia. NATO intelligence services are turning up the pressure, and the United States’ Intelligence Community should join in the effort—with or without the Commander in Chief. Russia is facing its summer of discontent. On the opening day of a successfully-hosted World Cup, Putin’s party, United Russia, announced that pension ages would need to be raised from 60 to 65 for men and from 55 to 63 for women. No matter how discreetly it was announced, the population isn’t having it. Peaceful protests are happening regularly, and earlier this month turned violent as a bomb was set off outside a pension fund office.
Russian pensions are essential to retirees, but by no means large. My mother-in-law gets one of the biggest given that she lives in Moscow (city-dwellers get more) and held a significant position during the Soviet era. Her haul is free phone service, a break on her apartment maintenance fee, and 19,000 Rubles a month – a hair over $280 as I write this. Many Russian pensioners collect less than $200.
Along with anxiety over many older Russians' future, the World Cup brought something else: simmering angst in the wake of Latin American tourists.
In the USSR, the Party's line was that "times were tough", but everyone was in it together and the living standard in the Soviet Union was higher than elsewhere. After the Cold War, it was “OK, we lost, but we’re still living better than is much of the world”. This position was easy to maintain because Russians don’t travel abroad all that much and because Russian visa restrictions make travelling to Russia difficult. I married a Russian woman (in Russia, no less) and it’s still a month’s wait for my visa when I go—with internal “check-ins” required during my stay.
Russia lifted visa requirements for the World Cup—your ticket to the game was your ticket to the country. Eight Latin American countries qualified, and they brought swarms of buoyant, joyous supporters along. While there were some very wealthy tourists mixed in, most of the travelling fans were party animals from the middle class.
The ordinary Russians who met them wondered how the visitors could afford such a long holiday so far away. It’s one thing to sit behind Argentina on the Human Development Index; it’s another to wonder why a cabbie from Uruguay can travel so far on summer vacation when the government tells you you’re better off than he is, while in reality, you’re barely getting by.
So is Russia funding social media efforts and other active measures and attempt to destabilize life in the US (and Estonia, and Latvia, and Lithuania, and Germany, and…)? Of course. But make no mistake: there’s two-way traffic. Britain has been caught using electronic dead drops in Moscow as far back as 2006.
The Novichok poisonings in Salisbury only encourage the UK to raise its game.
Other countries are also targeting Russia. Some, like the Baltic Republics, are collecting intelligence and disseminating their own propaganda in humble efforts at self-preservation. Russia has already sent its military into Georgia, Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, and Moldova. Nobody wants to be next.
Still, others working alone or through NATO and the EU see a benefit for all of Europe –Russian citizens included— if regime change comes to Putin’s kleptocracy.
The CIA, and other US intelligence agencies, could do a world of good here. I hope they’re piling on. United Russia’s voter support has dipped to 37% in a recent poll, and word needs to be sent to the people in Russia’s streets: If you’ve really, truly had enough of Putin and the thieves he serves who are destroying your standard of living, the rest of the world has your back.
There’s an added benefit to causing Putin his own headache—it makes Russian military and cyber operations abroad that much more difficult. No one has unlimited resources. If Putin is stuck putting out fires in Kaluga, he doesn’t have time to start as many in Kansas.
President Trump doesn’t want to cramp Putin’s style. Bah. Let’s do it anyway, while we have the chance.