When the entire U.S. intelligence community united to accuse Russia of tampering in the 2016 presidential election, it seemed redundant to later add that Vladimir Putin was directly involved. Nothing significant happens in Russia, and no action is taken by Russia, without the knowledge of the man who has held total power there for 17 years, first as president and later as unchallenged dictator. Having steadily eliminated every form of real political and social opposition in Russia, Putin turned his attacks on the foreign powers that could — should they decide to act — weaken his grip.
The United States, in other words, doesn’t have a problem with Russia — it has a problem with Putin.
And instead of deterrence, President Barack Obama continues the policy of belated responses that has enabled Putin’s steady escalation of hostile acts. The sanctions against Russian intelligence assets that the White House announced last Thursday, while welcome, left me searching for a Russian equivalent for the proverb “closing the barn door after the horse is gone.”
With Putin’s background as a career KGB officer, he takes a particular interest in operations dealing with that organization’s specialties of disinformation and manipulation. The KGB is called the FSB these days, a makeover that made sense after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, but under Putin it is as aggressive as ever in its mission of infiltrating and destabilizing the West. More aggressive, in fact, because Putin is not constrained by national interests or global alliances the way the Soviet leadership was. There is no consideration of what is or is not good for Russia, or for Russians, only what is best for him and his close circle of oligarch elites. The 2012 U.S. adoption of the Magnitsky Act, targeting Russian officials tied to criminal repression, was answered by banning the adoption of Russian orphans by U.S. citizens. Western sanctions over Putin’s illegal annexation of Crimea were met by boycotting many foreign goods, harming Russian businesses and consumers – to the perverse point of physically destroying thousands of tons of smuggled food in a country where many millions are battling hunger and poverty. Putin’s strategy is to get Russians to blame the free world by further punishing Russians himself. This can be countered only by being for Russia, but against Putin.
This is just one of many asymmetries that Putin exploits effectively. Western leaders must deal with opposition in Congress or Parliament, beg for every dime in the budget, worry about polls and what the media says, and — one hopes — consider how their actions will affect the well-being of their citizens in the short and long term. Putin has none of these limitations, and he and his supporters in the free world are quick to take advantage of the transparency and openness of Western media and political systems. The Russian meddling in the 2016 election documented by the Obama administration last week relied on partisan enmity to disregard its origins and the eagerness of U.S. news outlets to take their cues from social media by turning stolen emails into daily headlines about their trivial content. Editors and algorithms designed to maximize social sharing were woefully unprepared for a coordinated and well-funded propaganda assault.
Even as intelligence agencies and news organizations release new information implicating Russia in subverting U.S. and European democracy on a daily basis, Western media outlets are happy to take Putin’s money to push his propaganda. Russia Today is beamed into millions of homes and hotels around the world in several languages, and, reportedly, the channel pays to be broadcast, rather than the more customary arrangement in which cable operators pay content providers. Google aggregates Sputnik and other Russian propaganda outlets on its news pages. Major newspapers, including The Washington Post, publish paid ads and glossy inserts pushing the Kremlin line. Note that this is all done in English, to influence U.S. citizens, not to reach the Russian diaspora. Russian cash flows to far-right political parties and nongovernmental organizations around the world while Putin’s oligarchs invest in influential Western companies — and people.
Hacking is an ideal new front in this type of shadow war. It’s difficult to trace and, like terrorist attacks, cyberwar has a very high impact-to-cost ratio. Once data is stolen, it barely takes any work at all, since the media is delighted to distribute it far and wide. Stolen information has the irresistible allure of forbidden fruit, no matter how banal the actual content may be. Social media has no vetting at all and has become fertile soil for Kremlin trolls and fake news organizations. These digital tools will only grow in power and in influence. After the tremendous success of the Democratic National Committee hack, there will only be more such attacks unless very strong deterrence is put in place to discourage them.
Since Putin’s aggression is for his personal benefit, the most effective responses to it are also personal, targeting him and his authority instead of following an obsolete playbook of tit-for-tat diplomatic and economic games. The new sanctions Obama announced are halfway there, targeting the intelligence services that Putin treasures and relies upon. But there is a critical difference between proportionate retaliation and deterrence, one that Obama has refused to accept for eight years. His genteel paradigm of wanting to be a friend to all mankind has proven catastrophically ineffective against aggressors like Putin who speak an entirely different language. Unless there is a credible threat of striking a blow that could shake Putin’s grasp on power in Russia, he will not stop. Putin knows there is no peaceful retirement for anyone who rules by force. All the riches he and his gang have looted from Russia would evaporate should he be toppled.
Unfortunately, the United States and Putin’s other main target, the European Union, are proving unable to defend themselves from Putin’s hybrid war and unwilling to respond forcefully once attacked. The United States and Europe possess overwhelming economic and military advantages, but they’re being pushed around by Putin because they are unwilling to use them — or even threaten to use them — and he knows it. Putin grows bolder with each victory, and what greater success could he achieve than influencing the U.S. election? Even if the Russian hacking and propaganda onslaught were not decisive in installing the most blatantly pro-Russian major-party candidate in U.S. history, that goal was accomplished nonetheless, making Putin look like a big global player again.
Incoming President Donald Trump will be faced with a Congress and intelligence community united in declaring Russia a clear and present danger to U.S. interests. If Trump continues to demonstrate his mysterious loyalty to Putin, a constitutional crisis could occur very early on. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan has no interest in leading a Grand Old Putin party. If, however, Trump decides to act, the recipe for stopping Putin is composed of familiar ingredients. Isolation and deterrence, instead of more futile attempts to find a nonexistent common ground. John F. Kerry infamously said that sanctions against Russia for invading and annexing part of Ukraine “weren’t personal.” He was right — and, therefore, he was completely wrong.
Only the personal will work. Target and expose the vast wealth Putin and his cronies hide abroad. Freeze their funds and their companies, revoke their visas and memberships. Stop providing Putin with the credentials of an equal when he should be treated like a pariah. Contain his adventurism abroad by making it clear that he will suffer exactly the sort of humiliating geopolitical defeat that would endanger his hold on power in Russia. In February 1989, Soviet troops retreated from Afghanistan in orderly fashion — nothing like the U.S. stampede out of Vietnam — but it signaled to the Soviet people and to the world that the once-mighty empire could be challenged. In less than a year, Soviet domination of Eastern Europe had ended.
The United States is about to inaugurate its fourth consecutive president without any previous foreign policy experience, and the results so far have not been good. Obama has abdicated the role of U.S. leadership, abandoning traditional democratic allies while empowering authoritarian adversaries such as Iran, Cuba and Russia. What Obama did out of naivete and misguided ideology, Trump may do seeking profit. Two of his Cabinet nominees, Rex Tillerson at State and Wilbur Ross at Commerce, have deep business ties to some of Putin’s oligarchs, something Trump sees as a positive, alarmingly. But both Obama and Trump enjoy announcing big deals and prioritize the illusion of success over the real thing.
No one who lived through the Cold War could call those dark and dangerous decades “the good old days.” Hundreds of millions of people lived in political and social repression and economic and spiritual deprivation behind the Iron Curtain. Things were far better in the free world, but the political tension and specter of war, even a nuclear war, were ever-present. What I do miss, however, was the moral clarity that won the Cold War. It has been replaced by a rising tide of moral equivalence as the memories of what real evil looked like have faded.
Brutal dictator Fidel Castro is eulogized respectfully around the world. Oliver Stone sells his “Untold History of the United States” by reciting anti-U.S. propaganda that, in fact, has been told countless times — in every Soviet history book I grew up with. A hostile Russian dictator is reaching a higher approval rating among Republicans than a sitting president from the other party.
Putin’s classic KGB strategy of divide and conquer is perfectly suited for this era of hyper-partisanship. U.S. citizens have forgotten Abraham Lincoln’s admonition that a house divided against itself cannot stand. A divided U.S. cannot defend the values of the free world.