The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Putin may be using new technology, but he is a classic Russian czar

Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in Moscow on Oct. 20.
Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in Moscow on Oct. 20. (Michail Klimentyev/Sputnik/Kremlin Pool/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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Somewhere under the grime of a ruling criminal regime remains a great, long-suffering Russian nation. Of Russia, two things have always been true: It cannot be conquered, and it has never been well led. No nation has suffered more to repel invaders. Prince Alexander Nevsky sacrificed thousands at the blood-drenched Battle of the Ice. Alexander I burned his own cities and fields in 1812 to deny their sustenance to Napoleon’s invading army. Millions of Russians were piled into a wall of human sacrifice laid up against Hitler.

But for all this indomitable strength, the Russian people have never been strong enough to demand good government. They produce great poets, great novelists, great musicians — but seldom great leaders.

For two decades, Vladimir Putin has been ringing the old bells of Russian nationalism while running a low and outlaw regime. An indictment unsealed Monday by federal prosecutors tells the latest chapter in this tale. According to Assistant Attorney General John Demers, head of the national security division of the Justice Department: “No country has weaponized its cyber capabilities as maliciously and irresponsibly as Russia, wantonly causing unprecedented collateral damage to pursue small tactical advantages and to satisfy fits of spite.”

What does a criminal regime look like in action?

According to the indictment, among the many hacks by Putin’s select squad of engineers were various acts of sabotage against the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. Why attack the Olympics? Allegedly, Russia wanted revenge after its athletes were not allowed to compete under its national flag. But why was that? Russia had been punished for the most widespread doping conspiracy ever discovered by international authorities in real time.

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They hacked the Olympics, in other words, because they got caught cheating. This layering of one crime on top of another is the definition of incorrigibility; it’s like the Mafia burning a store after the shopkeeper refuses to pay a protection shakedown.

But Putin doesn’t stop there, the extraordinary indictment maintains. The same elite unit of the Russian army that allegedly hacked the Olympics — and, yes, the 2016 presidential election in the United States — has been on a worldwide rampage, federal prosecutors allege. Putin’s outlaw engineers stand accused of shutting down electricity for hundreds of thousands of shivering Ukrainians in bleak midwinter. The hackers are charged with impeding the investigation of Russia’s likely poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal. The squad allegedly meddled in the election of French President Emmanuel Macron.

Russia allegedly hacks governments, nongovernmental organizations and private corporations; no cybercrime is too big or too small for Putin’s Kremlin keyboard cowboys. They practice what is best understood as guerrilla warfare against worldwide law and order.

What impact the indictment might have is difficult to predict. Putin is unlikely (understatement alert!) to arrest and turn over the charged individuals; wide-ranging international sanctions have had minimal effect on a government that is believed to have bombed hospitals in Syria on behalf of kleptocrat Bashar al-Assad. And the hackers are unlikely to fess up, given the high risk of poisoning among honest Russians.

Putin is a czar from the classic Russian mold, willing to subject his people to any hardship necessary to preserve his grip. He believes that Western cultural and economic influence is a kind of 21st-century invasion, and he will absorb all the sanctions and opprobrium and economic damage necessary to sap the invaders of their strength. Whatever divides the West and its allies smells like victory in his nostrils.

It doesn’t help matters that the president of the United States, normally the head of the law-and-order alliance, is one of the few world leaders who seems not to understand what his Russian counterpart is up to. “Russia, Russia, Russia,” complains President Trump whenever the topic of Putin’s cyber-commando warfare is raised. Trump meets privately with Putin. Trump chats up Putin on the phone. Trump takes Putin at his word — over America’s own intelligence services.

In his recent book “The New Map: Energy, Climate, and the Clash of Nations,” clear-eyed economic historian Daniel Yergin explains Putin’s tightrope. Despite Russia’s magnificent human assets, the nation remains heavily dependent on raw commodities, especially oil and natural gas. The rise of the United States as a leading energy producer, plus the greening of Russia’s major European customers, has driven fuel prices down. Putin’s bad behavior is his way of remaining relevant on the world stage despite a chronically weak economy. Perversely, Yergin observes, “the new isolation . . . made [Russian] companies more dependent on the state and expanded the role of the government in the national economy.”

The stubborn resilience of the Russians, bred over centuries, is in a weird way the tragedy of the nation. They are content to survive, to endure, when the breadth and richness of their beautiful land offers so much more.

Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.

Read more:

Max Boot: More evidence of Trump’s subservience to Putin — and we still don’t know why

Michael Morell and Marc Polymeropoulos: The Russians infiltrated Trump’s 2016 campaign. We may never know exactly what happened.

Michael Gerson: Trump’s seeming indifference to Russian influence is part of his moral incapacity

Jennifer Rubin: Russia is actively helping Trump. Again.

Marc A. Thiessen: Trump confirms, in an interview, a U.S. cyberattack on Russia