Time To Rethink Deterring Russia?

Time to Rethink Deterring Russia?

March 28, 2018 | Rob Dannenberg


Photo: Alexei Druzhinin/AP

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The United States has taken a number of steps in recent weeks to push back on Russian aggression, but they won’t deter Russia’s aggressive campaign to expand influence at home and abroad unless they take direct aim at the power and pocketbook of Russian President Vladimir Putin – and the cronies who help keep him in power.

The U.S. has tried to use elements of national and international power to push back on Russia in the past several weeks. On Monday, it joined NATO allies in retaliating over Russia’s alleged attempted assassination of Russian former intelligence officer Sergey Skripal in Salisbury, England, by expelling 60 Russian diplomats and closing the Russian consulate in Seattle on Monday.

Two weeks earlier, the U.S. announced additional economic sanctions on Russian entities and individuals under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).

And on Feb. 16, a U.S. federal grand jury indicted 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities for interfering in the 2016 presidential election. The indictments bring to a close another chapter in the work of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian malfeasance in the 2016 election.

But these actions pale against the scope and seriousness of Russia’s wider campaign – a pattern of activity suggestive of a broad effort by Putin to confront the U.S. and expand Russia’s sphere of influence at the expense of the U.S. and its allies.

Consider the annexation of the Crimea in March 2014 and subsequent support for secessionists in the Ukrainian Donbass, Russia military aircraft overflights and intrusion into the Baltic States, Russia’s gradual encroachment into Georgian territory through expansion of the South Ossetian border, and Moscow’s military intervention in Syria including using mercenaries to target U.S special operations personnel in Syria.

Putin has already initiated a new form of hybrid conflict with the U.S. and West. We should act accordingly.

Instead, U.S. efforts to deter Russian activity in cyberspace or more broadly have had no apparent effect. Arguably, U.S. inability to deter Russia in cyberspace has encouraged other adversaries of the U.S. state actors such as Iran, China, North Korea—even Venezuela—and an assortment of non-state actors to use cyber assets against U.S. interests.

And U.S. efforts to influence or moderate Russian geopolitical behavior through diplomacy or sanctions also have patently failed.

In part, the inability of the U.S. to deter Russia comes from U.S. unwillingness to understand the true nature of the Putin regime and take measures comprehensive enough in scope and severe enough in nature to cause Putin to re-evaluate the efficacy of his strategy of confrontation.

Putin easily won re-election in the Russian presidential election in March. His sights, however, are clearly focused beyond this election and on the preservation of the corrupt “system” of government he has built over the past 18 years, as well as preserving the position he’s achieved on the world stage for the Russian Federation.

U.S. deterrence strategy should be directed at those two primary motivating factors for Putin and the hardliners that profit from his system of government: preservation of the regime; and Russia’s perceived re-emergence as a global power.

Putin’s Russia

Putin is now the longest serving ruler of Russia since Joseph Stalin, who governed the Soviet Union from the 1920s to the 1950s. The Russia Putin inherited when he replaced the Russian Federation’s first president, Boris Yeltsin was plagued by widespread unemployment and underemployment. The economy had been crippled by mismanaged post-Soviet privatization efforts that led to corruption on a historic scale. The education system had largely collapsed, and the state pension system had failed to keep up with inflation. Russia’s military was in chaos with poor unit discipline, shoddy equipment maintenance, poor morale and outdated doctrine.

The Russian military’s dismal performance in dealing with the Chechen secessionist movement in the mid-1990s shows the poor state of Russia’s military as Putin entered office. In Putin’s mind, the revolt in Chechnya was further fallout from the Soviet Union’s 1991 dissolution, now threatening to rip territory from the Russian Federation itself. Thus it needed to be stamped out.

Russia’s standing on the international stage was similarly poor, with Yeltsin having the widespread imagine of being a drunken buffoon and Russia as a country in chaos with little ability to influence events on the world stage, much less protect its Orthodox allies such as Serbia from assault from the West.

But for Putin and the generation of former KGB and military officers he assembled after being elected president, the biggest humiliation was the eastern expansion of NATO to include Baltic States, bordering the Russian Federation. In Putin’s mind, the West was taking advantage of a weakened Russia in violation of promises made when the Warsaw Treaty Organization collapsed with the fall of the Soviet Union.

The Cultural War

For a former KGB officer of the atheist U.S.S.R., Putin makes bountiful public display of his Russian Orthodox faith and at various times has proclaimed himself as a “protector” of Christianity. Putin presents to the Russian people a carefully crafted conservative image: sober; fit; chaste; with a strong moral code and modest spending habits.

Although the system Putin has created in Russia belies some aspects of the value set Putin projects internally in Russia (he has arguably accumulated enough wealth to be one of the richest men on the planet), an important element of Putin’s strategy of confrontation with the West comes from his desire to protect “Mother Russia” from the influence of the degenerate, corrupt and atheistic West.

More precisely, consistent with his conservative image in Russia, Putin fears the corroding impact of western freedom of expression, market capitalism and rule of law on the system he has built over the past 18 years. Preservation of wealth and power for the “siloviki” (security services) is the paramount objective of Putin’s strategy, hence his strategy of confrontation and aggression against the West. He needs the “us versus the aggressive West” narrative to sustain his “system.”

There is little question Putin has brought a form of order to the Russian Federation since his political ascendancy. He has ruthlessly centralized authority and consolidated power around himself and a small coterie of associates. He created the system generally referred to as Putinism—a form of governance in which there is a written body of law adjudicated by a completely politicized judiciary. The code of behavior is unwritten but understood by all participants.

Russia has largely recovered some lost standing on the international stage. Both the annexation of the Crimea (and continuing support for secessionists in the Ukrainian Donbass) and the military intervention in Syria have convincingly demonstrated Putin’s belief that military power is relevant in the 21st century.

Russia’s nuclear force modernization, resumption of submarine-launched nuclear missile patrols along the U.S. East Coast and resumption of long range strategic bomber patrolling, plus aggressive air patrols in the Baltic and Black Seas show Russia is again a military power with which to be reckoned. This is without even referencing Russia’s own nuclear modernization and research into advanced military technologies.

Putin’s clear strategic goal is to rebuild some modern equivalent to the bi-polar world model that existed during the Cold War, with both Moscow and Washington having spheres of influence and the responsibility to manage conflict and risk to preserve “stability.” Putin likely understands Russia will never be able to compete economically with the U.S. and the West, but in demonstrating military capability and rebuilding a system of alliances opposing the U.S. bloc, Putin thinks he has restored Russia as the leading opponent to the U.S. on the world stage.

As events in recent years have demonstrated, cyber is Putin’s tool of choice to weaken the U.S. and set the stage for strategic advantage in a future conflict which he may consider inevitable, if not already underway. That conflict is already underway, in cyberspace.

Hybrid Warfare and The Cyber Tool

What the U.S. and the West have experienced in recent years is nothing less than the field testing of a form of hybrid warfare such has been advocated by Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov and other Russian military and intelligence officials.

Hybrid warfare is a military strategy that employs political warfare and blends conventional, irregular and cyber warfare with other influencing methods, such as fake news, diplomacy and foreign electoral intervention. The purpose is to achieve political goals with methods just short of direct battlefield combat with the adversary.

In Russia’s case, that means disguising their intervention through the use of terrorism by proxies, criminal behavior and irregular military tactics like deploying Russian troops without identifiable Russian insignia.

We have seen this hybrid warfare exercised against the Ukraine in March 2014 and to the present day, together with the use of more or less overt military force in the occupation of Crimea and the Donbass. The same doctrine of hidden aggression followed by open military force was used in the August 2008 invasion of the Republic of Georgia. The Baltic States have been repeated victims of all aspects of hybrid warfare save the use of hard military power. The attempted coup in Montenegro in 2017 should not be excluded from the list of Russian hybrid warfare examples in recent years.

The other front of Russia’s hybrid warfare campaign is the cyber-aggression directed at the United States, that began years ahead of the much-discussed interference in the November 2016 Presidential election. From 2012 to 2014, Russia used cyber tools to probe U.S. financial institutions, so aggressively that many U.S. financial institutions had to undertake special measures to protect the integrity of their operations, and requested assistance from the U.S. government in countering the threat.

Russia’s success in cyber-penetration of U.S. financial systems must have encouraged Kremlin strategists to look at the broader U.S. infrastructure and political system as a further testing ground for Russia’s hybrid warfare doctrine. As the Mueller indictments show, this effort of manipulating the U.S. electoral system began as early as 2014, if not before.

Recent reports of in-depth Russian targeting of the U.S. power grid are further examples of preparation of the battlefield, i.e. the hackers probe to find weaknesses that can be exploited later at moments of political crisis and confrontation with the U.S.

The United States and Britain have recently charged Russia with being behind the destructive launch of the “NotPetya” virus in 2017, which caused billions of dollars in damage across Europe, Asia, and the Americas. Although the primary target of the virus was the Ukraine, its impact was global.

The U.S. and U.K. also have charged that Russia was behind the 2016 cyberattack on Yahoo, which has been characterized as the biggest hack in cyber history and was run by the Russian Internal Security Service, the FSB. The NotPetya attack – the costliest in economic terms –was orchestrated by Russia’s military intelligence service, the GRU.

The U.S. has just in the past few years exposed in detailed fashion Russia’s use of cyber and other tools, including the manipulation of social media, to exacerbate fissures in the social and political systems in the U.S., France, Germany, Mexico.

More ominously, Putin’s aggression toward the United States may be moving to a new kinetic level, with the series of events in Syria beginning on Feb. 7th. A large force of Russian mercenaries or military contractors belonging to the Vagner forces (a company owned by Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin—recently indicted in the Mueller investigation), and backed up by Russian special forces, launched an attack on U.S.-allied Syrian forces who were based at a Conoco oil refinery plant.

Evidence is mounting that the attack was done with the foreknowledge of senior Russian officials and perhaps with the intent of the mission being the capture of U.S. special forces personnel. Prigozhin is very close to Putin and it seems unlikely the attack could have been initiated without Putin’s approval. The Russians were perfectly aware the Syrian group was allied with the U.S. and that U.S. special forces were present with the Syrians and that the plant is located in the U.S. zone of influence in Syria. Repeated warnings were sent in military-to-military deconfliction channels.

The U.S. response to the attack was swift and powerful, launching air strikes that reportedly killed dozens of Russian mercenaries. To put this incident in some perspective, it is the first time since the Korean War of a direct confrontation between U.S. and Russian military personnel on the battlefield, and was the subject of a telephone conversation between Putin and Trump.

In private channels, Russian officials have hinted at the prospect of serious Russian military reaction if the U.S. makes a future military strike against the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Russians also make vague threats about a significant military response in the Ukraine, should the U.S. continue to provide lethal aid and training to Ukrainian forces.

Diagnosing the problem

In understanding the current threat, in my view, it is important to examine the comprehensiveness of Putin’s challenge and understand Putin’s motivations. We face an adversary who has made the conscious strategic decision to engage in confrontation in the form of hybrid warfare with the U.S. and its allies. It is no coincidence that Putin’s 1 March annual “State of the Federation” speech displayed what appeared to be a Russian nuclear cruise missile targeting Florida.

The goal of this warfare is to erode and ultimately cause the collapse of our system of government and pave the way for the expansion of Putin’s form of oligarchy even beyond the borders of the former Soviet Union. Putin despises Western values, is envious of the economic power that our market economies generate, and knows he cannot match the pervasive and powerful influence of the ideas the West transmits to the world through social media.

His only tool to compete is by undermining the West via a hybrid cyber and military threat. We must realize there can be no compromise or meaningful negotiation with one such as Putin. One tenet of his training as a KGB officer, in addition to the ends justifying the means, is that all compromise is tactical and transitory.

But the West’s response to Russian aggression for at least the last five years has been poorly designed in concept and execution. The thinking behind the several layers of sanctions beginning in 2014 seems to have been to sanction Russia economically to cause some discomfort, but not cause economic collapse.

On the political and diplomatic level, the only sanction has been to attempt to erode some of Russia’s international stature by disinviting them from international fora such as the G-8. This strategy has not reversed the annexation of the Crimea, lessened Russia’s support for the Donbass insurrectionists nor moderated Russia’s broader hybrid warfare effort.

In the example of the Crimean annexation, Russia has refused to even consider reversal. In the case of the Donbass, Russia still denies even being a participant in the dispute. In the case of influencing the November 2016 U.S. election, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently characterized the charges as “blather.”

What should be done?

There is no appropriate military solution to addressing Putinism. The risks of a general war or escalation that leads to a nuclear confrontation are unthinkable. In today’s interconnected world, containment is no longer a viable option.

There are other measures which should be considered to deal with Putinism. First, go after the money. Various reports suggest Putin has accumulated enormous personal wealth. Unquestionably, many of the most senior members of his government have done the same. Many of the oligarchs who support Putin are among the wealthiest people on the planet. Their assets should be identified, publicized, and sanctioned, to incentivize them to distance themselves from Putin.

The March sanctions on Russian oligarchs are a good start, but there are more ways available to unnerve them. Many of these oligarchs enjoy the freedom to travel in the West and have considerable assets there. Even more importantly, they want their children to enjoy the same access and privilege in the West. This should be denied.

Economic sanctions also should be reexamined to target the industries that provide the most revenue for Putin’s government, specifically the energy and arms industries.

In addition to imposing meaningful sanctions, the United States should lead a diplomatic and cultural effort to treat Putin’s government as the pariah state proportionate to the disruption and damage Putin has caused in recent years. Why stop at barring them from the G-8? Why not kick them out of the G-20?

And after Russia’s disgraceful doping scandal in the 2014 Sochi Olympics, should Russia really enjoy the prestige of hosting the 2018 World Cup Soccer tournament?

Go after Putin’s personal image. He likes to portray himself as incorruptible, but there are certainly aspects of the real Putin—divorce from his wife, alleged affair with an Olympic athlete, the fantastic accumulation of wealth —which should be systematically exploited to undermine his stature in Russia. A good example to follow is Alexei Navalny’s anti-corruption campaign, which collected and published information on the lavish lifestyle of Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. We should support and learn from Navalny’s excellent work.


The above recommendations are hard, strong measures that will require significant diplomatic effort and political resolve on the part of the United States.

Half measures have not and will not work.

As CIA Director Pompeo, among others, has recently warned, we should expect Russia to meddle in the U.S. mid-term elections—despite the sanctions and other countries are now forced to take special measures to mitigate Russian interference in their elections.

We should expect a concentrated Russian cyber effort this November. Putin’s ideal scenario would be to create electoral chaos in the U.S., as evidence of Russian cyber interference causes a number of election results to be contested—a process that could last months and cause political chaos in the country.

Russia is a great power and has aspirations to recapture influence both regionally and globally proportionate to its size, military capability and history and culture. However, its efforts to recapture that influence under Putin have violated the norms of acceptable behavior by nations in the 21st century.

Putin and those government leaders supporting him fail to recognize the information age, which Russia has exploited so capably, has also awakened the aspirations of countries, regions, and peoples who are no longer willing to accept the living in the shadows of superpowers, current or former.

The West must act firmly to destabilize Putin and the aging kleptocracy that currently rules the Russian Federation, and help Russia truly integrate into the family of nations and complete its transition from a socialist state into a politically, economically, culturally viable state and a partner in the family of nations.

Only the Putin regime is holding Russia back.

Rob Dannenberg is a 24-year veteran of the CIA, where he served in several senior leadership positions, including chief of operations for the Counterterrorism Center, chief of the Central Eurasia Division and chief of the CIA’s Information Operations Center. 


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