Rarely has a book been as timely and relevant as this one, a valuable summary of how Russia’s aggressive foreign policy is reshaping the world. This fall, news shows have continually led with evidence of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s overseas meddling, including a worldwide propaganda campaign, stealthy subversion of adversaries, and possibly even interference in U.S. elections.
Consider just a few examples. A humiliated Obama administration broke off talks with Russia over the Syrian crisis, after it became clear that our government was being played for a fool by Putin. Russia has subverted various negotiated cease-fires and has pursued a scorched-earth strategy to keep its ally, Bashar Assad, in power. As part of that strategy, Russia works closely with Iran and its proxies, including Hamas and Hezbollah.
Putin, who was a KGB secret-police officer before the collapse of the Soviet Union, has presided over the resurrection of the old KGB. A major reshuffle of Russia’s security agencies this fall has created a new super-agency called the Ministry of State Security. The agency, which revives the name of Stalin’s secret police between 1943 and 1953, will be as large and powerful as the old Soviet KGB, employing as many as 250,000 people.
Russian hackers appear to have broken into computer systems throughout the U.S. government and American political organizations, not to mention local election systems. This appears to be part of an effort to spread uncertainty and turmoil about the legitimacy of this November’s presidential election.
A brand-new report by Dutch authorities conclusively proves that the missile launcher that destroyed a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine in 2014 — killing 298 people — was brought across the border from Russia and that the missile was fired from a field controlled by pro-Russian fighters.
The Kremlin recently sponsored a conference on the right of “self-determination” in Western countries. It hosted Texas, Hawaii, and California secessionists in an effort to stir up tensions in the U.S. This “Dialogue of Nations” conference received a specific grant from Putin’s office.
Longtime observers of Russia and Putin say that recently Russia has, at every turn, held the upper hand in its dealings with the U.S. “Obama says whatever he wants to say, Putin does whatever he wants to do,” says Garry Kasparov, a former Russian chess grandmaster and current head of the Human Rights Foundation. “And if you look at the map — you look at the Middle East, you look at Europe — for any observer, Putin is winning. Obama keeps sending John Kerry to the Middle East and Putin keeps sending tanks and jet fighters. Obama retreated from some key parts of the geopolitical map. Putin immediately filled the vacuum.”
Anders Aslund, a senior analyst at the Atlantic Council, shares Kasparov’s view of the complacent Western response to Putin. “The e-mails of the Democratic National Committee were hacked and released, effectively ousting its chair just before the Democratic National Convention,” he writes. “This looks like a Russian special operation in the U.S. presidential election, and the most shocking element is that most Americans do not understand that or seem to care.” In addition, Donald Trump’s former campaign manager worked for Putin’s puppet in Ukraine until the pro-Western uprising there, and Trump, his family, and one of his foreign-policy advisers have done tens of millions of dollars’ worth of business in Russia.
Douglas E. Schoen and Evan Ross Smith contend that, when all the pieces of Russia’s actions are assembled, they represent nothing less than a global strategy to break up NATO, reestablish Russian influence in the world, and, most of all, marginalize the United States and the West. The strategy is multifaceted. It includes military action (as seen in Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria) and support to rogue regimes and terrorists, as well as espionage, propaganda, cyberwarfare, and the use of energy policy to blackmail European nations into supporting Russia.
Putin’s advisers have been quite open about their methods. The chief of the Russian general staff, Valery Gerasimov, has said that Russia is now pursuing a “a new kind of war” that relies heavily on cyberwar and influence operations. “A perfectly thriving state can, in a matter of months and even days, be transformed into an arena of fierce armed conflict,” Gerasimov pointed out in a now-famous 2013 article, through “political, economic, informational, humanitarian, and other non-military measures — applied in coordination with the protest potential of the population.”
Schoen and Smith report evidence of little-noticed Russian involvement. On North Korea, for instance, the authors write: “Since Putin became president in 2000, Russia and China have provided North Korea with $17 billion in aid and $10 billion in debt forgiveness. The total assistance of $27 billion is two and a half times the GDP ($11 billion) of the North Korean economy.”
And when it comes to the European Union, the Syrian conflict has, in addition to allowing Russia to cement a permanent military force in the Middle East, driven millions of refugees into Europe and thereby further attenuated the EU’s resistance to the Putin regime: “Europe’s struggle to deal with the social, political, and security ramifications of the mass Muslim migration has not only distracted the world from Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, but also strengthened Putin’s hand against an increasingly fractured European community — and further weakened the EU as an institutional force.”
Then there is Turkey, whose president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is increasingly looking to Russia for assistance and even inspiration in establishing an authoritarian state. Schoen and Smith point to the danger that Putin could help destabilize Turkey, a valuable NATO member, and lead to increasing division within NATO ranks.
The book concludes with some suggestions for a sober, realistic approach to contain Putin. “In the short term,” the authors write, “we can send a clear message by deploying additional bomber-borne nuclear weapons in NATO countries that agree to host them. Since the Russians have already violated the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, we should scrap it and deploy land-based nuclear missiles.” They also suggest adding to NATO troop deployments in Poland and the Baltic States.
By the end of the book, one is left with the clear impression that the Cold War is returning, simply under new Russian management. The levers of Western power that helped defeat the Soviet Union have grown rusty, and Putin is exploiting that fact. For now, his moves look like those of a master chess player, while the countermoves of Obama and too many Western leaders resemble a game of Wiffle Ball.