As the West Panics, Putin Is Watching

The coronavirus crisis is exposing the West’s weaknesses—and adversaries of the U.S. and EU are paying close attention so they can exploit vulnerabilities in a future conflict.

By Elisabeth Braw, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his annual press conference in Moscow on Dec. 19, 2019.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his annual press conference in Moscow on Dec. 19, 2019. ALEXEI DRUZHININ/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

Europe is in disarray. Millions of people are under lockdown, the private sector is on its knees, governments are struggling to counter a completely unexpected adversary while maintaining some semblance of order. And that’s just COVID-19. Imagine the impact of an additional crisis at such a moment, caused by one of the West’s adversaries.

“God is watching us from a distance,” sang Bette Midler. U.S. and European leaders can be sure that somebody else is also watching them from a distance, too: Russian President Vladimir Putin and other leaders of countries competing with the West.

The new coronavirus has, as of March 23, killed more than 14,000 people and infected over 341,000. The virus has wiped out all U.S. stock market gains made during Donald Trump’s presidency and caused the British pound to drop to a level not seen since the early 1980s. BMW, Nissan, Daimler, Volkswagen, Fiat, Peugeot, and other carmakers have halted their manufacturing in Europe. General Motors and Ford have closed all their production in the United States. Deutsche Bank is predicting the worst global economic downturn since the end of World War II. The International Labor Organization has issued warnings of 25 million job losses worldwide.

That’s just the tangible damage brought by the vicious virus. Panic-buying in countries such as the United Kingdom has already emptied shelves; not even repeated pleas by supermarket chains to “buy only what you need” have convinced shoppers to be considerate of others. Supermarkets have now had to introduce rationing of necessities. “If you could help us by limiting demand of essential items and allowing us to focus on the core needs of our customers—we are confident that we can continue to feed the nation,” said the supermarket chain Tesco in a statement.

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The massive Defender-Europe 20 exercise, which involves some 40,000 primarily U.S. soldiers practicing a rapid deployment to Europe and advancement through the continent, has been throttled.

The coronavirus has even curtailed Western military activities. On March 18, Norway and nine allies (including Britain and the United States) called off Cold Response 2020, a joint exercise practicing the defense of northern and central Norway. And the massive Defender-Europe 20 exercise, which involves some 40,000 primarily U.S. soldiers practicing a rapid deployment to Europe and advancement through the continent, has been throttled. “As of March 13, all movement of personnel and equipment from the United States to Europe has ceased.… Linked exercises to Exercise Defender-Europe 20—Dynamic Front, Joint Warfighting Assessment, Saber Strike and Swift Response—will not be conducted,” U.S. Army Europe announced on March 16.

Defender-Europe 20 was meant to be a complex exercise involving 20,000 U.S. soldiers along with 20,000 pieces of equipment. The soldiers and materiel would then meet up with Europe-based U.S. troops and equipment as well as European troops and advance toward NATO’s eastern front. Because no such exercise has been conducted in a quarter-century, Defender-Europe 20 is vital. Defender-Europe 20 “shows that NATO allies and partners stand stronger together,” a U.S. Army Europe factsheet explains. Its cancellation is now showing U.S. and European Union adversaries just how weak NATO can be under certain circumstances.

The virus had already infected Gen. Jaroslaw Mika of the Polish armed forces and forced his colleague Lt. Gen. Christopher Cavoli, U.S. Army Europe’s commander, to self-isolate as a result.

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Propaganda outlets supporting Russia and China are already producing a barrage of coronavirus disinformation aimed at sowing further chaos in the West. “Coronavirus could have originated from Latvia,” suggested Sputnik Latvia on March 15, while another Russian propaganda outlet, Geopolitica.ru, posited that the coronavirus may have been created in the United States as a biological weapon. Chinese diplomats are, in turn, engaged in concerted disinformation campaign, for example suggesting that the coronavirus was created by the U.S. Army.

Mostly, though, the coronavirus remains the only major challenge affecting Western countries. As bad as it is, that’s lucky. It’s safe to assume that Putin and his colleagues are watching the bedlam in Europe and the United States with schadenfreude, but more than that, they’re using it for educational purposes. The coronavirus is a perfect opportunity for the West’s adversaries to watch how countries cope—or don’t cope—with a major crisis.

After all, an adversary can exploit a crisis by adding a second one. The United States could, for example, exacerbate Iran’s coronavirus misery by imposing even more sanctions—as it did last week—or by staging cyberstrikes against power plants. (A U.S. cyberattack last September “took aim at Tehran’s ability to spread ‘propaganda,’” Reuters reported.) And Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, or proxies operating on their behalf could use this opportunity to conduct massive cyberattacks against Western targets.

According to 2019 Cyber Readiness Report compiled by Hiscox, the global insurer, more than 61 percent of firms in major Western economies, including the United States, reported a cyberattack in the previous 12 months, up from 45 percent the year before.

A major knockout like the 2018 NotPetya virus, which brought down scores of multinationals including the pharmaceutical giant Merck and Maersk, the world’s largest shipping company, are rare—but they are bound to happen again.

Russian attackers have already managed to gain access to the control room of certain U.S. utilities providers. Although the U.S. Department of Homeland Security didn’t identify the companies targeted, Jonathan Homer, the department’s chief of industrial control system analysis, told media that the hackers “got to the point where they could have thrown switches” and disrupted power flows. And late last year, an Iranian government-affiliated hacker group known as Refined Kitten further upped the game: Western cyber-analysts discovered that the Iranian hackers could tamper with the control systems of vital installations such as electrical utilities, manufacturing plants, and oil refineries.

Putin would need neither cyberattacks nor little green men to weaken the West. All he’d need to do is send a planeload of tuberculosis-infected prisoners to a country of his choice.

Refined Kitten and the Russian hackers didn’t interfere with the control system; they were clearly just conducting reconnaissance. And they’re in no rush. In warfare, the advantage is with the attacker, who can choose the time and manner of action—and that’s especially the case in gray zone warfare, when an attacker’s list of options is limited only by their imagination.

Indeed, why not employ another vicious disease next time the West is struggling? A couple of years ago I discussed Russian gray zone aggression with a globally noted public health expert who prefers to remain anonymous. He listened politely, then pointed out that Putin would need neither cyberattacks nor little green men to weaken the West. All he’d need to do, the professor told me, was to send a planeload of tuberculosis-infected prisoners to a country of his choice.

Although Russian prisons’  TB rate has declined from the astronomic rate of 4,347 per 100,000 prisoners reached in 1999, in 2011 the figure was still an alarming 1,299 per 100,000, and Russian prisoners remain one of the world’s most TB-infected groups. (In 2018, the United States had 2.8 TB infections per 100,000 residents; Russia had 54.) TB is already a health concern in Europe and the United States; the spread of vaccine-resistant strains is particularly worrisome. If Putin sent 300 TB-infected prisoners to a country of his choice, they could efficiently spread their disease. To be sure, there’s a TB vaccine, but it’s not given to every baby and doesn’t work well in adults.

Now, as the coronavirus ravages Western economies and health care systems, it would clearly be a good time for the Russians, the Chinese, the North Koreans, the Iranians, or any other country with an ax to grind to open a second front.

Some second-front testing might already be happening. On March 15, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services was hit by a cyberattack that overloaded its servers with millions of hits, and around the same time it emerged that impersonators have been copying the Johns Hopkins University’s much-used global coronavirus map and loading their versions with malware, thus using a biological virus that’s frightening everybody to spread a virtual one to their computers as well. And on March 17, the U.K. government unexpectedly acknowledged the existence of the hitherto secret Joint State Threats Assessment Team, a government body that monitors foreign spies.

But regardless of whether they opt for biological viruses or computer ones, new forms of disinformation campaigns, supercharged espionage, or another not-yet-seen form of aggression, the West’s adversaries can bide their time. They can wait until they have exhaustively documented the West’s failures in responding to the coronavirus. Those lessons can then be used when another—potentially even worse—crisis hits. Iran is certainly still waiting to avenge the killing of its military commander Qassem Suleimani this January.

A two-front war, involving a combination of Mother Nature’s caprice and tricks thought up by adversaries rather than military formations, presents a frightening scenario. The answer is to be prepared. And as the coronavirus has made abundantly clear, preparedness involves not just the government but everyone.

Elisabeth Braw is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges, such as hybrid and gray-zone threats. She is also a member of the U.K. National Preparedness Commission. Twitter: @elisabethbraw