Several weeks ago, I made the case that with the election of Donald Trump by way of overt interference by Russia, Putin had miscalculated. Injecting propaganda into the body politic to undermine democracy is dramatically less effective when everyone knows you're doing it. The crushing defeat of Marine Le Pen is a clearest demonstration yet that a country on guard is difficult to fool.
After their success in America's election and possibly in influencing the Brexit vote, Russia continued to attack the elections of other countries, but suddenly found that the going had gotten rough. Australia and the Netherlands sent their far-right white nationalists packing and now France has sent a definitive message to Putin's handpicked puppets. The next country up to bat is Germany but given its history of falling prey to white nationalists, it seems unlikely they won't be prepared for the kind of tactics Russia has been using.
Normally, the United States would be doing the same to protect our midterms but a shielded election process makes it more difficult for Republicans to cheat so don't expect anything substantial to be done anytime soon. Still, that doesn't mean that Russia is sitting pretty with an ally in the White House. The operation to compromise and manipulate Trump was so poorly concealed that A. Everyone knows about it and B. It's keeping Trump from doing the main thing Putin really wants: lifting the sanctions against Russia.
MSNBC's conservative host Joe Scarborough even oversold Trump's inability to deliver for Russia in a Washington Post op-ed on Saturday:
WikiLeaks’ targeting of the Democratic Party added to the growing list of Russian-themed scandals that had engulfed Trump World over the past year. That, in turn, has resulted in Russia’s relationship with the United States being at its worst since the end of the Cold War. The Economist has written of “a sharp deterioration in relations between the two countries since Donald Trump became president.” And last month, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters in Moscow that the two nuclear powers’ relationship is experiencing a “low point.”
While it's true that official relations are poor, Trump still has nothing but praise for Putin and Tillerson, Putin's close friend, has been hard at work dismantling the State Department. The State Department, of course, is the diplomatic soft power that has been constraining Putin for years. Surely this is just a coincidence.
On the other hand, Russia's ongoing operations are increasingly being seen as acts of war, with countries like France promising retaliation (Trump doesn't see any problem so the White House is currently ignoring the whole thing). Considering Russia's already precarious financial situation after years of Putin and his oligarchs plundering the country, further strain on their fragile economy might push the entire nation over the edge. Should the Democrats retake Congress and the White House, that retaliation will immediately escalate. So maybe not the great victory it currently appears to be.
At the same time, by going all in on right-wing extremism, Russia has made almost any information coming from the right suspect. Is it real? Is it fake? Is Russia attempting to manufacture outrage again? There simply is no equivalent on the left. Yes, sites like Occupy Democrats and Addicting Info have earned a reputation as "fake news" but no one believes that it's at the behest of a foreign power. Greed? Yes. Russia? No.
The overall effect is supposed to be a discrediting of the media and weakening democracies but whereas propaganda outlets like Breitbart lose what little credibility they had, outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post have massively increased their readership and recovered much of their status as vital and necessary. At the same time, civic engagement is on the rise in the United States, a very bad sign for Putin's natural allies on the right. Again, not exactly a great victory for weaponized misinformation.
In the end, especially once Republicans are removed from the equation, Russia's early successes and growing list of failures may end up strengthening western democracies while leaving Russia, as Scarborough puts it, more isolated than ever before.