Getting Realistic on Russia
The Trump administration’s recent actions to expel 60 Russian spies and close a key west-coast consulate used for espionage constitute an important response to growing and reckless Russian aggression. The outrageous attack in the United Kingdom, which the United States, the U.K., France, and Germany described as the first offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since WWII, is only the latest example of Russia’s campaign of hybrid warfare against the U.S. and our friends.
Actions against Russian intelligence-gathering in the United States, strong diplomatic statements in concert with our allies, recent sanctions for election-meddling, and public disclosure of a multiyear Russian cyber espionage campaign against critical infrastructure are all good steps. But to deter future Russian aggression, we must think creatively about imposing direct costs on the Putin regime.
First, the administration’s new national security team needs to once and for all banish the notion that Russia can somehow play a positive role in the war on terror. A more realistic assessment can already be found in the new National Defense Strategy (NDS), which labeled Russia not as potential partner, but as a strategic competitor. There is ample evidence to support the claim that Russia prioritizes undermining the U.S. more than it does combatting radicalization. For example, earlier this month reports highlighted how Russia-based cybersecurity firm Kaspersky Lab deliberately exposed a highly classified U.S. cyber counterterror operation. Kaspersky's ties to the Kremlin are so well-documented that last December, Congress directed the U.S. government to remove Kaspersky products from its networks.
Second, building on the Bipartisan Budget Act, we must end the last two years of legislatively-mandated defense cuts and continue the process of rebuilding our military, which will not happen overnight. As we do so, we can deploy more forces forward in Eastern Europe, reversing the post-Cold War drawdown that has left us with about 10% of our Cold War military footprint in Europe. At the same time, we must build on the Nuclear Posture Review and modernize our strategic forces to both defend our homeland and provide for increased operational flexibility. By all accounts, the Pentagon’s forthcoming Ballistic Missile Defense Review is also moving in the right direction by emphasizing the need to counter threats from Russia.
Third, we must make Vladimir Putin and his closest associates feel economic pain as a result of his foreign aggression. Pursuant to the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), the Treasury Department produced both classified and unclassified lists of senior Russian political figures and oligarchs. This list is critical because Putin's kleptocratic governance system relies on the support of corrupt oligarchs, whose loyalty is contingent on their ability to spend ill-gotten gains and enjoy life in the West. If these Kremlin-aligned oligarchs start to come under intense financial pressure as a result of their support for the Putin regime, the U.S. could have a key opportunity to disrupt Putin’s power base inside Russia.
While the unclassified oligarch's list was criticized for cribbing names from public reports, the classified list contains far more detail. This classified list should be scrubbed of any information that could jeopardize intelligence sources or methods, and then released publicly to expose high-level Russian corruption. The President should then sanction those on the list closest to the Putin regime.
No effort to push back against Russia can be successful without the active support of our allies. As Russia responds to widespread condemnation of Salisbury by expelling a reciprocal number of western diplomats, the U.S. has an important opportunity to unite its allies. For example, European nations have remained divided on implementing new sanctions on Russia. In the aftermath of Salisbury, the U.S. and U.K. should work together to escalate economic pressure against the Kremlin and bring Europe fully on board with tough financial measures. To that end, the EU should reform its sanctions renewal process to make sanctions indefinite, subject to a unanimous vote to remove them. As during the Cold War, Russia cannot hope to match the united political and economic strength of the free world.
Critically, we cannot afford to leave any allies behind. The administration must not abandon America’s friends in Syria to Putin and his genocidal client state, the Assad regime, or his terror-sponsoring ally, Iran. A hasty withdrawal from Syria would prove especially damaging because it would provide Assad and his Russian and Iranian benefactors with the opportunity to reclaim areas currently under coalition control in northeastern Syria. By a conservative estimate, these areas generated three-quarters of the oil that Syria produced on the eve of the war.
As we saw from the Obama administration’s hasty retreat from Iraq, leaving power vacuums in the Middle East does not end well. All too often, they lead to greater American involvement and expenditures down the road after events have spiraled out of control. Instead, the administration must build on its initial success against ISIS and develop a post-ISIS strategy on the ground in the Middle East that both protects our allies and limits the influence of malevolent actors such as Russia.
After Salisbury, it is increasingly clear that public condemnation—and even sanctions that fail to touch Putin personally—is no longer adequate. Fortunately, as the muted Russian response following the clash between U.S. forces and Russian mercenaries in Deir al-Zour demonstrates, where Russia encounters strength, it stops pushing. By fortifying our military posture, inflicting real costs on Russian leadership as a result of its actions, and standing with our allies, we can take important steps to deter Russian aggression both at home and abroad.
Rep. Mike Gallagher is a Marine Veteran representing Wisconsin's 8th District. He currently serves on the House Armed Services and Homeland Security Committees.