For all the legitimate focus on rising U.S.-Chinese tensions, this summer's sleeper surprise for the West is more likely to emerge from Vladimir Putin's Russia.
That's because the built-in contradictions between Russia's international ambition and domestic rot that have always characterized Putin's rule, now into its 21st year, are coming to head in a manner that provides him both greater opportunity and peril.
The brutal effectiveness of his thugocracy state is increasing, with a military modernization that includes a newly detected test of anti-satellite space weapons, highly publicized advances in hypersonic technologies, and worldwide intelligence operations that effectively employ advanced technology and a lower-tech army of mercenaries.
At the same time, the weakness of his demographically aging, economically ossifying Covid-hit country continues to grow in the wake of lower oil prices. The World Bank projects a 6% decline in Russian GDP in 2020 in a country that already had 12.3% of its population, or 18 million people, below the poverty line.
Greater opportunity for Putin presents itself in a United States that's distracted by the coronavirus spread, its own economic downturn, racial upheavals, polarizing November elections and divisions with and within Europe. With the chance that his friend President Donald Trump might lose the November election, Putin could calculate that now could be the time to seize new opportunities.
The peril is symbolized by surprisingly large and enduring protests in the far eastern city of Khabarovsk, which continued this weekend. New Levada polling shows that 45% of Russians say they approve of the recent wave of anti-Kremlin protests, and Putin opponents are looking to convert this energy into something more.
What's difficult to predict is whether an August surprise — or one at any time ahead of U.S. elections in November — would grow more from Russia's strength, its weakness, or more likely some combination of the two. It has been times like these in the past when matters had seemed sour for Moscow that Putin has turned to adventures abroad to solidify his domestic control.
So should one be watching for a surprise of the sort of the Russo-Georgian war of August 2008, the seizure and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, the Russian military intervention in the Syrian civil war from 2015 to the present, or more electoral and disinformation activity in Europe and particularly around U.S. elections this November?
On that front, the first indicator could be Russian response to the Belarus election a week from Sunday on Aug. 9. Janusz Bugajksi of the Center for European Policy Analysis reckons that Putin could use "the pretext of growing unrest in Belarus and the disputed presidential elections" as a chance to act as national liberator with the "looming prospect" of the absorption of Belarus into Russia.
Following the arrest this week of 32 Russians at a sanatorium near Minsk, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko accused the Kremlin-linked Wagner military contractor of sending 200 of its mercenaries to destabilize his country ahead of his election, where he faces a challenge from three opposition groups.
What's clear is that Putin's relations have soured dangerously with Lukashenko, who has resisted Russia's efforts to effectively merge the two states into a Moscow-dominated union. Lukashenko has been reaching out to Europe and the United States, including a February visit by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Most of all, Putin will resist any further erosion of Kremlin power in its own region that would be prompted by a tilt either by Lukashenko or his opposition toward Western institutions or allegiances, akin to Georgia and Ukraine.
Some analysts say Putin's appetite for such an adventure has run its course. That's unlikely, however, until he experiences more painful pushback than he has thus far from the United States, Europe or others.
In an interview with "Axios on HBO" this week, Trump said he hasn't confronted Putin with intelligence that Russia paid the Taliban to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan. Trump spoke to Putin this Tuesday, one of at least eight times he's done so since the intelligence landed in the President's Daily Brief in late February
If past performance is any indicator of future outcomes, don't join the wishful Western thinkers who believe that Russia's economic pain and domestic opposition has advanced so far that Putin is in greater danger than are his adversaries.
If anything, he has been encouraged by his string of international advances in the face of little pushback and, like the schoolyard bully who hasn't yet felt a serious blow, he will continue his life's work of undoing the wrong of Soviet collapse in any way available to him.
A powerful new book by Financial Times correspondent Catherine Belton, "Putin's People," "demonstrates how the future president made full use of KGB methods, contacts, and networks at each stage of his career," writes Anne Applebaum in a review of the book in The Atlantic.
No less a source than Russian businessman Vladimir Yakunin, who with Konstantin Malofeyev helped set up organizations across Europe that would promote alternatives to democracy and European integration, told Bolton it was all about restoring Russia's "global position."
Angela Stent, a consistently wise American expert on Russia, writes that despite its limited economic capabilities, Russia could become "an even more influential international player." That's in part because of growing doubts about U.S. reliability among allies.
Despite the prevalent view in Washington of Putin as a thuggish dictator, his global partners — including a number of senior Mideast officials with whom I've spoken — see him as a reliable, pragmatic leader with whom they can do business. They'd rather deal with Russia in Syria than Iran, and they'd rather have Russia in Libya than Turkey.
As to the prospect of a summer bombshell, Stent writes, "It has been the case throughout Russian history, things appear to be stable until suddenly they are not. Putin likes to surprise, as was clear from his hastily arranged referendum. But he himself could face unanticipated challenges to his plan to stay in power indefinitely."
As for this August, however, my bet would be that if there is a surprise, it will be one of Putin's choosing.
Frederick Kempe is a best-selling author, prize-winning journalist and president & CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of the United States' most influential think tanks on global affairs. He worked at The Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years as a foreign correspondent, assistant managing editor and as the longest-serving editor of the paper's European edition. His latest book – "Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth" – was a New York Times best-seller and has been published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter @FredKempe and subscribe here to Inflection Points, his look each Saturday at the past week's top stories and trends.
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