The last two administrations and the current occupant of the White House have been convinced that if they only tried harder, they could find common ground with Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinRussian military says it test-fired hypersonic missile Is Ukraine Putin's Taiwan? Biden administration resists tougher Russia sanctions in Congress MORE. This is simply not possible; we must abandon this approach to Russian policy and adapt a clear-eyed view of Moscow for the sake of our own security and the security of our allies.
Leaders in the Senate have recognized this fact and are taking important steps to curb Moscow’s behavior. Likewise, our allies in NATO, finally awakened to the renewed threat from Russia, are beginning to increase their military spending and the scope and frequency of military exercises in Eastern Europe.
There is still more that can and should be done because waiting for Glasnost — Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of easing tensions and increased transparency — without taking any actions to bring Russia to the understanding that its current path is untenable, is the moral equivalent of suggesting the Munich Agreement ended Hitler’s territorial claims in Europe.
Presidents Bush and Obama were ultimately disabused of their belief that they only needed to try harder with Putin, as they watched Moscow act in its own best interests, again and again, with little regard for the views of the United States or the rest of the world.
In the case of the Obama administration, this disillusionment was followed with near paralysis, as Russia proceeded to break with all post-Cold War international norms by invading Ukraine, intervening in the Syrian civil war on the side of a leader who is regarded by most in the international community as a war criminal and blatantly violating the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.
But Russia has gone even further. Last week, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) released its annual report on the Russian military. While the report contains little that is new about Russia’s army, navy and air force, it details how the Russians have harnessed — and are employing with increasing frequency — what the agency refers to as “cyber-enabled physiological operations.”
In plain language, the report points to Russia’s use of hacktivists, trolls and bots to amplify the reach of traditional influence operations, essentially turning our social media culture into a weapon. This weaponization of social media allows Russia to extend its reach far beyond what any army of spies, television stations or traditional propaganda could hope to do.
This report, when taken together with the public statements of various intelligence community leaders and the recent disclosures of the Obama administration’s knowledge of Moscow’s hacking of voter rolls, make it clear that President Putin deployed these tools in an all-out effort to influence our elections. The DIAs report leaves no room for doubt, an operation this bold and fraught with risk would only have been undertaken with the explicit knowledge and direction of President Putin.
I had the opportunity, from my position in the intelligence community, to watch the rise to power of Vladimir Putin and can say unequivocally that there is no more cold or clinical intelligence officer operating on the world stage today. He is a patient man who can be transactional, but he always maintains his absolute focus on what is in his and Russia’s long-term interest.
When dealing with Putin, President Trump’s vaunted deal-making ability will be of little use, as he will be attempting to come to terms with a fundamentally amoral man.
The United States and our allies really have no other choice; we must draw on the lessons of the Cold War, maintain the core of those policies — namely, containment and peace through strength — and update them for our current context. The leaders in the Kremlin today bear an unmistakable resemblance to those we faced during that long post-World War II struggle, and they are susceptible to the same policies.
The simple fact of the matter is that Russians need the West much more than the West needs Russia these days. This is particularly true in light of the shale oil and gas boom and the glut in global energy supplies.
Just over a week ago, the Senate took a very important step in ensuring an eventual change in Russian behavior by imposing stricter sanctions on Moscow and by raising the bar for any eventual rollback of those sanctions. Specifically, the Senate’s sanctions address aspects of these so called “cyber-enabled physiological operations,” by insisting the United States name and sanction those who were knowingly involved in cyber operations. There is still more that can and should be done, but this a good start.
While it almost seems trite these days to invoke President Reagan’s policy of “peace through strength,” strength remains a key element in dealing with Putin. The increases we are beginning to see in the defense budgets of our NATO allies are important. Perhaps more important is our increased rotational presence in Eastern Europe and larger-scale and more-complex NATO exercises, which have allowed our forces to practice employing long-atrophied military capabilities.
History has proven that Vladimir Putin only understands hard power. The only way to curb his actions, let alone get him to the negotiating table, is from a position of economic, political and militarily strength. The president should bear these facts in mind as he and his staff prepare for a bilateral meeting with President Putin at the G20 Summit. Otherwise, Trump risks falling into the same trap as his predecessors, with even greater consequences.
Joe Whited is the former intelligence lead for the House Armed Services Committee. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and the Naval War College. He served as a chief in the U.S. Navy and spent over 18 year in the intelligence community. He is also a former Republican candidate for Virginia's 5th Congressional District. Find him on Twitter @Whited_JJ.
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