The risk in Putin’s skill for projecting menacing ambiguity

Maxim Trudolyubov writes: Mr. Putin’s talent for disruption amounts to a kind of “Midas touch.” It has made him a formidable adversary in Russia’s hybrid war of force and manipulation, where anything can be a target and everything can be a weapon. It has also given him what he has long coveted: Western acknowledgment that Russia is a force to be reckoned with.

“It is much safer to be feared than to be loved” Machiavelli wrote, an observation that the Russian leader and generations of his predecessors have taken to heart. As one high-ranking Russian official told me: “We are not known for being particularly nice or elegant. But that is fine with us as long as our interests are taken seriously.”

And so Moscow is not loved but feared. But snatching land from other nations, scaring your neighbors and destabilizing your business and political rivals are not policies you can maintain forever. They will return to haunt Moscow.

Historically, the Kremlin’s rulers have always considered their country’s first line of defense against what they perceive as Western mischief to lie well beyond Russia’s borders. But Moscow has made people in the West think that its policies are motivated by aggressive revisionism, not defense. Their success is full of ironies.

It may not be true that Mr. Putin is purposefully exacerbating the refugee crisis, or that there is no sound economic logic behind Nord Stream 2. But if you have the reputation of turning everything you touch into a weapon, everything you say and do might be construed as an attack. You become everyone’s enemy. Russia’s leaders have become so adept at their game of projecting menacing ambiguity that it is now impossible for them to persuade anyone that sometimes the Russians might just simply want to do business. [Continue reading…]

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