The best way to counter Putin? Expose his regime's corruption.
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For Cold Warriors of a certain age, there is a sense of deja vu as Russia has reclaimed its status as the primary threat cited by our military chiefs.

In congressional hearings and on televised cable news shows, Russia's efforts to meddle in our democratic process have taken center stage. I offered my views in testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on March 9. The mass demonstrations in Russia on March 26 reinforced my recommendation that the most effective way to punish Russian President Vladimir Putin for injecting disinformation into our society is to provide his society with something even more potent: the truth.

The scope of Russian active measures aimed at undermining public trust in the West's civic institutions is sobering. It requires new measures to defend against malicious cyber intrusions, which often enter our information space from shadowy internet sites intended to conceal the true source.

Generating false content to demoralize, confuse and perturb public attitudes costs Russia far less than traditional, and deadly, forms of aggression. Russia has developed doctrines for these influence operations, and organized manpower and computer resources to execute them.

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How should the U.S. respond? To the extent our technology permits, we and our allies should collaborate to detect and block Russian disinformation programs. If we can identify centers for this hostile activity and apply countermeasures, that is an obvious step. Moscow's provocative actions might spur NATO to reinforce defenses against Russian military activities that threaten their European neighbors. Coordinated economic sanctions could be stepped up.

 

With the new Trump administration shaking up the status quo in Washington and the United Kingdom commencing negotiations to exit from the European Union, any such measures will send a needed signal of Western resolve and unity if carried out as a joint response by the NATO alliance.

But there is more to be done than bolstering cyber defenses against further malicious meddling — more, even, than NATO responding with a harder line on Putin's occupation of Ukrainian territory and threats against other neighbors. Russia is well-versed in geopolitical competition and can cope with military posturing and economic sanctions. Neither form of pressure is welcome from Russia's perspective, but neither will perturb the Kremlin domestically the way its information operations campaign has perturbed the West.

What Putin appears less ready to handle is the public impact within Russia of credible revelations of official wrongdoing.

Soon after former first deputy prime minister and political rival Boris Nemtsov issued detailed allegations of official corruption surrounding the 2014 Sochi Olympics, followed by a detailed exposure of the costs, casualties and possible illicit agendas associated with Russia's intervention and March 2014 annexation of Crimea, he was assassinated on Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge near the Kremlin.

Nemtsov was but one of many prominent Russian critics of Putin who have succumbed to, or survived, lethal attacks by the Kremlin. Former Duma member and harsh Putin critic Denis Voronenkov was but the latest, shot and killed on the street outside his hotel in Kiev on March 30.

Could information be the most potent lever in responding to Putin's influence operations? On March 26, Russians in 80 cities took to the streets to protest a report detailing corruption on the part of current Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, Putin's closest political ally. While Putin can rally nationalist sentiment against NATO deployments and economic sanctions, this exposure of top-level corruption sent thousands of his citizens into the streets against him, willing to brave arrest in voicing their outrage.

The U.S. should think about giving Putin a taste of his own medicine: injecting information into his political space. However, instead of propaganda and false messaging, we have something far more potent: the truth.

Why more potent? Because the Kremlin, like other autocracies clinging to power in Tehran and Beijing, has made major efforts to censor and control inconvenient facts before they can reach their citizens.

Working with NATO allies, the U.S. should retaliate by creating — in print, digital and video format, and in multiple languages including Russian — a series of well-documented public reports on the corruption, crimes and sins of the Putin regime. These can be issued, one after another, without official comment, with the most potentially incendiary held in reserve, to deter Russia from further meddling with the democratic West.

Democracies will survive this irritating barrage of propaganda, bogus social media and leaked emails; let's see how Putin fares when his darkest secrets are secret no more.

Lincoln P. Bloomfield Jr. is a former assistant secretary of State for political military affairs and principal deputy assistant secretary of Defense for international security affairs.


The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.