It sounds like a classic Shakespeare. A rogue nation spends the first three acts peddling influence with foreign power-broking structures and causing general mayhem. The audience are then stunned to find Act 4 vacant of this mischief maker. Other nuisances arise and the original Horrid Henry slips out of the spotlight. He doesn’t, however, just leave the show. Everyone knows he will return, they just don’t know when or with what trouble.
This hypothetical novel is very apt for a nation well known for their literary classics. For around eighteen months, the headlines ‘Russian meddling’, ‘The Russians hacked’ and ‘Trump and Putin’ have littered our news sources. Yet, the past six weeks have seen a reversal of this trend. It has become difficult and time-consuming to find any news concerning Russia.
The question is why?
The end of a highly intensive two-year election cycle for major Western Democracies is one potential answer. Having almost certainly hacked the election in the United States, exerted significant influence in the French election and potentially interfered in the election in the United Kingdom, both the opportunities and the gains to be made are decreasing. The passing by of the German election without incident signals the last election in a significant anti-Russia, G7 country. There is simply no need to exert pressure in countries where the superior power of the Russians is already accepted.
The second plausible answer as to why Russia is appearing ever more infrequently in the news is a possible reorientation of their foreign policy. With elections scheduled in Hungary for 2018 and Ukraine for 2019, Russia may simply be preparing for the next wave of cyber-warfare. As many are framing the Hungarian election as a binary choice between a pro-Europe and a pro-Russia government, the possible benefits are evident. Aiding the instillation of a pro-Russian leader in a country that, despite recent clashes with the EU over the refugee crisis, has long been a supporter of the EU could precipitate the widening of divisions within an already fragmented European Union. That Hungary may be needed to be used for gas storage should Ukraine block the transit of Russian gas in their 2019 election should be considered additional incentive for aiding the pro-Russian candidate.
Between September 14 and 20 Russia conducted a military exercise named Zapad [West] 2017, in conjunction with troops from Belarus. Even though independent researchers have estimated that over 70,000 soldiers took part, there has been no forthcoming validation. Undoubtedly, however, it was a significant operation and, according to British General James Everard, NATO’s Deputy Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, sent a powerful message – “if you thought we were in decay, we’re not” (SOURCE). Russian and Chinese navies simultaneously drilled in the east, land forces exercised in Central Asia, bombers flew over the Norwegian Sea, and Paratroopers were active above the Arctic Circle; it was clear that Russia was demonstrating its ability to deploy large quantities of troops over a large area quickly.
While many may consider wargames unthreatening, Russia has set a precedent; it conducted war games before its invasion of both Georgia in 2008 and annexation of Crimea in 2014. Consequently, its Baltic neighbours are now on high alert. It is clear to those in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania that even if Russia believes its supposed inactivity is lulling them into a false sense of security, the threat of invasion is always very real. “In 24 to 48 hours, some parts of the Russian armed forces could be ready to invade one Baltic state or all of them”.
Raimundas Karoblis, Lithuania’s Defense Minister stated, “it’s clear that it’s not only defence, but also about offence.”
It’s true, Russia could be scaling down its activity in foreign spheres of influence. With Donald Trump in the White House and the Special Counsel’s investigation into Russian interference ongoing, it is clear that Vladimir Putin has demonstrated to the world his ability to exert influence where once no one would have thought it possible.
Yet, more likely is the looming spectre of next year’s Football World Cup to be hosted by Russia. As demonstrated when Russia hosted the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Putin views international sporting events as a prime opportunity to demonstrate Russia’s resurgence to event visitors. Furthermore, historically, the World Cup has been worth around $10billion for the host nation. Russia’s economic struggles ensures that this proposed economic gain. With this in mind, Russia’s abstinence from international limelight can be viewed as nothing more than a short-term reprieve before next summer’s World Cup. Once the international showcase is complete, however, the previous status quo may return.
‘The Unexpected Disappearance of the Government Meddlers’ therefore ends with the return of the main protagonist facilitating the enjoyment of everyone else and thus disappointing the audience. However, the story does not end there. Next year’s sequel may well fulfil and even surpass the original expectations for that final Act.