You could almost hear the collective sigh of relief gusting through Western capitals this week in the wake of the French presidential election. Observers hailed Emmanuel Macron’s victory over National Front leader Marine Le Pen as a much-needed triumph of common sense over far-right fear-mongering.
Some commentators saw the vote as a rebuke of a person who wasn’t even on the ballot: Russian President Vladimir Putin. Le Pen, who wants to see France leave both the European Union and NATO, has often praised Putin, who was happy to receive her in Moscow just a few weeks ago. Her party has been the direct beneficiary of Russian financial largesse, and right before the election anonymous hackers did her the favor of targeting Macron with an online smear campaign strikingly reminiscent of the one aimed at Hillary Clinton last year.
So the idea that Putin had suffered a giant defeat was hard to resist. “Putin’s Russia’s meddling in the French election has backfired spectacularly,” went the headline in Quartz. Bloomberg chimed in: “Macron win is bad for Putin, good for Team Merkel on world stage.”
I doubt Putin will see it that way. He has far more imagination than that. His strategy is based, first and foremost, on what’s good for him. And what’s good for him is creating the perception, in the eyes of his compatriots, that Moscow is a player on the world stage, a force to be reckoned with. Given Russia’s anemic economy and Putin’s political isolation, it’s only logical that the Russian president would seek to maximize his advantages by causing mischief wherever and however he can. And that’s not hard. For the West continues to do him the favor of creating huge opportunities for him to exploit.
As far as France is concerned, Putin would have undoubtedly been happier with Le Pen in the Elysee Palace. He’s keen on anyone who will help him realize his dream of undermining the European Union, NATO and Western democratic institutions. And Macron’s win, however welcome to fans of liberal democracy, doesn’t do away with the fact that pro-Russian sentiment and populist rage remain potent in France. Sixty percent of French voters favored pro-Kremlin candidates in the first round of the presidential election. The traditional parties — the Socialists and the Gaullists — have essentially collapsed. Le Pen is no longer the “far right” — she’s got the right all to herself, and that could have a big impact on the parliamentary elections coming up soon. One way or another, Putin remains a major force in French politics.
And the rest of the world? Brexit is still moving ahead — a huge blow to the European Union and potentially to the continued existence of Britain itself, given that the Scots and Northern Irish are reluctant to join the rest of the country in abandoning Europe. Populist parties are still thriving across Europe, often abetted by anti-migrant propaganda from Moscow. This past weekend, the far-right Alternative for Germany won enough votes to put it into yet another state parliament, meaning that it will hold seats in 12 of 16 state legislatures. Yet European leaders in Brussels continue to wallow in complacency, doing nothing to address the simmering problems that are anchoring populism in the political scene. All this is music to Putin’s ears.
Things look even brighter in the United States. On Wednesday, President Trump greeted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak) with conspicuous warmth — a strange reception for representatives of a government who stand accused of direct meddling in a U.S. presidential election. This served as yet another reminder that Russia has never had to pay a serious price for its brazen intervention in our political process — an intervention that comes very close to an act of war. (Before leaving office, President Barack Obama kicked out a few Russian diplomats and blocked Moscow from using some of its American properties.) Don’t forget that Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James B. Comey, which has plunged Washington into a fresh political crisis with constitutional implications, is a direct result of the turmoil triggered by the Kremlin’s mega-hack.
To be sure, not all is rosy for Putin. Russia is still laboring under the effect of Western sanctions imposed after its land grab in Crimea, the first time since World War II that a European power snatched territory from a neighbor. Yet there are growing indications that the Europeans might allow the sanctions to peter out when they come up for renewal this summer and fall, thus allowing Putin’s aggression to stand. Trump might well be keen to offer an assist, even despite the opposition of his security advisers. Meanwhile, the Russians continue to stir up the fighting in eastern Ukraine and are helping President Bashar al-Assad run up the death toll in Syria. While Moscow, Ankara and Tehran plot their own “peace process” for the Syrian civil war, the United States is conspicuous in its absence.
The combination of American negligence and European dithering gives Putin plenty of space to explore new realms of mischief-making. Russia has been stirring up trouble in the Balkans, courting a warlord in Libya and selling unprecedented quantities of weapons to Egypt (whose president, Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, is a member of the growing Putin fan club). Last month, Russian warships paid a high-profile visit to Manila, once a stalwart U.S. ally, and even embarked on exercises with the Philippine navy. Meanwhile, Russian military aircraft have been testing NATO airspace at levels not seen since the Cold War.
Yes, Putin has experienced a few setbacks lately. But that’s no reason for him to give up. After all, what’s stopping him?