During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union faced off in an existential struggle between two antithetical systems. Either the Soviet bloc would “bury” the West, as Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev threatened in 1956, or Western principles of democratic accountability, individual rights, and the rule of law would triumph over Soviet totalitarianism. The eventual outcome—the demise of the Soviet system and the expansion of the U.S.-led international order—showed that military power is essential to American national security but also that the United States must advance its goals through the quiet resilience of democratic institutions and the attractive pull of alliances. After the Cold War, Western democracy became the model of choice for postcommunist countries in central and eastern Europe. Guided by the enlightened hands of NATO and the EU, many of those countries boldly embarked on the transition from dictatorship to democracy. Remarkably, most succeeded. Post-Soviet Russia also had an opportunity to reinvent itself. Many in Europe and the United States hoped that by integrating Russia into international organizations (such as the Council of Europe, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund), they could help Russia become a responsible member of the rules-based international order and develop a domestic constituency for democratic reforms. Many Russians also dreamed of creating a democratic, stable, and prosperous Russia. But that dream is now more distant than at any time since the Cold War’s end.
By Joseph R. Biden, Jr., and Michael Carpenter for Foreign Affairs
Today, the Russian government is brazenly assaulting the foundations of Western democracy around the world. Under President Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin has launched a coordinated attack across many domains—military, political, economic, informational—using a variety of overt and covert means. At the extreme, in the cases of Georgia and Ukraine, Russia has invaded neighboring countries to block their integration into NATO or the EU and to send a message to other governments in the region that pursuing Western-backed democratic reform will bring dire consequences. More frequently and more insidiously, it has sought to weaken and subvert Western democracies from the inside by weaponizing information, cyberspace, energy, and corruption.
At its core, this assault is motivated by the Kremlin’s desire to protect its wealth and power. The Russian regime that emerged from the ashes of the Soviet collapse consolidated immense authority and privilege in the hands of a small cabal of former intelligence officials and oligarchs. They appear strong from the outside, but their power remains brittle at the core—a fact that Putin and the top members of his regime understand better than anyone. Without a chokehold on civil society, the adoring applause and sky-high approval ratings they generally enjoy could quickly descend into a storm of boos and whistles, as Putin has discovered on more than one occasion. The regime projects an aura of invincibility that masks the shallow roots of its public support, particularly among younger, urban, and educated Russians.
To safeguard its kleptocratic system, the Kremlin has decided to take the fight beyond Russia’s borders to attack what it perceives as the greatest external threat to its survival: Western democracy. By attacking the West, the Kremlin shifts attention away from corruption and economic malaise at home, activates nationalist passions to stifle internal dissent, and keeps Western democracies on the defensive and preoccupied with internal divisions. This allows Moscow to consolidate its power at home and exert untrammeled influence over its “near abroad.”
To fight back, the United States must lead its democratic allies and partners in increasing their resilience, expanding their capabilities to defend against Russian subversion, and rooting out the Kremlin’s networks of malign influence. The United States has the capacity to counter this assault and emerge stronger, provided that Washington demonstrates the political will to confront the threat. However, since the Trump administration has shown that it does not take the Russian threat seriously, the responsibility for protecting Western democracy will rest more than ever on Congress, the private sector, civil society, and ordinary Americans.
TYRANNY BEGINS AT HOME
The first victim of the Kremlin’s assault on democratic institutions was Russia itself. Opposition politicians have been harassed, poisoned, and even murdered. Basic freedoms of expression and assembly have been restricted, and Russian elections have become choreographed performances that are neither free nor fair. In recent years, Russian human rights groups have even claimed that the horrific Soviet-era practice of using psychiatric institutions to imprison dissidents has been quietly revived.
In contrast to the Soviet Union, however, contemporary Russia offers no clear ideological alternative to Western democracy. Russia’s leaders invoke nationalist, populist, and statist slogans or themes, but the Kremlin’s propaganda machine shies away from directly challenging the core precepts of Western democracy: competitive elections, accountability for those in power, constitutionally guaranteed rights, and the rule of law. Instead, the Kremlin carefully cultivates a democratic façade, paying lip service to those principles even as it subverts them. Thus, it grants nominal opposition parties representation in the Russian parliament but thoroughly co-opts and controls them. It allows independent media to operate (although not in broadcast television), but journalists are regularly threatened and sometimes beaten or killed if they report on taboo subjects. It permits civil society groups to exist but brands them as “foreign agents” and crushes them if they demonstrate political independence. It oversees a vast repressive apparatus—recently augmented by the creation of a new National Guard force of around 350,000 members—to deter and respond to dissent. In short, Russia’s leaders have built a Potemkin democracy in which democratic form masks authoritarian content.
Russia’s leaders have built a Potemkin democracy in which democratic form masks authoritarian content.
This cynical and heavy-handed approach is driven by intense anxiety. Having watched with a mix of shock, horror, and sorrow as the Soviet Union disintegrated, today’s Russian leaders worry that their own system could meet a similar fate. The Russian economy is utterly dependent on hydrocarbon exports, so its health is tied to the price of oil and gas; as those prices have plummeted in recent years, the state-owned gas giant Gazprom’s market capitalization has shrunk, from about $368 billion in 2008 to around $52 billion today. Meanwhile, long-term demographic decline is sapping Russian society; the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration has projected a 20 percent decrease in the population by 2050. According to the CIA’s World Factbook, life expectancy in Russia ranks 153rd in the world, far below the world’s developed democracies and lower even than developing countries such as Nicaragua and Uzbekistan. Finally, endemic corruption has stunted Russia’s potential for economic growth based on innovation and integration into global value chains, portending a period of prolonged stagnation.
WEAKNESS DRESSED UP AS STRENGTH
In the face of these negative trends and the possibility that they could contribute to organized resistance, the Kremlin appears to have concluded that its best defense is a strong offense. But not content to merely crush dissent at home, it is now taking the fight to Western democracies, and especially the United States, on their turf.
From the Kremlin’s perspective, the United States and its democratic allies pose three distinct threats. First, Russia harbors an erroneous but stubborn—perhaps even obsessive—belief that Washington is actively pursuing regime change in Russia. There is no truth to that idea; the United States has never sought to remove Putin. But Putin and his associates have long peddled a conspiracy theory that accuses the United States of engineering popular uprisings in Serbia in 2000, Georgia in 2003, Ukraine in 2004 and 2014, Kyrgyzstan in 2005, and throughout the Arab world in 2010–11. And they have apparently come to believe their own propaganda, perceiving Washington’s hand behind the mass protests that erupted in Moscow and other Russian cities in 2011–12. Tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets before and after elections that returned Putin to the presidency after four years in which he had ruled from the sidelines as prime minster. Putin was apparently unable to comprehend that his attempt to remain in power indefinitely might alienate some constituents or that widely shared smartphone videos of ballot stuffing during the parliamentary election held in December 2011 would offend Russian citizens.
Second, the regime fears that Western support for democratic reforms among Russia’s neighbors, particularly measures to boost transparency and fight corruption, will undermine the patronage networks that allow Kremlin cronies to extract enormous rents in the “near abroad.”
A Ukranian soldier outside a military camp near the Russian border, March 2014 YANNIS BEHRAKIS / REUTERS
Third, democratic transformation in Russia’s neighborhood would serve as a powerful counterexample to Moscow’s kleptocratic and authoritarian rule and would delegitimize its authority over the long run. So Russia waged wars against Georgia in 2008 and against Ukraine in 2014 in order to undermine governments determined to pursue further integration with NATO and the EU. Meanwhile, a third country in the region, Moldova, has been partially occupied by Russian forces since the early 1990s as leverage against any sudden movement toward the West (despite a provision of constitutional neutrality that precludes Moldova from joining foreign military alliances).
The Kremlin has justified its violations of these countries’ sovereignty on the grounds that they form part of Russia’s “sphere of privileged interests,” as Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s then president and Putin’s junior partner, explained shortly after Russia’s invasion of Georgia. That term is telling. Kremlin insiders have long benefited from privileged status in these three countries. For example, murky gas-trading ventures with Kremlin-linked oligarchs in Ukraine have netted billions of dollars in profits for Putin’s cronies at the expense of the Russian state.
The small Balkan nation of Montenegro lies almost a thousand miles from the nearest Russian border and was never part of the Russian or the Soviet empire. But it, too, finds itself tangled in Putin’s web. Montenegro became enveloped in Russia’s “sphere of privileged interests” not owing to proximity but because Kremlin-linked oligarchs and criminal groups invested their wealth and expanded their influence there following the dissolution of Yugoslavia. After Montenegro became independent from Serbia in 2006, these Russian interests came under threat as the Montenegrin government began to lobby for NATO and EU membership. As a precondition for membership, Montenegro was pressed by both organizations to establish a firmer rule of law. Western officials pushed the country to appoint an independent special prosecutor to combat organized crime and corruption and demanded that it clean house in the defense and intelligence sectors. Correctly perceiving these reforms as a direct threat to its interests, the Kremlin responded almost immediately, coordinating a campaign funded by Russian oligarchs to oppose Montenegro’s NATO membership and subsidizing a small anti-NATO and pro-Russian political party in the country.
When that failed to slow Montenegro’s march toward integration with NATO, the Kremlin resorted to more coercive tactics. In the weeks prior to Montenegro’s parliamentary elections in October 2016, a small group of Russian military intelligence agents hatched a plot to carry out an armed coup d’état using mercenaries recruited from extremist nationalist groups in the region. The scheme unraveled when one of the plotters tipped off the authorities, forcing the Kremlin to dispatch an envoy to Serbia to bring home the stranded conspirators.
PUTIN’S SOFT SUBVERSION
The Kremlin has relied on subtler tools to subvert democracies in western Europe and the United States. Although Russian operatives have carried out at least one politically motivated assassination in the West (and possibly more), Moscow’s intelligence services are generally more cautious when operating on NATO territory, relying instead on information operations and cyberattacks. Whereas Soviet intelligence operatives occasionally tried to plant false stories in Western media outlets, today the Kremlin subcontracts the task to proxies, who spread customized disinformation using fake accounts on social media. These proxies need not even reside in Russia since they can be contacted and compensated via the so-called Dark Web (a parallel, closed-off internet) wherever they live. Different messages can be tailored to specific demographic groups, depending on the Kremlin’s goals, which have ranged from discouraging voter turnout to boosting attendance at political rallies held by Russia’s preferred candidates. To maintain a modicum of plausible deniability, Russia’s “patriotic hackers” and trolls are typically employed by entities loosely connected to the Kremlin rather than directly by the government. For example, the Internet Research Agency, a notorious “troll farm” based in St. Petersburg that reportedly purchased thousands of ads on Facebook during the 2016 U.S. presidential race, relies on the financial support of a close Putin associate.
During the 2016 U.S. campaign and the 2017 presidential contest in France, Russia’s intelligence services cultivated similar online intermediaries to hack private e-mails and distribute the stolen information to organizations such as WikiLeaks, which in turn disseminated it more widely. Although Western cybersecurity experts and intelligence agencies were able to identify the Russian military intelligence agency as the main culprit behind both attacks, the disinformation had already penetrated the mainstream media by the time it was attributed to Russia.
In France, the widespread knowledge of Russia’s prior involvement in the U.S. campaign somewhat lessened the Kremlin’s first-mover advantage. But Russia has hardly given up, and it has taken similar steps to sway political campaigns in a wide range of European countries, including for referendums in the Netherlands (on Ukraine’s integration with Europe), Italy (on governance reforms), and Spain (on Catalonia’s secession). Russian support for Alternative for Germany, a far-right party, aimed to increase the group’s vote totals in last fall’s parliamentary elections by amplifying its messaging on social media. A similar Russian effort is now under way to support the nationalist Northern League and the populist Five Star Movement in Italy’s upcoming parliamentary elections. Further down the road, the U.S. midterm elections in 2018 and the presidential election in 2020 will present fresh opportunities for Russian meddling.
The manipulation of energy markets is another important tool that Russia uses for coercion and influence peddling. Russia has repeatedly threatened to cut off gas to Ukraine, and in 2006 and 2009, Moscow actually stopped the flow in the middle of winter. The clear message was that leaders who crossed the Kremlin could literally see their populations freeze to death. Russia again made threats to cut off gas deliveries following its invasion of Ukraine in 2014, but thanks to intense diplomacy by the United States and the EU, Kiev’s neighbors helped avert a crisis by ensuring an adequate supply.
Since then, new liquefied natural gas terminals in Lithuania and Poland have helped diversify Europe’s natural gas supplies, but this has not stopped the Kremlin from continuing to use energy to pressure European governments, particularly in the Baltic states, the Balkans, and central Europe. Currently, for example, Russia is building a nuclear power plant in close proximity to the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, giving Moscow a powerful psychological weapon should it choose to foment rumors of an accident.
In addition to using energy to coerce its neighbors, the Kremlin is adept at using energy deals to curry influence with European political and business leaders. The fruits of these influence operations can be seen in Putin’s close personal relationships with a host of current and former European officials, many of which were facilitated by Western political advisers with ties to the Russian energy sector.
Russia’s disinformation operations, cyberattacks, and energy politics have received a good deal of attention. Less well covered are the ways in which Russia has managed to effectively export the corruption that has warped its own politics and economy—weaponizing it, in a sense, and aiming it at vulnerable societies elsewhere.
In Russia’s crony capitalist system, success and survival in business depend on the protection of powerful patrons who can shelter a businessperson or a company from raids by bigger competitors or overzealous tax officials. Kremlin authorities and Russian intelligence officials sit at the top of this pyramid, receiving bribes and payoffs in exchange for such protection. But the state itself also benefits from this arrangement, which gives the Kremlin enormous leverage over wealthy Russians who do business in the West and over Western companies that do business in Russia. Moscow can ask (or pressure) such businesspeople and companies to help finance its subversion of political processes elsewhere—by making contributions to an anti-NATO organization in Sweden, for example, or establishing anti-fracking groups in Bulgaria and Romania to fight developments that might threaten Russia’s dominance of the eastern European gas market.
What makes corruption such an effective weapon is the difficulty of proving that it even exists, or that its purpose is political. Occasionally, however, cases appear that illuminate how Russia weaponizes corrupt relationships to achieve its political goals. Consider, for example, the fact that the far-right candidate in last year’s French presidential race, Marine Le Pen, secured (albeit legally) a multimillion-dollar loan for her campaign from a Russian bank with alleged links to the Kremlin while advocating a policy of lifting sanctions on Russia. (Le Pen, of course, has denied that the funding influenced her positions.)
Money laundering is another example of how the Kremlin seeks to infect Western democracies with the corruption virus. Western financial institutions launder staggering amounts of illicit Russian money. In January 2017, New York State banking regulators revealed that Germany-based Deutsche Bank had helped Russian clients launder $10 billion; the state hit the bank with a $425 million fine. Two months later, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, an international network of investigative reporters, uncovered a complex scheme that moved more than $20 billion of illicit Russian money through numerous Western financial institutions. After being “cleaned,” some of the money went to groups that advocated closer relations between EU countries and Russia, including a Polish nongovernmental organization run by the political activist Mateusz Piskorski, who also heads a pro-Kremlin political party—and who was arrested by Polish authorities in 2016 on charges of spying for Russia. (He remains detained and has yet to be tried.)
The scope of Russian corrupt influence is exceptionally wide, particularly since Russian oligarchs who made vast sums of money over the last several decades have parked much of this wealth in the West, including in luxury real estate markets in London, Miami, and New York. These billions of dollars of investments have been used in many cases to secure access to Western political and business elites. They also serve as a ready source of financing for the Kremlin’s influence operations abroad. A good deal of this money has gone to support antiestablishment candidates or movements in Europe—on both the far right and the far left—that support closer partnership with Russia or that publicly question the value of membership in NATO or the EU. For the Kremlin, it hardly matters what specific ideology these candidates or movements espouse; the more important goal is to weaken and divide Western democracies internally.
HOW TO FIGHT BACK
Russia’s assault on democracy and subversion of democratic political systems calls for a strong response. The United States and its allies must improve their ability to deter Russian military aggression and work together more closely to strengthen their energy security and prevent Russia’s nonmilitary forms of coercion. They must also reduce the vulnerability of their political systems, media environments, financial sectors, and cyber-infrastructure. Every country in the Kremlin’s cross hairs must also better coordinate its intelligence and law enforcement activities to root out Russian disinformation and subversion and find ways for authorities to cooperate with the private sector to counteract such meddling.
But Washington and its partners cannot only play defense. They also must agree to impose meaningful costs on Russia when they discover evidence of its misdeeds. At the same time, to prevent miscalculations, Washington needs to keep talking to Moscow.
The Kremlin would like nothing more than for Western leaders to declare NATO obsolete and cut investments in collective defense. Given Russia’s aggression in Georgia and Ukraine, NATO must continue to forward-deploy troops and military capabilities to eastern Europe to deter and, if necessary, defeat a Russian attack against one of the alliance’s member states. But the threat of unconventional and nonmilitary coercion now looms larger than ever. More than a decade has passed since Estonia became the first NATO country to see its government institutions and media organizations attacked by hackers based in Russia. In the intervening period, the risk of a far more debilitating attack has increased, but planning for how to defend against it has lagged. One step NATO members can take would be to broaden the responsibility for such planning beyond their militaries and defense ministries. The EU and the private sector need to be part of such efforts, so that Russian strikes on infrastructure can be isolated and backup systems can be put in place. Although much of the responsibility for cyberdefense currently rests with individual countries, the interconnectedness of allied infrastructure makes greater coordination imperative.
Western democracies must also address glaring vulnerabilities in their electoral systems, financial sectors, cyber-infrastructure, and media ecosystems. The U.S. campaign finance system, for example, needs to be reformed to deny foreign actors—from Russia and elsewhere—the ability to interfere in American elections. Authorities can no longer turn a blind eye to the secretive bundling of donations that allows foreign money to flow to U.S. organizations (such as “ghost corporations”) that in turn contribute to super PACs and other putatively independent political organizations, such as trade associations and so-called 501(c)(4) groups. Congress must get serious about campaign finance reform now; doing so should be a matter of bipartisan consensus since this vulnerability affects Democrats and Republicans in equal measure.
The United States also needs more transparency in its financial and real estate markets, which have become havens for corrupt foreign capital, some of which undoubtedly seeps into politics. To expose and prevent the money laundering behind that trend, Congress should pass new legislation to require greater transparency in high-end real estate investments and tighten loopholes that allow money to be laundered through opaque law-firm bank accounts or shell companies. Authorities in Washington and other Western capitals must also integrate law enforcement and intelligence tools to neutralize corrupt networks linked to Russia. The Kremlin has successfully fused organized criminal groups, intelligence agencies, and corrupt businesses, as revealed in great detail by a recent investigation carried out by Spanish authorities. Nothing illustrates the tangled web linking organized crime, Russian government officials, and the Kremlin’s foreign influence operations more clearly than the ongoing lobbying efforts in the United States on behalf of the criminal syndicate responsible for the death of Sergei Magnitsky, the Russian lawyer who was killed in a Moscow prison after he uncovered a corrupt scheme to steal $230 million from the Russian Treasury. In the United States, a dedicated interagency body should be charged with coordinating efforts to neutralize such malign networks.
The United States’ cyber-infrastructure, most of which is owned and managed by the private sector, remains vulnerable to foreign hacking—or, worse, a crippling systemwide attack. To protect the networks that operate power plants, for example, or those that manage train and airline traffic, government regulatory bodies and private operators must raise their standards and apply them consistently. This means, among other measures, ensuring that there are no back doors into networks that remain isolated from the public Internet, mandating that software patches and updates be installed as soon as they become available, and conducting regular network diagnostics. Similarly, state and local governments that maintain electronic voting machines must address lapses in network security that have left open too many back doors to intrusion and potential manipulation. Some immediate steps that authorities should take include mandating an auditable paper trail of every ballot cast and protecting voter registration rolls with the same vigor as vote tabulation systems.
U.S. elections in 2018 and 2020 will present fresh opportunities for Russian meddling.
Meanwhile, journalists and activists in the United States and Europe must do more to expose and root out disinformation, especially on social media. Civil society initiatives have taken the lead on this: the University of Pennsylvania’s FactCheck.org, Ukraine’s StopFake.org, and the German Marshall Fund’s Hamilton 68 have all exposed propaganda by debunking falsehoods and shedding light on the sources propagating them. Social media companies such as Twitter, Facebook, and Google must provide greater transparency about who funds the political advertisements on their platforms, work harder to eliminate automated and bot-generated content, and invest in the technological and human resources to root out fake foreign accounts that spread disinformation. In countries with extensive experience of Russian information warfare, such as Estonia and Finland, officials and media professionals alike have learned that the more light they shine on the methods foreign actors use to sow disinformation, the less successful the propaganda becomes.
HANG TOUGH, BUT KEEP TALKING
In the short term, Putin and his allies are likely to continue their assault on Western democracy. So Washington and its allies must stand firm and impose costs on Russia for its violations of international law and other countries’ sovereignty—those it has already committed and those it is likely planning. Maintaining the sanctions that the United States and the EU levied on Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine has been important not only in pressuring Moscow to resolve the conflict in the near term but also as a signal to the Kremlin that the costs of such behavior will eventually outweigh any perceived benefits. Having suffered few lasting consequences for its 2007 cyberattack on Estonia and only a short financial decline following its 2008 invasion of Georgia, the Kremlin erroneously concluded that it could act with relative impunity. It did so in spite of the clear marker that the Obama administration laid down from the very start. As one of us, Joe Biden, noted in a speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2009, “We will not recognize any nation having a sphere of influence. It will remain our view that sovereign states have the right to make their own decisions and choose their own alliances.” So when Russia invaded Ukraine, the United States led the way by imposing tough sanctions. Fortunately, the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, a bill that Congress passed last August, codified the sanctions on Russia that were put in place by the Obama administration and gave the current administration enhanced authorities to impose lasting consequences on Russia for its interference in the 2016 election.
Even while defending U.S. interests and safeguarding liberal democracy elsewhere, Washington must keep the channels of communication open with Moscow. At the height of the Cold War, American and Soviet leaders recognized that, whatever their differences, they could not afford a miscalculation that might lead to war. They had to keep talking. The same is true today: as two nuclear superpowers with military assets deployed in close proximity in many different parts of the globe, the United States and Russia have a mutual obligation to maintain strategic stability. That means not only regulating the development and deployment of strategic weapons but also communicating clearly to avoid misunderstandings about what each side perceives as a strategic threat. For its part, Washington needs to spell out clear consequences for interfering in the U.S. democratic process or tampering with critical U.S. infrastructure.