The former top CIA official is warning that even if Russian President Vladimir Putin were to measurably tone down his expansionist rhetoric in the near term, his push to grow Russia’s influence over former Soviet states “seems only to have just begun.”
“Even if we see a quieter Putin in the coming weeks and months, we’ll do well to remember the size of his arsenal and the scope of his ambitions,” John E. McLaughlin, deputy CIA director under former President George W. Bush, wrote in an article published Thursday.
Mr. McLaughlin, who also briefly served as the agency’s acting director in 2004, says recent moves by NATO to protect Eastern Europe from Russian military aggression “may be too conventional to thwart Putin’s ‘hybrid warfare’ strategy, which subtly combines special forces, cyber tactics, propaganda, media control, mainline troops and manipulative public statements.”
Following Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, the Obama administration has successfully led an effort to level U.S. and European Union economic sanctions against Moscow — a tactic designed to pressure Mr. Putin away from using his so-called hybrid strategy to absorb a wider swath of Ukraine.
But while the sanctions have “begun to pinch the Russian economy,” the bottom line is that Mr. Putin’s “aggression in Ukraine has brought him record popularity — around 85 percent of his citizens feel favorably about him,” Mr. McLaughlin wrote in the article published on the website of Ozy Media, an international online magazine.
“He has little political incentive to change course,” the former CIA official wrote, painting a sobering picture of what may lay beyond the Russian president’s desire to absorb enough eastern Ukranian territory to serve as a new “land bridge from the Russian mainland to Crimea.” With specific regard to other former Soviet states, Mr. McLaughlin wrote that: “Russia is doing all in its power to isolate them from the West.”
“Moscow has been putting pressure on Moldova to step back from association talks with the European Union (which sounds like a replay of the Ukraine drama),” he wrote. “And Russia may go so far as to encourage Moldova’s separatist region, Transnistria, to go independent.”
“One imagines the Baltic member states — Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia — tempt [Mr. Putin],” Mr. McLaughlin wrote. “In Estonia, for example, the economically depressed city of Narva on the Russian border is 80 percent ethnic Russian, and 36 percent already hold Russian passports.”
“It would not be hard for Putin to add fuel to already resentful citizens’ grievances there — they have to learn Estonian to qualify for citizenship or state jobs — and claim a need to “help” them on humanitarian grounds.”