War with Russia is not hypothetical and our lumbering bureaucracy is unprepared for it

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In his recent annual “town hall,” Russian President Vladimir Putin signaled his resolve to take Moscow’s confrontation with Washington to the next level — an outright war that, in his view, the United States is unable to win. Having served as a Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) intelligence officer for Russian doctrine and strategy, I am concerned that our government bureaucracy is indeed woefully unprepared for a full-on war with Russia, which appears to be a hypothetical scenario no longer. 

In his staged Q&A session with ostensibly ordinary Russian citizens, Putin answered questions, almost certainly planted by the Kremlin, regarding the June 23 incident involving the Russian and British militaries in the Black Sea. The incident, in which Russia claimed to chase a British destroyer out of Crimea waters, clearly demonstrates that the U.S.-NATO and Russian military policies are on a collision course, risking a kinetic war — one the Kremlin apparently believes is inevitable.

A British Navy destroyer sailed close to Crimea, which Russia considers its sovereign territory in the aftermath of the Ukrainian peninsula’s annexation by Putin. The United States and NATO do not recognize Crimea as Russian and claim the ship’s movements were in accordance with international law. Moscow, however, views the incident as a violation of its territorial waters. The Russian government said its military fired a warning shot to keep the British warship away, a claim that the Brits dispute. Moscow also admonished the West that it will not issue any warning if its perceived sovereign territory is breached in the future, implying that it will go straight for the kill. We’ve witnessed Moscow’s willingness to take risks in situations that it considers as having high stakes. The Russians, and the Soviets before them, were blamed for shooting down Malaysian MH-17 in 2014 and Korean airliner KAL007 in 1983, both civilian aircraft, killing everyone on board in both cases.

In his exchange with “the people,” Putin was asked whether the June 23 incident brought the world to the brink of a third world war. He said that it did not, accusing the Americans and the British of a “complex” provocation. Putin explained his conclusion by asserting that the United States knows that it could not possibly win such a war. He appeared so confident in America’s unpreparedness to fight back that he hypothesized that even if Russia sank the British warship it would go unanswered.

Putin’s confidence stems from Moscow’s belief that it can fight and win the war with Washington on Russia’s terms. Russia has taken note of U.S. reliance on technology even in conflicts with low-tech adversaries such as terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq. Putin’s master plan, which he often calls “asymmetric,” exploits America’s perceived vulnerabilities. Cyber and space are the new domains that Russia has designated as fair-game battlefields. Russia has demonstrated the will to use cyber in peacetime to attack our food and gasoline supplies, and more — including last Friday’s attack on IT company Kaseya and corporations using its software. In wartime, the Kremlin will wage unrestricted cyberwarfare.

We haven’t seen much in terms of Putin’s space warfare targeting our homeland yet, but this is coming. While the U.S. doesn’t recognize them as a separate category of weaponry, what the Russians call “space weapons” can strike our orbiting space-based system of defenses.

The U.S. government and corporations were caught off-guard by America’s adversaries’ willingness to attack our unsecured IT networks and their success in doing so. Our satellites are similarly defenseless.

For two decades, Washington has been admiring the ingenuity of Putin’s playbook, having done little to protect Americans. Ex-CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden said that Russia’s intelligence operation targeting the 2016 presidential election was the “most successful covert influence operation in history.” Former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coates stated in 2018 that the warning system was “blinking red,” referring to the Russian threat. In May, following Russia’s hacking of our meat and gas, FBI Director Christopher Wray again drew parallels between Russia’s cyber strikes and terrorist attacks of 9/11. He called on “the average American” to have a “shared responsibility” for homeland defense against cyber attacks. I hope the bureaucrats don’t expect us to fend for ourselves when it comes to Putin’s Star Wars. 

Americans must demand more from our government than metaphoric language about the Russian threat and the theatrics of calling Putin “a killer,” given the possibility of war. In March, Gen. Glen VanHerck told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Russians “rehearse potential strikes on our homeland,” citing “multiple flights of heavy bombers, anti-submarine aircraft, and intelligence collection.” In 2018, Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy, the NORAD/NORTHCOM commander, acknowledged that the U.S. “homeland is no longer a sanctuary.” NORTHCOM is a combatant command that is in charge of defending the U.S. and Canada from missile attacks.

The U.S. bureaucracy’s lack of preparedness for Russia’s way of war was confirmed in the U.S. Army’s 2016 assessment titled, “Outplayed: Regaining Strategic Initiative in the Gray Zone.” The authors concluded that the United States has not come up with a coherent counter-strategy to Russia’s warfighting doctrine, which exploits the U.S. traditional conception of war and peace. Americans tend to understand war as tanks rolling and planes dropping bombs. The Russians carry out low-grade warfare, such as in the cyber realm, intentionally below the threshold of U.S. military response — but Putin stands ready to ratchet up the fighting into a kinetic blitzkrieg.

The Black Sea remains one of the most likely flashpoints, which could spark outright war between Russia and NATO, dragging the United States right in. Both sides routinely conduct military exercises in the region, and Russian military aircraft frequently conduct dangerous maneuvers close to U.S. and NATO warships and fighter jets. With Ukraine and Crimea being the “hot button” for Moscow and Washington, each claiming the area as part of their respective spheres of influence, a single misstep could trigger a gunfight. With Putin confident that Washington hasn’t figured how to handle him, and that he can win such a war, the problem may be even worse than it looks.

Rebekah Koffler is a former DIA intelligence officer and the author of the forthcoming, “Putin’s Playbook: Russia’s Secret Plan to Defeat America.”

Tags Christopher Wray Crimea cyber warfare Joint military exercises US-Russia relations Vladimir Putin
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