Russia is a failing petro-autocracy. It has the only declining population among the ten most populous nations in the world. According to UN projections, the population of the Philippines will surpass Russia before 2040, Tanzania before 2050, and Uganda by 2060. Virtually everything Vladimir Putin has done temporarily extends Russia’s corrupt government but hastens its inevitable decline.
By Gregory F. Treverton with Ben Wachendorf (Contributing Author)
NOTE: The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SMA, Inc.
Yet on the world stage, he has played a weak hand exceeding well. And he has done so increasing brazenly—swiftly occupying Crimea; invading Ukraine while insisting Russia was merely helping “separatists,” and shooting down a civilian airliner in the process; interfering in our elections without bothering too much to cover Russian’s tracks; cyber attacking Estonia; and most recently using a weapon of mass destruction to poison a disloyal spy, his daughter, and officials responding to the emergency in public in Salisbury, England.
The question is not what Russia is doing but what to do about it. Vladimir Putin has been crystal-clear about his strategic objectives—to dominate Russia’s “near abroad” and to see Russia recognized as a major global power. Russia portrays the United States and NATO as the leading challenges to its interests and security primarily to appeal to its domestic audience. While a 2014 revision to its military doctrine labeled the Alliance as the chief “danger” or “risk” to Russian security, a strong case could be made that Russia, which has a tradition of being ruled by powerful leaders with access to facts deliberately hidden from the Russian population, is merely trying to exacerbate the “threat” of NATO to hide widespread corruption at the highest levels of government and declining performance on virtually all economic measures.
In particular, integrating former Soviet republics into the European Union and NATO as well as the western countries’ efforts to promote democracy and pro-western values have been hot buttons for this Putin domestic strategy—one that played a major role in his recent reelection. Putin has referred to the 1990s as a period when the West took advantage of a weakened Russia, and has vowed that now that Russia is strong, it will not happen again. In this perspective, the “color revolutions” in Eastern Europe were not indigenous movements spearheaded by local activists, but rather regime changes supported and funded by the West. Indeed, one of the drivers of Russia’s anti-Clinton intervention in the 2016 U.S. elections was Putin’s belief that she had instigated unrest during Russia’s parliamentary elections in 2011.
Thus, from Moscow’s perspective, much of what it is doing is defensive, responding to the concern that the United States and its allies are on the offensive, seeking to undermine the political integrity of Russia. In this view, Russia’s opponents are using a variety of political and economic tools to penetrate Russian society. In response, Moscow ejected the U.S. Agency for International Development, and closed numbers of non-governmental organizations, and facilitated brutal crackdowns against journalists and opposition leaders who investigate corruption or criticize the government.
Russia knows that, while it has local military superiority on its border, it would lose any major military confrontation. So, too, it cannot win any economic competition; its Eurasian Economic Union is hardly likely to be a pole of attraction. So, Russia seeks other means to change the regional and global national security systems of its western adversaries. It continues to do so by creating confusion, chaos, and uncertainty among the institutions of those adversaries. It will work to have people, especially inside Russia, look to the west and say “see the West, they are just as corrupt and just inept as you think Russia is. Yet, look at us, we held our ground in Syria, we took back the Crimea our rightful territory, we protect ethnic Russians in Belarus and the Ukraine.”
So, what is to be done? For the worst contingencies, Russian mischief in neighboring NATO countries, military counters can deter. The United States and NATO have increased deployments in those states and tightened connections to them. At the Warsaw Summit in 2016, NATO leaders decided to enhance NATO’s military presence in the eastern part of the Alliance. Since then, four multinational battlegroups totaling approximately 4,500 troops have deployed to the Baltic nations and Poland. The reinforcements are necessary but the rub is that they also play to Putin’s narrative that NATO has both militarized and pressed itself all the way to Russia’s borders—never mind that, for NATO, the reason for the military plus-up was menacing Russian behavior which included a large scale, state sponsored, cyberattack on Estonia in 2007.
Yet if instances like the poisoning in England evoke the worst days of the Cold War, so do the responses. Ejecting “diplomats” caught spying was a familiar step in the choreography of the Cold War; it is less appropriate when Russia is caught poisoning. As always, the more countries join in responding, the better, both in terms of effect and acceptability. The coordinated expulsions in the wake of the Salisbury poisoning were impressive: two dozen countries, including eighteen European Union states, expelled a total of more than 150 Russian diplomats in a show of solidarity with Britain. So, too, the April air strikes in retaliation for Syria’s chemical attacks on its own people was all the better because they included strikes by Britain and France. The coalition was also careful to avoid escalation, and so did not target Russians while giving Moscow advance warning of its own strikes.
Another round of sanctions on Russia, following the ones imposed in January, was necessary to drive the point home, all the more so because the administration was a reluctant participant in that last round. The United States has become “sanctions happy” in recent years, as better information makes it easier to target individuals, and as the continuing dominance of the United States in international finance gives it leverage. Thus, new sanctions need to pay careful attention to unintended or second-order effects: driving Russia further out of international financial institutions, or its leaders into still deeper secrecy about finances would hardly serve U.S. interests.
Because Putin knows he could not win a war against NATO, and so confines military actions to borders with the “near abroad” while brandishing nuclear weapons to try to deter NATO. But his goal is to avoid open conflict while proving Russia is a great power, dominant in its region. To that end the range of “hybrid” tools below open war is attractive to Putin. And they are relatively cheap: planting a newspaper article in a foreign newspaper during the Cold War was expensive; posting a message online, then having bots spread it, is easy and cheap. So is using cyber tools to hack into American email, then post them through surrogates, like Guccifer or Wikileaks, for maximum strategic effect.
However, another rub is that responding to hybrid threats is awkward. Words are not enough, but they are a start. Germany’s Angela Merkel has been much more direct than Trump in warning Putin that interfering in her country’s elections is unacceptable. Beyond words, hybrid threats require a “whole of government” approach, which is always hard for the fractionated “rice bowls” of American government —still more for its fractured politics.
Militarizing the response would be a mistake, but there surely is a role for the military, which is understandably leery of taking on another mission set. But as one sharp observer put it: “Until TRADOC [the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command] takes on the threat, it doesn’t exist.” The British Army’s 77th Brigade Research Unit, is an intriguing experiment in using military people and demonstrations to counter persuasion operations.
Hybrid threats in the cyber realm, like the hacks into the Democratic National Committee’s website prior to the last elections, are another reason the country needs to do much better at cyber defense. And the response in the cyber realm to hybrid threats needs to be not just “whole of government” but also whole of society. As the hearings with Mark Zuckerberg showed, the big web presences, such as Facebook and Google, are poised awkwardly: they can no longer claim that they are merely platforms, with no responsibility for what is on them, but they are a long way from conceiving of themselves as publishers, fully responsible for content. They are well behind the eight ball and risk regulations that would, alas, probably wind up being counter-productive all around.
In the 2016 elections, Russia deployed cyber tools to attack the election-related infrastructure of at least 21 U.S. states. The official assessment of U.S. intelligence is that none of those attacks changed election results. However, because states are jealous of their authority over voting, it is not clear that a careful forensic analysis of the 2016 elections has been done. At best, 2016 was a practice round for Russian hackers. Lacking leadership from the top—after all, the president has expressed skepticism about Russian responsibility for the hacks, despite clear pronouncements from his intelligence agencies—DHS was slow to reach out to the states to help them protect voting infrastructure from a 2018 repeat of the 2016 attacks. It has done better recently, so better late than never.
In responding to hybrid threats, the last thing the United States should do is emulate Putin with fake news, trolls, and bots. Indeed, despite all the woeful talk of “fake news” at home, one of the great strengths of the United States and its European allies is their free presses. Nothing the government does in response to Russian hybrid threats should infringe or cast doubt on that press freedom. If the United States fights back, it should fight with truth. For instance, while Russia’s television is state-controlled, its citizens, especially younger ones, have access to the web. The Cold War experience of Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe suggests the value of telling the current day truth about, for instance, how much better is the quality of life is now in many of Russia’s former Cold War allies in life expectancy, access to health care, average income, housing, education, transport and access to television and entertainment. This would be all the better if done by private groups, not the government.
Finally, any strategic response should consider carrots, and not just sticks. The comment attributed to George Kennan about the difficulty of dealing with Soviet Union also applies to autocratic Russia: you can’t hurt the government without hurting the people, and you can’t help the people without helping the government. Still, it is worth offering carrots to try to help Russians hurt by Western actions. As part of the 1990s Cooperative Threat Reduction program to de-nuclearize former Soviet republics, the United States invited Soviet scientists to come to the United States. The idea was to let them work openly, and not fall into the hands of rogue states seeking nuclear weapons. Boeing’s hiring of 1000 Russian engineers to help design its 787 is suggestive of the possibilities. Russia has brilliant scientists, and Russian engineers have developed unique solutions, primarily in military systems, to overcome complex challenges. Russia today has a more reliable heavy lift rocket engine industry than any other country in the world, including the United States, and its welding technology is generally superior to the West. Seeking win-win industrial investment opportunities should be part of any strategy to deter Russian hybrid threats.
 “The Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation,” December 25, 2014, available at rusemb.org.uk/press/2029.
 “Transcript: Putin says Russia will protect the rights of Russians abroad,” Washington Post, March 18, 2014, www.washingtonpost.com/world/transcriptputin-says-russia-will-protect-the-rights-of-russiansabroad/2014/03/18/432a1e60-ae99-11e3-a49e-76adc9210f19_story.html.