The American Left and some conservatives are on the war path against the Russian Federation. Since the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and the ascendancy of seemingly pro-Russian populists throughout Europe, many are of the mind that Russia and its cagey dictator, President Vladimir Putin, are up to no good. Indeed, last year, outgoing American President Barack Obama apparently gave Mr. Putin a warning to not interfere with U.S. elections.
Yet, since the earliest days of the Cold War, Russia has sought to interfere in American elections. It’s kind of what they do. Remember, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev famously boasted to his aides that his disinformation operations were responsible for John F. Kennedy’s defeat of the more seasoned Republican Richard M. Nixon.
“You know, Mr. Kennedy, we voted for you.” – Khrushchev to JFK on their first meeting.
Of course, such claims were patently absurd. But, since when is a Russian leader not boastful, particularly when it comes to dealing with the world’s only true Superpower?
The recent spate of anti-Russian anxiety stems from a smattering of places within the Western psyche, some legitimate, some not so legitimate. First, let us just say that Western Leftists have grotesquely conflated Russia’s desire to negatively impact American (and Western) elections with an actual ability for Russia to seriously impact America’s elections. While some suspicious connections between former senior Trump campaign personnel (i.e. Paul Manafort, who was only involved with Mr. Trump’s campaign for a few months in 2016) have been uncovered, most of these connections were not as damaging as Trump opponents wish us to believe. Also, whatever connections the Trump Organization had with Russian elite were strictly above-board: they were real estate business transactions. So, unless international realtors aren’t allowed to sell to Russians for fear that they might be Putin’s agents of influence, this is a non-story aimed at undermining Mr. Trump.
Furthermore, as the chiefs of America’s intelligence community have repeatedly testified on Capitol Hill, there was absolutely no direct Russian influence of American presidential votes. So, the claim that Russia “hacked” the elections is sloppy and misleading. What happened was that Russian military hackers were looking to essentially troll America’s election, by hacking into the computer servers of both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party and releasing damaging information. The difference was that the GOP had a better spam filter for their network security whereas the Democrats did not. Once the Russian hackers gleaned some information from the DNC system and saw that the GOP network was mostly secured, they chose to take the path of least resistance. Thus, from that point onward, the Russians (and their stooges at WikiLeaks) doubled down on their cyber attack on the DNC and several prominent leaders.
Of course, the DNC made it easy for the Russians (who, make no mistake, if they could have found incriminating evidence to use against the GOP would have just as readily as they did the DNC). For instance, one of the Clinton Campaign’s chief advisers, John Podesta, fell for a classic phishing scam that resulted in his computer being breached by Russian hackers. Once that occurred, they navigated the entirety of the DNC’s unsecured network. And, with the help of WikiLeaks made minced meat out of the DNC’s public image.
Meanwhile, the blatantly corrupt Democratic Primary process made it easy for Russia to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the DNC’s chosen candidate, Hillary Rodham Clinton. During the DNC primary in 2016, DNC leaders and well placed news media figures colluded to tilt the primary away from the far more popular Bernie Sanders toward the stilted Clinton Campaign.
This is to say nothing of the fact that the DNC simply missed the boat on where the mood of the American people was. Their messaging was off. They ran on a message of maintaining a status quo that a majority of Americans simply did not like. But, it’s easier to blame the Russians, I suppose.
So, there’s the absurd elements of the fear surrounding Russia. Russia never hacked America’s election–though they did try to seriously influence it. But, what did they manage to do? Has President Trump surrounded himself with Russophiles and fundamentally altered America’s strategic position to favor Russian interests? No, he has surrounded himself with hawks, such as Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis (no friend of Russia) and he has even claimed that Crimea is, in fact, a part of Ukraine and Putin should return it with due haste. Oh, yeah, and Mr. Trump campaigned vociferously on modernizing America’s declining nuclear arsenal.
Anyway, moving to the legitimate concerns over Russia. There is little doubt that Mr. Putin has played his limited strategic hand masterfully. This has less to do with the fact that Putin is a strategic savant and more to do with the fact that the West simply stopped taking Russia seriously as a global player going as far back as 1991. We in the West took Russia for granted and treated them as though they were the unwanted, red-headed step child. For a country like Russia, with a rich and proud history–and a massive nuclear arsenal to boot–such a move on the West’s part was silly, to say the least.
Still, though, Russia’s behavior over the last decade has been absurd. We in the West keep hearing about the dangers of “Fake News” and how innocent bystanders can be influenced negatively by it. This is a true phenomenon and the Kremlin is at the heart of that disinformation operation. In fact, it is one of the Kremlin’s best weapons. Yet, the real danger about Russian-backed disinformatziya operations is the blowback potential. You see, for all of the rhetoric surrounding Mr. Putin’s purported genius, he is the biggest believer of Fake News.
As Peter Baker details in his brilliant 2014 book, “Days of Fire”, President Putin had come to believe that organic, pro-Western revolutions in places like Georgia and Ukraine were, in fact, part of an American plan to surround, divide, and conquer Russia slowly. This is one of the reasons why Putin outlawed several “unwanted” international organizations. Putin genuinely believed that human rights groups might be CIA front operations.
Speaking of conspiracy theories, according to Mr. Baker’s book, at one meeting in 2005, President Putin demanded that former President George W. Bush get American poultry producers to stop sending deformed chickens to Russia for sale. Naturally, President Bush had no idea what his Russian counterpart was talking about, but Mr. Putin really believed it. Indeed, President Bush quipped to his aides that Putin’s assertion was the kind of thing that Brezhnev and the old Soviet leaders used to accuse American leaders of at the height of the Cold War (they tended to believe much of their own propaganda, as is the case in Russia today).
Aside from legitimate (in Putin’s eyes) ideological and geostrategic reasons for behaving as he has on the world stage, President Putin has acted as aggressive as he has due to his acceptance of Fake News as fact. He invaded Georgia in 2008, in part, to prevent the small country from entering into NATO. Likewise, he attacked Ukraine in 2014 in order to keep his puppet in power and to ensure that Ukraine did not enter the European Union. Again, while there were serious geopolitical reasons for Putin wanting to prevent this from becoming a reality, there was also the fact that he believed these states would be used by the West to encircle and strangle Russia as the Western powers had done to the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Of course, if this were true, in Putin’s eyes, then the same fate that befell the Soviet Union would ultimately befall the Russian Federation. The only difference would be that Russia would cease to exist as a state, as its borders would be reduced to its dysfunctional Medieval-era borders. Russian propaganda has infected everything and the worst part is that Russian leaders are apparently buying their own lies.
And what of the Russian military?
Well, in the last decade Russia’s Armed Forces have experienced their greatest modernization effort since the fall of the Soviet Union. There is little doubt that the Russian military is at peak operating efficiency today. It still retains the largest tank force in the world. It has almost entirely rehabilitated, modernized, and expanded its nuclear arsenal–particularly its tactical nuclear arsenal–and it has invested heavily in new age combat systems. It now has aircraft that directly counter the American Fifth-Generation fighter (the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter).
Russia has also developed asymmetrical warfare capabilities, such as the aforementioned information and cyber warfare capabilities. But, it has also invested in technologies that will prevent America from exerting military force in contested environments. Thus, the development and deployment of the S-400 missile defense system is a critical concern for American aircraft that might be deployed to defend Ukraine, or attack Iran or North Korea.
Also, regarding its nuclear arsenal, it is now widely believed that the Russians have moved nuclear arms into Europe–the first time since the end of the Cold War. As a corollary to that statement, it is my assessment that the Russians have maintained their preemptive nuclear warfare doctrine since the earliest days of the Cold War. This is something that American military planners have yet to grapple with, despite this having been a fact in Russian policy circles since at least 1962.
Still, we must look objectively at Russia. We must push past the fears of Russian meddling in American elections (which, as noted, are almost entirely unfounded and seriously overblown). We must understand the context in which the Russian incursions into Georgia and Ukraine occurred. What’s more, we must comprehend that the Russians have made it a point to continue sowing discord among the West, but however successful they are will be largely contingent on how willing the West is to resist Russian influence in places like Eastern Europe, the Nordic states, and the Mideast.
Please keep in mind that much of Russia’s modernization is the result of the economic gains that it had made since the early 2000’s. This was primarily the result of increased trade with the European Union as well as increased investment from Western companies into Russia’s natural gas and mineral wealth. Yet, since 2014, Russia’s economy has suffered mightily. Western sanctions imposed upon Russia for its actions in Ukraine and elsewhere have resulted in a major economic slowdown. Even if the Trump Administration were to loosen its sanctions regime against the Russians, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other European states have surprisingly insisted that they will maintain their strict sanctions upon Russia.
What about Russian military successes? What have they really been able to achieve? In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia on the pretext that the Georgians were suborning terrorism directed against Russian-speaking breakaway republics in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The end result was that Abkhazia and South Ossetia were cleaved away from Georgia and Georgia was quickly brought to heel. In Ukraine, the Russians invaded Crimea and took that predominantly Russian-speaking portion of the country for itself. It has not progressed beyond that, despite fears to the contrary. Even if it were, the next likely target would be Eastern Ukraine, since it possesses the next largest cohort of ethnic Russians.
Yet, it remains to be seen whether or not Russia will take that region. Even if it does take Eastern Ukraine, that part of Ukraine is economically backward and it is unlikely that the Russians would bother expanding their operations beyond Eastern Ukraine. In Syria, the Russians have intervened to prop up their long-time ally, Bashar al-Assad. They have done so by building off of their established bases in Latakia and Tartarus. While the Russian campaign in Syria was impressive for its ability to conduct such complex operations far removed from its borders, the Russians have drastically reduced their presence in the country, as logistical limitations came into play. So, while Russian assistance to Bashar al-Assad has been instrumental, the real movers of the pro-Assad side were the Iranians.
Russia is a tough country with a strong military force, but the West is overstating how dangerous (aside from their nuclear arsenal) the Russians really are. Taken together, these factors would indicate that Russia’s military modernization is likely to be short-lived. So, while they will likely be a threat for the next 10-15 years, over the long run, Russia will likely be unable to maintain their level of modernization, lest their economy drastically improve. This is not an impossibility, but so long as Mr. Putin maintains his current policies, his efforts will be seriously complicated.
So, to borrow a famous phrase from Russian history, what is to be done? The Trump Administration must recognize a few things. The first thing that it must recognize is that Russia is not an ally. While there are shared interests vis-a-vis fighting terrorism with Russia, that does not necessarily mean that America can lower its guard with Russia.
And, President Trump is right to be skeptical over NATO. The sad fact is that NATO is a shadow of its former self and, given the way European politics have played out over the last few decades, it seems unlikely that that reality is likely to change. I’ve argued repeatedly that the U.S. should empower sub-regional defensive blocs to resist Russian revanchism. In Eastern Europe, the Visegrad Battle Group should be the tip of America’s spear in checking Russian aggression. In Northern Europe, Great Britain and the Nordic Battle Group states should be the coalition of choice.
Since 2008, the U.S. has appeared to Russia as the Pillsbury Doughboy. We have been soft and malleable for the aging Russian bear to push around. The Russian military is a shadow of its former self, even in spite of its modernization efforts. As with the USSR, Russia’s nuclear arsenal remains its greatest threat. And, with all of the disinformation flying around, it would behoove the leaders of both countries to ratchet down the rhetoric. Neither Russia nor America truly wants to go to war with each other. Russia just enjoys trolling America because it makes them feel important. Meanwhile, a large portion of America’s leadership enjoys stoking Russophobia in order to harm President Trump’s ability to govern.
All that the West really has to do is intensify its military perimeter with Russia and be willing to work alongside Russia on critical issues, such as terrorism. What’s more, where possible, the U.S. should dangle the ability to lift sanctions on Russia in exchange for Russia behaving well on the world stage. But needlessly locking us into a new Cold War would be pointless and silly. That’s the very last thing the world needs right now. America needs to toughen its spine when dealing with Russia and stop being the Pillsbury Doughboy. Meanwhile, Russia should recognize its own limitations and start working on building a healthier diplomatic relationship with the U.S.
The real Russian threat lies in its ability to spew disinformation. It also lies in the instability caused by rupturing communications with the Russians as well as by pushing the Russians farther away with sanctions that have done seemingly irreparable harm to the European Union. These sanctions have denied the EU vital trade that could have been used to stabilize the EU’s flailing economic conditions. Without that vital trade, both Russia and Europe have suffered. Indeed, the lack of economic recovery has done more to spread purportedly pro-Russian nationalist movements in Europe than any amount of Russian propaganda could have ever done.