Cipher Brief Expert Ambassador Joseph DeTrani is former Director of the National Counterproliferation Center. The views are the authors and not any government agency or department.
OPINION — Russian President Vladimir Putin, who just received popular support to remain in power until 2036, is on a crusade to ensure that Russia remains a first-tier nation, while actively pursuing a strategy to undermine the global leadership role of the U.S.
The implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991, which Putin said was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”, appears to be the crutch Putin uses to justify: Intervention in Syria, meddling in the U.S. 2016 presidential election, allegedly paying Taliban forces to target American and coalition forces in Afghanistan, exploiting U.S. social media to disseminate disinformation on COVID-19 and other sensitive domestic issues. Knowing that these actions will generate responses from the U.S. and others, with sanctions and international opprobrium, then why is Putin pursuing such a confrontational policy? Simply stated: For revenge.
Putin’s strategy appears to focus on improving relations with China while encouraging the deterioration of U.S.-China relations; fixating on the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan (1979-89) and ensuring the U.S. also suffers in Afghanistan; exploiting social media to disseminate disinformation into the U.S. to undermine good governance, feebly mimicking U.S. programs in the 1980s that used the media to disseminate real world news into the Soviet Union and its impact on Soviet President Gorbachev who instituted glasnost (openness) and the role, Putin believes, it played in the Soviet implosion in 1991.
The Nixon visit to China and meetings with Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai in 1972 and normalization of relations in 1979 focused on an aggressive Soviet Union that was a nuclear threat to China and an enemy of the U.S. This common enemy – the Soviet Union – brought the U.S. and China together, after decades of hostility. What ensued, initially with Presidents Carter and Reagan, and Chairman Deng Xiaoping and Premier Zhao Ziyang, was significant economic, scientific, academic and strategic cooperation. Cooperating to push back against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was part of this strategic cooperation. So, given the weaponry and the stinger man-portable surface-to-air missiles that the U.S. provided to the Mujahideen, Soviet casualties mounted, with an eventual humiliating Russian withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989.
U.S.-China relations have progressed exponentially over the past forty-one years, especially in trade, investment, cultural and scientific exchanges and strategic cooperation on issues dealing with international terrorism and organized crime, proliferation, narcotics trafficking and piracy on the seas. However, there are important irritants in the bilateral relationship, not uncommon in international relations.
Russian relations with China have also improved over the last two decades, with China and Russia establishing the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2002, a Eurasian political, economic and security alliance. Recently, China and Russia have conducted a number of joint military exercises and in the United National Security Council they have cooperated closely, especially on issues dealing with North Korea. During this same period, however, U.S.-China relations have been challenged by a number of issues requiring greater attention: COVID-19, the trade imbalance, intellectual property theft, actions in the South China Sea, treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang and the recent national security law imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing. These and other issues are actively being discussed at the highest levels in Washington and Beijing.
No doubt, Putin is monitoring closely U.S. relations with China while pursuing programs to ensure that as Russia improves relations with China, U.S.- China relations deteriorate to the point of economic decoupling and the beginning of a new cold war, this time with China. This would not be too dissimilar to U.S. rapprochement with China in the 1970s when the Soviet Union was the common enemy. This time, Putin wants good relations with China, with the U.S. as the common enemy. Movement in this direction would be unfortunate for China and the U.S., and for the region and the international community.
Russia’s aggressive exploitation of U.S. social media platforms, as we saw in 2016, continues to be used by Moscow to foment discord within the U.S. and when necessary, to exacerbate international relations, as we’re witnessing with Soviet disinformation alleging that COVID-19 originated in the U.S. while, also, claiming that it was a bio-weapon. Putin may feel justified in exploiting social media for disinformation purposes, conflating it with the Reagan Administration’s efforts to get factual news and commentary into the Soviet Union in the 1980s, when the regime was denying its citizens access to news and commentary on local and world events. This effort by President Reagan was, in my view, the impetus for President Mikhail Gorbachev’s Glasnost program – openness, transparency and less censorship in the Soviet Union.
Recent media reports about the Russian government allegedly paying Taliban forces to kill American and coalition forces in Afghanistan is beyond the pale, even for Putin. The U.S. provision of weapons and Stingers to the Mujahideen in the 1980s was to defend against a strong invading Russian army. If recent media reports are true, and Russia’s GRU was providing the Taliban with a bounty for the killing of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, then there must be consequences for Russia; the U.S. and the international community should, at a minimum, impose punishing sanctions.
This is the time for the U.S. to provide the international leadership necessary to expose, confront and punish Russia for its criminal behavior.
This piece by Cipher Brief Expert Ambassador Joseph DeTrani was first published in The Washington Times
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