With 20 days left in his second term, Barack Obama has finally decided to get tougher on Russia. On Thursday, the president expelled 35 Russian intelligence operatives from the country; imposed sanctions on two Russian intelligence agencies — the GRU and FSB — and four officials; and insinuated that he plans to take other, non-public actions against Russia in retaliation for its hack of the Democratic National Committee, its attempted hack of several states’ voter databases, and other “malicious cyber activity related to our election cycle in previous elections,” in the words of the White House.
These actions are welcome. They are also several years too late.
Barack Obama’s presidency has been a cycle of Russian aggression followed by American fecklessness.
In 2010, a Russian spy ring operating in Washington, D.C., was exposed. Rather than hold the spies for interrogation, President Obama rapidly bundled them back to Russia, where Vladimir Putin did not even bother feigning embarrassment, instead praising the spies for “risking themselves and those close to them” “to benefit their motherland’s interests.” Two years later, President Obama scoffed at Mitt Romney’s assertion that Russia was the United States’ central geopolitical foe, and Russia thanked him by annexing Crimea and invading Ukraine in 2014. The United States imposed sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes against prominent Russians, but the administration refused to provide military aid to Ukrainian forces beleaguered by more than 10,000 Russian troops. When Russian-backed separatists shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Donetsk Oblast, killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew members on board, the Obama administration did precisely nothing.
Since then, Russia has adventured far beyond its own neighborhood. Moscow is facilitating Iran’s nuclear aspirations and shoring up Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime in Syria, and the Obama administration’s response has been to wag a limp finger.
After all of this, it can hardly come as a surprise that Putin was bold enough to permit cyber-machinations against the United States directly. In fact, it should not be a surprise to anyone in the White House, since the Democratic National Committee saw evidence that it had been hacked in the fall of 2015, and within a few months the president’s top aides were discussing the issue with Russian officials. But the Obama administration decided to “kick the can down the road,” a high-level government official told NBC News, because they were confident that Hillary Clinton would win the election. If President Obama and the Democrats are suddenly Cold Warriors, it’s only because she didn’t.
A president should be expected to put American security before partisan gain. Unfortunately, President-elect Donald Trump’s attitude toward Russia has ranged from apologia to admiration, and about Russia’s attempts to influence the election he has been dismissive. A reality check is in order. Vladimir Putin’s ultimate aims are the consolidation of his own power and the expansion of Russian influence, and at home and abroad he has been ruthless in pursuit of those ends, up to and including murdering his political opponents.
A forceful response is long overdue. Economic sanctions are a useful tool, which President-elect Trump ideally would expand, but hardly a sufficient one. It is crucial that the United States find ways to roll back Putin’s influence abroad. That will mean thinking creatively about how to empower allies — such as those in Ukraine and the Baltics — and to deal expeditiously with enemies gravitating toward a renewed Russian sphere of influence. Trump also should not delay reaffirming his commitment to NATO.
At home, the federal government must begin taking cybersecurity seriously. It’s not only Russia. Under the Obama administration, confidential information of about 21.5 million government employees dating back to the Reagan administration was stolen from the Office of Personnel Management — a breach described by some as “Cyber Pearl Harbor,” and the worst cybersecurity breach in American history by an order of magnitude. An audit found that OPM had failed to implement even the most basic protections. John Podesta’s Gmail illiteracy may have provided Russian hackers part of their Democratic e-mail trove, but the federal government is vulnerable to even modestly sophisticated cyberattacks.
Likewise, cybersecurity efforts should be paired with rebuilding the human-intelligence capabilities that the Obama administration has systematically dismantled over the last eight years. Drones have their limits.
Barack Obama began his presidency hoping to “reset” Russian relations from a Bush-administration approach that he found primitive. Eight years later, his indefatigable naïveté has finally given way, and he has repaired to his Republican predecessors’ tough-minded position.
Better very late than never.