Now we see why Putin bet on Trump

An American insurgency ransacks the Capitol, alliances fray, our systems are compromised by a sweeping Russian cyber operation, and Putin’s real long game continues unabated


This article is Part 1 of 
Order from Chaos: The Architecture of American Renewal Comes from a Mindset of Grey-Zone Superiority — a Great Power monograph. You can read the introduction here, Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 here, Part 4 here, and Part 5 here, but you can also read each section as a separate piece.

PART 1: Now we see why Putin bet on Trump

An American insurgency ransacks the Capitol, alliances fray, our systems are compromised by a sweeping Russian cyber operation, and a decade of unfettered Kremlin advance leaves Putin’s real long game unabated. Enough already. 

* * * * *

From the moment we decided to minimize what it meant that Russian President Vladimir Putin helped Donald Trump become President of the United States — decided to muddle notions of Trump’s complicity with Russian intent, to ignore what it meant that Putin assessed Trump could be an accelerant for Kremlin objectives for America by being an accelerant of our own worst impulses — it was always going to end this way. A presidency steeped in ignominy, institutions adrift, the nation appearing a shambles, the temple of American democracy defiled  — weakened along critical, vital seams as the world changes around us and may outpace us if we lose too many more steps. 

It was always going to end like this not because Putin is a puppetmaster pulling strings from afar, and not because Trump is a new-age Manchurian candidate — but because we failed to understand what that intervention signaled, and then sped past the inflection point from which this outcome could have been deterred. 

We faced a moment of unmooring — cut adrift, suddenly lurching on seas that had seemed quite calm just a breath before. An avowed adversary had directed a campaign to sway the outcome of our election using shadowy methods we could not see. We were given a clear assessment, in broad strokes, of what was happening and what helped get us to that point, and we read it — and then we punted. We refused to accept the stated strategic objectives of an adversary which is adept and adaptive; we refused to see the texture of the conflict in which we are engaged, even when presented with concrete examples of how these tactics are deployed against us; and we refused to examine what this means about our vulnerabilities, our position in the world, how we assess threats, and how we develop our strategic response. Instead, we allowed our discourse and decision-making to be coopted by the very subject of the crisis, welcomed a lot of comforting storytelling about how maybe it was no big deal, and disarmed ourselves against threats foreign and domestic. 

We settled right down into the roles we now know our adversary hoped we would play against one another, and we forged ahead, ever further from that junction where we could turn back, away, not ahead, ever ahead, toward ruin. 

How the Kremlin sees us, the seams they choose to exploit and attack, is a kind of critical stress test for us. They focus on points where we are weakest, working to create tools that can shape the environment and, in some cases, specific outcomes. They identify (and sometimes create) and support local resources that can be used to manipulate groups and discourse, compromise our systems, inject narrative into key information streams, enhance and manipulate divisions and conflict, find ways to deepen fractures. There are many goals, but a central one is always to alter how we see ourselves and our nation, and how we make decisions. 

We have failed to deter Russia — to measurably change their behavior in any real sense. The past decade has shown the opposite: the Kremlin has expanded its espionage, intelligence operations, influence operations, covert operations, diplomatic and political influence, active measures, and military campaigns beyond the boundaries of where these things used to occur. They have taken and continue to take territory — physical, virtual, spiritual. The mindset of shadow and hybrid warfare has continuity from the Soviet (and in some cases tsarist) past, but to say reflexively “this is what Russia has always done” downplays the escalation during the Kremlin’s last fourteen years. 

The Kremlin has enjoyed an expansive decade of success. They reach farther. They push harder. They find less resistance. Even in an environment of minimum pushback, they innovate new lines of effort, and aggressively recruit allies and proxies for the purpose. Their center of gravity has not shifted even as Russia’s internal fragility persists. This duality is hard to understand: that Russia can be inherently weak and yet systemically resilient all at once — that an engine held together by duct tape and string can power these sophisticated international campaigns, yet also operations that seem clumsy, clownish, brutish. Neither Russian weakness nor operational stumbles undermine the holistic momentum of their success — in particular when it is measured against the decline in our own influence, the growing uncertainty of our alliances, and the erosion of our strategic interests. There is no one else to take up the shield of the free world that we sometimes seem too ready to put down. 

When we talk about the Kremlin’s toolkit and apply it America, it meets immediate protest that the Kremlin works this way here, against us. We have tomes of historical materials documenting the importance and practicalities of these tactics for Russian security services, and accompanying piles of contemporary research detailing how they are applied in former Soviet states and across Europe. Of course — of course — they do it here, too.

Our faults and fractures are our own — but there are revelations in how our adversaries so easily exploit them. Too often now do we hear that until we get our own house in order — fix our democracy, our infrastructure, our civic sense of self — we have no right or duty to try to lead in the world. But not only does this deliver a win for great power competitors who would love for us to tap out as they strive to make autocracy ascendant — it reinforces a belief that there simply is nothing to be done. This is a mindset of failure. If we fail to shape outcomes, set parameters, or define possibility, we will be far more adrift in this era of upheaval — a dynamic that feeds back into our domestic environment, the sense of displacement, and the forces that pull us apart. We must get our house in order and lead in the world: how we orient ourselves toward these challenges must address both sets of weaknesses with a common frame. 

Few things make this more clear than the types of influence campaigns our adversaries run against us. In this new phase of Kremlin overt “covert” actions — active measures in plain sight, conducted with impunity and wrapped up in narrative to make us doubt and dismiss them — there have been multiple moments when alarms have sounded and “the warning lights were flashing red.” And in each instance, we’ve jolted up from our pillows, startled and alert —then hit the snooze button, taken a breath, and reclined again to a relaxed and exposed posture. And why? Why? How can it be that we think we can pivot to countering China’s malign influence campaigns — a vastly more resourced, cautious, and strategic affair that drafts behind, learns from, benefits from the Kremlin’s spycraft and disruptions — without ever having gotten Russia right?

Trump became president at a critical juncture in a war we needed to fight. And he so utterly failed to do what was necessary that he leaves us more fractured, more unmoored, more exposed. It is tangible, this hollowing out of purpose and presence that is such a vital component of our security posture and certainty. And now, four years on — years of compromising our interests, gutting our institutions and alliances, upending our evaluations of right and wrong and friend and foe in our political and public assessments of security — we’re in the edge of an abyss. News of the latest sweeping hacking operation by Russian intelligence — which penetrated multiple US agencies and remained undetected for most of a year, indiscriminately creating vulnerabilities in 18,000 or so other entities along the way — is a prescient physical manifestation of how deeply compromised President Trump leaves us as he sloughs off. 

But this cyber infiltration is something we can track and document and patch, over time. There’s no hardware or software fix for the manner in which our minds and systems and beliefs have been compromised — more fully steeped with a deeply Russianesque cynicism and dysfunction, more accepting of Kremlin narrative about who we are and what the world should be, more in doubt of what we see before us — by Trump’s time in office. 

That was the hope that Putin placed on Trump — the potential that he saw in him. That he would be a radicalizing force, a bludgeon, a whirlwind, from which America could not emerge unscathed. 

We will be too eager to see Trump’s departure as the “patch” to this deeper hack of our minds and systems — but to do so is to ignore the lessons of how we got into this mess and what is required to get out of it. And there is tremendous value in evaluating what the Kremlin has done — to understand the mindset of the current Kremlin leadership and the parameters of what they are willing to do operationally to achieve strategic goals — and then to understand why these measures have been so effective against us and our interests, and challenge fully our own thinking on how to approach this problem set. We need to upend the core set of assumptions that has led to this point.

/end Part 1

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Catch up on all the sections of Order from Chaos: The Architecture of American Renewal Comes from a Mindset of Grey-Zone Superiority, on Great Power:

Introduction: Autocracy ascends the cracks of democracy

Part 1: Understanding why Putin bet on Trump

Part 2: Tracking Russian disruption across the past 15 years 

Part 3: Understanding how grey-zone conflict has targeted America and Americans

Part 4: The subversion of American interests and the Trump presidency 

Part 5: THE WAY AHEADCivil defense to build resilience. Influence monitoring to lessen infiltration. Enhanced unconventional warfare capabilities to detect grey zone threats and help design a response. A whole-of-government approach to waging and deterring political warfare. Fight for our ideals at home and abroad. 

A full copy of the monograph will also be available on Great Power. It is my hope that it will orient us toward action that structures order that allows us to navigate this time of disruption, and to lead again.

MM

An EXTRA MEGA THANK YOU to Great Power’s founding subscribers, who supported the writing of this monograph, and who want thoughtful American leadership, at home and abroad. —MM