It’s Time to Realize that Putin Is at War With America

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Vladimir Putin watches exercises of Russia's Northern Fleet in the Barentsevo Sea, 06 April 2000. Vladimir Putin spent the night underwater in a nuclear submarine near the Arctic Circle. AFP/AFP/Getty

This article first appeared on the Just Security site.

While the United States, along with its Western allies, became preoccupied with post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, global counterterrorism operations, and the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, it largely took its eye off what was happening in its Cold War foe, Russia.

In 2000, a teetotaling KGB man and his associates took control from Russia’s first post-Soviet president, the boozy Boris Yeltsin. The new president, Vladimir Putin, initially struck an amicable tone with the West, offering up words of support to then U.S. president George W. Bush after 9/11.

Despite this, Putin and his colleagues, many of whom came from the Soviet security services, were set on rebuilding Russia as a great power in accord with their own vision.

By the time Putin-ally Viktor Yanukovych was ousted as president of Ukraine in 2014, Moscow had long turned its focus toward combatting what it saw as a Washington-led effort to hold Russia subservient.

Against the U.S., the KGB’s president saw an opportunity to employ the dark arts that Russian security services mastered decades ago, but updated for the social media age.

Putin’s regime focused on pushing back against what it saw as America threatening Moscow’s power after humiliating it following the Cold War, while we, and our expanding number of European allies, focused on terrorism, demographic change, and economic volatility.

Putin watched the U.S. expanding NATO up to Russia’s doorstep and decided U.S. pro-democracy efforts were sowing chaos among Kremlin-friendly governments in the former Soviet Union in a way that threatened Russia. In response, Moscow launched an unrelenting campaign to use the foundations of open democracy against itself.

This consisted of mass-media manipulation, working with unsavory Western lobbyists and political operatives, potentially compromising western government officials and elected office-seekers — all of which relied on stirring the pot of popular discomfort and discontent which was emerging in many Western nations.

In other words, Putin’s government did what the KGB (now known as the FSB and SVR) does. It looked at the West’s psychological profile and used it against itself, exploiting the very real problems and divides the U.S. and other nations are wrestling with in order to stop the West from threatening Russia’s power.

(It’s worth noting that creating a bogeyman out of the West was also a convenient tool for the increasingly autocratic Putin-government to gin up popular domestic support by distracting from economic woes, corruption, and human rights abuses at home.)     

From the now obvious attempts to subvert the West through blatant interference with the 2016 presidential election, propaganda networks like Russia Today (employing Larry King and Ed Schultz ) and Sputnik News, Internet troll armies, and working with U.S. political operatives, lawmakers, and campaign officials like Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, California Republican Congressman Dana Rorbacher (told by the FBI in 2012 that Russian spies were trying to turn him into an “agent of influence”), Michael Flynn, Jill Stein, California secessionists, etc., to lesser known efforts such as attempts to buy U.S. journalists’ influence, Russia has been waging an assault on the underlying foundations of western democracy.

Then there are the more subtle, softer examples of Russian interests being advanced by prominent figures on the American right: From right wing media such as Fox News and its on-air personalities like Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson’s strange treatment of all things surrounding the Trump administration and Russia (see here, here, here, and here for just a sampling), to the pro-Russia praise sung by far-right extremists from Richard Spencer to David Duke (the latter allegedly once kept a Moscow apartment) and their followers.

Finally, there’s Trump’s own attitude toward Russia. None of these are as blatant as the first group of examples, but they often smack of a perhaps unwitting willingness on behalf of some Americans to advance Russia’s interests at the expense of the West’s for any number of reasons.

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All of this fits an age-old KGB modus operandi of using a variety of asymmetric methods to turn rivals’ internal weaknesses against themselves. The Russian security services embrace a fluid and confusing form of physical warfare which aims to take advantage of adversaries’ social, political, and economic weakness through what the 2016 NDAA describes as “activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow a government or occupying power by operating through or with an underground, auxiliary, or guerrilla force in a denied area.”

We saw this geopolitical judo used to great success in Ukraine following Yanukovych’s ouster, where Russia has employed “hybrid” warfare to seize territory and lock the nation in a state of chaos with a simmering part-covert, part-overt war.

Per NATO’s own magazine:

As the conflict in Ukraine illustrates, hybrid conflicts involve multilayered efforts designed to destabilise a functioning state and polarize its society. Unlike conventional warfare, the “centre of gravity” in hybrid warfare is a target population.

The adversary tries to influence influential policy-makers and key decision makers by combining kinetic operations with subversive efforts. The aggressor often resorts to clandestine actions, to avoid attribution or retribution. Without a credible smoking gun, NATO will find it difficult to agree on an intervention.

The Russian government is doing the same thing to the West in the world of ideas as it has done to Ukraine in the physical realm.

This assault is larger than Donald Trump and larger than interference in the 2016 election. We are in a dangerous place, facing a rival that is playing for the accretion of power, and only helping make our very real problems even worse.

Amid all of the focus on the immediate and important questions surrounding Trump and his associates’ corruption and potential ties to Russia, let’s turn back to the bigger picture.

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There have now been countless articles discussing Russian hacking, Kremlin interference in the election, and Trump’s Russia contacts. But this won’t end with Trump.

While good reporting is being done on Russia’s broader strategy against the West, these warnings are at risk of being drowned out amidst the constant crises of the Trump era.

It’s time for our public discourse to explore the broader story of the compound crises facing the West; political polarization, income inequality, racial tensions, an eroding sense of shared facts and identity, all being exploited by a foreign rival. It’s time our leaders, political, business, media, Republican, Democrat, national, local, etc., devise strategies to combat these compound threats by acknowledging them and working tirelessly toward re-uniting the United States.

Amidst the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln recognized that our fractured and divided nation needed a new national narrative to unite and heal the country. A narrative centered around the ideals it has always strived to live up to. In delivering the Gettysburg address, he used 272 words to wrap our fractured country in the sanctity of a democratic, tolerant, and open identity that has helped the nation endure challenges in the generations since the Civil War. Yet this identity, which has helped the American project succeed is now under serious strain.

The problems that I have run through here represent challenges that must be addressed strategically and as a whole lest we risk reversing the movement toward greater freedoms, rights, and openness which have defined the United States over time.

In other words, the domestic challenges we face represent an existential threat to our national security. Putin knows this. It is time we did too. Perhaps all of this is restating the obvious, but it’s worth hammering home.

John Reed is the managing editor of Just Security.