The U.S. indictment of the Internet Research Agency, or troll factory, in St. Petersburg on Feb. 16 has taken U.S.-Russian relations to a new nadir. The U.S. Department of Justice accuses the troll factory of a “conspiracy” that “had as its object impairing, obstructing and defeating the lawful governmental functions of the United States by dishonest means.”
Although special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerSenate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel MORE has avoided implicating the Russian government, the Internet Research Agency obviously works for it. This must have consequences for U.S. policy on Russia.
Under President Vladimir Putin, the Russian Federation has abandoned the framework of international law that was established with the foundation of the United Nations and elaborated upon in the Helsinki Final Act of 1975.
A first major step was Putin’s Munich speech in February 2007, where he displayed his anti-Americanism: “Today we are witnessing an almost uncontained hyper use of force — military force — in international relations, force that is plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts. One state … the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way.”
In May 2007, Russia pioneered cyber warfare, attacking Estonia’s government and commercial banks. Since the brief August 2008 war in Georgia, Russia has modernized its military, hardware and tactics, putting more emphasis on intelligence, insurgents, disinformation and cyber warfare.
In February 2014, Russia surprised the world with “small green men,” special forces without insignia, who swiftly occupied Crimea before anybody had realized what was going on.
Russia used all conceivable unconventional military means, including insurgency, sabotage, disinformation, trade war, economic sanctions and cyber in Ukraine. In parallel, the St. Petersburg troll factory developed.
One year earlier, Russia’s powerful chief of the general staff, General Valery Gerasimov, had published an article that has become known as the Gerasimov Doctrine. The line between war and peace had been blurred.
Gerasimov’s focus was the Ukrainian Orange Revolution and the Arab Spring, and he argued that “the role of nonmilitary means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and, in many cases, they have exceeded the power of weapons in their efficacy.”
Gerasimov recognized that Russia’s economic resources are limited and that military hardware is expensive. Therefore, Russian warfare has to rely more on unconventional military components, such a cyber, disinformation, economic warfare and subversion.
The Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz famously claimed: “War is … the continuation of politics by different means.” This quote frames Russia’s new hybrid warfare.
Since 2009, the Russian economy has stagnated, and few observers believe that any economic reforms that could boost economic growth are likely. As the Kremlin no longer can build its legitimacy on rising standards of living, it needs to mobilize its people around an aggressive foreign policy.
Therefore, we should expect more Kremlin aggression, and the West needs to stand up to this meddling. The Kremlin knows how to surprise us. Hardly anybody predicted the Russian annexation of Crimea or the Russian military engagement in Syria, so it would be foolhardy to predict what comes next.
The key insight is that Putin needs to be aggressive in foreign policy to stay in power, but he also realizes that he faces severe financial constraints and Russian military expenditures is just one-tenth of the U.S. level.
So far, Putin’s actions can be characterized as intelligent and rational, but his appetite for risk appears to be increasing with his international isolation and economic weakness.
The West is so much stronger than Russia economically and militarily, but it needs to face up to the new Kremlin threats. The financial sanctions imposed on Russia in July 2014 due to its aggression in eastern Ukraine do bite. They have capped Russia’s economic growth by limiting investment financing.
The sanctions that Putin has reacted most vocally against are those imposed on his business friends from St. Petersburg in March 2014 after Russia’s occupation of Crimea.
His reaction was also strong against the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of December 2012, which also sanctioned Russian officials, excluding them from visas and freezing revealed assets in the West. These sanctions make it costly to be close to Putin.
In all probability, the designated Russian culprits hold billions of dollars of assets in the United States. Unfortunately, the U.S. authorities have been unable to identify any of their properties because all this is held in anonymous companies with many layers of shell companies. The U.S. sanctions on Russian individuals can only become effective if U.S. law forces the revelation of actual ownership.
The Patriot Act of 2001 originally imposed strict control on money laundering into the real estate sector. After half a year, however, these restrictions were abandoned, and that is still the case. They must not be allowed to launder money into U.S. real estate and to own houses and apartments through anonymous companies.
The Internet Research Agency skillfully exploited Twitter and Facebook with anonymous accounts and bots that spread immense volumes of disinformation, slander and abuse.
These social networks need to clean up their act if they want to stay relevant. They should block bots, and why do they accept anonymous or false accounts? Also here, transparency is vital.
Anders Åslund is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He also teaches at Georgetown University. He is a specialist on economic policy in Russia, Ukraine and East Europe.
--This item was updated at 7:06 a.m.