The (Former) Soviet Empire Strikes Back
It took quite a while but the Trump administration, in the recently released National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy, is finally talking about Russia as a strategic competitor. But before the national-security bureaucracy gathers a head of steam to wage Cold War 2.0, Washington should take a deep collective breath and approach this challenge with patience, realism, prudence and restraint to avoid overreaching as it seeks to protect core American interests.
Since 2012, Russia has been conducting a sophisticated, well-resourced and generally successful campaign to reassert its global influence at the expense of the West. Still, it is by no means obvious, as the new National Defense Strategy claims, that Russia wants to shape a world consistent with its authoritarian model and gain a veto over the economic, diplomatic and security decisions of other nations. It is equally unclear whether the administration has the resolve or capacity to mount an effective and sustainable response to global Russia, given Trump’s preternatural instinct to give Putin a pass on aggressive Russian behavior and a disorganized interagency decisionmaking process.
But assuming the White House can get its national-security agencies on the same page, how should the United States deal with the challenge posed by Russia’s global activism? The first step is understanding the sources of Russian conduct and the challenge it presents. The second is to determine when, whether and how to respond to Russia’s global activities.
The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming
Russia’s meddling in the U.S. political system is part of a broader global campaign to undermine what the Kremlin sees as a Western-dominated international order and to chip away at the liberal norms and institutions that underwrite it. Like the character in Woody Allen’s 1983 film Zelig, Putin and his minions have been showing up in virtually every corner of the globe to contest American influence and its leadership of this order.
In Europe, there is evidence of Russian attempts to influence the 2016 Brexit vote and to promote far-right and fringe candidates with ties to the Kremlin in elections in France, Germany and Italy. Moscow also sought to stoke Catalan separatism prior to the October 2017 independence referendum and backed a coup in Montenegro to prevent it from joining NATO. The Kremlin has littered the path of integrating Balkan countries into the West with numerous obstacles. Bosnia’s security minister recently warned that Russian-trained mercenaries have established a paramilitary unit to support Milorad Dodik, the country’s ethnic Serbian separatist leader.
In the Middle East and Africa, Moscow is now in the driver’s seat in trying to navigate a peaceful transition of power to a post–Assad political order. Russia recently signed a major arms deal with NATO ally Turkey and is collaborating with Ankara to prevent further Kurdish expansionism in Syria; concluded an agreement with Egypt that would allow Russian aircraft to operate out of Egyptian bases; and increased its support for a Libyan warlord who now controls half the country. In South Africa, Russia is knee-deep in the corruption scandals that have rocked the Zuma government.