Like it or not, we are engaged in a long-term conflict with Russia. It has aptly been labeled the Hybrid War, and its principal novelty is radical asymmetry. Notwithstanding the frantic commentary one often hears on both sides, an Armageddon-like military conflagration is improbable. We are unlikely to see either a Russian blitzkrieg against the Baltic States or a NATO carrier group steaming into the Black Sea to bombard Sochi, Novorossiysk, and Rostov. Neither does the Hybrid War portend nuclear winter as an unintended prophylaxis against global warming. While the Kremlin’s propaganda image of Russia as a besieged fortress is overblown, the metaphor is entirely apposite. The Hybrid War will be a lengthy standoff, perhaps decades in duration, that principally involves probing and exploiting the opponent’s economic, political, and societal weaknesses. There will be no knockout blow, and unconditional surrender is neither required nor sought; it will be quite sufficient simply to outlast the other side until it tires of the conflict and backs down. There are Russian medals from World War I bearing the Bible verse “He who endures to the end will be saved.” It would be an eminently fitting motto for the Hybrid War.
Asymmetry is the key to both understanding and winning the Hybrid War. For example, Russia has been tormenting various recalcitrant neighbors because it can do so with impunity. More or less at will, the Russians can harass Ukrainian shipping on the Sea of Azov or surreptitiously move forward the fences that mark their zone of occupation in Georgia, nibbling away at Georgian territory a few bites at a time. Russia enjoys unchallenged predominance in these two areas, and neither Russia’s neighbors nor the West can challenge Russia there directly. Therefore, if we ultimately want to avoid seeing Ukraine’s Black Sea ports blockaded and the Russian occupation of Georgia stretch to the suburbs of Tbilisi, we need to respond indirectly—by seeking the pressure points where Russia itself is vulnerable.
In any event, it would be senseless, by and large, for either side in the Hybrid War to act with strict mirror-image reciprocity. There is no point in the West trying to blanket the Russian internet with incendiary political messages or blogs written in stilted Russian by geeky teenage Western trolls. Neither should we prepare a polonium tea party for Edward Snowden. And Moscow, insofar as it has threatened possible countersanctions against Western companies, has only succeeded in increasing the perceived political risk to foreigners in doing business in Russia, thereby further discouraging investment.
Indeed, the disparity in economic power is arguably Russia’s greatest vulnerability in the Hybrid War. Globally, Russian-style crony capitalism has many practitioners, but few ideologically committed devotees. Compelled to choose between doing business with the West or with Russia, most economic actors, both state and private, would choose the former. Moreover, to a degree scarcely imagined by most Russians, their country’s robust economic growth from 2000-08 was predicated on Western trade, financing, and investment. The withholding of these benefits will not cause a near-term Russian economic meltdown, but it will hurt, and the cumulative pain will only grow more acute with time.
It is quite possible to survive for a long time in a besieged fortress—but it’s not a lot of fun. A decade or so of economic stagnation while the rest of the world generally prospers just might induce the inhabitants of the fortress to decide that survival, after all, is not enough, and that it behooves them to reach a modus vivendi with their neighbors.
I have therefore been a strong supporter of sanctions against Russia since 2014. Above all, the sanctions regime must, as the saying goes, combine strategic certainty with operational surprise. The Russians need to be convinced that the sanctions will not be lifted until Moscow has concluded mutually acceptable settlements with its aggrieved neighbors. In addition, the West should always have additional arrows in its sanctions quiver, both as a deterrent to further misbehavior and for use tactically to wrong-foot the Kremlin from time to time as appropriate.
Those who argue that sanctions “haven’t worked” simply haven’t grasped the nature of the Hybrid War. Sanctions are not a quick fix, but the central element in a long-term, asymmetrical strategy for dealing with the challenges that an irredentist Russia poses to European security.
It is in the context of sanctions that people might usefully ponder the recent Statement of Offense against Maria Butina compiled by the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.
Much of the American press has proclaimed Butina a Russian spy and an agent of the Kremlin. A seductive Mata Hari on par with the notorious Anna Chapman, Butina leveraged her history as a gun-rights advocate in Russia to insinuate herself into the National Rifle Association, there to build contacts and presumably subvert American foreign policy and democracy. One can readily visualize Butina using a copy of the U.S. Constitution for her target practice.
In fact, the Statement of Offense says nothing about espionage; rather, her crime was conspiracy to avoid registering as a foreign agent. Her patron in Russia and alleged co-conspirator, Aleksandr Torshin, was a longtime Russian legislator and recently retired as a Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Russia. While he is alleged to have links to organized crime, he is not known to have intelligence connections, is not a Kremlin insider, and is not an oligarch.
Moreover, it is clear that Butina is no Anna Chapman. Her interest in guns dates back to 2011, and her studies in the United States (she is in the country on a student visa) are by all accounts genuine, not a cover. All of her communications and activities were evidently conducted completely in the open; there were no secret codes, false identities, surreptitious meetings, dead drops, or other elements of spycraft.
What were the policy goals that Butina hoped to achieve by infiltrating the NRA? What changes in U.S. policy did she hope to secure? The Statement of Offense is strangely silent on this rather crucial point. However, much of the media has highlighted the fact that Butina posed a question on Russia sanctions to candidate Donald Trump at a campaign event in July 2015, and sanctions relief is generally assumed to have been high on her agenda.
Butina has reportedly agreed to cooperate with investigators, so further revelations remain a possibility. Perhaps she will divulge that hobnobbing with NRA types along with Torshin was not their personal pet project but was in fact directed by “higher authorities” with a specific nefarious goal in mind. Perhaps she will have something to say regarding the long-standing accusations that the Russians used the NRA to funnel money to the Trump campaign.
But perhaps not. What if Butina turns out to be, in fact, just a vivacious young Russian gun enthusiast intoxicated by the ego boost from moving in circles wealthier and more influential than she could possibly have dreamed of in her Siberian childhood? What if she self-importantly fancied herself a shaker and mover in establishing “unofficial channels” between Russians and Americans in the long tradition of “citizen diplomacy?”
In the latter case, the decision to treat Butina’s activities as illicit lobbying rather than ordinary networking and run-of-the-mill self-promotion has potentially far-reaching consequences. Given the current tension in U.S.-Russian relations and the paucity of official contacts, there has been an interest in encouraging some modicum of bilateral dialogue by reviving Cold-War-era Track-II diplomacy involving non-official contacts and activities among private citizens of the two countries. The Butina case can only send an icy chill through such efforts. Many of Butina’s activities described in the Statement of Offense—organizing “friendship dinners,” arranging for delegations to visit one another’s countries, participation in various conferences and conventions—fall squarely within traditional Track-II diplomacy. The Statement’s allegation that “Butina sought to establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence in U.S. politics … for the benefit of the Russian Federation” could easily describe the efforts of any Russian citizen engaged in Track-II diplomacy and making an honest intellectual case for a change in U.S. policy. How many Russians would consider participating in Track-II diplomacy with the apprehension that they could potentially face criminal charges for unregistered lobbying on behalf of a foreign power?
But it gets worse. Any American arguing for sanctions relief could, by the logic of the Butina Statement of Offense, be construed as an unregistered lobbyist “for the benefit of the Russian Federation.” And if that American has discussed his thinking with a Russian friend or contact, then we would have prima facie evidence of a conspiracy. Perhaps the prosecutor could throw in a charge of violating the Logan Act for good measure.
In the Hybrid War, overkill appears to be less of a danger in the nuclear realm than on the civil liberties front. Personally, I am quite prepared to debate logically and on a level playing field with American critics of Russia sanctions. I neither need nor want the U.S. criminal justice system to muzzle my adversaries for me.
Desperate times, we are told, call for desperate measures. In the 1950s the West faced an existential threat from Soviet Communism, which had rapidly industrialized a backward, agrarian country and whose fatal economic shortcomings were not yet undeniably obvious. Soviet propagandists were having a field day with America’s institutionalized racism and the colonial policies of our European allies. The Communist Party, directed from the Kremlin, was a mass movement in many parts of Europe. In our own country millions of people, radicalized by racial injustice and the economic hardships of the Depression, had gravitated toward Communism during at least some period of their lives. The overreaction to this very genuine menace was McCarthyism—the search for Communists under every bed, guilt by association, and the blaming of unrest on outside agitators.
By contrast, our faceoff with the Russians in the Hybrid War is of a qualitatively different kind. Alarmists warn that democracy itself is in danger, but it is risible to suppose that the Kremlin’s aim is to replace America’s free-market democracy with its own kleptocratic authoritarianism. The Russians are happy to exploit our divisions, but they really could not care less what system of government we have—as long as we don’t try to spread it to their “sphere of privileged interests.” While we no longer search under beds for Communists, we are quick to espy a Russian hand in all sorts of unsettling events—Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, the push for Catalonia’s independence, France’s recent gilets jaunes disturbances—where Russian causality is by no means intuitive or self-evident.
Will American (and Western) elites confront the root causes of widespread popular anger in many democratic countries, or will we continue to get a threadbare 21st-century version of the old “outside agitators” excuse, with Butina held up as a supposedly frightening example of the lengths to which Moscow is prepared to go to infiltrate and destroy our institutions?
If American democracy is so endangered by the likes of Maria Butina that we must come down on her with the full force of the law in order to save it, then the situation is evidently very much grimmer than I would ever have imagined.