Why do Russian agencies want to undermine foreign elections? The answer begins with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s survival instinct, notes Paul Musgrave, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. As Yale historian Timothy Snyder writes, Putin has tried to weaken democracy and civil society around the world to make Russian authoritarianism more appealing in comparison, he writes for The Washington Post.
The Russian system today reminds me of the Soviet system I experienced in 1983, when I lived in Moscow, and KGB disciplinarian Yuri Andropov (the “Butcher of Budapest”) was still in power, notes analyst Anders Aslund. The common economic features, then and now, include low oil prices, a nonviable economic ideology, state ownership of crucial industries, and authoritarian rule, he writes for Project Syndicate:
Putin once based his legitimacy on economic growth. Now that he can no longer deliver improved living standards, he follows the recommendation made in 1904 by Russian imperial minister Vyacheslav von Plehve: “We need a small victorious war.” Putin has benefited from three so far: the 2008 war in Georgia, the 2014 annexation of Crimea, and the ongoing intervention in Syria since September 2015.
But a previously risk-averse Putin has had to take ever greater risks, not least in Eastern Ukraine, where the conflict that he precipitated has been neither small nor victorious. Eastern Ukraine represents a foreign-policy failure, and it demonstrates that, while Russia enjoys military superiority over its neighbors, it cannot afford protracted wars. The West has been exploiting this weakness with its financial sanctions, which shave about 1% from Russia’s GDP each year they are in place.
Russia’s domestic elites pose another threat to Putin, which is why, since August 2014, he has sacked one KGB general after another, and has sought to eliminate potential rivals, Aslund adds.