On May 17 Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as Special Counsel in charge of the FBI investigation into Russian efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election “and related matters.” Russian President Vladimir Putin however is not waiting for Mueller’s investigation to conclude. Since evading retribution for potentially hacking American electoral systems in 21 states and spreading pro-Trump “fake news,” Russia has embarked on a heightened campaign of hacking and disrupting America’s allies and funding its enemies. For its own national interests and the preservation of democracy, the United States needs to confront Russian aggression. President Trump has unfortunately refused to accept the severity of the Russian threat and seems to have no tangible plans to challenge them. Inadvertently however, through his own lax decision-making style, Trump may have actually provided the West an avenue to counter the Kremlin.
Since the results of the 2016 presidential election were announced, Russia has amplified and redirected its campaign of hacking, turning its attention to America’s allies, especially democracies in Europe. In December of 2017, less than a month after the U.S. election, Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, the BfV, announced that they had detected “increasingly aggressive cyber-espionage” targeting German political parties from a Kremlin-controlled hacking unit. Both the BfV and German members of parliament warned that Russia was gearing up to influence the 2017 Bundestag election. Months later, a day and a half before the 2017 presidential election in France, Emmanuel Macron’s campaign was the target of a massive computer hack and leak of campaign emails. While a government investigation was unable to find definitive links between the hack and Russia, we do know that Russian media propagated “fake news” about Macron and funded his ultranationalist challenger and Russian propagator, Marine Le Pen.
Moreover, Russia’s meddling with America’s allies is not limited to recent European elections and political parties. There is evidence that the recent Qatar crisis, which is dividing crucial American Middle Eastern allies, was manufactured by a Russian hacking and document leak operation. Using more traditional geo-political means, Russia is building global support and dependence, recently signing or concluding defense cooperation agreements with Egypt and India and sending troops to support and train the Kurdish YPG in Syria and General Khalifa Haftar in Libya. As China increased pressure on North Korea over its’ nuclear program, Russia stepped in, increasing its own trade with the North Korean regime by 73% in the first two months of 2017.
In all of these actions Russia’s strategy appears to be to sow chaos throughout the world, chaos that will keep the West occupied on other matters while it pursues an aggressive expansionist foreign policy, injecting itself into conflict zones and winning new partnerships at the expense of American influence. While sowing chaos does not require Putin to back players who share his agenda when given the choice, the Kremlin has backed those who seek to divide the West. Both French President Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who have been the targets of hacks, support a stronger and more united Europe and NATO alliance that would check Russia’s aggression. Their opponents, like President Trump, have risen to prominence through waves of populism which seek to weaken the EU and NATO in favor of far-right nationalistic policies.
President Trump’s bizarre infatuation with the Kremlin and hesitance to accept the facts behind the Russian attack ensure that he will not be the one to lead the West against this threat. Oddly enough however, some of his actions may provide a blueprint for a counterattack.
Since taking office Trump has adopted a hands-off policy with regard to the military, empowering the Pentagon to make all but the highest decisions for themselves, such as determining the troop levels in Afghanistan. While Trump is unlikely to retaliate against Putin, professionals like Secretary of Defense James Mattis and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster can work behind the scenes to arrange a show of force. Increasing the number of troops deployed to Eastern Europe as part of Operation Atlantic Resolve or empowering American pilots to “buzz” Russian jets would be a justified albeit limited response.
What is often viewed as the dark side of bureaucracies—that they are slow moving and can halt change if even a small percentage of bureaucrats resist—may now save the republic. The Department of Defense, Intelligence Community, and even the State Department employees, many of whom got their start during the Cold War, are unlikely to make a 180 degree turn on Russia simply because President Trump is playing footsy with Putin. High-level decisions favorable to the Kremlin will never be carried out further down the chain of command without hesitancy. Meanwhile, middlemen have considerable leeway to enact actions that their superiors may have little ability to manage and, as evidenced by the NSA hacking of European leaders cell phones, have no direct knowledge of.
Rather than roll out the “mission accomplished” banner after the election of Donald Trump, the Russian government has only increased its attempts to undermine democracy and American influence in the world. Partisanship and apathy limit the United States in how it can respond. It now falls on patriotic civil servants pulling the levers of government behind the scenes to defend the United States in its hour of need.