President Obama has been shamefully derelict in making Putin pay a price for his aggression. It’s time to give Vladimir a taste of his own medicine.
- By Max BootMax Boot is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His forthcoming book is “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam.”
Vladimir Putin’s tenure as Russia’s dictator has been dedicated to twin interlocking goals: to enhance his own power and wealth and that of the country he controls. The more powerful Russia becomes, after all, the more powerful its president becomes, too. In pursuit of more influence, Putin has tried to rebuild the Russian armed forces from a force of low-quality conscripts equipped with weapons that don’t work to a high-quality professional force with cutting-edge weapons. That transformation, only partially complete, has been shown off in Syria, which Putin has used as a showcase for systems including sleek Kalibr cruise missiles and the smoke-belching aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov. But as befits an old KGB man, Putin’s heart appears to lie more with “deniable” covert operations rather than with overt muscle-flexing.
Putin has become notorious for using “little green men” — Russian intelligence operatives and Spetsnaz (special forces) in civilian clothing — to infiltrate Ukrainian territory and start an uprising among the Russian-speaking population. And it worked: Russia annexed Crimea and has gained de facto control over much of eastern Ukraine. This tactic of undertaking barely disguised aggression has become known as “hybrid warfare,” and it has consistently left the West wrong-footed because Putin is careful to avoid crossing the normal red lines.
The West has been even more flummoxed by Putin’s campaign of political warfare designed to subvert anti-Russian regimes and replace them with more pliable leaders. The most high-profile manifestation of this effort was the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and other Democratic targets in an attempt, as the CIA has now concluded, to swing the U.S. presidential election toward Donald Trump, the most pro-Russian politician in America since the heyday of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s agriculture secretary, Henry Wallace. Russian internet trolls were also busy putting out anti-Clinton, pro-Trump stories, many of them demonstrably false.
Putin’s interference in the election was probably not the decisive factor (for that, blame FBI Director James Comey’s diligent efforts), but in an election decided by 100,000 votes in three states it is impossible to say what made a difference and what did not. Certainly Trump, who once called on Putin to hack his opponent, acts like a man with a guilty conscience, furiously denying not only that the hacks were designed to help him but that they were the work of the Kremlin at all. Putin will get his payoff if the new administration decides to lift the sanctions imposed on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine — something that is more likely if ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, to whom Putin awarded an Order of Friendship, is confirmed as secretary of state.
Putin’s campaign of subversion and disinformation is hardly limited to the United States, however. It has been playing out across Europe for years, with Moscow supporting far-left and far-right parties that are united by their loathing for the European Union and NATO, the two institutions that Putin rightly sees as the chief impediments to his hopes of resurrecting the Russian Empire or at least a Russian sphere of influence in Eastern Europe.
Russia has been most blatant in supporting France’s far-right National Front, which received an 11 million euro loan in 2014 from a Moscow-based bank and wants another 27 million euros to fight next year’s elections. The French presidential election in the spring is a can’t-lose proposition for Putin since both of the leading candidates — Marine Le Pen of the National Front and the mainstream conservative nominee, former Prime Minister François Fillon — favor closer ties with Moscow.
In Germany, Angela Merkel looks likely to win re-election and maintain a relatively hard line against the Kremlin, but WikiLeaks has just come out with a massive leak of German intelligence documents, many of them relating to controversial cooperation with U.S. intelligence agencies. This is widely seen as a Russian attempt to undermine Merkel, as WikiLeaks has long been a favorite bulletin board for Russia’s intelligence services. In Montenegro, the Russians are accused of going even further in orchestrating a political campaign against the pro-Western government of Prime Minister Milo Dukanovic prior to the Oct. 16 election. When that didn’t work, the Russians apparently tried to launch a coup to overthrow the government, employing Serbian operatives with close ties to the Kremlin.
Little wonder that Alex Younger, the typically secretive head of Britain’s MI6 intelligence service, just gave an unusual speech warning that hostile powers such as Russia, which are utilizing “means as varied as cyberattacks, propaganda, or subversion of democratic process … represent a fundamental threat to our sovereignty. They should be a concern to all those who share democratic values.” His words are echoed by Maj. Gen. Gunnar Karlson, the chief of Sweden’s main foreign intelligence agency, who warns that Russian subversion “is a serious threat because in different ways [the Russians] can push themselves into the very foundations of a democracy and influence democratic decision-making.” Russia is currently running a pressure campaign to dissuade Sweden, which is alarmed by growing Russian intrusions into its sovereign waters and airspace, from joining NATO.
It’s easy enough to decry Russian interference, but it’s hard to know what to do about it. As a first step, it is imperative to document and expose Kremlin machinations, which is why it’s important to probe the hacking of the U.S. election. Congressional investigations, as called for by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, would be one possible approach, but the failed Benghazi committee shows the dangers of congressional grandstanding and partisanship. A better approach, because it would be more serious and nonpartisan, would be an independent commission modeled on the one that probed 9/11; it could be headed by former CIA Directors Michael Hayden and Leon Panetta.
But public exposure alone is not enough to make Putin cease and desist; indeed, documenting Russia’s schemes could actually enhance his aura of power by showing how cleverly he manipulates his adversaries. President Barack Obama has been shamefully derelict in making Putin pay a price for his aggression. Although his administration has threatened retaliation against Russia, he has not, insofar as we know, delivered. “We’d have all these circular meetings,” one senior State Department official told the New York Times, “in which everyone agreed you had to push back at the Russians and push back hard. But it didn’t happen.” Among reasons for inaction, the Times cites the president’s “fear of escalating a cyberwar, and concern that the United States needed Russia’s cooperation in negotiations over Syria.” (As if Russia had any intention of cooperating with the United States in Syria!) His failure to more actively oppose Russian efforts during the campaign may have cost Hillary Clinton the election. It’s hard to imagine Donald Trump, the beneficiary of Russia’s cyberattacks, doing much about it, but Obama still has a few weeks in office to act.
Possible responses can run the gamut from further sanctions — including financial and travel freezes on individuals responsible for the hacking — to retaliation in kind. Putin likes leaking Western emails. How would he like it if the National Security Agency leaked the communications between him and his cronies? Or if the U.S. intelligence community released details about his widely rumored overseas bank accounts? This could undermine his hold on power by puncturing his aura of self-righteousness and could even lead to asset freezes that would punish him in the pocketbook.
Beyond all of that, the West in general and the United States in particular will have to figure out how to wage political warfare on its own. That is something that we did in the early days of the Cold War when the CIA was busy helping anti-communists win elections around the world from Italy to the Philippines — and funding Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Encounter magazine, and other organizations to win the battle for “hearts and minds.” Today, Russia, Iran, China, and other closed societies are potentially vulnerable to a campaign designed to empower dissidents, discredit the ruling elite, and help ordinary people get accurate and uncensored news.
Putin suspects the United States of waging just such a campaign against himself and his allies; he holds the CIA responsible for the 2005 and 2014 uprisings in Ukraine that defeated pro-Russian leader Viktor Yanukovych and the 2003 uprising in Georgia, which brought Mikheil Saakashvili to power. The irony is that, beyond the overt and benign democracy promotion efforts of the National Endowment for Democracy, Washington has done little to undermine anti-Western leaders or to promote pro-Western alternatives.
It is high time for that to change. The United States needs to revive the political warfare skills it once possessed and that have since atrophied, as Michael Doran and I argued in a 2013 Policy Innovation Memorandum for the Council on Foreign Relations. Putin has shown himself to be a master of this game; other adversaries, including Iran and the Islamic State, also actively wage political warfare. We don’t have the luxury of saying that it’s beneath us to play that game. Nothing less than the future of democracy is at stake.
Photo credit: ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images