Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
With each passing week, the evidence of Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election—and in U.S. politics and society more generally—grows. Since at least 2014, in an effort to influence the election and undermine confidence in U.S. democracy, Russia has hacked private American citizens’ and organizations’ computers to steal information; released that information in ways designed to affect electoral outcomes and divide Americans; planted and disseminated disinformation in U.S. social media, through its own state-funded and -controlled media networks and by deploying tens of thousands of bloggers and bots; cooperated with Americans, possibly including members of Donald Trump’s campaign, to discredit Trump’s opponent in the election; and probed election-related computer systems in multiple states. We will never know for certain whether Russia’s intervention changed the outcome of the 2016 election. The point is that it tried.
Today, the Kremlin’s unprecedented efforts to sow and exacerbate divisions among Americans, using many of the same tools, continue. Whereas physical attacks on the U.S. homeland, such as Pearl Harbor or 9/11, have brought Americans together in a common cause and led them to bolster defenses, an assault on the American sense of national unity could weaken the institutions and shared beliefs that are critical to enduring security and success. Growing domestic strife and diminishing trust in national institutions represent as great a threat to the United States as any traditional national security concern, with the exception of a nuclear attack.
Russia’s geopolitical challenge to the United States is also growing. Since Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency in 2012, Moscow has invaded and annexed Crimea; occupied parts of eastern Ukraine; deployed substantial military forces and undertaken a ruthless bombing campaign in Syria to prop up President Bashar al-Assad; significantly expanded its armed forces; run military exercises designed to intimidate eastern European governments; interfered in eastern European political systems; and threatened to cut off gas to the most energy-dependent European states. Putin is a career intelligence officer who is deeply hostile to democratic change anywhere near Russia, paranoid about what he believes to be U.S. efforts to oust him, and resentful of American domination of the post–Cold War world. He seems to have made it a personal priority to weaken the United States and counter American influence wherever he can.
In the face of such a comprehensive challenge, strong new measures are needed to protect U.S. society from further intervention and punish Russia for attacking the United States. This response should not be confined to measures guarding against further election meddling. Moscow will cease and desist only if it concludes that it is paying a major price in matters important to it, including in the area of European security.
Having worked since the end of the Cold War to build more constructive U.S.-Russian relations (Blackwill in the George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush administrations, Gordon in the Bill Clinton and Barack Obama administrations), we come only reluctantly to the conclusion that the United States needs to confront Russia more forcefully. As it did during the Cold War, Washington should continue to interact with Moscow and to cooperate with it whenever cooperation is in the U.S. interest. But the United States cannot stand by when an adversary not only adopts an agenda of countering U.S. influence throughout the world but also strikes directly at the heart of American democracy.
DROPPING THE BALL
Considering the gravity and consequences of the Russian intervention, the U.S. response has been grossly inadequate. The Obama administration was slow to realize the full extent of the Russian operation and, when it did, was reluctant to react, announcing only a limited set of retaliatory measures (primarily sanctions on selected Russian operatives) after the election was over. Before Election Day, President Barack Obama worried that public accusations of interference would be perceived as an attempt to discredit the Trump candidacy (an accusation Trump made anyway) and that retaliation could set off a devastating cyber-escalation—which would disproportionately hurt the United States, given its greater openness and reliance on technology. These concerns led the administration to avoid retaliating in a manner proportionate to the intervention or even publicly highlighting its seriousness to the degree warranted.
The Trump administration has done even less. Far from responding to Russia’s intervention, Trump has refused even to acknowledge that it happened, repeatedly calling the allegations a “hoax.” Throughout his campaign and presidency, for reasons difficult to explain, Trump has demonstrated a curious affinity for Russia in general and Putin in particular, often praising him and rarely challenging his policy positions. Whereas Trump’s default attitude toward virtually every other country in the world is highly critical, he has consistently shown sympathy for Russian perspectives.
Given the administration’s inaction, Congress has had to take the lead. In July 2017, it passed the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act of 2017 (CAATSA), which codified into law sanctions imposed by previous administrations, blocking Trump from lifting them without congressional consent. CAATSA also authorized new sanctions for use in response to cyber-intrusions; extended restrictions on Russian energy firms; added to the list of sanctionable sectors of the Russian economy; and mandated sanctions against those helping Russia undermine the cybersecurity of any democratic institution. Unfortunately, the administration hasn’t used these potentially effective new tools.
CONTAINING THE THREAT
Without a more vigorous and comprehensive response, the Kremlin’s meddling will continue—and even get worse—while other adversaries might also conclude they can attack the United States with relative impunity. Washington needs to impose real costs on Moscow, while also enhancing defenses against future attacks and bolstering its military commitment to European allies most threatened by Moscow’s aggressive posture.
[Read the authors' Council Special Report, "Containing Russia", here.]
The minimal sanctions applied thus far have failed to send a sufficiently strong message. The administration has the tools to change that: using the authorities provided in CAATSA, it should work closely with European partners to impose asset freezes and visa bans on additional Kremlin officials now known to be involved in election interference and extend similar sanctions on Russian organizations active in election interference, including “troll farms” and their funders. Last October, the Treasury Department identified entities subject to those sanctions, including the Russian aircraft manufacturer Sukhoi, the state arms exporter Rosoboronexport, and the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service. The mere existence of this list will be costly to Russia, because foreign companies will not want to risk sanctions by making “significant investments,” but the administration should not hesitate to selectively impose sanctions if Russian activities continue. Congress has also mandated that the Treasury Department identify corrupt Russian officials and oligarchs close to Putin by January 29 and that it report on the impact of expanding sanctions to include Russian sovereign debt; these steps should be promptly and comprehensively implemented.
The U.S. government also needs to strengthen its defenses against future attacks, starting with the cybersecurity of federal networks and critical infrastructure. At the state and local levels, election boards should keep paper backups of ballots and voter registration records and limit access to election systems to qualified vendors. Meanwhile, campaign finance laws need to be updated to cover a broader range of online activity, enhance transparency requirements, and prevent political spending by foreign nationals. New laws should also require digital platforms such as Facebook to create a public database of political ads and provide users access to information about who paid for the political ads and whom they targeted. And regulations similar to the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires transparency in lobbying, should also apply to online or media activities. Americans advancing a foreign political influence campaign through vehicles such as RT should be treated no differently from those being paid directly by foreign governments.
Nongovernmental efforts will also have to be part of the solution. Major social media platforms should sign on to a voluntary code of conduct that commits them to more actively policing their networks for disinformation, false news stories, botnets, and false-flag advertising—identifying, labeling, and, where appropriate, blocking them. They have taken some steps in the right direction: Facebook created a portal to help people identify ads from Russia’s Internet Research Agency, and Twitter banned advertising from RT and Sputnik. These platforms should not try to regulate “truth,” but they can find ways to indicate when “news” sources are confined to a very narrow group of self-referring sources—a hallmark of disinformation—so that users are aware that what they are reading may be suspect. Bipartisan institutions—such as the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy, which tracks Russian propaganda efforts—can also help identify and combat disinformation. Selective declassification of evidence of Russian interference could bolster such efforts.
Finally, the administration itself needs to make deterrence of future attacks a priority. An authoritative administration official—CIA Director Mike Pompeo, for example—should privately convey to Moscow Washington’s readiness to release the financial information of Russian government leaders involved in hacking and other embarrassing information about Putin and his cronies. Credibly threatening such releases would give Putin an incentive and opportunity to refrain from future interventions in U.S. elections. At the same time, U.S. officials should emphasize that all these measures are defensive and not designed to change the Russian regime—a fear Putin has harbored for years. Washington should make clear that it will continue to support free and fair elections, freedom of speech, and the rule of law in Russia, as it does around the world. But it will respect Russia’s sovereign right to hold those elections free of outside manipulation with illicit means—just as it expects Russia to respect the United States’ right to do the same.
REINFORCING THE FRONTLINE
An effective response also requires transatlantic cooperation to bolster NATO’s defense and deterrence posture. That means maintaining at least the current level of U.S. forces—approximately 60,000 active-duty personnel—currently deployed in Europe, but also going further. An additional U.S. armored combat brigade should be permanently stationed in Poland, along with multinational battalions in the Baltic states and the prepositioning of more equipment closer to NATO’s eastern flank. NATO should also continue implementing the European Phased Adaptive Approach to missile defense, which involves the stationing of U.S. personnel in eastern Europe.
On Ukraine, if Russia does not fully implement the February 2015 Minsk II cease-fire agreement or any successor to it, the United States should expand sanctions to cover additional Russian officials and specific firms and further limit Russian access to Western loans and technology. These sanctions should target the defense, mining, and energy sectors, as specifically authorized in CAATSA. If Russia refuses to compromise, the United States should further limit access to Western loans and financial services, cancel investments in existing projects, impose sanctions on mining and machinery, and press allies to embargo all Russian military sales and military imports from Russia. Washington should also provide additional defensive support to Ukraine, including counterbattery radars, reconnaissance drones, secure communications, and armored vehicles. Ukraine should not be encouraged to seek a military victory over Russia, which it cannot achieve, but with more help, it can increase the costs of occupation for Russia.
Finally, to reduce European reliance on Russian energy, the administration and Congress should continue to remove restrictions on U.S. oil and gas exports and encourage the construction of gas pipelines that avoid Russia (such as from Turkmenistan through Azerbaijan and Turkey to Europe). And it should urge NATO allies and other EU member states to pursue alternatives to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia, including by facilitating purchases of liquefied natural gas from other sources.
THE NEW COLD WAR
If this package of measures sounds like a prescription for a new Cold War with Russia, it is. In launching a major attack on the pillars of U.S. democracy, seeking to undermine social peace in the United States and Europe, and opposing U.S. policies around the world, Russia has demonstrated that it will not be a partner, strategically or tactically, in the foreseeable future. Putin has apparently concluded that a larger Russian regional and global role requires the weakening of American power.
The United States needs to rise to the challenge. Trump’s own National Security Strategy concludes that “actors such as Russia are using information tools in an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of democracies” and that “Russia challenge[s] American power, influence, and interests.” Those conclusions are beyond dispute. It is past time for the administration to act accordingly.