It took quite a while but the Trump administration, in the recently released National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy, is finally talking about Russia as a strategic competitor. But before the national-security bureaucracy gathers a head of steam to wage Cold War 2.0, Washington should take a deep collective breath and approach this challenge with patience, realism, prudence and restraint to avoid overreaching as it seeks to protect core American interests.
Since 2012, Russia has been conducting a sophisticated, well-resourced and generally successful campaign to reassert its global influence at the expense of the West . Still, it is by no means obvious, as the new National Defense Strategy claims, that Russia wants to shape a world consistent with its authoritarian model and gain a veto over the economic, diplomatic and security decisions of other nations. It is equally unclear whether the administration has the resolve or capacity to mount an effective and sustainable response to global Russia, given Trump’s preternatural instinct to give Putin a pass on aggressive Russian behavior and a disorganized interagency decisionmaking process.
But assuming the White House can get its national-security agencies on the same page, how should the United States deal with the challenge posed by Russia’s global activism? The first step is understanding the sources of Russian conduct and the challenge it presents. The second is to determine when, whether and how to respond to Russia’s global activities.
The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming
Russia’s meddling in the U.S. political system is part of a broader global campaign to undermine what the Kremlin sees as a Western-dominated international order and to chip away at the liberal norms and institutions that underwrite it. Like the character in Woody Allen’s 1983 film Zelig, Putin and his minions have been showing up in virtually every corner of the globe to contest American influence and its leadership of this order.
In Europe, there is evidence of Russian attempts to influence the 2016 Brexit vote and to promote far-right and fringe candidates with ties to the Kremlin in elections in France, Germany and Italy. Moscow also sought to stoke Catalan separatism prior to the October 2017 independence referendum and backed a coup in Montenegro to prevent it from joining NATO. The Kremlin has littered the path of integrating Balkan countries into the West with numerous obstacles. Bosnia’s security minister recently warned that Russian-trained mercenaries have established a paramilitary unit to support Milorad Dodik, the country’s ethnic Serbian separatist leader.
In the Middle East and Africa, Moscow is now in the driver’s seat in trying to navigate a peaceful transition of power to a post–Assad political order. Russia recently signed a major arms deal with NATO ally Turkey and is collaborating with Ankara to prevent further Kurdish expansionism in Syria; concluded an agreement with Egypt that would allow Russian aircraft to operate out of Egyptian bases; and increased its support for a Libyan warlord who now controls half the country. In South Africa, Russia is knee-deep in the corruption scandals that have rocked the Zuma government .
Closer to home, Russia hopes to reassert its former trade ties with Cuba and resume military and intelligence operations on the island. U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster recently warned of Russian meddling in Mexico’s upcoming presidential election to swing it in favor of a populist candidate who campaigns on anti-American themes. Canadian officials have warned of Russian influence operations in the country. The Kremlin is using loans to prop up the authoritarian Maduro regime in Venezuela, gobbling up much of the country’s oil and gas assets at bargain-basement prices.
What Does Russia Want?
Many of these seemingly disparate activities reflect Russia’s quest for a multi-polar world. This organizing principle of Russian foreign policy was first articulated in the mid-1990s by Russian foreign minister Yvegeny Primakov. It has been echoed in every major foreign-policy speech Sergei Lavrov has made since 1994, first as Russia’s ambassador at the UN and for the last fourteen years as Russia’s foreign minister. Putin punctuated this theme in his lament in 2005 that “the breakup of the USSR was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century” and at his speech at the 2007 Munich security conference, when he railed against “the United States’ monopolistic dominance in global relations.”
Over the past decade, Putin has harped about the “lawlessness of American exceptionalism” and its poor stewardship of the liberal based international order. Exhibits A-F, in his brief, are the Bush administration’s 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and mismanagement of the domestic economy; the Obama’s administration’s decision to topple the Qaddafi regime in 2011 and then to walk away from the debris it left behind; Obama’s efforts to support the overthrow of the Assad regime; U.S. promotion of democracy and “color revolutions” across the former Soviet Union; and a decade of failed policy in Afghanistan . In Putin’s mind, many of these actions helped spawn the current state of global disorder, the rise of Islamic extremism, and the turmoil that has engulfed the Middle East.