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Defense alone will not protect us from Russia and China

Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping use the threat of nuclear weapons to safeguard against retaliation for their aggression and to seek strategic advantages.

By the time America reoriented national security priorities from counterterrorism to great-power competition, it was already under attack from major and minor world powers alike in a new, multidimensional and asymmetrical landscape. Unfortunately, the U.S. is competing with rules and assumptions to which our principal adversaries, Russia and China, no longer adhere, in a world order Washington no longer can impose.

The new paradigm is not quite war, but neither peace. In his 2017 work, “All Measures Short of War,” Thomas Wright, a senior fellow at Brookings Institution, assessed that war between the major powers is “very unlikely even as tensions rise,” but today’s competition between authoritarian and liberal regimes is fought “with economic war, coercive diplomacy, cyberwarfare, proxy wars, political warfare, covert action and incremental revisionism.” Illustrating his point, Wright references Russian Gen. Valery Gerasimov’s 2013 article outlining a hybrid strategy that blurs war and peace, the Gerasimov doctrine.

Bolstering defenses alone and adding military firepower will not deter adversaries who pay little price for malign behavior, enjoy plausible deniability with ever-expanding remote options and won’t play by our rules. Consider how Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s endorsement of a nuclear first-use policy to counter conventional attack upended the “mutual assured destruction” doctrine. America’s reliance on “proportionate response,” aka, “an eye for an eye,” has become inadequate and more likely to elicit spiraling escalation than deterrence.  

The strategy can be simplified as addition through subtraction, not unlike a geopolitical version of jujitsu designed to neutralize a competitor’s advantages in size and strength. Russian and Chinese tactics level the playing field by undermining American democracy, cohesion and decoupling the U.S. from foreign allies. American military doctrine is predicated on taking ground and inflicting damage that breaks down an enemy’s willingness to fight. But today’s battlefields transcend time, space and the physical with ideas, emotions, and the vastness of cyber that negate the advantages of superior U.S. firepower. 

Russian election interference and disinformation fueled national divisions and contributed to scenes that Americans watched in horror on Jan. 6.  But it was just the beginning. Russian disinformation targeted American confidence in coronavirus vaccines, sought to fan racial divisions and exacerbated the toxic U.S. political atmosphere. Putin amplified former President Trump’s threats to break with NATO and moved quickly to place Russian troops in Syria as the U.S. withdrew. The U.S. turned a blind eye as Russian mercenaries and combat aircraft deployed to Libya on behalf of rebel leader Gen. Khalifa Haftar, to whom Trump had extended tacit support.

Ransomware attacks that closed the Colonial Pipeline and caused panic-buying induced gasoline shortages and attacks to follow in July, which wreaked havoc among hundreds of U.S. companies, affecting infrastructure and even health care, had decidedly Russian and Chinese digital fingerprints. Such increasingly-routine hacks erode confidence in government and institutions, and contribute to growing national anxiety over security.  

Like Russia, China choreographed its cyber operations to both disrupt and collect against U.S. government and industry servers. Its attacks spanned hacking, ransomware and internal meddling and were complemented with economic outreach to the developing world through its Belt and Road Initiative. Concurrently, China aggressively challenged the U.S. military across the Indo-Pacific as its espionage operations reportedly exceeded U.S. counterintelligence capacity. Overlapping such soft, hard and clandestine uses of power were disinformation campaigns that fanned American political tensions and coronavirus concerns to distract the U.S. from China’s moves in the South China Sea

Today’s hybrid warfare, like chess, demands that the U.S. be mindful of defense and offense alike. Success requires seeing several steps ahead and favors agile intelligence practitioners who can identify enemy weaknesses, define “red lines,” establish intentions, and covertly deter and punish aggression. Operating asymmetrically with plausible deniability facilitates the means to pivot and de-escalate, providing adversaries a face-saving off-ramp from further retaliation.

The U.S. intelligence community knows how to steal secrets and, for better or worse, change the course of history with covert deeds. The U.S. also possesses robust covert and overt cyber capabilities. But while the U.S. has most of the tools, leaders should adjust their outlook, enhance synergy, and adapt a more agile and balanced strategy of offense and defense with a dash of clandestine mischief. 

The cost for aggressors must be prohibitive, but rather than a linear approach, such as a reciprocal cyber solution for a hack or a military reprisal for a kinetic incident, a more well-considered doctrine would provide flexibility to incorporate interchangeable measures along with asymmetrical, covert options. Russian and Chinese leaders would need to reassess their risk calculus if a cyber attack resulted in media placements that exposed an autocrat’s corruption and vulnerabilities, or sabotage operations that targeted not merely critical infrastructure but the ruling elites’ personal wealth. 

Covert influence, however, is an area of decided U.S. weakness. And with the threat targeting America’s core values and institutions, the key is remembering American democracy and freedoms represent our strongest defense, as well as the best means of offense, given how such ideas threaten autocrats. 

We’re good at sabotage, though we don’t always have the gumption, but denial, deception and psychological operations are becoming a lost art form. That’s disappointing, inasmuch as successes that remain classified include programs that lit a popular fire behind the Soviet Union’s Iron Curtain, facilitated peaceful revolts against brutal dictators, negated anti-American messaging, and rendered harmless or unreliable weapons that enemies otherwise would have used against civilians and American service members. 

So why don’t we do a better job with covert influence? America’s post 9/11 strategy was replete with covert action, but primarily kinetic, hardly covert, and brought diminishing returns at the expense of foreign intelligence collection and influence. The CIA’s post 9/11 culture adopted a more hierarchical and conformist military atmosphere and “Whac-A-mole” culture that sought to purge free thinkers and risk takers whose impish traits and imagination often facilitate the innovation upon which espionage depends. Encouraging signs the direction is changing include the choices CIA Director William Burns made to lead the Clandestine Service and oversee the Havana Syndrome task force, and those to whom he has shown the door.  

Moreover, the reality is that Washington measures success by metrics, which, in turn, translate into money and power. How do you prove a negative and capture the impact from a campaign that dissuades would-be extremists from violence or prove what a malign actor did not do? Compare that to the hard numbers of killed combatants and sexy drone videos. 

The U.S. has most of the tools and resources required to prevail against Russia, China and other authoritarian rivals. What it needs is the leadership to choreograph America’s strengths to alter the risk calculus of authoritarian rivals, and the courage to address the conditions contributing to conflict — poverty, victimization, oppression, climate change and global pandemics. Still, to dominate, America needs greater comfort to operate in the shadows where it can exact costs that would make any enemy think twice before acting. 

Douglas London retired from the CIA in 2019 after 34 years as a senior operations officer. He teaches at Georgetown University, is a nonresident fellow at the Middle East Institute, and is author of the book “The Recruiter,” concerning the CIA’s post 9/11 transformation. Follow him on Twitter @DouglasLondon5

Tags China CIA Cyberwarfare Donald Trump Propaganda techniques Russia Vladimir Putin William Burns

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