For many Americans, President Obama’s announcement of sanctions against Russia last week brought home a shocking realization that Russia is using hybrid warfare in an aggressive attempt to disrupt and undermine our democracy.
But for many Europeans, this is old news. As Obama was educating the American people about the threat, three senior senators were getting a lesson from leaders of three NATO countries that have been barraged with Russian meddling. Having fought alone for years, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are begging the United States to join the battle.
The critical foreign policy question facing the Trump administration and Congress in 2017 is whether the United States will partner with these and other Western democracies against what has emerged as a global campaign of low-intensity aggression by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Acknowledging the true scale and the scope of the problem is the first step.
“If there’s any silver lining on this attack on our democracy, it will be that’s it finally clear what Russia has been doing across the world stage,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) told me in an interview from Tallinn, the Estonian capital, where she had traveled with Republican Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.).
“What I’ve realized is this isn’t just about one political party, it isn’t about one election, and it isn’t even about one country,” she said. “We need to stand strong and respond and work together.”
In the Baltic states, cyberhacking is only one of many tactics that Russia uses for malign influence. Moscow has corrupted the media space by blasting Russian-language propaganda at the region’s millions of Russian-speaking citizens. Years before the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, in 2007, a massive Russian cyberassault on Estonia simultaneously targeted the presidency, Parliament, most government ministries, banks and media organizations. The tiny Baltic state reacted by becoming an international leader in cyberdefense.
Across Europe, Russia has supported far-right politicians and political parties, including in Germany and France, which have major elections coming soon. Pro-Russian leaders with either explicit or indirect Russian government support have taken over the governments of Armenia, Georgia, Hungary and Moldova.
Obama mentioned the broader challenge that the free world faces vis-à-vis Russia in his statement announcing his response to Russia’s cyberhacking. “In addition to holding Russia accountable for what it has done, the United States and friends and allies around the world must work together to oppose Russia’s efforts to undermine established international norms of behavior, and interfere with democratic governance,” he said.
But Obama’s response, to sanction Russian intelligence officials in Moscow and expel them from the United States, hardly begins to address that larger issue. Russian intelligence leaders don’t have many U.S. assets to freeze. Moscow’s need to replace 35 intelligence officers will amount to a speed bump in its collection and espionage efforts.
Congressional leaders are promising to follow up Obama’s actions with further sanctions, including measures that go beyond punishing specific actors for the recent hacking and political interference.
“Russia is trying to break the backs of democracies all over the world,” Graham told reporters in Latvia, where he promised that more sanctions would get bipartisan support. “You can expect some economic pain. It will be true in America. But freedom is worth suffering pain. It is now time for Russia to understand, enough is enough.”
The Obama administration appears intent on educating Americans about the Russian threat before it leaves office. It released a blizzard of statements by multiple agencies on the election interference Thursday and has promised a more detailed report on Moscow’s hacking activities. What’s not clear is whether the American most in need of education on the issue, President-elect Donald Trump, is ready to listen. Even some Republicans worry that he intends to reach an understanding with Russia that would grant Putin greater freedom of action in Europe, allow Russia’s military invasion and annexation of Crimea to stand, and endorse Russia’s role as major power in the Middle East.
Adding to concern in Washington, Trump and his top advisers have been meeting with representatives of the pro-Russia far-right parties in Europe while snubbing the governments of major European countries.
Trump’s potential strategy amounts to appeasement of an aggressive dictator and abandonment of U.S. leadership on issues such as human rights, democracy promotion, the rule of law and media freedom. For a self-described dealmaker, it sounds like a terrible bargain.