The covert Russian attack on American democracy during the 2016 elections, while not a military strike, was an attack by a hostile foreign power on American security, and it should be treated as such. Failure to adequately defend American democracy constitutes negligence by the federal government of its most basic responsibility — security of the nation.
A proper first response to the Russian attacks would have been coordinated actions by congress and the administration to implement comprehensive nation-wide measures to insure adequate defense and deterrence against future attacks. The second action should have been American leadership of an international coalition of democracies to develop and implement common punitive measures and deterrence options to prevent such attacks in the future. Neither has been accomplished
So far, the administration’s reaction to Russian interference in the 2016 elections has been weak and fragmented. Only now, almost two years after the Russian attacks were identified and less than two months before national elections, the president has finally signed an executive order to punish foreign interference in US elections – without mentioning Russia. Meanwhile, a bipartisan bill to sanction Russian meddling remains in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the states are largely left to fend for themselves in upcoming elections.
Vladimir Putin is a relic of the Cold War who uses fear and confrontation with the West to promote his domestic political agenda at home. What Putin fears most are successful democracies on the borders of his corrupt, repressive regime. U.S. influence in Europe and the institutions of democracy — rule of law, a free, independent press, real political competition — are a real threat to his power.
Putin’s international strategy is to sabotage Western democracy and to disrupt the close trans-Atlantic relationship between the United States, Canada and Europe. That strategy is both military and political. It is also aggressive and asymmetrical.
Russia maintains its powerful military capability and has shown the willingness to use it aggressively in Ukraine, Georgia and Syria and in a threatening posture toward NATO allies in the Baltic region. The alleged Russian chemical agent assassination attempts in the UK and the possible microwave attacks on American diplomats in Cuba and China show just how aggressive the Putin regime has become.
Today, the Kremlin also threatens US national security through its use of sophisticated covert internet manipulation, clandestine operations, public propaganda and the corruption or compromise of officials in the United State and Europe. The Russian interference in the 2016 elections is an obvious example, but this is going on throughout Europe as well. Russian efforts to sow discord are especially aggressive in Eastern Europe and in the Balkans where I worked for years.
Russian political aggression cries out for strong American leadership and a multilateral approach in defense of democracy. Russia or anyone else who aggressively attacks democracy must face very serious consequences. Failure to directly confront Putin’s aggression will only embolden the Putin regime and present a greater threat to the United States and to our European allies in the future.
Developing a comprehensive strategy that would effectively respond to recent Russian attacks and deter future attacks should employ strategic concepts and organizations in place.
The US has extensive technical, legal and policy options available to support a national strategy. But a US national response is not enough. The administration should pursue an international strategy as well.
The international structure is already in place. The administration should propose that NATO develop a common policy and a strategy to defend all alliance nations. Under US leadership, NATO should become a clearing house for methods to combat and deter cyber and other attacks on governments, national infrastructure and institutions critical to democracy.
A practical and effective response to Russian aggression requires American leadership at a critical moment in history. Unfortunately, President TrumpDonald TrumpWendy Sherman takes leading role as Biden's 'hard-nosed' Russia negotiator Senate needs to confirm Deborah Lipstadt as antisemitism envoy — Now Former acting Defense secretary under Trump met with Jan. 6 committee: report MORE and the unilateralists who support him are not inclined to seek international cooperation. Instead, the president and some key advisors prefer to discredit NATO and other international organizations that have been essential to US national security for decades. Destroying bilateral relationships with critical allies in democratic European nations also does not help muster international support to solve a common security problem.
The US has the capacity for unilateral action, but a unified international approach would have far greater impact on Russia and others who would consider such actions. For now, US national security is left to drift without proper leadership and that is a condition of astounding negligence by the Trump administration.
James W. Pardew is a former US ambassador to Bulgaria and career Army intelligence officer. He has served as Deputy Assistant Secretary General of NATO and is the author of Peacemakers: American Leadership and the End of Genocide in the Balkans.