Washington, D.C. (December 11, 2017)—Vladimir Putin is no chess master. He’s a gambler who has taken larger risks in recent years. And while the subversion of the 2016 U.S. election was a spectacular geopolitical heist pulled off on a shoestring budget, Americans have a key misunderstanding of Russia and the man that pulls the strings. The Atlantic staff writer Julia Ioffe spent months reporting on her native Russia to determine “What Putin Really Wants,”appearing on the cover of The Atlantic’s January/February 2018 issue and published today at TheAtlantic.com. In the wide-ranging cover story, Ioffe offers the definitive telling of how the Kremlin, despite its limitations, pulled off one of the greatest acts of political sabotage in modern history. And she describes how far an emboldened Putin is prepared to go—in 2018, in 2020—in order to get what he wants.
In the same way that Russians overestimate America, seeing it as an all-powerful orchestrator of global political developments, Ioffe reports that Americans project their own fears onto Russia, a country that is a paradox of deftness, might, and profound weakness—unshakably steady, yet somehow always teetering on the verge of collapse. Ioffe writes that the subversion of the election was less a result of strategic brilliance than it was of tactical flexibility—a willingness to experiment, to disrupt, and to take big risks.
And ironically, it succeeded in part because the Obama administration initially saw the effort as amateurish and unserious. As one high-level businessman with ties to the Kremlin characterizes Russia’s efforts to disrupt American politics: “You’re telling me that everything in Russia works as poorly as it does, except our hackers? Rosneft doesn’t work well. Our healthcare system doesn’t work well. Our education system doesn’t work well. And here, all of a sudden, are our hackers, and they’re amazing?” And so, writes Ioffe, “a forgery, a couple of groups of hackers, and a drip of well-timed leaks were all it took to throw American politics into chaos.”
Ioffe shows how U.S. strategic carelessness over the past decade has inexorably pushed Putin toward greater and greater hostility. Perhaps most notably, some of America’s misadventures abroad have prodded Putin to take a more aggressive stance toward America, and to engage in more hostile measures against it. In particular, America’s killing of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya—the video of which Putin has watched obsessively—has led the Russian premier to believe he must actively cultivate his domestic popular support, especially with his country in economic decline, and to do disrupt American politics, lest he be the next dictator to be deposed by American intervention.
With Putin’s six-year term up in 2024, everyone in Moscow knows his reign will eventually come to an end. But no one knows what happens the day after. Ioffe writes: “Ironically, Putin has laid the groundwork for exactly the kind of chaotic collapse that he has spent his political life trying to avoid, the kind of collapse that gave rise to his reign. He has made himself a hostage to a system he built with his own hands.” As America’s next major election cycle approaches, what will be Putin’s next move? And how far might he be prepared to go in order to maintain control?
Ioffe is one of the leading reporters covering the entangled and evolving U.S.-Russia relationship. Last month, she broke the news that Donald Trump Jr. had engaged in a series of secretive correspondences with the WikiLeaks Twitter account during his father’s presidential campaign.
“What Putin Really Wants” is now at The Atlantic, and appears on the cover of the January/February 2018 issue of the magazine. All excerpts must be credited to The Atlantic.