Editor’s Note: This is the second essay in a multi-author series on “Getting Russia Right.” Read the first installment by Karina Orlova here.
After two years of “Putin’s Master Plan” and “New Cold War?” chyrons, it’s not surprising to see some pushback. Unlike President Trump’s “Russia hoax” denials, these revisions are intended to stiffen our resistance.
Writing in Foreign Policy, under a “Don’t Believe the Russian Hype” headline, Swedish defense researchers Robert Dalsjö, Michael Jonsson, and Christopher Berglund warn that NATO is psyching itself out when it accepts “at face value” Russia’s claims about its missile systems and its ability in a conflict to create “no-go zones” to block NATO reinforcements from reaching the Baltics. “After all, exaggerating the capabilities of its A2/AD [anti-access/area denial] systems is enough to attain a deterrent effect if Western decision-makers believe these claims,” they write. In We Need to Talk about Putin, reviewed here by Karina Orlova, Mark Galeotti also worries that the West is psyching itself out when it sees Putin as a “Machiavellian grandmaster” rather than an opportunist, warning of a “minority opinion. . .that Putin is so dangerous and powerful that it is best to try and buy him off.” A recent article for the New York Times Magazine told readers “Russia is dead set on being a global power. But what looks like grand strategy is often improvisation–amid America’s retreat.”
These are important correctives if European leaders or NATO generals are contemplating self-deterring or suing for peace in the face of an all-powerful Putin. When I asked Alexander Vershbow, former Deputy Secretary General of NATO and former U.S. Ambassador to NATO and Russia, how much we have to worry about that, he said that there are some voices, mainly Italian populists and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, arguing that “we shouldn’t be challenging Putin. I don’t think it’s influencing NATO policy decisions,” he told me, adding, “It’s a trend worth watching.” Vigilantly.
The most clear and present danger is that we have an American President relentlessly underplaying Moscow’s myriad challenges and willfully looking for excuses not to act. Trump’s Chief of Staff blocked White House discussions about tightening security for the 2020 elections, because the President can’t tolerate a whisper of doubt about his 2016 victory. When reporters asked Trump at the G-20 summit if he would tell Putin not to meddle in U.S. elections, Trump grinned and wagged a finger at the Russian leader, saying, “Don’t meddle in the election, please.” Putin laughed and likely made a note to authorize overtime for the St. Petersburg troll farmers.
A less nuanced reading of the don’t-hype-Putin arguments could end up in the White House talking points as another reason to enable Putin’s worst behavior. If they instead raise hard questions everywhere else, including in the U.S. Congress and on the campaign trail, about why Putin has been able to play a weak hand so effectively against the United States and Europe, they will make an important contribution. How much of the problem is Putin? How much is us? And if Putin isn’t a strategic genius and the Russian system is as corrupt and troubled as it appears, what do we need to be doing differently to leverage those weaknesses?
Putin is far outmatched by the West. Russia has a gross domestic product of $1.658 trillion versus $18.8 trillion for the European Union and $20.5 trillion for the United States. Moscow spent $61.4 billion on its military last year versus roughly $650 billion by the United States (though when considering relative purchasing power, the gap may not be nearly as great or comforting). A Russian male born in 2017 is expected to live 67 years, versus 76 years for an American male and nearly 80 for one born in France.
It is also true that Putin isn’t getting many of the wins he’d hoped for: President Trump came into office determined to ease sanctions on Russia, but even the Republican-led Congress balked at that. More sanctions have been meted out (the White House is still months behind on a second, much tougher round of mandated punishments for the 2018 nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy in Britain). The number of NATO troops deployed in and rotating through Eastern Europe and the Baltics since Russia annexed Crimea has grown. And for all of Ukraine’s troubles—many self-inflicted, others Putin-generated—Russia has likely pushed Kyiv permanently into the Western camp. Putin is beginning to feel strains at home, especially since the government raised the pension age last year. In May, the state-funded polling firm VTsIOM reported that public trust in Putin had fallen to 31.7 percent. After the Kremlin expressed its irritation, VTsIOM immediately rewrote the question and went back into the field and–surprise!—Putin’s trust ratings jumped to 72.3 percent.
None of this has robbed Putin of his desire or ability to make trouble.
FBI director Christopher Wray (he, too, has fallen out of Trump’s favor) warned in April that Russia’s “use of social media, fake news, propaganda, false personas, etc. to spin us up, pit us against each other, to sow divisiveness and discord. . . .is not just an election-cycle threat. It is pretty much a 365-day-a-year threat.” That’s despite all the revelations, sanctions and last year’s indictments in absentia of 12 Russian intelligence agents for the Clinton campaign and DNC hacks. A report by the European Commission after this May’s European Parliament elections described “continued and sustained disinformation activities by Russian” and other sources seeking to divide the electorate and suppress turnout. Among the stories pushed out were claims that the collapse of Austria’s rightist government was the result of a plot by the “European deep state” and “German and Spanish Security Services” and that the devastating fire in Notre Dame Cathedral was a sign of the “decline of Western and Christian values.”
Moscow’s malign ambitions, of course, go beyond cyberspace. Russia’s support for Bashar al-Assad’s genocidal rule in Syria has been well and horrifyingly documented. Putin’s decision to double down on Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, as the country descends further into chaos, is a clear, in-your-face challenge to American regional leadership. Clear, that is, to everyone but Donald Trump. In April, after Moscow sent 100 Special Forces to Caracas, Trump declared, “Russia has to get out.” After a phone call with Putin a few weeks later, he decided that the Russian leader “is not looking at all to get involved in Venezuela other than he would like to see something positive happen for Venezuela, and I feel the same way.”
The revisionists insist that Putin has no strategic vision. (According to Galeotti, Putin also “doesn’t read philosophy.” He does, however, read his intel briefings.) Still, Putin has been upfront about his desire to break the U.S.-led rules-based order, what he described at the 2007 Munich Security Conference as “One center of power. One center of force. One center of decision making. It is the world of one master, one sovereign.” Since then Putin has sent tanks and troops into Georgia, annexed Crimea, and used Russia’s UN Security Council veto over and over again to ensure that the Assad government has never been called to account for its many war crimes. The decision to use Novichok—a nerve agent secretly developed by the Soviets and one Russia denies ever having—to try to assassinate former GRU colonel Sergei Skripal in England last year looks like an intentional assault on one of the few global norms, the ban on chemical weapons, that was still holding–until Syria and Salisbury.
How does Putin pull it off? How does a declining country—albeit one still with some 6,500 nuclear weapons—wreak so much havoc? And how should that inform our thinking about pushing back?
Answer One: It’s the Technology and the Times
The Kremlin’s political technologists were far ahead of the curve in recognizing the power of social media to exploit and feed the anxieties spreading across the West. As early as the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, Russian hackers were defacing government websites, posting images of Hitler and other dictators alongside that of Georgia’s President. Now it seems like everyone (or everyone with bad intent) is in the game. Iran and Venezuela have mounted disinformation campaigns. Alt-right players in the United States and Europe are generating their own content and doing call-and-response with the Russians. In 2017 a group of Democratic operatives launched a small disinformation campaign during Alabama’s special Senate race and last month, the New York Times reported that a thirty-something working with the Trump campaign has set up a fake Biden website complete with creepy GIFs of the former Vice President kissing and patting little girls.
There is no way of knowing how much of an impact Russia’s fake and divisive news actually had on the 2016 election. In Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, one of the country’s leading experts on political ads and debates, makes the disturbing case that the real news mined from hacked Clinton campaign emails—particularly excerpts (some taken out of context) from Hillary Clinton’s paid private speeches—was more significant: dominating the news cycle and the second and third presidential debates, reinforcing public doubts about Clinton’s credibility and driving down her polls.
Improving cybersecurity for our entire election system is critical, which is why Trump’s refusal even to acknowledge the problem is so disturbing. The question of how to respond to disinformation is more complicated. We shouldn’t be surprised that Egypt, Belarus, Myanmar and Russia are using the excuse of “fake news” to justify even more censorship and violence against journalists. (As part of his noxious banter at the G-20, Trump told Putin to “Get rid of them. Fake news is a great term, isn’t it?”) Democracies are also courting danger. Germany’s NetzDG law, which threatens social media platforms with a €50 million fine if they don’t quickly take down defamatory or hate speech, could lead the companies to cut their risks and airbrush the Internet.
Media literacy, fact checking, and broader public awareness of why censorship is even more dangerous to the health of a democracy than hateful viral memes are all potential correctives. Peter Pomerantsev has argued persuasively in this magazine that any “regulation (whether government- or industry-led) needs to veer away from a focus on content to a broader concept of ‘viral deception.’” In practice, he writes, this would entail thinking “more about how to regulate inauthentic behavior and amplification” including “covert, coordinated campaigns by bots, trolls and cyborgs,” and search engine manipulation.
If Putin got out of the hack-and-hype business tomorrow, we would still have a problem and this work would still need to be done.
Answer Two: We’ve Enabled Putin
Putin had already rolled two American presidents by the time Trump was elected. George W. Bush had other priorities: Getting out of the ABM Treaty (aides later told me his “look” into Putin’s eye was calculated to smooth the way), and fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In April 2008 Bush championed Georgia’s and Ukraine’s bids for eventual NATO membership—underestimating Putin’s anger or assuming he and his team would manage it. When Russian troops and tanks rolled into Georgia that August, the White House briefly debated a tougher response, then decided to leave it at a protest and some humanitarian aid and let France’s Nicolas Sarkozy negotiate an end to the fighting. More than a decade later, Russian troops are still in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
During the 2012 presidential debate, President Obama got off a great zinger about Mitt Romney describing Russia as our number one geopolitical foe, saying, “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.” When asked after the Ukraine invasion if Romney had been right, Obama dismissed Russia as “a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors—not out of strength but out of weakness.”
I’d like to believe that was part of some clever psychological operation. Obama’s record says otherwise: No lethal aid for Kyiv (sanctions for Moscow and troops for the Baltics, but the Russians had escalation dominance in Ukraine); his desultory response after Russian warplanes came to Assad’s rescue (Putin would regret getting sucked into the Syrian “quagmire”); and his decision not to strike back after the discovery of Russian interference in the 2016 election (why provoke more interference or play into Trump’s claims of election rigging, if Hillary was going to win). As it turns out, even regional powers can cause a whole lot of trouble if you let them.
One of Washington’s more recent parlor games is to debate whether Trump, as he claims, has been tougher on Russia than Obama. The decision to provide anti-tank missiles to Ukraine is an improvement, along with increased funding for European troop rotations and more gas sales to Europe.
But the words of a U.S. President—even this one—matter a lot, and Trump is incorrigible. When reporters asked him in July 2018 (two weeks before the disastrous Helsinki summit) if he would accept Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Trump said, “We’re going to have to see.” That followed a report he privately told G-7 leaders earlier that month that Crimea belonged to Russia because everyone there speaks Russian and publicly argued for letting bygones be bygones and readmitting Russia to the group. After his advisers finally dragged out an endorsement of NATO’s Article 5 collective defense commitment, Trump took it back on Fox News. When Tucker Carlson asked last year, “Why should my son go to Montenegro to defend it from attack?” the President enthusiastically shared: “I’ve asked the same question.” He then went further, declaring that the Montenegrins are “very aggressive people. They may get aggressive and congratulations, you are in World War III.” Who needs Russian disinformation when you’ve got the American President?
Trump has not been able to dig Putin out of his economic hole nor has he ceded the military space Putin wanted along his borders. But so long as he keeps personally excusing and enabling Putin, Putin will keep testing and pushing.
Answer Three: There Really Is Something about Putin
Depending on who you read, Putin is a risk taker or an expert card counter. I go with risk taker, although he has done a good job reading three U.S. presidents and many of Europe’s leaders. Consider the Russian Navy’s seizure last November of 24 Ukrainian sailors in the Kerch Strait. A UN tribunal ruled in May that Moscow must release the sailors and their vessels. Moscow has blown the Tribunal off and paid no cost.
The revisionists also disagree about whether someone so brazen can be “gotten to” the way Putin got to Hillary Clinton, with hacking and shaming—in his case about billions in ill-gotten wealth. Putin’s reaction to the 2016 release of the Panama Papers suggests just how nervous he is about his money—and about the Russian public seeing details of what he’s stolen. That can only have gotten worse as sanctions have bitten even deeper and the public’s neuralgia has grown.
Putin isn’t mentioned in the legal documents, which detail a global web of shell companies and money laundering by the great and near great. But they linked Putin associates, including one of his oldest friends, cellist Sergei Roldugin, to $2 billion in offshore transactions. Russians do love their classical music. Putin immediately denounced the revelations as a U.S. plot to destabilize the Russian government, citing a tweet from Wikileaks that USAID and George Soros funded the investigative reporting project. (Wikileaks would take some of that back.) “Attempts are made to weaken us from within, make us more acquiescent and make us toe their line,” Putin told a forum of Russian journalists. (His remarks were broadcast live on state-run television.) “What is the easiest way of doing this? It is to spread distrust for the ruling authorities and the bodies of power within society and to set people against each other.”
That sounds like a strategy Putin and his trolls would instantly recognize. It also doesn’t sound to me like a man who feels invulnerable.