2018 Country Brief: Russia
Despite what the President thinks, Russia is our enemy, not our friend. Russia’s goal is to undermine America and its allies, sow discord and dissention, weaken alliances, and alienate us from our closest partners.
Russia has done this by:
- Undermining democracies and Western institutions by interfering in elections (including the 2016 US election), spreading disinformation, and supporting separatist movements;
- Threatening the United States’ allies by amassing troops and conducting large-scale exercises near their borders and, in some cases, directly invading their territories;
- Violating long-standing arms control treaties with the United States; and
- Contributing to instability in the Middle East; for example, Russia provided support to the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, where a 7-year civil war has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and allowed terrorism to thrive.
The United States imposed a series of sanctions on Russia over the years related to its malicious activities but further sanctions may be needed with oversight from Congress to deter Russia’s bad behavior. President Trump cannot be trusted on Russia. During his recent summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Trump demonstrated he is advancing Russia's interests at every turn at the expense of America's security. The US Congress must step in and find a way to counter Russian hostility toward the West despite our President’s refusal to challenge Putin at every turn.
Ultimately, the world is safer when Russia and the United States cooperate. When the other immediate issues are addressed, hopefully the two nations can once again work together on areas of mutual interest.
Undermining Western Democracies
Under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, Russia has had an increasingly adversarial relationship with Western nations, particularly after the Iraq War. In recent years, this has included interfering with other nations’ domestic politics.1Putin’s aim is to foment public distrust in governing systems, undermine candidates perceived as hostile to Russian interests, and disrupt post-Cold War alliances to expand Russia’s power and influence.2A US congressional report by Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee documents Russia’s vigorous efforts to attack democracies it perceives as a threat, including the United States and many of our most important allies.3
The US Intelligence Community has concluded with high confidence that Russia’s campaign to influence the 2016 US presidential election was directly ordered by President Putin. Russia took a series of actions aimed at boosting the candidacy of Donald Trump, who was seen as more likely to serve Russia’s interests. This strategy involved exploiting social and traditional media platforms to promote propaganda and spread disinformation. To date, 26 Russian nationals and 3 companies associated with Russia have been indicted in the United States for illegally using social media or hacking into computer networks to interfere in the 2016 US election.4Their tactics included stealing data, using fraudulent accounts, staging political rallies, and promoting pro-Trump or anti-Clinton messages through political advertisements.5 Facebook has said that 126 million people may have been exposed to content posted by Russian-linked operatives about the 2016 US election. Nearly 11.4 million people may have been exposed to Facebook ads paid for by fake accounts associated with Russian-linked operatives.6A July 2018 indictment by Special Counsel Robert Mueller of 12 Russian intelligence officers also details how Russian agents stole and released campaign documents to interfere in the election. This included hacking the computer networks of the Clinton campaign, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic National Committee.7 Additionally, Russian intelligence services are believed to have hacked into multiple state and local electoral boards.8 Special Counsel Robert Mueller and several congressional committees continue to investigate this election interference.
US national security officials, intelligence experts, and others have documented a history of Russian attacks against US institutions, interests, and values even before the 2016 US presidential election. This has resulted in the theft of billions of dollars and data from US businesses and individuals by actors enabled by the Russian government.9 Now, Russia has escalated its use of cyber and information warfare to interfere in US elections. Russia’s use of cyber and information warfare to interfere in domestic politics is a significant national security threat to the United States. Russia doesn’t want to risk a direct confrontation with the West. Therefore, it uses cyber and information warfare to attack the United States, undermine its institutions, and sow division.
The United States is not the only nation Russia has targeted by interfering in its domestic politics. Russia’s interference in the 2016 US election follows a pattern of Russia-led influence campaigns and aggression toward America’s allies. This political interference has included meddling in France’s 2017 presidential election, independence debates in Catalonia and Scotland, and the 2016 Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom. In each case, Russian-connected actors have spread disinformation, amplified separatist voices, and sowed doubts in voters’ minds about their democratic systems.10
We may never know the full extent of Russia’s attempts to erode public confidence in US institutions in 2016, but it is clear Russia is not done. Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats warned Congress in February 2018 that “there should be no doubt that Russia perceives its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 US midterm elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations.”11 The ultimate result of Russia’s efforts could be a distracted, divided Western alliance that can’t effectively stand up to Russian aggression. President Trump advanced Russia’s agenda by launching a barrage of attacks against America’s closest NATO allies at the alliance’s recent summit, an attack the Republican Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Corker called a “punch [of] our friends in the nose.”12
Despite the threat of Russia, President Trump has refused to acknowledge that Russia had interfered in the election on his behalf.13 Instead, he recently held a summit with President Putin where he refused to condemn Russia’s attacks on America’s and our allies’ democracies along with the country’s other malicious behavior,14 including shooting down a civilian airliner over Ukraine15and assassinating Russian opponents around the world.16 The refusal of a sitting president to clearly accept the conclusion of the Intelligence Community undermines its credibility and authority and is a violation of American values. Moreover, because Trump’s whitewashing of Putin’s behavior contradicts bipartisan attitudes toward Russia in Congress, Trump has given the world the impression that the US government is divided and incoherent on this issue. President Trump’s own Secretary of Homeland Security Kristjen Nielsen recently added to this incoherent messaging by publicly doubting the Intelligence Community’s assessment that Russia’s election meddling was aimed at bolstering the campaign of Donald Trump.17
Tough and smart policymakers must take the threat of Russian information warfare seriously by investing in cybersecurity, strengthening agencies tasked with ensuring the security of elections, and working more closely with the private sector to identify vulnerabilities that the Russians can exploit. Policymakers must educate the public about Russian disinformation efforts and condemn President Trump’s attempts to ignore or downplay them. Congress must also continue to provide resources and push for strengthened assistance, coordination, and information sharing between the Department of Homeland Security and state and local election officials to protect against hacking of election systems.
Further, it is critical that we place strong sanctions on Russia and pursue criminal indictments against individuals complicit in this malicious activity. This would deter the Kremlin moving forward and make it clear to these actors that they cannot operate with impunity. Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation must be protected by Congress and continue to be allowed to move forward without further interruptions or accusations of bias. While the Trump Administration has imposed some sanctions on Russian officials, further action is also necessary to send a strong message to Russia that its behavior will not be tolerated.18 The United States has imposed several rounds of sanctions on Russia for its harmful behavior, including its interference in the 2016 US election supported by bipartisan legislation in Congress. The United States has also sanctioned Russia for its continued perpetration of human rights abuses, particularly against Russian opposition leaders and journalists, and for corruption.19 These sanctions were, in part, championed by Bill Browder, a London-based financier whose lawyer in Russia, Sergei Magnitsky, uncovered millions of dollars in Russian corruption and subsequently died in Russian custody.20 Moving forward, Congress should evaluate approaches to force the Trump Administration to ratchet-up these sanctions if Russia or any other hostile actor is found interfering in US elections. These sanctions and indictments must demonstrate to Russia that it will face costs for its destabilizing behavior.
If the United States does not take further action, it is very likely that Russia repeats its strategy to influence future US elections as national security officials have warned—including members of President Trump’s own administration such as National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, and former CIA Director Mike Pompeo. 21
Threatening the United States and its allies
Russia’s military has continued to threaten allies of the United States. Russia has seized territory from other countries, which unsettles the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). After years of focusing on other threats (such as terrorism), Russia’s military invasions of Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, as well as its threatening exercises in Eastern Europe, have forced NATO to refocus on its original mission of deterring Russia.22 But while Russian military forces threaten the alliance, the country aims to win conflicts and weaken adversaries through economic coercion and information warfare long before battle.
The cornerstone of NATO is its mutual defense commitment. This is vital to US national security interests because if the United States were to ever be attacked by Russia or another hostile actor, it would be a considered an attack on all NATO allies. Thus far, the only time NATO’s collective defense obligations have been triggered was to come to America’s defense after 9/11.23 Beginning under President Obama and spurred on by Russia’s aggressive behavior, NATO members’ defense spending has been rising.24 In 2014 in response to a push by President Obama, NATO countries agreed to try to commit at least 2% of their gross domestic product toward their military. This narrowly defined commitment is not money owed to the United States but is a pledge by NATO members to increase their own defense budgets.25 Since this commitment, NATO allies have spent an additional $87 billion on defense spending and collective contributions have risen four years in a row.26
Under President Obama, the United States strengthened NATO by increasing its commitment to its European allies to deter and protect against Russian aggression. In 2016, the United States committed $3.4 billion to a new European Reassurance Initiative. This involved moving US battalions between Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia, adding an entire Army Brigade toward Europe’s defense.27
Despite Donald Trump’s repeated criticisms of NATO, the United States commitment to this alliance has remained unchanged.28Under bipartisan congressional pressure, the Trump Administration has preserved the European Reassurance Initiative as well as the intensity of Obama-era sanctions on Russian officials. But President Trump’s continuing criticism of NATO and the United States’ European allies is a gift to Putin, who seeks to divide and undermine America’s allies.29
Already, Putin is succeeding in dividing the United States and its allies thanks to President Trump. President Trump has recently called for Russia to rejoin the Group of Seven (G7) industrialized nations after the country was removed in 2014 as punishment for its annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine. This call came as President Trump angered key US allies in the G7 when he leveled trade actions against Canada, labeling it a national security threat, and has now imposed tariffs on European allies.30 Canada and other G7 allies are not a threat to the US, but Russia is. This action may only serve to drive a deep wedge between the United States from its allies and give Putin exactly what he wants.
The United States must continue to rebuild its military presence in Europe to deter Russian aggression. The United States must also continue modernizing its nuclear deterrent, just as Russia is modernizing its own. Finally, given Russian influence over NATO members due to their reliance on Russian sources of energy, the United States must counter Russian influence by encouraging not attacking allies to import US and other non-Russian sources of energy.
But despite the challenges in the relationship, there are a few key areas where cooperation is necessary.
Nuclear Arms Control Requires Cooperation
As the two largest nuclear powers on the planet, the United States and Russia must work together to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons. Arms control negotiations and agreements between the United States and Russia have been an area of cooperation even during the Cold War. With around 7,000 warheads, Russia can annihilate the United States if it were to launch an attack.31 Washington must find ways to work with Moscow to reduce the number and threat of nuclear weapons, secure stockpiles of nuclear materials, oppose proliferating states, and prevent the risk of nuclear terrorism.
The United States and Russia have pursued nuclear arms control through bilateral agreements for years, including the New START Treaty, which President Obama signed in 2010.32This treaty expires in 2021 unless it is extended.33 Russia has also provided support for diplomatic agreements aimed at reducing the development of nuclear weapons in countries of concern. For example, although President Trump announced in May 2018 that the United States will withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, Russia says it will continue to honor the agreement.34 In the run-up to that deal, Russia removed 25,000 pounds of enriched uranium from Iran, effectively reducing its stockpile to 300 kilograms—as required under the deal.35
The United States and Russia are modernizing their aging nuclear arsenals. They signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 1987, which banned an entire group of nuclear missiles that both countries perceived as threats. But in recent years, Russia has violated this treaty.36 While the United States should remain in the treaty, it must push Russia to respect the terms of the agreement.37
Stabilizing Syria Requires Cooperation
Another area that requires US-Russia cooperation is creating a pathway to stabilize Syria, where hundreds of thousands of civilians have died in the conflict.38 The United States and Russia are on opposite sides of the civil war in Syria, with the United States opposing long-time Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Russia supporting him. Russia played a key role in enabling and covering up the Assad regime’s attacks on its own people, including through the use of chemical weapons.39The conflict has also created a vacuum, which has allowed the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other terrorist groups to thrive. Foreign fighters who flocked to join ISIS in Syria and Iraq are now returning home and could present security risks to the United States and our allies.
In September 2015, Russia’s military intervened in Syria to ensure the survival of Assad’s regime, which was on the verge of collapse. While Russia has targeted ISIL and other terrorist groups in its operations, it has also bombed US-backed rebel groups40and humanitarian aid convoys supplying rebel-held areas and civilian areas. This has resulted in the deaths of thousands of Syrians.41
Although the United States and Russia arranged ceasefires in February and September of 2016, Russia violated those and other ceasefires.42 It is critical that the US and Russian militaries keep open lines of communication so that their air forces don’t inadvertently collide.43
Ultimately, a diplomatic process that can stabilize Syria and lead to a sustainable political settlement that charts out the course for the future of the country will require cooperation between the United States and Russia. Further, the two countries must also continue to cooperate on counterterrorism efforts.
The relationship between Russia and the United States is at its lowest point since the end of the Cold War. Russia must pay a steep price for its attack on the pillars of American democracy. Without a significant response, there is little to indicate that Russia will refrain from trying to influence US elections moving forward. Yet despite Russia’s bad behavior, Moscow and Washington’s shared security interests regarding nuclear nonproliferation, Syria, and counterterrorism mean bilateral cooperation must continue when possible. President Trump’s contradictory approaches to Russia will require Congress to use its independent voice to ensure that the United States does not diminish its commitment to its European allies in exchange for vague promises of better relations with Russia. Instead, the United States must hold the line on Russia’s bad behavior while leaving an extended hand for improved ties around areas of mutual concern like nuclear weapons and terrorism.
Priyanka Boghani, “How Russia Looks to Gain Through Political Interference,” PBS Frontline, Dec. 23, 2016. Accessed July 12, 2018. Available at: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/how-russia-looks-to-gain-through-political-interference/.
United States, House of Representatives, Committee on Foreign Affairs, “Undermining Democratic Institutions and Splintering NATO: Russian Disinformation Aims,” March 9, 2017. Accessed June 11, 2018. Available at: https://docs.house.gov/meetings/FA/FA00/20170309/105674/HHRG-115-FA00-Transcript-20170309.pdf.
United States, Congress, Senate, “Putin’s Asymmetric Assault on Democracy in Russia and Europe: Implications for US National Security,” Minority Staff Report Prepared for the Use of the Committee on Foreign Relations, Jan. 10, 2018. Accessed June 11, 2018. Available at: https://www.foreign.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/FinalRR.pdf.
Andrew Prokop, "All of Robert Mueller's indictments and plea deals in the Russia investigation so far." Vox, July 13, 2018. Accessed July 16, 2018. Available at: https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/2/20/17031772/mueller-indictments-grand-jury?stream=top.
“Read the Special Counsel’s Indictment Against the Internet Research Agency and Others,” The New York Times, Feb. 16, 2018. Accessed July 12, 2018. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/02/16/us/politics/document-The-Special-Counsel-s-Indictment-of-the-Internet.html.
United States, Senate, Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism, Hearing on Extremist Content and Russia Disinformation Online: Working with Tech to Find Solutions, Oct. 31 2017, 115th Cong. 2nd sess. (statement of Colin Stretch, General Counsel, Facebook). Accessed June 11, 2018. Available at: https://www.judiciary.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/10-31-17%20Stretch%20Testimony.pdf.
United States v. Viktor Borisovich Netyksho et al., No. 1:18-cr-00215-ABJ, United States District Court for the District of Columbia, July 13, 2018. Accessed July 17, 2018. Available at: https://www.justice.gov/file/1080281/download.
Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “Background to ‘Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections’: The Analytic Process and Cyber Incident Attribution,” The New York Times, Jan. 6, 2017. Accessed July 12, 2018. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/01/06/us/politics/document-russia-hacking-report-intelligence-agencies.html.
Mieke Eoyang, Evelyn Farkas, Ben Freeman, and Gary Ashcroft, “The Last Straw: Responding to Russia’s Western Aggression,” Report, Third Way, April 2017. Accessed June 11, 2018. Available at: https://www.thirdway.org/report/the-last-straw-responding-to-russias-anti-western-aggression.
United States, Congress, Senate, “Putin’s Asymmetric Assault on Democracy in Russia and Europe: Implications for US National Security,” Minority Staff Report Prepared for the Use of the Committee on Foreign Relations,, Jan. 10, 2018. Accessed June 11, 2018. Available at: https://www.foreign.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/FinalRR.pdf.
Matthew Rosenberg, Charles Savage, and Michael Wines, “Russia Sees Midterm Elections as Chance to Sow Fresh Discord, Intelligence Chiefs Warn,” The New York Times, Feb. 2, 2018. Accessed July 12, 2018. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/13/us/politics/russia-sees-midterm-elections-as-chance-to-sow-fresh-discord-intelligence-chiefs-warn.html.
Zachery Cohen, Michelle Kosinski, Barbara Starr, “Trump’s barrage of attacks ‘beyond belief,’ reeling NATO diplomats say,” CNN, July 12, 2018. Accessed July 17, 2018. Available at: https://www.cnn.com/2018/07/11/politics/trump-nato-diplomats-reaction/index.html.
Emily Stewart, “Trump says he’s never doubted Russian meddling. Here are the multiple times he has,” Vox, Feb. 18, 2018. Accessed July 12, 2018. Available at: https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/2/18/17025350/trump-doubts-putin-russia-meddling-multiple-times.
Donald J. Trump and Vladimir V. Putin, Joint Press Conference, Transcript, Time, July 16, 2018. Accessed July 17, 2018. Available at: http://time.com/5339848/donald-trump-vladimir-putin-summit-transcript/.
“Russia must ‘account for role’ in shooting down MH17, says G7,” The Guardian, July 15, 2018. Accessed July 17, 2018. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jul/16/russia-must-account-for-role-in-shooting-down-mh17-says-g7.
Elias Groll, “A brief history of attempted Russian assassinations by poison,” Foreign Policy, March 9, 2018. Accessed July 17, 2018. Available at: https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/03/09/a-brief-history-of-attempted-russian-assassinations-by-poison/.
Jeremy Herb and Manu Raju, “DHS secretary pushes back on assessment that Russia meddled to help Trump,” CNN, May 22, 2018. Accessed July 12, 2018. Available at: https://www.cnn.com/2018/05/22/politics/kirstjen-nielsen-election-russia-meddling/index.html.
Gardiner Harris, “Trump Administration Imposes New Sanctions on Putin Cronies,” The New York Times, Apr. 6, 2018. Accessed July 12, 2018. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/06/us/politics/trump-sanctions-russia-putin-oligarchs.html.
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