The Last Straw: Responding to Russia’s Anti-Western Aggression

Russia Last Straw Web Feature V2

In 2016, elements of the Russian intelligence services, acting on orders from Vladimir Putin, engaged in a new kind of attack on America. It wasn’t a military strike to cause death or physical destruction, but it was an attack nonetheless, designed to weaken America and Americans’ confidence in our system of government and achieve an outcome more favorable to Russian interests.

This attack consisted of Russians forging financial ties to associates of Donald Trump, hacking into the computers of U.S. candidates, spreading disinformation, and coordinating artificial social media “trends” to amplify negative information about former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a candidate they believed would counter their interests.1 Less visible attacks targeted Senator Marco Rubio, who, like Clinton, was perceived as hawkish on Russia.2 In January, after the election was over, the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) publicly concluded that Russia had engaged in such actions to weaken American confidence in democracy and Hillary Clinton and to promote the candidacy of now-President Donald Trump.3

In this paper, we argue that Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election is just one part of a wide-ranging effort by Moscow to undermine confidence in democracy and the rule of law throughout countries in the West. Russia has engaged in this effort because, in both economic and demographic terms, it is a declining power – the only way it can “enhance” its power is by weakening its perceived adversaries. Because Russia’s aim is to erode the health of Western nations, we argue it is time for America and its allies to employ a comprehensive, non-kinetic response to contain Russia.

It is clear that Moscow hopes to promote a competing worldview, rooted in the strongman, corruption-rife regime of Vladimir Putin, as an alternative to the liberal democratic order. To this end, Russia meddled in elections in Britain,4 the Netherlands,5 France,6 and Eastern Europe7 to support anti-establishment, populist parties with favorable views of the Kremlin. It has also engaged in a systematic campaign of economic corruption, including bribery, blackmail, and money-laundering, to co-opt European and American businesses, political parties, and individuals.8 Weakening nations from within has made it harder for them to stand up to Russian aggression.

Notably, the U.S. government has yet to respond sufficiently to Russia’s attack and its aggression elsewhere, and Moscow has yet to pay a price for its bad behavior. In this paper, we call for six specific actions that form a comprehensive approach to hold Russia accountable for interfering in American elections, deter it from undermining liberal democracies in the future, and prevent it from engaging in other destabilizing international acts.

Part I of this paper will highlight the negative consequences of Russian actions in the U.S. and Europe, paying special attention to the ways Russia harms individual Americans. Part II will set out policy recommendations to counter Russian attempts to destabilize democracies, democratic institutions, financial systems, and cyber networks. Part III will emphasize the urgency of responding to Russian aggression. If U.S. lawmakers follow our recommendations, they can ensure that Russia will pay for its wrongdoing and think twice about interfering again in American and European democracies.

I. The Case Against Russia

After 9/11, U.S. national security components focused on counterterrorism and let their Russia-oriented focus, resources, and expertise atrophy. This lack of attention has led to a flourishing of and increase in Russian actions that violate Western interests and values, including those of individual citizens. This section makes the case that Russia is a bad actor that harms the United States and the West by cataloguing Moscow’s involvement in cybercrime, support for separatist movements, seizure of the territory of sovereign nations, efforts to undermine support for liberal democracies, and promotion of human rights abuses. It will also emphasize how Russia has largely evaded substantial repercussions for such wrongdoing.

Russia at the Epicenter of Cyber Crime Aimed at the West

Russians are among the most successful purveyors of cybercrime against Americans.9 In fact, the most successful cyber-heist to date was conducted by a gang of predominantly Russian hackers who stole over 160 million credit card numbers and made off with hundreds of millions from consumers, banks, and stores.10 Although such crimes are primarily motivated by financial incentives, they have the secondary effect of undermining trust in key institutions like banks, local and state governments, and the healthcare system. This threat to American society is enabled by the Kremlin, which turns a blind eye to cybercrime and even collaborates with Russian cybercriminals to attack and spy on other countries.

A prime target for Russian cybercriminals is America’s banking system. Using a variety of hacking methods that trick users into divulging login information, Russian nationals have pilfered hundreds of million dollars. The notorious Russian cybercriminal Evgeniy Bogachev used his Gameover Zeus malware to steal over $100 million from bank accounts, many of them American. For example, he looted $7 million from a bank in North Florida, over $300,000 from a PNC account, and almost $200,000 from the account of a Pennsylvania-based assisted-living company.

In addition to attacks on the banking system, Russian hackers have also targeted small businesses and state and local governments using malware known as “ransomware,” which encrypts users’ data and forces them to pay a ransom to regain access. Companies whose files have been locked, from Florida to North Carolina, have spent tens of thousands of dollars trying to recreate those files. And since March 2016, at least four local governments in Ohio have been victimized by ransomware, with one of them paying $2,500 to decrypt court data.11 While not all such ransomware attacks can be traced to Russian nationals, in 2016 an executive for the computer security firm Kaspersky Labs revealed that around 75% of the ransomware his firm had examined was written by Russian or Russian-speaking hackers.12

Hospitals haven’t escaped the wrath of Russian hackers. In early 2016, 14 U.S. hospitals were victims of ransomware attacks. These attacks disrupted hospital operations and led to ambulances being turned away from emergency rooms, cancer sufferers being denied treatment, and a patient being administered the wrong dosage of a drug.13 Beyond these ransomware attacks, hospital payrolls have also been targeted. In a 2014 affidavit, FBI Special Agent Elliot Peterson attested that hundreds of thousands of dollars in direct deposits intended for hospital workers had been diverted to hacker-controlled accounts.14 And most brazenly, in recent days, the British National Health System was attacked by ransomware that forced its facilities to turn away patients when they were unable to access patient files.

These attacks on banks, governments, and hospitals undermine trust and confidence in key U.S. and Western institutions, and the Russian government is an accomplice to such crimes. We know this because, among other reasons, the aforementioned bank hacker Bogachev, despite being subject to a $3 million FBI bounty, lives not as a fugitive, but openly and expensively in a resort town on Russia’s Black Sea coast.15 In fact, far from trying to bring him to justice, Russian authorities appear to be working with him – The New York Times reports that his malware may have been used by Russian intelligence to gather information about the U.S. Department of Defense and conflicts in Ukraine and Syria.16 Bogachev’s collaboration with the Kremlin is not an anomaly – numerous reports have revealed that Russian hackers moonlight on behalf of Moscow’s intelligence services, often in exchange for government “protection” from prosecution. In effect, the Russian government is an active aider and abettor of cybercriminals’ assaults on America, and though the Department of Justice has prosecuted some Russian cybercriminals, the vast majority of them continue to victimize Americans with impunity.

Russia Supports Separatist Movements in the U.S. & Elsewhere

Russia is seeking to weaken the U.S. from within. To do so, it actively supports groups that seek to break up the United States. The leader of Yes California, a far-left group that advocates for California’s secession from the United States, lives in Moscow, where he works with groups like the Kremlin-backed Anti-Globalist Movement.17 That same Anti-Globalist Movement organized a conference in September 2016, funded by the Kremlin, that featured leaders from other secessionist movements. This included the head of a Texas secessionist group, the self-proclaimed “King of Hawaii,” and a representative from a Puerto Rican independence organization.18

Though Russian-backed separatist groups in the U.S. may seem laughable, they are more serious in Europe. Russian-controlled media organizations published disinformation in favor of Scottish independence.19 Similarly, the Russian propaganda outlet RT has championed Catalan independence from Spain.20 More recently, leaders of Putin’s political party, United Russia, signed a cooperation agreement with Italy’s Northern League, a party that in the past has advocated for the partition of Italy.21 Though Russia’s efforts to support separatists could seriously destabilize Europe, no serious consequences have been imposed for its engagement in such actions.

Russia Seizes Territory

On its periphery, Russia goes even further by seizing territory. Russia shows its disrespect for international law by violating one of its core tenets – the inviolability of national sovereignty. In 2008, Russian troops invaded Georgia where they continue to occupy the Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which Moscow may want to annex.22 Russia shocked the world in 2014 when it invaded Ukraine, annexed the province of Crimea, and deployed troops in the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, where they are still fighting government forces.23 Russian troops also continue to occupy the breakaway Moldovan territory of Transnistria,24 and Russia has implemented a military buildup along its borders with the Baltic nations, Poland, and Belarus.25 While sanctions have been imposed on Russia for some of these actions, like the invasion of Ukraine, such sanctions have proven inadequate to deter Russia from continuing to engage in provocative military actions towards its neighbors.

Russia Undermines Democracies

America isn’t the only target of Russia’s efforts to weaken countries from within. Russia seeks to undermine the democracies and stability of our European allies. Russian hackers penetrated the Bundestag, the lower house of Germany’s parliament, in 2015, and Bruno Kahl, the head of German intelligence, recently said that Germany “is now the focus of [Russian] interference.”26 The far-right French politician, Marine Le Pen, who is fiercely anti-EU, received an 11.7 million euro loan from a Russian lender in 2014, and Kremlin-backed media and Twitter accounts constantly pushed propaganda praising her.27 Even worse, U.S. intelligence agencies uncovered a massive hack of the campaign of pro-EU candidate Emmanuel Macron in the days leading up to the general election – an action meant to hurt the prospects of Macron and help Le Pen.28 Last year, the surprise vote for Brexit was assisted by a concerted effort of paid Russian Twitter trolls in favor of the “Leave” option.29 Perhaps most disconcerting, Russian intelligence officials have been linked to a 2016 attempt to assassinate the prime minister of Montenegro, as steps were being taken to finalize that country’s NATO membership.30 Again, despite Russia’s involvement in these nefarious activities, no penalties have been imposed on it for such bad behavior.

Russian Human Rights Abuses are Rampant

Russian President Vladimir Putin has revealed himself as a ruthless autocrat unafraid of employing gratuitous violence to silence those who disagree with him. In 2006, according to an inquiry commissioned by the British Home Office, Putin-linked figures killed Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian intelligence officer based in London, by poisoning his tea with a radioactive isotope.31 Also in 2006, investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya was gunned down in Moscow on Putin’s birthday after publishing articles critical of Putin.32 Several other Putin associates have died under suspicious circumstances, including former Putin aide and media oligarch Mikhail Lesin, who was found dead in a Dupont Circle hotel in 2015.33

Beyond assassinations, Putin’s government has perpetrated war crimes. In Syria, Russian planes have engaged in indiscriminate bombing attacks on hospitals, a UN convoy, and civilian populations;34 in Ukraine, Russian troops assisting separatists have also targeted civilians.35 During the Second Chechen War, Russian troops destroyed an entire Chechen village and bombed an aid convoy carrying refugees.36

Russia also limits freedom of the press. Government officials often harass journalists through suits in corrupt courts, pressure media investors to limit editorial independence, and prosecute journalists under overly broad “extremism” and defamation laws.37Journalists are regularly assaulted by assailants with suspected links to government officials.38 Even worse, numerous journalists have been murdered in Russia, with few of their killers having been brought to justice.39

Russia is hostile to religious freedom. Under its restrictive Yarovaya Laws, the government prohibits believers from “evangelizing” outside of their houses of worship.40 This means that people are prohibited from holding prayer meetings in their own homes, engaging in missionary work, and even sending email invites to worship services.41 After the Yarovaya Laws were enacted last summer, a Ukrainian Orthodox street preacher was arrested, a Baptist pastor was convicted for holding a prayer service in his home, and six Mormon missionaries were arrested and deported.42 More recently, on April 20, 2017, the Russian Supreme Court ruled that the pacifist Jehovah’s Witnesses church was an “extremist sect” on par with ISIS and banned it from operating in the country.43

Russia tortures its own citizens. The director of Amnesty International in Russia, Sergei Nikitin, says that torture is “widely used in the Russian penal system.”44 Beatings, rape, and electric shock are often used to extract forced confessions in Russia prisons.45 Such tactics aren’t limited to common criminals, however – even people arrested for holding “unlawful assemblies” can be exposed to these abuses.46 This torture can lead to intentional or unintentional deaths, as demonstrated by the case of Sergey Magnitsky, the Russian lawyer who exposed the corrupt, government-engineered seizure of the American-owned Hermitage Fund’s assets. Subjected to torture by his captors, he died in a Moscow jail cell in 2009.47

Putin’s Russia actively persecutes LGBT people. In June 2013, the government criminalized the distribution of gay rights literature.48 Worse, vigilantes regularly kidnap and assault gay men while avoiding prosecution.49 In Chechnya, a semi-autonomous Russian region, gay men have been entrapped and tortured, ostensibly under the direction of Chechen president (and Putin ally) Ramzan Kadyrov.50 Further, gay couples are prevented from adopting children, and foreign nationals visiting Russia suspected of being gay or “pro-gay” can be arrested by police at will.51 Putin himself has trafficked in the falsehood that being LGBT is linked to pedophilia.52

Just as with other types of Russian wrongdoing, Moscow has engaged in human rights abuses with little in the way of consequences. Although the United States has sanctioned Russia for some of its actions, like the killing of Sergey Magnistsky, such sanctions have been largely powerless to deter Russia from repeatedly compromising the rights of people within and without its borders.

II. Responding to Russian Aggression: Six Policy Recommendations

On January 6, 2017, the U.S. Intelligence Community released a report confirming that Russian operatives interfered in the U.S. election to promote the candidacy of Donald Trump.53 Although Americans may disagree as to whether this interference affected the election’s outcome, such disagreements are irrelevant. Regardless of the impact of Russia’s meddling, the fact remains that a hostile foreign power engaged in an unprecedented attack on the foundations of American democracy. And despite the brazenness of Russia’s attack, America’s response has been woefully weak and inadequate. This encourages, rather than deters, future Russian hostile acts. For example, Russia interfered in France’s recent election with little fear of consequences.

Russia’s meddling in our election and its potential ties to the Trump campaign should be investigated vigorously and independently. But policymakers shouldn’t wait for investigations to conclude before promoting measures that will counter Russian aggression and deter Moscow from future belligerency. We recommend six categories of policies that lawmakers can promote to stand up to the Kremlin’s hostility. Specifically, legislators should (1) work to enhance the effectiveness of Russia-focused sanctions, prosecutions, and cybersecurity; (2) promote transparency measures internationally; (3) champion transparency efforts domestically; (4) enact reforms to the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA); (5) advocate for public-private partnerships to counter Russian misinformation and hacking; and (6) partner with NATO and the EU to respond to Russia on a multilateral basis.

1. Sanctions, Prosecutions, and Cybersecurity

Russia engaged in a clandestine attack upon American democracy, and it continues to assault America and its allies. In order to hold Moscow accountable for its actions, and to deter similar attacks in the future, lawmakers should engage in bipartisan efforts to (1) subject Russian bad actors to targeted sanctions; (2) ensure the rigorous enforcement of existing sanctions; (3) give the FBI increased resources to prosecute Russian officials and cybercriminals; and (4) develop more effective means of addressing cyber threats.

Targeted Sanctions

The U.S. currently directs targeted sanctions against several Russian nationals, companies, and government agencies in retaliation for Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, interference in the Donbass region of Eastern Ukraine, and meddling in the U.S. presidential election. These sanctions could be greatly strengthened to make Russia think twice before undertaking future aggressive actions against U.S. electoral processes, institutions, media, or other elements of democratic society. In particular, sanctions should be expanded to explicitly include a component allowing discretionary sanctions to be placed on those involved in corrupt activities. Additionally, all ongoing sanctions should be scrupulously maintained to target any new subsidiaries or affiliates of sanctioned individuals and curtail attempts at sanctions-avoidance. In particular, the list of individuals targeted for sanctions should be regularly updated so that those responsible for election meddling pay a personal price for their actions.

Most current sanctions on Russia are primary sanctions – they directly target the relevant Russian actors. But more pressure could be brought to bear via secondary sanctions, which would deny access to U.S. banks, financial institutions, and other economic forums to foreign institutions that do business with persons subject to primary sanctions. Non-Russian companies would thereby be discouraged from doing business with Moscow, drastically increasing the economic pressure on the Kremlin to mend its ways.

A legislative proposal to enhance targeted sanctions was recently put forward by Senator Ben Cardin. His “Countering Russian Hostilities Act of 2017” (CRHA)54 would require the President to block the assets of, and deny visas to, individuals who engage in cyberattacks against the U.S. and its allies on behalf of Russia. It would also impose various secondary sanctions on those who (1) do business with the Russian defense, intelligence, and energy sectors; (2) invest or transact with Russian state-owned enterprises; or (3) engage in transactions related to Russian sovereign debt. While this bill is an attractive option for strengthening Russian sanctions, lawmakers should assess and potentially modify its secondary sanctions on the Russian energy sector to avoid unnecessary friction with European allies. Cardin’s bill would be an important step in letting Russia know that the U.S. finds such activities unacceptable.

Strengthen Sanctions Enforcement

Sanctions only work if enforced. One way to ensure that Russian sanctions are rigorously enforced is to create a Russia-specific unit within the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network. This task force would work to enforce Russia-related sanctions and make it harder for sanctioned persons to launder money through U.S. real estate transactions. A proposal for such a unit is also contained in the CRHA.55 The task force should also be directed by Congress to work closely with allies in Europe and Asia to ensure that enforcement is even and allows for no sanctuaries.

More FBI and Justice Department Resources

Federal indictments and prosecutions are effective ways to hold Russia accountable. The Department of Justice has already indicted a number of people suspected of involvement in Russia-based cybercrime and election meddling. Although many of these people remain outside the reach of law enforcement (Russia has no extradition treaty with the U.S.), their indictments make it harder for them to travel and do business internationally. Such restrictions likely have a deterrent effect on other actors who would engage in similar behavior. Lawmakers should increase funding for the FBI and Department of Justice to expand the number of indictments and prosecutions they pursue. Individuals involved in election interference must face the real risk of identification and prosecution.

Enhanced Cyber Education, Investigation, and Attribution

Much of the Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election was made possible by lackluster responses to the hacking of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). Although a FBI agent notified the DNC in September 2015 that Russian hackers may have penetrated its network, he only spoke to a low-level IT employee who had no way of confirming that he was, in fact, speaking with a genuine FBI agent.56 This communication and other sub-par notifications like it meant that Russian hackers were evicted from the DNC network months after the initial notification. This delay allowed Russian intelligence to gather information that it would weaponize to target the campaign of Secretary Clinton.

The suboptimal response to the DNC leaks suggests several measures that lawmakers can promote to prevent similar problems in the future. First, it is painfully evident that the government could have done more to alert the DNC about Russia’s attack on its system. To ensure that in the future, information about such attacks is communicated more effectively, Congress should establish within the DHS an Office of Election Integrity (OEI). This office would collect information about cyber threats from members of the Intelligence Community and communicate such information to high-ranking officials within campaigns and party organizations.

The OEI could also be tasked with educating campaigns and political parties about how to resist cyberattacks. Russian hackers likely would have been shut out of the DNC’s system if not for someone’s poor cyber hygiene. Such a vulnerability could be mitigated if OEI were tasked with educating party and campaign staffers about how to avoid spear-phishing attacks and other efforts to introduce malware into computer systems.

Finally, the failures surrounding the hack of the DNC suggest that the government’s cyber investigation and attribution capabilities may be under-resourced. Congress should ensure that America exhibits top-notch responses to cyber aggression by increasing funding for the cyber elements of agencies such as the FBI and DHS. Such increased funding would ensure that those agencies would have the sufficient manpower they need to address the growing threat of Russian belligerency in cyberspace.

2. International Transparency

Russia is adept at using economic influence to undermine democracies. It often does this by making investments or engaging in transactions through opaque shell companies that are nominally residents of a European nation, but are in reality controlled by Russian nationals. In order to combat the corrupting influence of such entities, nations should reform their laws to make it easier to determine the “natural person” behind a shell company. In this manner, Russian efforts to subvert democracy by buying up influence can be exposed and prevented

In addition to such legal reforms, the U.S. can work with NATO and the EU to promote international transparency norms. Western democracies could forge a multilateral treaty requiring signatories to adhere to certain standards for determining beneficial ownership, regulating campaign finance, and staunching money laundering. By establishing such a wide-ranging transparency initiative, the U.S. and its allies could go a long way towards rooting out nefarious Russian influences.

The U.S. can also combat Russian corruption and influence abroad by increasing resources to the FBI and Justice Department to enforce the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). The FCPA allows the Justice Department to penalize firms and individuals that engage in bribery or other forms of corruption abroad. Appropriating more money to those elements of the FBI and Justice Department responsible for enforcing the FCPA would further limit Russia’s ability to undermine the strength of liberal democracies.

3. Domestic Transparency

To make it harder for Russians to launder money in the U.S., the Treasury Department should designate Russia as a jurisdiction of primary money laundering concern.57 Doing so would not only subject Russian financial institutions to additional disclosures and reporting requirements, it would also empower the Treasury Secretary to prohibit or severely restrict Russian banks’ ability to open accounts in U.S. financial institutions. Such account restrictions would dramatically limit Russian banks’ ability to do business in the global marketplace.

Lax state laws for registering shell companies may also enable Russian money laundering. To combat this risk, federal lawmakers should establish an expert commission to examine reforming such laws to make it harder to anonymously register a company. Such a commission could also evaluate how the federal tax code can be used to offset losses in state revenue from any future reform of such laws.

Russian meddling in the U.S. economy can be mitigated by making Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) reviews of Russian investments and acquisitions mandatory. CFIUS evaluates proposed investments and acquisitions in the U.S. by foreign companies and makes recommendations to the president as to whether such transactions should be approved. Currently, such transactions are only subject to voluntary reporting requirements, though CFIUS can “subpoena” a company for a report if it has concerns.58 Given Russian efforts to undermine democracies abroad through economic influence campaigns, the U.S. would be wise to mandate that all proposed Russian investments be evaluated by CFIUS.

4. Foreign Agent Transparency

Trump surrogates working on behalf of foreign powers have either skirted transparency laws or, in some cases, appear to have flouted them entirely. For example, Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, worked from 2012-2014 on behalf of Ukraine’s Party of Regions—the party of former Ukrainian President, and Putin ally, Viktor Yanukovych—to improve Ukraine’s image in the U.S. As of this writing, Manafort has failed to register this work under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), which requires detailed disclosures of all political work done in the U.S. on behalf of foreign political entities. Manafort failed in this even though the Associated Press first reported his lobbying on behalf of Ukraine in August 2016.59

In other cases, Trump surrogates failed to report their work on behalf of foreign governments within the time period specified by U.S. law. For example, Michael Flynn was working on behalf of a Netherlands-based firm with close ties to Turkish President Erdogan while he was an adviser to the Trump campaign. According to his own FARA registration,60 which he filed in March, Flynn began working for the Netherlands firm in August. Thus, his March filing was nearly six months delinquent of FARA’s ten-day filing requirement for new registrants.

To combat situations like these and improve the effectiveness of FARA, Congress should take several actions to increase transparency and enforcement.

First, Congress should pass the “Foreign Agents Modernization and Enforcement Act,” introduced on March 14, 2017, by Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Todd Young (R-IN), to close a loophole that foreign governments have utilized to spread propaganda in the U.S. without registering their activities. FARA includes an exemption for “private and non-political activities,”61 which effectively exempts foreign media outlets in the U.S. This exemption includes the Russian government-funded news station RT, which purportedly paid Flynn $33,750 for a speech he made in Moscow in 2015.62 To investigate the foreign connections of foreign media outlets like RT, the bill would give the Justice Department the authority to compel organizations like RT America, RT's U.S.-based subsidiary, to produce documentation to confirm funding sources and foreign connections.63

Congress should also pass the “Close the Foreign Lobbying Loophole Act”64 to help eliminate confusion about who should register under FARA. Currently, foreign agents working on behalf of a foreign business can register their lobbying activities under the much less stringent reporting requirements of the Lobbying Disclosure Act. The trouble is that many foreign businesses aren’t private and are heavily influenced, or even operated, by foreign governments. In countries like Russia and China, for example, the divide between businesses and government is thin, at best. To remedy this, Senators Schumer (D-NY), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), and then-Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) introduced the “Close the Foreign Lobbying Loophole Act” in 2008.65 This would make two critical changes to the FARA. First, it would require lobbyists working on behalf of any foreign entity—be it governmental or non-governmental—to register under the FARA. It would also require those registered under FARA to report any activities conducted outside of the United States, whereas the current law only requires reporting activities in the U.S. This change would have forced Manafort to report his activities in Ukraine on behalf of Yanukovych and the Party of Regions and would eliminate any confusion he may have had about the need to register.

Second, Congress can help the Department of Justice punish those who don’t register or register late by increasing civil penalties for violations, granting civil investigative demand authority, and, more generally, increasing funding for FARA investigations and prosecutions.

The FARA Registration Unit claims, “The cornerstone of the Registration Unit's enforcement efforts is encouraging voluntary compliance.”66 Not surprisingly, actual enforcement actions are incredibly rare. In fact, a Department of Justice Office of Inspector General “Audit of the National Security Division’s Enforcement and Administration of the Foreign Agents Registration Act,” released in September 2016, found that between 1996 and 2015 there were just seven criminal FARA cases.67 Of these, just three were convicted of, or pled guilty to, violating FARA.

In addition to increasing the use of criminal prosecutions for FARA violations, FARA enforcement could benefit from utilizing civil remedies. While FARA allows the Department of Justice to seek civil injunctive relief for a violation, the Inspector General’s report discovered this hasn’t been used since 1991.68 Representative Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) has advocated for this approach by repeatedly introducing the “Ethics in Foreign Lobbying Act," which would require FARA violators “to pay a civil penalty in an amount not less than $2,000 or more than $5,000 for each violation committed.”69

While increasing the use of criminal and civil punishments is much needed, the biggest impediment to enforcement of FARA is a lack of funding for it. According to the Inspector General’s report, “because the FARA Unit has limited staff and considerable responsibilities, follow-up can be difficult,” even when an apparent violation of FARA is identified.70 “A major difficulty is a lack of authority to compel the production of information from persons who may be agents. As a result, NSD [the National Security Division at the Department of Justice] is currently pursuing civil investigative demand (CID) authority from Congress in order to enhance its ability to assess the need for potential agents to register.”71

The bottom-line is that Congress has the authority to dramatically increase funding for the National Security Division and the FARA Registration Unit, which could help to significantly reduce the incidence of foreign agents operating in the U.S. without reporting their work. This could dramatically increase foreign influence transparency and expose the Flynns and Manaforts of the world without just relying on “voluntary compliance.”

5. Public-Private Partnerships

The Russian intelligence services are adept at using the West’s openness against it. For example, during the 2016 presidential campaign election, the Kremlin employed an army of Twitter trolls and Internet proxies to disseminate false information about Hillary Clinton. More recently, experts observed that Russian bots and trolls engaged in propaganda efforts to support the French National Front candidate Marine Le Pen and harm pro-European Union candidate Emmanuel Macron.

In order to combat such destabilizing trends, policymakers should work with the private sector to combat the scourge of disinformation. They should encourage social media companies like Twitter and Facebook to vigorously enforce their terms of service and use algorithms to identify and shut down bots and not just rely on voluntary reporting by users. Twitter’s automation rules expressly prohibit much of the activity engaged in by Russian trolls and bots on the social media platform.72 By closing accounts that violate platforms’ rules, social media companies can staunch the spread of disinformation.

6. Strengthening Allies

On the international front, Congress must educate the American people about the battle being waged between the liberal democratic order championed by the West and the despotic, dictatorial alternative being pushed by Russia and its allies. When speaking of Russia, Congress must explain that Putinism – an ideology that promotes public corruption, excessive restrictions on privacy, infringements of public speech and assembly, and limited Internet access – must not be allowed to spread.

Along such lines, Congress must call for the Administration to speak and act in concert with democratic allies around the world – including those in North America, Europe, Japan, South Korea, and Israel. Congress should also push for action through institutions like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), NATO, and the EU. When partnering with these countries and institutions, anti-corruption and transparency measures must be a top priority; otherwise, Putin will be able to exploit corrupt businesses and institutions to undermine the liberal democratic order.

Specifically in the cyber domain, NATO must increase its intelligence-sharing and operational capabilities. The current every-state-for-itself cyber policy and operations are ineffective and inefficient. While the NATO Cyber Defense Center of Excellence in Estonia is a useful locus for exchange of information and best-practices, NATO should consider establishing a fusion center for information, intelligence, and operations for defensive – and if necessary, offensive – action in the cyber arena.

NATO and EU countries need to focus on strengthening political values, shoring up political institutions and processes, and bolstering resiliency to outside interference. They can do this by pooling their resources and efforts in the economic, political, and military spheres. NATO and the EU should also develop measures to hold allies to democratic standards, including inducements and potential punishments for defying democratic norms. 

NATO members must provide more robust security assistance to other countries, both inside and outside the alliance. The Russian military has audaciously meddled in countries bordering Russia, including Georgia, Moldova, Armenia, and Ukraine. In addition, Russian intelligence services have engaged in coup attempts and cyberattacks in countries like Montenegro and Estonia. In order to deter such actions, NATO members should commit additional troops, advisory forces, and military assistance to such threatened countries.

To further counter Russian expansionism, Congress must more actively support the NATO enlargement process. Expanding the sphere of countries under NATO’s security umbrella would alter Russia’s calculus when it contemplates future hostilities. No longer would an attack on a small Eastern European country be an easy way to bolster Russian nationalism and Putin’s popularity. Rather, it would be an attack on a massive military alliance that could respond with devastating force to Russian aggression.

III. Closing Arguments

The scope and scale of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections was unprecedented in the history of our democracy. It was not simply an expression of preference in our election cycle by a foreign power. Rather, Russia’s interference was a deliberate attempt to undermine faith in our elections, destroy confidence in our democratic system, and benefit a candidate that Moscow thought would further its interests. And make no mistake, Russia will do this again – it will seek to undermine candidates, regardless of party, who put America’s interests ahead of Russia’s.

Further, Russia meddles in the democracies of our allies, engages in serious human rights abuses, and sows chaos by undermining the liberal democratic order. Despite this, the United States and its allies have done little thus far to hold Russia accountable and deter future attacks. But an attack of this nature deserves a proportionate response. And given Russia’s interference throughout Europe, American leadership is necessary so that our allies know they don’t have to face this threat alone. Silence and disinterest just embolden Russia to try again.

Lawmakers should champion investigations into Russia’s election interference so we can understand the methods they use to identify sympathetic politicians, cultivate them, and undermine their opponents. But while investigations are ongoing, members must take significant steps to respond to Russia. After all, if a home is burgled, the owner doesn’t wait until they catch the thief before installing new security measures. And there are plenty of places where we can strengthen our election process and increase our vigilance against future Russian incursions. In doing so, legislators can ensure that our democracy is protected, popular sovereignty is preserved, and the havoc caused by Russia’s government is rendered a thing of the past.


This paper has highlighted many methods that can be employed to counter Russian aggression. The table below summarizes our recommendations for confronting Russia: 

Sanctions, Prosecutions, and Cybersecurity

Lawmakers should:

  • Implement more rigorous, targeted sanctions on Russia.
  • Create a Russia-focused unit within the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network to enhance enforcement of sanctions.
  • Appropriate more funds to enable the FBI and DOJ to investigate and prosecute those linked to Russian cybercrime and democracy meddling.
  • Establish an office within the Department of Homeland Security to liaise with political parties and campaigns about cyberattacks and cyber hygiene.

International Transparency

Lawmakers should:

  • Encourage the Executive Branch to work with NATO and the EU to establish a transparency and anti-corruption treaty or summit.
  • Advocate for other countries to reform their laws allowing for registration of shell companies.

Domestic Transparency

Lawmakers should:

  • Empower an expert commission to examine reforming beneficial ownership laws that enable shell companies that launder Russian money.
  • Require mandatory CFIUS review of Russian investment and acquisition.
  • Require the Treasury Department to designate Russia as a jurisdiction of primary money laundering concern.

Foreign Agent Registration

Lawmakers should:

  • Pass legislation closing loopholes in the U.S.’s Foreign Agent Registration Act.

Public-Private Partnerships

Lawmakers should:

  • Encourage social media companies like Twitter and Facebook to shut down accounts that spread disinformation and violate those platforms’ terms of service.

Multilateral Efforts

Lawmakers should:

  • Encourage the establishment of a NATO Information and Cybersecurity Response Fusion Cell.
  • Call on NATO to establish a set of measures to encourage adherence to democratic values and punish significant anti-democratic actions within member states.
  • Support the NATO enlargement process.
  • Propose legislation to provide political, economic, and security assistance to Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova, as well as NATO aspirant states in the Balkans.

About the Authors

Mieke Eoyang

Mieke Eoyang is the vice president for the National Security Program at Third Way and a former professional staff member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

Evelyn Farkas

Dr. Evelyn N. Farkas is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council and the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia/Ukraine/Eurasia. She served previously as Senior Advisor to the Supreme Allied Commander Europe/Commander, U.S. European Command, and as Special Advisor for the Secretary of Defense for the NATO Summit. She spent almost a decade in the legislative branch on the Senate Armed Services Committee staff and as Executive Director of the Graham-Talent WMD Commission. Prior to that she was a professor at the U.S. Marine Corps Command and Staff College.

Ben Freeman

Dr. Ben Freeman is the Deputy Director of the National Security Program at Third Way, where he is an expert analyst in defense budget issues and national security public opinion. Prior to joining Third Way, Dr. Freeman investigated waste, fraud, and abuse in the U.S. military at the Project On Government Oversight, and was an instructor in Texas A&M’s Political Science Department and Bush School of Government and Public Service. While earning his Ph.D. from Texas A&M, Dr. Freeman laid the groundwork for what would become his first book, The Foreign Policy Auction, an investigation of the foreign influence industry in America.

Gary Ashcroft

Gary Ashcroft is the National Security Fellow at Third Way, a graduate of the University of Georgia School of Law, and a former Google Policy Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

  • Foreign Relations146
  • National Security & Politics106


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