Containing Russia How to Respond to Moscow’s Intervention in U.S. Democracy and Growing Geopolitical Challenge

Containing Russia How to Respond to Moscow’s Intervention in U.S. Democracy and Growing Geopolitical Challenge by Robert D. Blackwill and Philip H. Gordon – Council on Foreign Relations

Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election constituted an attack on American democracy. No one can know for sure what, if any, effect this attack had on the results of the election. But this question, and others like it, are a distraction. In the words of Senior Fellows Robert D. Blackwill and Philip H. Gordon, the two authors of this new Council Special Report, “The important point is not that Russia changed the outcome of a U.S. presidential election but that it attempted to do so.”

The report also makes clear that this attempt by Russia to inter- fere with American democracy did not take place in a vacuum. To the contrary, it was and is part of a larger political and geopolitical effort designed by Russian President Vladimir Putin “to weaken the United States, divide it from its European allies, and expand Russian influence in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and beyond.”

The authors are unsparing in their assessment of how the current and previous American presidents and their administrations have dealt with the Russian effort to affect the U.S. election, describing their responses as “limited and ineffective.” The authors advocate addi- tional measures to better protect U.S. society, punish Russia, and deter Russia and others from continuing to directly interfere in the workings of democracies.

More broadly, the report judges that the United States is currently in a second Cold War with Russia. Consistent with this assessment, the authors recommend what would be tantamount to a new containment policy, one that would include expanded sanctions, electoral and cyber countermeasures, and additional investments in European security. These policy prescriptions come from practitioners who have advised Republican and Democratic presidents and spent their time in govern- ment working to build constructive U.S.-Russia relations.

The report is thus nuanced as well as sober. It calls for the United States to confront Russia more robustly, but at the same time it reminds readers that just as it did during the Cold War, the United States should continue to interact with Russia and look for ways to cooperate when it would be in the U.S. national interest.

The Donald J. Trump administration’s first National Security Strat- egy (NSS) identified Russia as a principal challenger to American power, singling out its interference in the domestic political affairs of countries around the world and its attempts to undermine the legiti- macy of democracies. The NSS also notes that Russia aims to weaken U.S. influence around the world and divide the United States from its allies and partners. This view has much in common with what is argued in this report; the Trump administration and Congress would be wise to carefully read the policy prescriptions put forward by Blackwill and Gordon and consider making them their own.

Richard N. Haass
Council on Foreign Relations January 2018


With each passing week, the evidence of the extent of Russia’s inter- ference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election—and in U.S. politics and society more generally—grows. Since at least 2014, in an effort to influ- ence the election and undermine confidence in American democracy, Russia has hacked private American citizens’ and organizations’ com- puters to steal information; released that information in ways designed to affect electoral outcomes and divide Americans; planted and dissem- inated disinformation in U.S. social media; used its state-funded and state-controlled media networks such as RT and Sputnik to spread that disinformation; purchased ads on U.S. social media sites such as Face- book to spread targeted information designed to anger or inspire politi- cal and social groups; deployed tens of thousands of bloggers and bots to disseminate disinformation; cooperated with American citizens and possibly even the Donald J. Trump campaign to discredit Trump’s opponent in the election; and probed election-related computer sys- tems in at least twenty-one U.S. states.

The United States will never know for certain whether Russia’s inter- vention changed the outcome of the 2016 election. In such a close race— where the result could have been tipped by changing fewer than eighty thousand votes in three states—it is possible, but it is no more provable than an assertion that any other of an almost infinite variety of factors proved decisive. The important point is not that Russia changed the out- come of a U.S. presidential election but that it attempted to do so.

Beyond the attempted election interference, Russia’s continued efforts to sow and exacerbate divisions among Americans—using many of the same tools just mentioned—are also unprecedented. Through- out 2017, Moscow continued to fund and direct efforts to fuel racial, religious, and cultural resentments throughout society, pitting Ameri- cans against each other and many of their politicians. Whereas physi- cal attacks on the U.S. homeland, such as Pearl Harbor or 9/11, have brought Americans together in a common cause and led them to bol- ster defenses against such attacks (rather successfully, in fact), attacks on the American sense of national unity could substantially weaken the foundational institutions and shared beliefs that are the essence of the United States and are crucial to its enduring success. The threats of growing domestic strife and diminishing trust in national institutions are as great as any traditional national security threat—with the excep- tion of a nuclear weapons attack—the United States faces today.

Russia’s wider challenges to American national interests are also growing. Since Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency in 2012, Moscow has significantly stepped up its efforts to confront the United States and its allies politically and militarily and to counter American influence worldwide. It has invaded and annexed Crimea; intervened in and occupied parts of eastern Ukraine; deployed substantial military forces and undertaken a ruthless bombing campaign in Syria to prop up the Bashar al-Assad regime and defeat the American-supported oppo- sition; significantly expanded its armed forces and deployed missiles in violation of treaty commitments; undertaken large military exercises designed to intimidate East European states; interfered in the politi- cal systems of European countries in much the same way it did in the United States; and used the threat of cutting off gas supplies as lever- age over the most energy-dependent European states. Putin is a career intelligence officer who is deeply hostile to democratic change any- where near Russia, paranoid about what he believes to be U.S. efforts to oust him, and resentful of American domination of the post–Cold War world, and he seems to have made it a personal priority to weaken the United States and contest American influence wherever he can.

Neither President Barack Obama nor President Trump—for differ- ent reasons—adequately elevated Russia’s intervention in the United States to the national priority that it is, or responded to it in a way suf- ficient to deter Russia or other hostile states from undertaking future attacks. A wide range of additional measures is therefore needed in order to better protect U.S. society and political and electoral systems from further intervention, punish Russia for attacking the United States, and deter Russia and others from continuing to directly inter- fere in the workings of American and allied democracies. And this more vigorous response to the challenge from Moscow should not be confined to required measures to protect the United States from Rus- sian election tampering. That sort of tit-for-tat U.S. reaction would only encourage Putin to refine his cyber-penetration techniques. Rather, Russia will need to conclude that it is paying a major price in matters important to it for such cyber interference, especially in the area of European security. Only that is likely to cause Moscow and its national- security establishment to cease and desist regarding the functioning of American democracy.

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