By: Benjamin Weingarten
While the media spikes the football in the face of a Russia hobbled by U.S. sanctions, the decline of the ruble and collapse in oil prices, Vladimir Putin’s protectorate poses a direct threat to America and its interests that we ignore at our own peril.
In the 15 years since Vladimir Putin ascended to his position as de facto czar, Russia has executed a long-term strategy that the West has failed to recognize and effectively counter under both Democratic and Republican administrations.
Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, the West thought it had defeated the Soviet Union. But unlike in a hot war, the victor did not annihilate its enemy, nor did the enemy’s leaders ever face the gallows.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in fact resembled a corporate reorganization more than the fall of an empire, as heads rolled and the state spun off assets (many later to be “reclaimed”), but the company and its culture endured.
In the face of difficult circumstances, Russia, understanding the mindset of its “former” foes, made the brilliant decision to join the West through economic and diplomatic “cooperation.”
This convergence strategy gave the outward appearance of a liberalizing Russia, but consistent with its historical adeptness at subversion and subterfuge, proved a clever way to rebuild, gain leverage over and embed itself within its enemies.
Russia opened itself to trade to raise capital and procure technology that it could use to exploit its natural resources, rebuild its military and enrich Vladimir Putin and his cronies.
In so doing, Russia developed energy pipelines that not only provided it with wealth, but power over not just its “near abroad” — which could literally be made to freeze were it not compliant — but Western Europe. Stated differently, it brought America’s NATO allies into Russia’s orbit.
Perhaps most terrifying of all, Russia embedded itself in a world business and financial architecture that it could penetrate and exploit.
On the diplomatic front, Russia became a U.S. “partner” in the “War on Terror,” a curious position given that Russia was and is a key ally of Iran, the world’s leading sponsor of terror. Vladimir Putin of course was the first world leader to call President George W. Bush on Sept. 11, 2001. We do not know all the ramifications of U.S. and Russian intelligence collaboration.
Despite a crumbling civil society rife with corruption, the suppression of dissent, rigged elections and the fact that the average life expectancy of a 15-year-old male is three years lower in Russia than in Haiti, Putin’s kleptocratic regime, aided by its powerful propaganda machine, and deceptive religious veneer, remains overwhelmingly popular.
This is in no small part due to the fact that during Putin’s reign, Russia has strengthened itself against a West it portrays as aggressive, which has actually remained largely asleep.
To wit, leaving aside foreign adventures in Ukraine and Georgia, under Putin:
- Russia’s has grown its economy eightfold, largely due to energy sector growth.
- Russia has dramatically increased its gold buying, potentially as part of an overall de-dollarization strategy, along with China and other anti-Western powers.
- Russia has achieved nuclear parity with the United States according to the State Department, thanks to our naïve participation in the New START Treaty.
- Russia has allegedly developed cyber-terror capabilities sufficient to cripple a nation, as it did Estonia back in 2007.
- Russia has developed a strong alliance with China in terms of military cooperation and energy, and more broadly the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, all in a bid to counter and apparently aggressively target NATO nations.
- Russia has strategically backed U.S. enemies such as Iran and Syria in the Middle East, while the U.S. has been mired in costly wars there for over a decade; the benefits of this strategy have accrued directly to Russia, as a result of increased oil prices; evidence suggests that Putin may also be playing both sides against the middle with Islamic State, to America’s detriment.
- Russia is allegedly funding anti-Islamization groups in Europe, several of which may be fascistic and anti-Semitic as well, which would fit the Middle East of strategy of backing those who sow the seeds of chaos to create a crisis to Russia’s benefit
- Russia has spent millions in lobbying dollars in Washington, D.C., the national security implications of which one can only imagine, while gaining legitimacy from the support of former prominent anti-Communist useful idiots, dupes or worse.
- Russian espionage, bent on “subverting and penetrating Western societies,” has metastasized to levels greater than during the Cold War. Russia takes a long-term approach to develop “shape-shifting” assets running what appear to be legitimate businesses or charitable organizations, while “Kremlin spies swim effortlessly and invisibly through suburbia, nightlife, think tanks, and consultancies in the West, exploiting the natural trust and collegiality of an open society.”
Layer these data points on top of Russia’s economic and diplomatic relations with other anti-American regimes around the world, and it is difficult to find any trouble spot for the West that you can scratch without finding a Russian apparatchik.
While conventional military strength, intelligence operations and economic warfare against the U.S. are potent weapons in Russia’s arsenal, two recent asymmetric operations alone indicate low-cost high reward tactics Russia could employ to greatly damage our nation and her interests: (i) The terror attacks in France, and (ii) The little-noticed second cyber-attack ever to cause physical damage in world history, after Stuxnet.
On terrorism, while it is likely not in Russia’s interest to directly attack the U.S., sponsoring jihadist proxies provides plausible deniability, and maximal gain at minimal cost.
Lest you think this scenario unrealistic, it was Putin’s own FSB that was alleged to carry out attacks on Russian citizens as a pretext for war in Chechnya in 1999. Russia in fact has a long history of support for terrorism, from Yasser Arafat and the PLO, to alleged ties to Al-Qaeda including senior leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Cyber-terror, to the degree to which it can be masked, could prove equally potent, with the potential to cripple critical U.S. infrastructure and sow chaos at minimal cost.
Again, Russia already has a template from its actions in Estonia, not to mention some of the recent attacks on American institutions alleged to have emanated in Russia.
America deludes itself if she does not wake up to the multi-faceted Russian threat.
Russia’s strategic thinking, abundant natural resources and associated economic leverage, defense and intelligence capabilities pose a challenge that sanctions notwithstanding, the West is currently ill-equipped to handle.
Moreover, leaders in the West refuse to acknowledge either out of fear, ignorance, or political correctness (often a combination of the two), that Russian actions to back our enemies, end a dollar-based economy, terrorize those in its immediate orbit, while strengthening its control over Western Europe, all while flexing its muscle in U.S. airspace, indicate aspirations far beyond just rebuilding the Soviet Empire.
Recent struggles if anything portend even more dramatic actions by the Putin regime — all likely negative for the West and freedom more broadly — by a leader who is now even clamping down on allies, while seeking propaganda victories to rally his people.
In order to effectively deal with Russia, as with the Islamic world, America must understand the country’s goals, strategies and tactics.
Only then can we devise a coherent plan to deter the threat, and with it, preserve Western civilization.