Mueller report may result in Russian sanctions but not better behavior

Mueller report may result in Russian sanctions but not better behavior
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The reports of special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerMueller report fades from political conversation Trump calls for probe of Obama book deal Democrats express private disappointment with Mueller testimony MORE and earlier probes are persuasive because they reveal so much detail about Russian malign activities. The revelations may not come without cost to Russia.

They may spur the U.S. to toughen sanctions, strengthen resilience to Russian political warfare and cause the U.S. to more boldly challenge Russian interests.


Mueller found that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election in “sweeping and systematic fashion.” It did so mainly through two operations. One was a social media effort principally by the Internet Research Agency that reached tens of millions of Americans.

A second operation involved computer intrusion by Russian military intelligence of several Democratic-related targets and state and local election boards. Mueller’s probe also found “numerous links” between the Russian government and Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpSarah Huckabee Sanders becomes Fox News contributor The US-Iranian scuffle over a ship is a sideshow to events in the Gulf South Korea: US, North Korea to resume nuclear talks 'soon' MORE’s presidential campaign. 

Mueller’s investigation determined that Moscow intervened to help Trump, that Trump aides welcomed claims by Russians that they could provide incriminating information about Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonPoll shows Biden, Warren tied with Trump in Arizona The Hill's Morning Report - Trump touts new immigration policy, backtracks on tax cuts Hickenlooper announces Senate bid MORE and that Trump’s advisers had foreknowledge of public releases by WikiLeaks of stolen Democratic emails.

Yet the report found “the evidence does not establish that the president was involved in an underlying crime related to Russian election interference.” 

These findings bolster the January 2017 conclusion of the U.S. Intelligence Community that Russian President Vladimir “Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election.”

Others have reached similar conclusions. The cyber company FireEye found that Russian network activity “likely supported information operations” that included targeting the U.S. Democratic National Committee.

How might Russia incur costs for these activities?

One likely cost might be more sanctions. Since the 2012 Magnitsky Act, the U.S. has steadily increased the scope of sanctions on Russian individuals and entities. In response to military intervention in Ukraine, the U.S. in 2014 imposed sectoral sanctions affecting Russia’s financial, energy and defense sectors. 

After the November 2016 elections, President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaTrump has 62 percent disapproval rating in new AP poll Rising Warren faces uphill climb with black voters Obama explains decision to get into movie business: 'We all have a sacred story' MORE expelled 35 Russian diplomats and closed two diplomatic compounds. In 2017, the U.S. enacted the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act

In 2018, the U.S. expelled 60 Russian intelligence officers and closed two more diplomatic compounds after Russia used a banned nerve agent in the U.K. on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter. 

Further sanctions, based on a 1991 U.S. law, may be levied in response to the Skripal poisoning. Congress is also considering two bills with bipartisan backing, the Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act and the Defending Elections from Threats by Establishing Redlines Act. Other legislative action may be possible. 

In a second step, the U.S. is enhancing awareness of and resilience to Russian “active measures,” which involve propaganda, disinformation and subterfuge. RT America (formerly Russia Today), a Kremlin-backed TV channel and website, must now comply with the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

Congress has called to account Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and other U.S. social media leaders for doing little to thwart Russian abuses prior to the 2016 elections.

During the 2018 midterm elections, the U.S. Cyber Command employed a cyber operation that prevented interference by the infamous Russian trolling entity, the Internet Research Agency.

Finally, revelations of Russian misdeeds have heightened pressure in Washington to raise other costs. The U.S. has increased the size and duration of Army combat rotations in Central and Eastern Europe, placed more armor and artillery inside Poland and provided advanced Javelin anti-armor missiles to Ukraine.

Most recently, Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard Pompeo'China will not sit idly by' if US sells fighters to Taiwan, official says The Hill's Morning Report - Trump touts new immigration policy, backtracks on tax cuts Iceland's prime minister will not be in town for Pence's visit MORE has said the U.S. “will not stand idly by as Russia exacerbates tensions” in Venezuela, and he called Russia’s troop presence there an “obvious provocation.” This language could presage stronger U.S. action. 

The 2004 Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States helped marshal pressure in the U.S. for a robust response to international terrorism.

Similarly, although perhaps to a lesser extent, the Mueller report could help mobilize political pressure in the U.S. for a stronger posture toward Russian malign activities that harm American and allied interests. 

This does not mean, however, that Russia will cease the kinds of interference that Mueller has investigated. The Kremlin may still see propaganda, disinformation and subterfuge as a useful tool to undermine America’s values and cohesion; it's the perfect cost-effective, asymmetric weapon for the weak to use against the strong.

William Courtney is an adjunct senior fellow at the nonpartisan, nonprofit RAND Corporation and was U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan, Georgia, and a U.S.-Soviet commission to implement the Threshold Test Ban Treaty.