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Looking ahead of the curve on Russia
To prevent wider conflict though diplomacy and defense, America needs more unity at home and tighter coordination with global partners
The Biden administration has done a good job rounding up a diplomatic posse and showing a unified front in the face of Russia's bullying and intimidation. It’s put together a full spectrum of policy options for the United States and its allies to respond to a wide range of scenarios with military and economic tools.
To be sure, the Biden administration didn’t initially plan on Ukraine becoming such a direct focus of its foreign policy – indeed, the country isn’t mentioned in the interim national security guidance the White House released early on. But the administration was already thinking through the broader competition America faces in the world with autocratic powers like Russia and China, and the Biden team put this emerging template into action.
It's a marked contrast to his predecessor’s unpredictable approach to Russia, with President Donald Trump himself fawning over Putin on occasions like the 2018 summit in Helsinki even as his team tried to implement policies countering Russia outlined in national security and defense strategy documents and laws passed with bipartisan support in Congress that Trump himself never read. While there’s always room for improvement in foreign policy, the Biden team put some initial stumbles behind it and stepped up its game on Ukraine.
Russia really doesn’t know what it’s doing
It remains to be seen what Putin will decide to do now – most bets are on Russia moving into Ukraine in some fashion, but it’s not clear that Moscow even knows what it wants or what it is doing. Putin seems to have painted himself into a diplomatic corner with the absurd demands he’s made toward the United States and its NATO allies – “Give us back Eastern Europe or we’ll invade Ukraine!” isn’t exactly a logical or compelling ultimatum, much less one that opens the door to serious diplomacy.
It’s more like the bullying tactics of troll power that have become increasingly prevalent in geopolitics and in some corners of America’s internal politics. Under Putin, Russia has acted as a termite in global affairs, chipping away at the international system without any bigger picture or wider scheme in mind. Though Putin and his regime have made political plays for religious and social conservatives in the United States and around the world, his particular brand of Russian chauvinism and corrupt authoritarianism has little real purchase elsewhere.
As Eliot Cohen reminds us, Putin isn’t a strategic grandmaster and that he most likely hasn’t really thought things through when it comes to this self-caused crisis. America can manage this if it continues to seek a balanced approach and maintain unity with a global band of partners that’s tired of bullies like Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea trying to get their way through threats and intimidation.
If Russia invades Ukraine again, it could end up being very costly for Russia – especially if America and its allies follow through on the game plan they’ve mapped out. Should Moscow make this mistake, it will probably result in bloodshed in Ukraine and a new phase of the ongoing cyberwar, as David Ignatius notes. That would be an unfortunate result, but it would be one that the United States can manage with its allies and partners.
One key to dealing with this crisis successfully and coming out in a stronger position is also to look at other arenas where Russia might seek to cause problems through political warfare, military moves, energy and economic policies that would seek to knock America and its partners off balance. Because Putin looks like he’s making things up without a master plan, it’s important to anticipate moves he might make in other arenas and make preparations to deal with them. An ounce of diplomatic prevention backed by a strong proactive defense worked out with allies and partners will be worth a pound of impromptu reactive measures.
All of these areas are manageable and needn’t represent a slippery slope to a costly direct armed conflict between the United States and Russia – if we prepare accordingly ahead of time.
Five key arenas to watch beyond Ukraine and Europe
1. Disinformation and political warfare
Russia will continue to exploit political divisions within America and other democratic societies through active disinformation efforts. This political warfare is a chronic feature of our day-to-day politics, not just around elections.
There’s no simple response in part because the voices on the far left and far right in America’s own politics either intentionally or unwittingly parrot the Kremlin’s talking points. In an era of divided politics and truth decay in the media, it’s important remain mindful that Russia’s troll power is a factor in skewing debates.
Cyber-operations are the tip of Russia’s spear pointed directly at the United States. In email thefts of political leaders, ransomware attacks on critical infrastructure, and targeted social media disinformation operations, Russian state-sponsored hackers have repeatedly targeted America’s political system and its critical infrastructure for fun and profit.
The Biden administration directly raised these concerns about cybersecurity in the meeting with Putin last June. But it will take more than just diplomacy to keep America and its allies safe in the cyber realm – diplomacy needs to be backed by a strong cybersecurity strategy, something that America has been putting into place over the past few years.
Congress created the Office of National Cyber Director and the Biden administration appointed the country’s first National Cyber Director. In the wake of the Colonial Pipeline attack, moreover, President Biden also issued a presidential directive aimed at improving the cybersecurity of America’s critical infrastructure - though implementation of these recent moves is still under way.
Government agencies have already issued warnings about the potential for Russian cyber-attacks against U.S. critical infrastructure, particularly in the event of a U.S. response to a Russian invasion of Ukraine. Such attacks could be far more “disruptive and destructive” than the Russian hacks already known to the public – possibly thanks to backdoors installed via the Solar Winds hack of government computer networks.
Defending America and its allies against cyberattacks is already a key frontline in this competition with Russia – and it’s likely to become more prominent in the coming months.
3. Increased Russia-China alignment
China and Russia continue to work more closely together than at any point since before the end of the Cold War. Earlier this month, for instance, Russia, China, and Iran held joint naval exercises in the Indian Ocean, while Chinese officials gave their blessing to Russia’s recent military intervention in Kazakhstan and backed Moscow’s claim to have “legitimate security concerns” in Ukraine. It would be a mistake to read too much into these moves given long-standing geopolitical rivalries between Moscow and Beijing. But the moves highlight the importance of America working to deepen ties with allies around the world through diplomacy and a coordinated defense of freedom and American interests.
4. Moves in places like the Middle East or Western Hemisphere
Russia has built closer ties with Iran in other ways, with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi traveling to Moscow for talks with Putin amidst negotiations to hammer out a twenty-year cooperation deal between their two countries. Moscow also stepped in to save Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s regime in 2015 and retains a significant military presence in the country to this day, most recently launching joint patrols with the Syrian air force near the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. State-sponsored mercenaries like the notorious Wagner Group remain active in Libya, Sudan, and Syria – where an attempt to move in on a U.S. military-held position led to the slaughter of hundreds of mercenaries by American airpower.
More recently, Moscow threatened to send Russian troops to Cuba and Venezuela if the United States did not give in to its demands on European security. That’s not exactly a new threat – for starters, the Kremlin deployed a pair of strategic bombers to Venezuela in 2018 – but these moves reinforce the importance of building or strengthening ties with American allies and partners around the world.
In these two regions of the world, the Middle East and the Western Hemisphere, the best defense is a good diplomatic offense that strengthen ties with existing partners.
5. Energy markets
Russia plays an outsized role in global energy markets. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates Russia to be the second largest natural gas producer in the world and the third largest oil producer. Many European allies remain dependent on Russian gas, particularly Germany – which has shut down its nuclear power plants and until recently looked set to barrel ahead with the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project no matter what Moscow did. The problems with this dependence became apparent this winter, when the International Energy Agency held Russia responsible for ongoing gas shortages that plague the continent.
To its credit, the Biden administration is aware of this problem and has begun exploring ways to keep Europe supplied with energy – and global markets stable – in the event of a war in Ukraine. But the United States is playing catch up in these efforts to advance energy security, years after vulnerabilities in the global energy markets were exposed and in the midst of a complicated global energy transition to net-zero carbon emissions.
The United States and its partners need to watch and manage these five areas carefully as things could get bumpier in the airspace ahead.
Ladies and gentlemen, the captain has turned on the fasten seat belt sign
The current geopolitical moment is quite different from the one America saw 30 years ago. At the end of 1991, the Soviet Union had collapsed and America won the Cold War, coming just after a short war in the Middle East that ended up achieving its limited goals without costing the country a lot of blood, treasure, and strategic self-confidence. At the end of 2021, by comparison, America wobbled with its own internal political divisions and confronted continued dual crises of the pandemic and its associated economic challenges - all coming as twenty years of inconclusive and costly wars in the Middle East drew to a close.
These myriad challenges at home and abroad make it all the more admirable that the Biden administration has been able to put America’s policy response to Russia on Ukraine on a fairly solid footing so far. The Biden team has done so by largely ignoring the chronic campaigns from the right and the left to politicize U.S. national security and divide the country – a dynamic regularly exploited by America’s competitors and adversaries.
To stay on the right path, though, the Biden administration needs to keep an eye on these other arenas where Russia might seek to tie down the United States and wield influence disproportionate to its actual power – the best approach is one that seeks to have an integrated, full-spectrum approach on these other fronts that matches what the Biden team has put forward in this Ukraine crisis.