Like President Bush with respect to the Georgia crisis in 2008, President Obama did not respond militarily to this aggression. But he was not passive. Together with the European Union, the U.S. imposed several rounds of painful economic and financial sanctions on key Russian officials, banks, and businesses. As the sanctions have broadened, they have hurt important Russian elites and seriously impaired the functioning of the Russian financial, energy, and defense sectors—not exactly a great formula for making Russia great again.
Putin has been desperate to get out from under these sanctions so that his regime can thrive domestically and internationally. His goals appear to be twofold. First, he seeks to restore some form of Russian empire—with at least informal dominion over all the territories of the former Soviet Union—while forcing the West to accept this new balance of power and treat Russia as a superpower once again. Second, he seeks to invert Woodrow Wilson’s famous call to arms and instead “make the world safe for autocracy.” Democracy is his enemy. He is smart enough to know that he cannot undermine it everywhere, but he will subvert, corrupt, and confuse it wherever he can.
And so Putin’s regime has been embarked for some years now on an opportunistic but sophisticated campaign to sabotage democracy and bend it toward his interests, not just in some marginal, fragile places but at the very core of the liberal democratic order, Europe and the United States. As The Telegraph reported in January, Western intelligence agencies have been monitoring a Russian campaign on a Cold War scale to support a wide range of European parties and actors—illiberal parties and politicians of both the far left and far right—that are sympathetic to Russia and Putin. This includes not just newer neo-fascist parties, but anti-immigrant far-right parties like the National Front of France—which obtained a 9 million euro loan from a Russian bank in 2014—and the Freedom Party of Austria, both of which have been gaining popularity for some time. While the Freedom Party lost the election for Austria’s ceremonial presidency last Sunday, its candidate, Norbert Hofer, won over 46 percent of the vote, and it remains the third-largest party in the parliament, poised to do better in the next elections.
Hofer’s defeat may temporarily slow the right-wing populist momentum across Europe, but National Front leader Marine Le Pen, who endorsed Putin’s annexation of Crimea and has called for an end to Western sanctions on Russia, could well be elected the next President of France next spring. And even if she loses, Putin is likely to be sitting pretty with the next French president. Le Pen’s principal rival, former French Prime Minister Francois Fillon, who recently won the conservative presidential primaries in France, has for years been calling for an end to sanctions on Putin and a closer relationship between France and Russia.