Don Von Drehle argues that Vladimir Putin succeeds by weakening the West, regardless of the short-term consequences to Russia:
It’s ironic that Americans of all political stripes have contributed to Putin’s success — by failing to understand what he wants and why he wants it. His goals are not the goals of the former Soviet Union (though he has described the collapse of the U.S.S.R. as a “disaster”). During the Cold War, the Kremlin pursued the spread of communist ideology. Putin is nonideological, according to former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, now of Stanford University and a Post contributing columnist. “I see him as impulsive, emotional, opportunistic. Putin sees himself as the last great nationalist, anti-globalist leader.”
A unified United States, pursuing a bipartisan, pro-democracy foreign policy is Putin’s biggest fear. So, he has taken the risk of creating an operation specifically to sow discord through social media. Putin’s computer hackers look for any internal divisions and tensions that tend to erode American unity or discredit American leadership. Though he clearly favored Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016, Putin doesn’t generally favor one point of view over another; he supports whichever candidates are most divisive and amplifies whatever arguments are most bitter. Whoever is freaking out on Facebook or Twitter is a potential ally in his cause. At the State of the Union address, he no doubt enjoyed both the snubbed handshake and the ripped speech.
At the same time, Putin went to work on other vulnerable pieces of the Western alliance. By enabling Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s brutal tactics, he helped to send millions of refugees fleeing to Europe. When xenophobic nationalist movements flared up in reaction, the Russians poured on the gas via social media. Russia’s unseen hand wasn’t the only factor in the European backlash. But now the European Union may be coming apart.
These efforts would have been toxic even if Clinton had made a better case to voters around the Great Lakes and won the election in 2016. But the fact that Putin’s hackers went all-in for Trump, who won the electoral college with just 46 percent of the vote, turned a Russian win into a rout. The election itself became a cause of further division. Russia’s role became a new wedge issue, the doubt that keeps on festering.
I've no doubt the US and Western Europe will survive Putin's passive-aggression. Ultimately, the fundamentals are on our side. But remember, Putin's goal isn't to win, exactly; it's for us to lose. And in that respect he's succeeding.