In Bolton, US has a practiced competitor to Putin’s judo strategy

In Bolton, US has a practiced competitor to Putin’s judo strategy
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On Aug. 23, national security adviser John Bolton and his Russian counterpart, Nikolai Patrushev, discussed a range of issues including North Korea, Iran, nuclear weapons proliferation, arms control, and re-establishing a more robust channel of communication between the United States and Russia. Finding areas of common interest with an eye towards getting the most out of Moscow is important for our national security, but arguably the most newsworthy issue of all was Bolton’s clear warning to Russia that the United States will not tolerate Russian interference in the 2018 midterm elections.

Bolton, who once called Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential elections an “act of war,” emphasized the United States is “prepared to take necessary steps to prevent it from happening.”

In a pithy and powerful policy statement, Bolton clearly delineated the U.S. red line, which President TrumpDonald John TrumpKimberly Guilfoyle reports being asymptomatic and 'feeling really pretty good' after COVID-19 diagnosis Biden says he will rejoin WHO on his first day in office Lincoln Project offers list of GOP senators who 'protect' Trump in new ad MORE did not raise during his July 2018 Helsinki summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Bolton and Patrushev met on the 79th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a neutrality treaty, which delineated spheres of influence between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. The USSR denied the existence of the secret protocol, which divided Poland, the Baltic States and Romania between the two countries, until 1989.   


Putin, who served in the KGB and as director of the Russian Security Police (FSB), has defended the Soviet decision to sign the pact. Patrushev also served his formative years in the KGB before Putin promoted him, first to director of FSB and then to head of the Security Council in 2008. The pact should serve as a reminder to any country seeking to negotiate with the Machiavellian Kremlin.

For Putin, like Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin, regime security is paramount — even if it results in fracturing Europe, compromising international institutions, or making an alliance with the devil.  

Following the July summit, National Intelligence Director Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsAmerica's divide widens: Ignore it no longer Trump gives Grenell his Cabinet chair after he steps down German lawmaker, US ambassador to Germany trade jabs MORE said Russia was the “most aggressive foreign actor” whose cyber threats were “blinking red.” The United States must continue to harden cyber defenses, including in defense of installations from Russian attacks. As the aggrieved party, the United States must clearly state its intention to respond, even if, at this point, deterring Russia's ongoing attacks on the 2018 midterm elections appears to be impossible.

If Russia does interfere in the 2018 midterms, as we expect, then the United States can take the serious countermeasures that the National Security Agency and Cyber Command have discussed to deter future attacks.

Historically, U.S. foreign policy towards Russia has been most effective when we have focused on deterring and, when necessary, countering Russia’s extensive espionage and military aggression. Consider Putin’s increasingly brazen foreign policy: invading Georgia; violating Ukraine’s territorial integrity and illegally annexing Crimea; downing a civilian airliner; being complicit in Syria’s and Iran’s crimes against humanity in Syria; poisoning former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter with a nerve agent; and interfering in elections in the United States and Europe.  

Seventy years ago, George Kennan’s “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” set the course for U.S. containment policy toward the Soviet Union. Containing Putin’s Russia, including in cyberspace, never has been more important. Failure to do so will only embolden Putin to increase the intensity and scope of the Kremlin’s asymmetric attacks against its “Main Enemy,” the United States and our allies.

Bolton and Patrushev expectedly reached an impasse on the issue of election interference.  Bolton reportedly told Patrushev the United States would not impose more sanctions if Russia stopped its interference. Patrushev continued to deny interference and, using an all too common Russian negotiating strategy, demanded the United States state its intention not to interfere in the internal affairs of other states as a requirement for signing a joint communiqué.   

Bolton took a major step forward towards implementing an effective strategy to contain Russia’s aggression. Even Putin’s own Kremlin-biased press reported on the election interference issue. If Russia does interfere, then Putin cannot be surprised when the United States implements a full range of measures — including sanctions and possibly cyber counterattacks.

Putin purposely used the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency, which directed the election-related hacking under businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, known as Putin’s “personal chef” for hosting dinners for dignitaries at his restaurants.

Putin is using a Russian geographic endpoint because he knows the best way to degrade our trust in democracy is to create just enough proof that a foreign enemy was seeking to influence our political process. Putin holds a black belt in judo, a key principle of which is to use an opponent’s strength against him. Applying this judo technique to Russia’s strategic relationship with its stronger rival, the United States, Putin has targeted our open democratic institutions — the core of our strength as a nation — with a sophisticated array of intelligence operations.  

Bolton has turned Putin’s strategy against him by calling out Russia publicly for its attacks and warning Russia of the consequences of its discoverable influence operations against our homeland. If Putin wants to reap the gains of a Kremlin return address on his attacks against us, then he must pay a price. The next step is for other key members of the Trump administration’s security team — and most especially, the president — vociferously to support Bolton, while continuing a defend, deter and counter strategy.

The lines of communication with Russia are open. We will see whether Putin is listening and how the Kremlin reacts.

Daniel Hoffman is a former chief of station with the Central Intelligence Agency. His combined 30 years of government service included high-level overseas and domestic positions at the CIA. He reported on the Trump-Putin summit from Helsinki for Fox News.