The Nuland affair demonstrated that Russia would be more inclined, in the future, to use these tools of shadowy interception and transmission against the United States—not only where America and Russia engaged in geopolitical competition in the former Soviet space, but ultimately in the West itself—including in both European and American politics. In other words, in the game of international political influence, Russia would no longer confine herself to the former Warsaw Pact and Soviet bloc nations.
Yet the Nuland leak was worth only a few days’ news stories, and then disappeared from consciousness. It apparently did not lead many in Washington to change their communication habits or to recognize that Russia might have an interest in finding more ways to publicize divergences between public statements and private realities of U.S. political figures in the hopes of generating embarrassment—in particular, in being able to expose to raw public view the private hypocrisy on which modern politics depends. It did not lead to any new appreciation for Russia’s ability to wield the tools of both cyber and soft power—based on a mix of dismissiveness of Russian capabilities and a misplaced faith that America was somehow an exceptional country in which such methods would somehow not work or bear influence.
Beyond that, this incident did not lead to any fundamental re-evaluation both of the utility of American efforts to influence the choice of leaders in other countries of the world or of the trajectory of U.S.-Russia relations. It is difficult to look at recent events in Ukraine, Iraq, Afghanistan, or even places like South Sudan—where U.S. diplomacy and pressure has been marshalled to encourage, cajole or prod the deposition or selection of leaders—and to see how precisely such efforts have benefited American strategic interests or even been successful in producing stable governments. Often, the long-term trajectory seems to be negative. Nor is there much assessment of the utility of U.S. support. Indeed, research released by Italy’s Banca Monte Dei Paschi suggests that Obama’s public statements of support for Renzi may in fact have contributed to the defeat of the recent referendum.
The Nuland incident should also have forced a serious conversation about U.S.-Russia strategic competition. That—along with Putin’s very revealing “spring” speech after the annexation of Crimea later that year—were very clear indications that the course of U.S. policy was at odds with Russian strategic preferences. If the clash was not desired, then a policy of recalibration was in order—including talks about new “rules of the road” for conduct in a variety of realms including cyberspace. If the clash was seen as unavoidable because of how U.S. interests were conceived, then actions taken afterwards were quite confusing. In Ukraine, the U.S. did enough to spoil relations with Russia but far too little to ensure the success of the Maidan movement. Efforts to combat Russian cyber and information operations were left unfunded or shut down. There were plenty of critiques about Russian behavior in Syria but nothing to change Moscow’s underlying calculus.
Similarly, the discussion today about how to respond lacks a certain strategic seriousness. Some political figures casually toss out grave consequences, up to even military strikes, to punish Russia for its supposed interference. Others continue to cling to fantasies that the U.S. can dispense sanctions on these matters yet retain complete Russian cooperation in other areas that are of importance to the United States.
Moving forward, the U.S. has several different options. After each major cyber incident over the past several years that is attributed to Russian sources, the Kremlin makes a call for codifying international practices that would restrict what countries can do in cyberspace. The U.S. has traditionally resisted such calls because preserving America’s freedom of action is more important for achieving U.S. interests and objectives. Accepting that Russia (and other countries) now have similar capabilities to influence U.S. developments may be one price to pay, just as the United States has had to accept the loss of its earlier monopoly on drone technologies. Alternatively, the United States could re-ramp up efforts to more effectively identify and combat such efforts at home, while enforcing stricter cyber and digital security and changing the habits of many Washingtonians who otherwise prefer to conduct their business via interceptable e-mails and mobile calls, to reduce vulnerabilities. The United States could make efforts by other government to influence U.S. elections in such fashion the central organizing principle of its relations—and to be prepared to pay the costs in other areas.
But in the end, the new Trump administration—as well as the U.S. Congress—need to come face to face with the difficult reality that Russia will not be a friend but does not need to be a foe. To repeat what I wrote in these pages two weeks ago, it requires an understanding of what areas of U.S.-Russia relations are essential to U.S. interests, and where such cooperation can be jettisoned because of Russian actions in other theaters. It also requires wrestling with difficult questions of where to seek compromises with Russia and where to stand firm. The review process can only be successful if the new team is willing to make these calls based on its assessment of U.S. values and interests, a sober assessment of Russian strengths and weaknesses and an understanding of where Moscow may be induced to show flexibility and where the Kremlin will stand firm. This requires, in the end, an understanding both of the costs America is willing to pay—and the limits of what can be demanded of Russia.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a contributing editor at the National Interest, is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. The views expressed here are his own personal assessments.
Image: St. Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow. Flickr/Creative Commons/Sammy Six