For all the legitimate focus on rising U.S.-Chinese tensions, this summer’s sleeper surprise for the West is more likely to emerge from Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
That’s because the built-in contradictions between Russia’s international ambition and domestic rot that have always characterized Putin’s rule, now into its 21st year, are coming to head in a manner that provides him both greater opportunity and peril.
The brutal effectiveness of his thugocracy state is increasing, with a military modernization that includes a newly detected test of anti-satellite space weapons, highly publicized advances in hypersonic technologies, and worldwide intelligence operations that effectively employ advanced technology and a lower-tech army of mercenaries.
At the same time, the weakness of his demographically aging, economically ossifying Covid-hit country continues to grow in the wake of lower oil prices. The World Bank projects a 6% decline in Russian GDP in 2020 in a country that already had 12.3% of its population, or 18 million people, below the poverty line.
Greater opportunity for Putin presents itself in a United States that’s distracted by the coronavirus spread, its own economic downturn, racial upheavals, polarizing November elections and divisions with and within Europe. With the chance that his friend President Donald Trump might lose the November election, Putin could calculate that now could be the time to seize new opportunities.
The peril is symbolized by surprisingly large and enduring protests in the far eastern city of Khabarovsk, which continued this weekend. New Levada polling shows that 45% of Russians say they approve of the recent wave of anti-Kremlin protests, and Putin opponents are looking to convert this energy into something more.
What’s difficult to predict is whether an August surprise — or one at any time ahead of U.S. elections in November — would grow more from Russia’s strength, its weakness, or more likely some combination of the two. It has been times like these in the past when matters had seemed sour for Moscow that Putin has turned to adventures abroad to solidify his domestic control.
So should one be watching for a surprise of the sort of the Russo-Georgian war of August 2008, the seizure and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, the Russian military intervention in the Syrian civil war from 2015 to the present, or more electoral and disinformation activity in Europe and particularly around U.S. elections this November?