Rolling Up the Red Carpet

January 16, 2017
Responding to Russian Covert Actions

As originally published in the Cipher Brief on January 16, 2017

When the Russian intelligence operation designed to influence our 2016 election is used as a case study to train new Russian intelligence officers, it will be considered the most successful covert action operation in the history of Mother Russia. This operation, known as “Grizzly Steppe,” will be in the annals of Russian history not because President-elect Donald Trump won – Russian intelligence did not actually manipulate the vote count, so Donald Trump was the legitimate victor.  Rather, “Grizzly Steppe” created a wedge, whether real or perceived, between the U.S. President, the Intelligence Community (IC), and the American public.

A key impediment to Russian imperialistic designs is the U.S. intelligence community, so the Russians will continue to use all instruments of state power to challenge American public trust in these institutions.

The President-elect has made three excellent selections to lead the Central Intelligence Agency, the Directorate of National Intelligence and Department of Defense, demonstrating his commitment to a strong National Security apparatus. However, the constant exchange between the President-elect and the media over tweets fuels the perceived notion that there is a wedge between the Commander-in-Chief and the IC, reinforcing the success of Russian covert action and influence operations.

Every action Moscow takes is part of a larger global strategy aimed at increasing Russia’s global status at the expense of U.S. power and legitimacy. Russian President Vladimir Putin has initiated operations in a number of theaters around the world – Syria, Ukraine, Eastern Europe, and cyberspace. For the last eight years, our strategy to address each increase in Russian aggression has failed. A global strategy needs to be met with a global strategy.

While the Obama Administration has been far too slow to act on Russia, the recently announced sanctions and other diplomatic actions are a good first step in promoting a change of course by the Russian government. However, these actions should be part of a larger national cyber policy framework. Cyberspace is a domain just like land, air, sea, and space. Developing the right deterrence and response framework for this domain should be the mission of the combatting cyber attacks team President-elect Trump recently announced.

Despite my status as a Republican member of Congress, I believe that a cyber attack on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is a cyber attack on one of our democratic institutions. If the United States does not challenge Russia for breaking the rules of the international order, Moscow will do as it pleases.

Hillary Clinton, as Secretary of State, attempted to initiate a “reset” in U.S.-Russian relations, reflecting a massive misunderstanding of how Russia views history and the international world order. Nothing about Russia’s perceptions of the United States – the major symbol of the “West,” toward which Russian sentiments have almost always been cold – can be so easily reset.

Russia has the patience of the historic empire it is. It waits patiently, identifies weaknesses in other nations, and then strikes at vulnerabilities whenever they present themselves. Unfortunately, U.S. inaction under President Obama provided Moscow with ample opportunities of which to take advantage.

America’s refusal to enforce its ‘red-line’ on the use of chemical weapons against innocent civilians prompted Russia to take action on behalf of its strategic partner, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Thousands of Syrian civilians have suffered as a result of the Russian military’s indiscriminate air bombing campaign. Russia secured a permanent naval base in Syria’s Port of Tartus and a permanent air base in Latakia equipped with an S-400 missile defense system. The Russian military footprint in the Middle East is larger now than it has been since the Nixon Administration.

America’s reluctance to confront Russian aggression in Ukraine allowed Russia to illegally annex a strategically critical piece of territory. Since taking Crimea, Russia has replenished its formerly defunct Black Sea Fleet, and has moved major naval and ground military capabilities onto the Eastern European peninsula. Doing so threatens our partners in Eastern Europe, as well as broader European stability, and makes it easier for Russia to support separatists fighting in Eastern Ukraine. Russia also recently moved Iskander missiles, capable of carrying nuclear warheads, into Kaliningrad – the landmass it controls that borders NATO allies Poland and Lithuania.

Each incident of Russian aggression – and our refusal to confront it – is troubling in isolation. Taking them all together paints an even bleaker picture of global affairs. The past eight years have rolled out a red carpet of opportunities for Russia to act as a spoiler of global affairs. We cannot allow Russia to get away with their anti-democratic campaigns in any democratic country, especially not in our own backyard.