Putin will not make that mistake. When he bombed Aleppo, it likely wasn’t because of ISIS or Bashar al-Assad. It was because he wanted to assert Russia’s hegemony—and undermine America’s. We can presume this because no obvious Russian interests have been served by the country’s meddling in Syria, but many American interests have been thwarted. Also, it fits a pattern: Putin’s Russia creates chaos wherever possible and then seeks to take advantage of that chaos. (Consider, for example, the so-called frozen conflicts in Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine.)
When he allegedly hacked into the Democratic National Committee, it wasn’t a personal vendetta, as Hillary Clinton suggested, and when he allegedly helped disseminate fake news about the candidates, it wasn’t because he cared, first and foremost, about the election result. It was because he wanted tens of millions of Americans to doubt the legitimacy of their own election. After all, Putin can’t really be sure Donald Trump will serve Russia’s interests better than Clinton would have. That Trump is so erratic must worry the Kremlin. That his instrument of choice is Twitter must compound those worries. What is beyond debate, however, is that Americans losing faith in their democracy—and the institutions that prop up that democracy, like the media—does serve Russia’s long-term interests.
Trump, who appears unbound by any code of ethics or overarching theory of international affairs, offers Putin an amazing opportunity. He will be the first American president who has said he wants better relations with Moscow and means it unqualifiedly. True, most American presidents say things like that, but there’s always an implied (and obvious) caveat: so long as our improved relations further U.S. interests.
With Trump, however, there are no obvious caveats. Why should there be? The interests we’ve long defended are not his interests. He exists outside any tradition of American government. If better U.S.-Russian relations—which, for Trump, mean better relations between Trump and Putin, however superficial they may be—endanger our Eastern European allies, or prolong the conflict in the Middle East, or, more broadly, counteract the democratic strivings of any number of peoples around the globe, that won’t matter, because those are no longer our interests. Republicans who defend Trump or warn against being duped by our own intelligence agencies may be unaware of how narcissistic and pliable the incoming president is—or they’ve yet to read much Russian literature.Or they’ve allowed their partisan furies to cloud what should be nakedly transparent to all, which is that Russia is doing what it has been trying to do for a very long time. In previous centuries, they thought their moment had arrived—Peter, Catherine, the Communists, the post-Communists—and they were always wrong. They had imagined they were on the cusp of escaping themselves, and they never did. Now, maybe, they have arrived at a cosmically aligned juncture, choreographed by Putin and his lieutenants, destined by forces outside any human jurisdiction.
The secret source of Putin's evil