The Russia Threat is More Comprehensive than you Think

By Michael Sulick

Michael Sulick is the former director of CIA’s National Clandestine Service and is currently a consultant on counterintelligence and global risk assessment.  Sulick also served as Chief of Counterintelligence and Chief of the Central Eurasia Division where he was responsible for intelligence collection operations and foreign liaison relationships in Russia, Eastern Europe and the former republics of the Soviet Union.  He is the author of Spying in America: Espionage From the Revolutionary War to the Dawn of the Cold War and American Spies: Espionage Against the United States from the Cold War to the Present

Russia. We hear and read about it every day in the mainstream media, but the news seems almost exclusively focused on the various investigations of Russian meddling and the politics surrounding them. Russian meddling, to be sure, merits this coverage since the cyberattacks and spread of polarizing disinformation represented a major assault on the bedrock of US democracy, our electoral process. However, Russian domestic and foreign policies involve a broad spectrum of issues that are covered only thinly in the media. To fill these gaps, The Cipher Brief is launching a new column that will focus on many of these Russian issues and their implications for US national security.

The nuclear arms race was a constant news item during the Cold War, and a new race appears looming as bilateral relations have plummeted. Before Putin’s certain presidential re-election, he publicly revealed with fiery rhetoric an array of new weaponry, including an invincible nuclear missile impervious to U.S. missile defenses. While U.S. experts were skeptical, Putin has indeed modernized and expanded Russia’s nuclear triad. At the same time, the U.S. President has pledged to modernize and rebuild America’s nuclear capability, a proposal that, if implemented, would present a considerable challenge to Putin. Can Putin, grappling with a sluggish economy, compete with a U.S. program?  Or could the frightening prospect of a new arms race lead to a new round of disarmament talks, despite the current abysmal state of bilateral relations? Since both nations are capable of destroying life on the planet as we know it, the issue is clearly newsworthy.

Putin’s display of new weaponry was intended as a warning to the West but also conveyed a pre-election message on the domestic front: “Russia is under attack by foreign enemies and needs a strong leader like me, who has restored Russia as a superpower and countered Western aggression in our backyard (Ukraine) and globally (Syria).” The conflicts in both countries remain sore points in Russia’s relations with the West, but media coverage of these intractable problems has been overshadowed by the Russia investigation. The situation in the Ukraine has grown worse: according to the US envoy to the Ukraine, Kurt Volker, last year was the deadliest in the conflict since it began. In Syria, prospects for a peace settlement appear remote.

Besides military engagement in the Ukraine and Syria, Russian has meddled in European elections, an issue that has received some media coverage. However, one area that has been largely ignored is the Balkans, the most unstable region on the continent. Despite the peace agreement after the NATO overthrow of Milosevic, many Balkan countries remain corrupt, impoverished, plagued by centuries-old ethnic hatreds and thus vulnerable to Russia’s efforts to undermine NATO and the EU. Russia continues to flood the countries with disinformation to disparage these Western institutions, exacerbate ethnic tensions, and support pro-Russian leaders. Concerned about Montenegro’s imminent admittance to NATO, Russia acted even more boldly by backing a plot to overthrow its government in 2016. Will Putin interfere again when and if other Balkan countries come closer to membership in NATO or the EU?

On the domestic front, Putin’s foreign adventures have strained financial resources at a time when the Russian economy has been bedeviled by sanctions, plummeting foreign investment and low oil prices. Oil prices, however, have been rising, reaching $80 a barrel, a 25% increase from last year and the highest since 2014, adding millions a day to Russian coffers. What is the impact of this economic relief on Russian foreign policy? Will Putin feel emboldened to sustain and even expand his overseas military involvement? Or will he invest more in social services to prevent popular dissatisfaction, especially as war fatigue among Russians appears to be increasing?

These are just a few of the many current issues regarding Russia that impact US national security. Others deserve attention as well –- in foreign policy, for example, Russian competition yet cooperation with China; at home, the potential for terrorism from jihadis returning from Syria to the Caucasus and from flocks of Central Asian guest workers in Russia. All of these issues — and undoubtedly new ones that will arise in the years ahead –- will, of course, be viewed through the lens of a long term burning question: what will Putin do when his presidential term ends? He is prevented by the constitution from a third consecutive term, but, as Vyacheslav Volodin, one of his closest cronies, put it, “if there is no Putin, there is no Russia.” Will Putin change the constitution to remain president?  Anoint a successor as Yeltsin did with him? Or will unforeseen events produce yet other options, some, perhaps, beyond Putin’s control?

Whatever happens, TCB readers will be kept informed on the full range of domestic and foreign policy issues at stake.

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.

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