Moscow Station is a new Cipher Brief column containing the highest-level insights into the evolving and comprehensive national security threat posed by Russia. The column features distinctive commentary and analysis from Cipher Brief Experts.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is fond of rallying his populace with admonitions about the military threat. ostensibly emanating from Russia’s “Main Enemy” the United States and the NATO Alliance. But he does this only to conceal what most threatens his regime security: sovereign, free, democratic states committed to the principles of freedom and liberty, determined to counter Russia’s economic predation and nefarious political influence.
What scares Vladimir Putin the most? It’s still democracy, especially in the former Soviet Union, whose collapse Putin once called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”
Seeking to block NATO members from executing their plan to welcome Georgia and Ukraine into the Alliance, (which was outlined during the NATO Bucharest Summit in April 2008) the Kremlin invaded Georgia in August 2008 and has been at war with Ukraine since 2014. And Ukraine has since been under siege from cyber, economic, and military attacks launched by the Kremlin.
Following the Maidan protests, Russian backed separatists in Ukraine’s Donbass region, providing them with significant military and material support. Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea violated international law and the Kremlin’s own agreements with Kiev to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity. In response, the G-8 suspended Russia’s participation and introduced sanctions.
In a throwback to the same justification Hitler used to annex Sudetenland, Putin defended the Crimea referendum to become part of Russia as consistent with the principle of self-determination for Crimea’s ethnic Russian majority population. Baltic NATO members with Russian speaking minorities are rightly concerned they might be Putin’s next targets. In an effort to degrade Baltic democratic institutions in the short term and create a potential pretext for future military action, Putin has used his hard, soft, and espionage powers in an effort to drive a wedge between ethnic Russian and non-Russian populations.
In the meantime, Russian cyber attacks have targeted Ukraine’s media, finance, military, elections, campaigns, and energy sector including attacks against the Ukrainian power grid in 2015 and 2016. The cyber onslaught also reached Ukraine’s pension fund, treasury, and ministries of Infrastructure, Defense, and Finance. Russia is exploiting Ukraine’s cyberspace as a testing ground to develop sophisticated, malicious software, that it can then launch toward European and U.S. targets.
But Russia’s aggression has only increased support in Ukraine for NATO membership. Ukraine has emerged as an aspiring member and is moving toward a NATO Membership Action plan by taking some very real steps. Countering Russia’s trade war, Ukraine enhanced its economic integration with Europe, following the 2016 free trade agreement it signed with the EU commission. NATO members have assisted Ukraine in enhancing its own cyber defenses. In May 2018, the Trump Administration delivered Javelin anti-tank missile systems to Ukraine with a small team of “basic skill trainers” who advise Ukrainian forces.
Amidst the background of Russia’s nefarious espionage and meddling in U.S. elections, which then- Ambassador John Bolton (now U.S. National Security Advisor) rightly called an “act of war,” nuclear arms control, Syria, and North Korea are also challenging an increasingly tense U.S.-Russia bilateral relationship. These contentious issues as well as areas of potential mutual interest including counterterrorism and counterproliferation, should be key discussion points during the upcoming Helsinki summit. But it is Ukraine’s growing relationship with the EU and NATO, in part in response to Putin’s multifaceted attacks, that represents an existential threat to Putin’s regime security.
Putin’s aggression in Ukraine has been costly to Russia’s economy in terms of lost trade and significant budget resources devoted to Crimea including building the Kerch straight bridge. Ukraine is neither a strategic nor a military threat to Russia, yet Putin’s national security strategy is based on degrading Ukraine’s government institutions because he knows that nothing threatens his regime more than a democratic, prosperous neighbor with a sizeable Russian speaking population and commitment to the rule of law.
The Helsinki summit needs to include serious discussions about Ukraine with the understanding that Ukraine is one of the first lines of defense against Russia’s pernicious espionage, military, cyber, and economic attacks. In the interests of U.S. national security and the principles for which we stand, there is no better time for President Trump to deliver a powerful declaration of support for Ukraine and the U.S. commitment to Ukraine’s independence, than during his upcoming diplomatic engagement with Putin.