In the past month, we’ve learned from special counsel Robert Mueller that 13 Russian officials and three Kremlin-linked agencies were involved in 2016 election trolling and hacking to a sufficient degree to indict them; that the Kremlin was almost certainly behind the assassination attempt on a former double agent living in Britain; and that Russian cyberwar agencies penetrated vital U.S. electrical and other infrastructure systems, and could have shut them down.
That latest finding, reported last week by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, was sufficiently alarming that even the White House bleated a mild protest, for the very first time. And the Trump administration joined Britain and other allies in condemning the attempted hit job.
Three things are now clear.
First, Vladimir Putin has crossed a bright red line and is waging an aggressive Cold War II against the U.S. and the West, utilizing multiple forms of cyberwarfare and using nerve agents banned by treaties in assassination plots.
Secondly, countermeasures within the cyber-realm are not sufficient. In short, trying to play pure defense against aggressive Russian cyberattacks is like playing whack-a-mole. There are simply too many ways to penetrate, too many constantly mutating strategies to try out.
To the extent that U.S. social media platforms have been used by the Russians, Facebook and others have been stunningly unhelpful. Mark Zuckerberg is far more zealous about defending his business strategy of using proprietary algorithms to invade users’ privacy and to maximize profits than about helping to defend his country. The issue of how government and Facebook should interact is tricky, but Zuckerberg’s behavior is drastically at odds with the close working relationship among the Pentagon, the intelligence agencies, and others in the private sector with sensitive roles in the national defense.
Lastly, it’s also clear that the mild sanctions imposed by British Prime Minister Teresa May, like those imposed by President Barack Obama late in 2016 after U.S. intelligence agencies confirmed the Kremlin role in trolling, are treated by Putin as a mild inconvenience. Ousting a few diplomats, blocking a few bank accounts, or making a few Russian oligarchs persona non grata confirm to Putin that the West is a sitting duck, too weak to rise to its own defense.
This is one of those fateful confrontations between Russia and the West, like the Berlin blockade of 1948, or the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.
Yes, we need stronger and more sophisticated cyberdefenses. Vital civilian infrastructure, as in the case of nuclear weapons, may need to be disconnected from the Internet to harden it against penetrations. But one person ― Putin ― has decided to wage Cold War II, and that same one person has the power to reverse course.
This is one of those fateful confrontations between Russia and the West, like the Berlin blockade of 1948, or the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. It doesn’t feel like one because it lacks a dramatic showdown event. The fact that it is insidious, gradual, and hydra-headed only makes it more of a threat.
But there are several ways that the West could raise the costs to Putin to the point where serious conversations about de-escalation could begin. The common theme is this:
Normal states do not make cyberwar on each other’s vital systems. If Putin is going to behave like a pariah nation, Russia will be treated like a pariah nation.
That doesn’t mean threatening to shut down Russia’s electrical system in a game of cyber-tit-for-tat, a strategy that would be as risky as it would be futile. It does mean threatening Russia’s vital interests in other areas where the West has the power to deliver and Russia has the weaker hand.
For instance, Russia is dependent on access to the West’s banking system. That could be cut off, as it was during the Cold War.
Russian business interests are shockingly free to invest in the West at will, to buy real estate, often with shell companies to hide assets. That could be closed down, as well.
Russians are free to travel to the West. That could be limited.
Putin is able to escalate these incursions because of one man ― Donald J. Trump.
Obviously, not all of these sanctions should be imposed at once. But they should be on the table, and serious high level de-escalation talks should commence.
But here’s the worst part of the story. About the last person on earth likely to consider this course is the current president of the United States. Putin is able to escalate these incursions because of one man ― Donald J. Trump.
A normal president might be a little slow or a little risk averse, but eventually a normal president would appreciate the scale of the threat and pursue an appropriately tough diplomacy.
But the Russians, all too accurately, view Trump as their stooge. He epitomizes corrupt interlocks between oligarchs and the state, as well as interlocks between Russia and Trump himself. He both mirrors the Russian system, and is its captive.
We don’t yet have all the details. We may soon get more of them from the Mueller investigation. But either the Russians have enough on Trump to blackmail him, or his business interests are so thoroughly entangled with those of oligarchs close to Putin, or he owes Putin and his cronies big time for past favors ― or all three.
I am aware that I am playing against type by arguing this case. As a progressive, I am all too aware that the U.S. does not have clean hands ― America has a long history of destabilizing and even overthrowing regimes that it doesn’t like.
I am also aware of the terrible costs of war, even cold war, and am not one to suggest military escalation lightly. I spent my youth opposing the Vietnam War. But then, Ho Chi Minh was not an existential threat to the U.S. If he had been, the U.S. would not be having happy commercial and diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of Vietnam today.
But Russia’s actions do pose an existential threat both to American democracy and to America’s basic physical security.
Even though the president makes foreign policy, there is a major role for Democrats in confronting the Kremlin. By demanding that America get serious about Putin with a diplomacy that he will take seriously, Democrats demonstrate that they are more patriotic and more reliable on national security than Trump. They hit Trump where he is most vulnerable ― where his personal corruption meets his willingness to sell out his country. And they split the Republican Party.
Maybe they can even pressure Trump to be more assertive. If America is under siege by the Kremlin, how can it be Great Again?
This is one of those moments where smart politics is also the right thing to do. Someday, Trump will be gone, and we can get serious about defending our country.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School. His forthcoming book is Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism? Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter at @rkuttnerwrites.