Russia Empowers US Enemies While Undermining US Interests and Efforts

On March 18, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin “won” his “reelection” with a record nearly 77 percent of the vote. His election was as predictable as the sun rising in the east. His main opponent was banned from running, and although the other people running against Putin were non-entities, the election process was still riddled with fraud and anomalies of all sorts. For the regime, it was important not only for Putin to win, but to win decisively, leaving no shadow of the doubt in his popularity and legitimacy.

It’s funny how increasingly autocratic regimes feel the need to justify their own existence with fraudulent popular support – even knowing full well that their critics do not buy these claims. Regardless, President Trump called Putin to congratulate him, following the standard diplomatic protocol.  His predecessor Barack Obama likewise had called to congratulate Putin on his previous reelection, and a number of other world leaders did the same. President Trump’s phone call follows another such call to Turkey’s President Erdogan on his consolidation of power last year.

Both calls drew expected criticism, and in the case of Putin’s reelection, the call was done in disregard of warnings from the national security advisers.  A protocol is a protocol, of course, but in all cases of anyone who is in a position of power, one must wonder whether, after some red lines are crossed, the protocol for legitimately elected officials should not extend to dictatorships. Putin is responsible for dozens of physical attacks on his opponents, a number of political assassinations and attempted assassinations, including, most recently, in the UK, and has a number of political prisoners in custody to date.

Many have expressed that the only phone call a US president should be making under such circumstances is a demand to release the political prisoners immediately, and to cease from persecuting legitimate opposition, and to stop immediately acting in a way that endangers the security of other countries, including the United States. What’s missing from this discussion is the extent to which Russia is going out of its way to undermine the United States on all possible fronts – acting as an adversary, no less dangerous than Iran or Turkey.

In Syria, Russian mercenaries – informally but definitively connected to the government – attacked US troops. After the counterattack killed several hundred people, in first-ever such direct confrontation between Russia forces of any kind and American troops, the mercenaries were overheard plotting revenge. While that has not yet occurred, Russia worked on a strategic level to undermine US goals of stabilization and counterterrorism in Syria.  Russia facilitated Turkey’s attack on Afrin, intervening with Assad to ensure the smooth passage of the two-month-long operation, to weaken Kurds, and to enable additional divisions between US and Turkey, and US and Kurds. The end goal, for Russia coupled with Assad, is to drive the US forces out of Syria, and for that reason, Russia will continue to find ways to test the Trump administration.

Russia has likewise worked to undermine US efforts on Yemen and elsewhere. After the UN Security Council came to an agreement to sanction Iran for supplying arms to Yemen’s Houthi rebels and contributing to a humanitarian disaster inside the country, Russia quickly vetoed the effort.  FSB-affiliated security giant Kaspersky recently sabotaged a major anti-ISIS intelligence operation, breaching routers and exposing thousands of devices in Yemen (an area of interest for Russia due to its plans to build a naval base), Afghanistan (also an area of interest for Russia for historic and geopolitical reasons), Iraq (another place Russia is working to push out US troops, and where it already has a foothold on oil), Kenya, Somalia, and Turkey (a new and growing ally for Russia). As a result, US had to abandon and “burn” some of the digital infrastructure used by JSOC in the intelligence operation. This incident is far from the first or the only one in which Kaspersky interfered in US-led intelligence-gathering efforts.

Russia also works to undermine US sanctions, most recently, assisting Venezuela with launching a cryptocurrency. The petrol is supposed linked to the value of Venezuela’s oil, which is substantially backed by Russia. Utilizing digital currency makes it easier to conduct direct transactions online and aids secretive efforts, for better or for worse.  Russia has also been strengthening its military agreement with Lebanon, to the consternation of the Trump administration, which is fruitlessly struggling to decouple the Lebanese government from Hezbullah. Despite warnings from allies, the Pentagon has been continuously supplying the Lebanese Air Force with advanced weaponry, much of which has ended up in Hezbollah’s arsenal.  Hizbullah also had procured 9 US Abrams tanks, which the US has been in vain trying to get back, and boasts of hundreds of thousands of missiles that it can launch in Israel’s direction at a moment’s notice.

The Lebanese government’s escalating tensions with Israel over Israel’s off-shore gas that Lebanon has been aiming for are adding to the explosive situation in that part of the world. Russia has been accused of supplying Hizbullah with weapons in the past; its role in Lebanon  Under the new agreements with Lebanon, Russia will enjoy the use of Lebanese military facilities, work with the government on international security issues against terrorism and piracy, and strengthen bilateral relations on other fronts, including enhancing engineer and information support, joint training exercises, military education, and medicine. Given Russia’s “helpful” role in Syria, its increased presence in the already unstable Lebanon is highly undesirable, particularly on par with the growing role of Iran and its ambition to build a land corridor from Syrian to Lebanon.

Additionally, Russia signed an agreement to build a nuclear reactor for Sudan in 2019. The goal of the plant is to produce electricity.  Sudan is looking to build a four-reactor nuclear plant to make up for the severe shortage of power in the country by 2030. Whether there are any other plans for the use of nuclear energy beyond that is unclear. Likewise, Russia, India, and Bangladesh recently signed a tripartite civil nuclear cooperation agreement. At the same time, Russia has been growing closer to Pakistan, recently reaffirming mutual commitment to countering terrorism. In the past, Pakistan has tried to play both the Soviet Union and the United States, but overall largely tended to stay a staunch Western ally. As the US has tried to clamp down on Pakistan’s unwillingness to eliminate the spread of jihadism from its borders, Pakistan has gravitated closer to China. Russia, that is looking to build up relations, rather than to support further sanctions (which China has been willing to do),  is seen as a potential affirmative lead.  Where the US has shown failing leadership, Russia has stepped up to the plate, challenging US alliances, finding new markets for energy, and carving out space as a more global player. It has recently engaged in additional energy deals with Japan and South Korea, which receive very little energy from the United States, and for whom relying on the Middle Eastern supply is increasing a hassle. Such deals are not in themselves inherently hostile, but Russia’s intent to challenge US leadership and even engage with its allies is clear – and troubling.

It has also engaged in dealmaking with Turkey – selling the latter S-400s, and working on a gas pipeline through Syria, and even has grown closer to Saudi Arabia, which has traditionally been wary of Moscow, and particularly in recent days, due to its alliance with Tehran, Ankara, and Damascus. However, the Saudis and Russia are now engaging in gas trade, and for Russia, the next step is to expand the relationship to oil trade. That relationship also has an energy-related base – through a gas. Thus, Russia is successfully building economic, military, and diplomatic ties with Islamabad; while the United States is increasingly seen as losing leverage. That is yet another way for Russia to go around international sanctions, while outwardly eroding the appearance of US leadership, not only in terms of the actual role it plays in foreign affairs but in terms of its capabilities in exercising diplomatic muscle.

The reason why Russia is getting away with so much infringement on traditional US spheres of influence is quite simply because it can. The White House is distracted by internal matters, lacks experienced diplomats that support its agenda, and also caters to the base that sees US foreign engagement as excessive. Likewise, there is also the signal from the President. Although a number of high-level officials directly accused Russia after the assassination attempt on ex-intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the UK, President Trump himself remained silent. He likewise failed to issue a statement when Putin used a traditional ethnocentric dog whistle to accuse Jews, Ukrainians, and Tatars of meddling in Russian elections. His own tweets claim that his congratulatory phone call to Putin was in the context of diplomatic outreach and an attempt to improve relations between the two countries, but Putin, so far as he sees no serious push back against his ambitions, will continue to take advantage of US foreign policy goodwill and naivete.

Most recently, the White House finally signed additional sanctions against Russia for continuous meddling in US politics, including various elections campaigns. Not only has Russia been testing the means to hack voting machines, and plotting to undermine the midterm elections this year, but it is also seen as having attacked US power grids through a cyber attack. President Trump’s election has not stopped Russia from seeking to sow chaos inside the country and to undermine the democratic system here. And it is using President Trump’s reluctance to take the lead in personally denouncing Putin’s ignominious and central role in all of these developments to catalyze internal divisions inside the US. To this day, die-hard apologists see Russia as the “lesser of all evil” and potential partner against counterterrorism – despite the fact that the Chechen leader Kadyrov praised Putin for his support of Islam, despite the fact that Russia is closely aligned with Iran,Erdogan’s Turkey,  Assad, and increasingly Islamabad, and despite the fact that its security organization, just disrupted a US operation against ISIS – and for that reason find endless excuses and justifications for the President’s adamant refusal to call out Putin on his shenanigans, machinations, and blood lust.

There is no shortage of evidence for Russia’s ambitions and ill intent. Its aggressive expansion in pursuit of energy and military presence in the Arctic is such that the United States, belatedly has had to send a high-powered submarine as a deterrent, even as the Pentagon is now training the military in sub-freezing temperatures for possible stand-offs in that part of the world. Russia is looking for global hegemony, and its playing to keep. Additionally, in an astounding display of unfounded bravado, Putin boasted about alleged new supersonic nuclear missiles, threatening the start of a new arms race, Whether or not such doomsday weapons exist or are in any functional, Russia in an undesirable new alliance with China on yet another front, is pursuing hypersonic weapons.

While all of that may be a gift to the US defense industry, these irresponsible statements and dangerous actions are contributing to the general dissemination of chaos and the rising hysteria, that is creating additional divisions between the two countries and isolating Russians – which is exactly what Putin is looking for. Withdrawal of US industries feeds into his narrative of Western hostility and gives him justification to align with more and more despicable actors or go after US allies. He is personally setting this cycle in motion; he is challenging US security interests – and yet, he gets congratulatory phone calls from the President of the United States.

Indeed, the central issue with President Trump’s phone call to President Putin is not just that Putin is a dictator who does not adhere to democratic norms. Some of our best friends are dictators and have always been, under Democrats at least as much as under Republicans. The essence of the problem here is that Putin’s Russia is openly adversarial to the United States, and Putin’s actions are a national security threat. He has shown himself to be disdainful of our own norms, by meddling in our elections, and making cynical comments about President Trump himself, in public. Why should the United States grant him or his institutions any respect?

by Irina Tsukerman

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