On March 1st, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace hosted a panel event to mark the launch of its Global Russia project—an initiative aimed at uncovering the “whys” and “hows” of Moscow’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy. Notable speakers included Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), investigative journalist Elizaveta Osetinskaya, foreign policy expert Andrew Weiss, and former CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin.

 

Left to right: Bianna Golodryga, Elizaveta Osetinskaya, John McLaughlin, and Andrew Weiss. Photo: Youtube.

 

Panelists:

Mark Warner (Keynote Speaker), U.S. Senator (D-VA) and Vice Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence

John McLaughlin, former Deputy Director and Acting Director of the Central Intelligence Agency

Elizaveta Osetinskaya, Russian investigative journalist and former editor in chief of RBC, Vedomosti, and Forbes Russia

Andrew Weiss, Vice President for Studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Bianna Golodryga (Moderator), Correspondent at CBS News and CNN contributor

William J. Burns, President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

 

Introductory Remarks:

Burns:

  • The goal of the Carnegie Endowment’s Global Russia project is to take a closer look at Russia’s increasingly assertive foreign policy.
    • This is not a purely academic endeavor since the Kremlin has meddled directly in American democracy, and has exploited domestic divisions for geopolitical gain.
    • By exploiting divisions within and between Western countries, Putin has threatened the liberal international order that has sustained the world over the past 70 years.
  • Throughout Vladimir Putin’s next term in office, Russia’s foreign policy will continue to be guided by grievance, insecurity, and ambition.
  • Putin has long sought to fill geopolitical vacuums around the world; this pattern of behavior will almost surely continue.

 

Keynote Address: 

Warner:

  • Putin’s recent State of the Union address underscores the fact that Russia’s aggressive foreign policy is here to stay. The U.S. is not, however, in a new Cold War; today’s conflict is more amorphous, and the West is not winning.
  • The Kremlin has used unconventional weapons and tools to realize its geopolitical ambitions, including cyber attacks, hacking, selective leaking, and disinformation campaigns. These tools are often deployed by non-state surrogates, affording the Russian government a degree of plausible deniability.
  • In the post-Cold War era, it was widely assumed that Russia’s integration into the Western liberal order was inevitable. Consequently, the United States’ focus shifted from great power rivalry to counterterrorism, and the security threats posed by failed states such as Afghanistan.
    • The West underestimated the resentment that many Russians felt during the 90s, as their experiment with free market and democracy proved chaotic and unstable. Russians were saddened that their country no longer reigned as a global superpower.
  • Russia’s post-Cold War history allowed for Putin’s rise to and grip on power; an ex-KGB agent, he holds a long-standing grudge against the West for the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today, the Kremlin’s main geostrategic goal is to weaken the United States and the liberal international order.
  • The Kremlin, however, cannot match the West in traditional, tit-for-tat confrontations. Consequently, it has opted for the Gerasimov Doctrine, a war-fighting strategy that blurs the lines between conflict and peace, and emphasizes nonmilitary, asymmetric means to advance Russia’s interests.
  • Russia used three main tactics during its interference campaign against the 2016 U.S. presidential election: 1) targeting of election infrastructure; 2) leaks and cyber warfare; and 3) social media-based disinformation.
  • No matter the disinformation campaign’s actual impact on the vote itself, even the threat of such an incursion can undermine the American public’s confidence in the integrity of its democracy. The U.S. is totally unprepared to deal with similar threats to the 2018 midterm elections and beyond.
  • The Soviets also spread fake news and propaganda worldwide, but such initiatives required much more time and effort than Russia’s current disinformation efforts.
  • Both the U.S. government and technology companies have failed to fully appreciate the extent to which social media platforms can be exploited for disinformation efforts.
  • Russia’s “active measures” in the U.S. election proved both effective and cheap, and they remain a threat today. Indeed, Russia-linked accounts continue to publish politically controversial posts on Twitter, with the goal of creating even deeper divisions within American society. Russia spends around $68 billion a year on national security; the U.S. spends nearly 10 times that much, but, unfortunately, not enough of it is geared toward 21st century conflict: the domains of informational and cyber warfare.
  • The U.S. must spell out a cyber/information warfare deterrence doctrine, so that Russia’s tactics do not prove costless for the Kremlin.
  • Unfortunately, Congress is largely handicapped by the White House’s unwillingness to address the issue of Russian interference in U.S. elections. The nature of the United States’ conflict with Russia must be detailed and explained thoroughly to the American people.

 

Panel:

Golodryga: What is your reaction to Putin’s recent State of the Union speech, in which he claimed that Russia has acquired new, defense-evading nuclear weapons?

Weiss:

  • It was a direct message to Russian voters – that their country is back on the world stage in a major way.

Osetinskaya:

  • For most Russians, it’s important to feel that their country is a superpower on the world stage.
  • Russian leaders often find it politically advantageous to have an “enemy” to run against (e.g. the United States).
  • Putin’s speech was very much directed toward voters ahead of the upcoming presidential elections.
  • Despite the election’s highly predictable outcome, the Kremlin still hopes to bolster voter turnout and excitement – mostly for its image.

Golodryga: How would you assess the Russian threat?

Weiss:

  • We need to take a step back and understand that this is not a new Cold War, and that Russia has set its crosshairs on a far larger number of targets than we ever saw with the USSR in the Soviet era.
  • Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West assumed that Russia would strive for a benign external environment, and that it would avoid risk on the world stage, or at least that Moscow would focus most of its attention on the “near abroad.”
  • These assumptions, of course, proved to be wrong.
  • Putin’s aggression has partly been a drawn-out reaction to the street protests in Moscow in 2011-2012. He really does believe that the United States’ goal is to overthrow his regime.

Golodryga: Were you surprised at all by the news of Russia’s electoral interference efforts?

Osetinskaya:

  • I was only surprised to learn that these “active measures” were planned by the Kremlin as early as 2014.
  • In reality, though, it is quite difficult to assess what effect Russian trolls actually had on the outcome of the 2016 U.S. election; Western media has likely exaggerated their influence.
  • On the other hand, the U.S. has generally underestimated the Kremlin’s skill and determination in achieving its goals abroad. It is likely that the U.S. will suffer another attack on its democracy in the near future.

Golodryga: U.S. intelligence chiefs stated recently that they haven’t been directed to retaliate against Russia’s electoral interference efforts. How important is it for Trump to initiate that order if we are to see anything happen on that front?

McLoughlin:

  • It’s extremely important. It’s hard for the U.S. government to mobilize on an issue like this until the president gives the order.
  • Another reason the U.S. has been slow to mobilize on this issue is that the government lacks a comprehensive cyber strategy and, consequently, an understanding of how escalation will proceed in the cyber domain.

Golodryga: Russia is also hoping to influence political and wartime outcomes in other parts of the world, including Mexico, Venezuela, and Syria. What are your thoughts? 

Weiss:

  • We have seen a disproportionate number of social media discussions on the Mexico election coming from abroad – and a huge amount of that volume is coming from Russia itself.
  • The Kremlin is helping Venezuela’s government stay afloat. At the heart of this decision is the Kremlin’s vision for a multipolar world, in which Moscow is involved in key interactions and decision-making worldwide.

 

Q&A: 

  1. Latvia has the largest proportion of Russian speakers in the EU. How should the government deal with domestic dissent amongst this population?

Weiss:

  • The challenge will be for the Latvian government not to overreact in the case of unrest amongst Russian speakers. Overall though, the situation in the Baltics has proven to be far more manageable than the one we’ve seen in Ukraine over the past few years.
  • The West’s strategy vis-à-vis the Baltics needs to focus on economic, diplomatic, political, and military support, so that the Kremlin has fewer easy targets on it borders.

 

  1. What will another 6 years of Putin look like?

McLoughlin:

  • Putin’s goals will be to:
    • Further consolidate power at home.
    • Continue to project Russian strength in its near abroad (FSU).
    • Continue to weaken Western institutions (NATO/EU).
    • Further expand Russia’s role in the world.

Osetinskaya:

  • The Kremlin might choose to censor some social media platforms.
  • Putin might follow Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s example of staying in power for life.

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