Donald Trump is a fan of Vladimir Putin. The president praised him effusively during the 2016 campaign, when a deal was in the works to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, and has continued to praise him while in office. Though the U.S. intelligence community has concluded that Russia interfered in America’s electoral process (and is continuing to do so), Trump has refused to acknowledge these efforts, instead deferring to Putin’s denials. At the recent G-20 summit in Japan, he even joked with the Russian leader about election meddling. “Yes, of course I will,” Trump said when asked on Friday whether he would bring up the attacks on democracy. He then turned to Putin. “Don’t meddle in the election, president,” he said, wagging a finger. Don’t meddle in the election.” The two shared a laugh.
But Russia’s continued push to undermine America’s institutions is no laughing matter, as the Pentagon detailed in a 150-page assessment provided to the Joint Chiefs of Staff in May. The paper, which was obtained by Politico, describes the ways in which the United States is failing to combat — and thus enabling — Russia’s far-reaching “grand strategy” to establish itself as a dominant global superpower. “[F]uture confrontations between major powers may most often occur below the level of armed conflict,” Navy Rear Admiral Jeffrey J. Czerewko writes in the preface to the report. “In this environment, economic competition, influence campaigns, paramilitary actions, cyber intrusions, and political warfare will likely become more prevalent. Such confrontations increase the risk of misperception and miscalculation, between powers with significant military strength, which may then increase the risk of armed conflict.”
“In this context,” Czerewko adds, “the US capability to influence the outcomes of both global and regional events must be reconsidered.”
The report’s executive summary identifies three goals of Russia’s “gray zone” campaign to use subtle, non-military efforts subvert democracies and exercise influence: 1) to [r]eclaim and secure Russia’s influence over former Soviet nations; 2) to “[r]egain worldwide recognition as a ‘great power'”; and 3) to portray itself as a “reliable actor” in order to “gain economic, military, and political influence over nations worldwide and to refine the liberalist rules and norms that currently govern the world order.” The nation’s interference in America’s election is only one element of this campaign. Russia is also coordinating efforts to sow disinformation in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and Europe; engage in espionage; and execute other multi-faceted acts of “hybrid warfare.”
According to Anna Borshchevskaya, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who contributed to the report, these clear-cut goals put Russia at an advantage over the U.S., which lacks a cohesive narrative as it struggles to combat, or even identify, the threat. “We still have a story to tell but because we are so polarized and are doubting ourselves we have a narrative problem,” she told Politico. “Russia does not.”
According to the report, Borshchevskaya believes not only that Russia feels that the downfall of the U.S. is integral to Russia’s ability to accomplish its objectives. “The Russian leadership’s worldview is zero-sum; it believes that in order for Russia to win, the US must lose,” the report reads, in reference to Borshchevskaya’s contention.
Outside of the lack of a narrative, the report, which was authored by over 20 national security experts inside and outside of the Pentagon, explains that America’s “greatest weakness” in thwarting Russia’s efforts is a lack of coordination among government agencies. “The US democratic, federal system of government hinders the ability to effectively plan, coordinate, and execute a comprehensive strategy across all federal government agencies with equities in succeeding the gray zone,” the report reads. “To accomplish this type of planning and strategy development would require decisions to be made, and funding to be coordinated, across all branches of the federal government.”
A “comprehensive strategy,” must be developed, including large-scale organization within the State Department, as well as taking active steps to discourage the burgeoning alliance between Russia and China, who “share an affinity for authoritarian stability” and are working to “expand their influence at the expense of US and allied powers seen to be in decline.”
In other words, liberalism’s place in the global order is in grave danger unless the United States gets its shit together.
The report contrasts starkly with Trump’s assessment of the situation, which falls somewhere between bemused ambivalence and abject ignorance. Just prior to the G-20 summit in Japan, Putin described the “liberal idea” — e.g. democracy — as becoming “obsolete.” When Trump was asked by the New York Times what he made of Putin’s comments on “Western-style liberalism,” he made clear that he has no understanding of the idea of the tenets on which America was founded, responding by attacking San Francisco and Los Angeles, cities “run by liberal people” in the western United States. “Sad to look at,” the president said.