How America can win the great power competition with Russia

How America can win the great power competition with Russia
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The New York Times has revealed that Russian military intelligence had secretly paid bounties  to the Taliban for the deaths of American soldiers in Afghanistan. Putting aside the coming back and forth about what the president knew and when he knew it, this incident is simply the latest in which the inability of the United States to push back against Vladimir Putin merely emboldens a regime that needs no encouragement.

Vladimir Lenin said, “You probe with bayonets. If you find mush, you push. If you find steel, you withdraw.” Even if that quote is apocryphal, all Putin is finding now is mush and, unless something changes, it is all he will find. Russian interference in the 2016 election garnered political posturing but no consequences. Expeditions into Libya and Syria, both overt and covert, are met with condemnation but nothing more. The seizure of Crimea six years ago was met with sanctions and tepid support to Kiev. To this day, Ukraine finds itself mired in an ongoing battle on its own territory.

With an attempted coup in Montenegro, the destabilization campaign in Moldova, and the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, the list of nefarious Russian activity goes on with very little in the way of responses. Of course, there is now a tendency to see Moscow behind every setback or development that is counter to Western interests. We created a boogeyman and, without a doubt, Putin is content to allow the myth to continue and spread. If your adversary thinks you are 10 feet tall, why disabuse that notion?

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Mark Galeotti notes that Putin is more of an opportunist than one would otherwise suspect. He is less a chess master and more a judoka who uses the strength of adversaries against them. Catherine Belton, who wrote a fascinating book into his rise to power and the security and intelligence officials surrounding him, argues that the siloviki are following a plan to confront Western democracies while also enriching themselves.

These arguments are not mutually exclusive or contradictory. Leaders in Moscow want to confront Western nations, divide alliances, and reclaim what they view as their rightful place as a great power. By any real metric such as life expectancy, business creation, economic growth, or exports beyond natural resources, Russia is anything but a great power. However, Moscow pursues its political objectives by seizing upon opportunities to elevate its position to that of a great power. The civil unrest in the United States, Brexit in the United Kingdom, the Catalan election in Spain, and instability in Libya and Syria have presented such opportunities.

It appears the White House will not confront Putin with condemnations. After intelligence officials reported the bounty program, the president invited Russia back into the Group of Seven, according to the New York Times. Absent leadership from the very top, how can the United States push back against Putin? This is not to say there are not any options. As Belton wrote, Russian money is deeply entangled with Western nations among “friendly firms” and financial networks, many of which look the other way. As the saying goes, follow the money. We have to go beyond targeted sanctions and cut Russian access to Western markets.

In Washington, the intelligence committees of Congress must get out of their torpor and hold public hearings to highlight what Moscow is doing, what it means, and how it is a threat both to the United States and to the Western liberal order. Such hearings are not for scoring political points or relitigating the 2016 election. With the blood of American soldiers on the hands of Russian military intelligence, this is not a partisan matter.

We have to empower the intelligence community and the instruments of diplomacy to aggressively push back against Russian activity, counter the interests of Moscow, and stymie its advance. Indeed, Langley must go on the offense like in the days of the Cold War. The goal is not just advancing American interests but frustrating Russian efforts wherever possible and warning other competitors. If we are to win in the new era of great power competition, we must shift our mentality and get out into the field. Russia is already there. The United States cannot afford to wait any longer.

Joshua Huminski is the director of the National Security Space Program and the director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence and Global Affairs with the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.