This election, like the one before it, was being held under a cloud of suspicion. From every corner, shadowy, nefarious actors spread disinformation and outright lies not just to help or hurt individual candidates but to make us doubt the legitimacy of our democratic process. Americans are particularly anxious about Russia and Vladimir Putin. While the ex-KGB officer plays the part of a James Bond villain with panache, part of his dezinformatsia (which translates into disinformation and information warfare) campaign is to divert our eyes from his true intention. The reason that Russia and others attempt to meddle in our politics, to sow partisan and ideological division, is to reduce our power. To decisively deal with this problem, we must not simply defeat the means of influence but deny them the end they seek.
In addition to meddling in our internal politics, Russia is active on many fronts. Russia’s affinity for “grey zone” operations or, as the Soviets used to call it, “political warfare,” is simply part of their overall military doctrine, intended not as a separate effort but one to be integrated with conventional and even nuclear forces. Thus, the fact that the “Kremlin has conducted military exercises in fall 2020 on an unprecedented scale … [with] a pattern of modifying pre-announced activities significantly but presenting them as normal and unchanged" shows us the larger mass of the Russian iceberg, the parts we are not seeing. Russians have more tools than just computer hackers and trolls, and their disinformation campaigns are not restricted to American politics but aimed at the West more broadly.
The scope of Russian military activity has been impressive. Its forces stand ready to preserve the power of Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus, help collapse the remaining pocket of anti-Assad resistance in Syria, dominate the Black Sea and, probably conduct sophisticated, multi-national exercises — including units from China and Iran — across eastern Russia, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Black and Caspian Seas. The total number of forces involved may not be huge, but these are certainly the marks of a "great power." Putin has obtained pretty good strategic returns for small military investments, beginning with the 2008 Georgia war. Furthermore, he seems to be able to sustain them, as neither sanctions nor plummeting oil prices have effected a real change in Russian behavior. There hasn’t been a consolidated U.S. or allied military response, so Russia is pushing on open doors.
American reaction has been schizophrenic: hand-wringing about dezinformatsia coupled with a tendency to dismiss Moscow from the realm of "great power competition." Mostly because many on both sides of the partisan aisle believe that we have to focus on China and have to modernize our weapon systems for war in the Pacific at the expense of our "legacy" systems that are providing security today. Systems largely built for a war in Europe (for example, short-range fighters and tanks).
The consequence of this schizophrenia is that in focusing on what our adversaries are doing, we lose sight of the outcome we want and what we should be doing. Threats should be considered in light of goals, not vice versa. We are on a dangerous path involving China and Russia. To neglect one while tending to the other would have dire consequences for U.S. global leadership and the alliances that help us secure peace, liberty and prosperity.
Some “realists” imagine that we could work with Russia to balance a rising China. That’s probably not in the cards. When Putin talks about the decline of the West, he means it. Xi Jinping says the same thing, and he means it too. China and Russia have a long history of conflict and competition, and China’s continental ambitions are a serious long-term threat to Russia. But for the moment and the foreseeable future, they share an overriding interest in reducing the primacy of the United States and the “global West.”
This geopolitical dilemma has created a growing budget-and-programs dilemma for America’s armed forces; the continued reductions in capacity, coupled with aging weapons capabilities — a long-term trend not fully addressed in recent years — exacerbate the current crisis. If Congress decides to once again reduce defense spending, either to “limit” government deficits and debt or “pay for” new domestic entitlements and investments, we will have sealed our fate. The Defense Department will have no choice but to choose between Russian and Chinese threats or pretend that future technological innovation can preserve U.S. primacy. In either case, the result is a reward to our great-power adversaries.
Renewed diplomatic engagement and sustained funding for our military would do much to take the fun out of “grey zone” trolling by our adversaries. It would also make their recent investments in meddling in our internal affairs worthless because their objective of having a distracted and weak America disarm itself and withdraw from the world stage would not be accomplished.
Giselle Donnelly is a Resident Fellow in Defense and National Security at the American Enterprise Institute where Major General John G. Ferrari, USA Ret., is a Visiting Fellow