On June 15, the U.S. Helsinki Commission held a hearing on the Trump administration's policy toward Russia, addressing the dissonance between its rhetoric versus the actual policy. The panelists, including Herman Pirchner, Jr., Alina Polyakova, and Yulia Latynina, highlighted some of the most polarizing issues of both U.S. and Russian foreign policy—sanctions, hybrid warfare, and cybersecurity.

 

Left to right: Rachel Bauman, Herman Pirchner, Jr., Alina Polyakova, Yulia Latynina. Photo: CSCE (screenshot).

 

Panelists:

Mr. Herman Pirchner, Jr., President, American Foreign Policy Council

Dr. Alina Polyakova, David M. Rubenstein Fellow, Foreign Policy, Center on the United States and Europe, Brookings Institution

Ms. Yulia Latynina, Journalist, Echo Moskvy and Novaya Gazeta

Moderator:

Rachel Bauman, Policy Advisor, Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (Helsinki Commission)

 

Statements:

Pirchner, Jr.:

  • Both what Trump says and what the administration does are equally important when considering the government’s policy on Russia.
  • Some argue that Trump’s policies are hardened by the influence of his appointed advisors who advocate a harsher stance on Russia, but it is important to remember that it is Trump himself who appointed these advisors.
  • How does Trump’s statement at the G7 summit about Russia rejoining the roundtable discussion, as well as his refusal to criticize Putin directly play into this new hard line? It all depends on how Trump’s words are read, as it is impossible to know what is inside of his head. We must hope that Trump knows what he’s doing when making these statements on Russia. 

Polyakova:

  • Right now, the policy regarding Russia is the toughest since the end of the Cold War. The National Security agenda clearly points to Russia as a prime adversary to the United States. All national security agencies and the State Department seem to agree with the policy of a deterrence/containment strategy. Since January 2017, there have been 26 distinct policy actions against Russia, 205 new sanctions, and the largest expulsion of diplomats in history.
  • It should be noted that whilst sanctions are a good first step, they are not enough when targeting the oligarchs. There is a hard distinction between the Russian people and the parasitic, kleptocratic government.
  • Still, there is a decoupling between the rhetoric and the reality: for example, Trump stated that Russia should rejoin the G7, but within hours Director of National Intelligence Dan Coates outlined a hawkish and tough Russia policy. This dissonance confuses America’s European allies.
  • Given that Russia lacks an economy and military on a par with the U.S., the Kremlin compensates by focusing on hybrid warfare. Targeting this asymmetric space and the Russian elite should be the main focus moving forward.

Latynina:

  • Unfortunately, there is no good diplomatic strategy with Putin, as he is an aggressor who claims to be a victim. Although there are no true territorial or economic spoils of a hybrid war, Putin wields it as a tool of destabilization. Putin is more interested in a press war than an actual war, where he can wield a multiplicity of truths to his advantage.
  • Putin is using sanctions to fuel the narrative of Russia as a victim surrounded by enemies. Before 2014, Putin’s main support base was the elite. Now, the support base has shifted to the underclass, suffering under poor living conditions. The Kremlin offers them a villain to rally against—the West.  

 

Questions from the moderator:  

Bauman: Do Trump’s statements and alienation of European allies position them closer to Russia and undermine traditional U.S. alliances?

Pirchner, Jr.:

  • Trump’s statements are open to a variety of interpretations but are the better alternative to the lies spewed by the Russian state.

Polyakova:

  • These are not related, as there were already sectors in European society which supported Putin, such as in Germany or Austria. Italy also now has a government comprised of right-wing populists. This trend was happening before the U.S. elections in 2016 and has been happening since the 1990s.
  • Putin is adept at detecting power vacuums and divisions amongst the U.S. and its allies and knowing how to weasel himself into these divisions, using them to his own advantage. Europe already had strong ties to Russia and has a growing dependency on Russian gas. 

Latynina:

  • Putin is very good at exploiting cracks in the Western world. If the mainstream parties do not address controversial issues such as immigration in Europe, then the marginal parties with questionable influence from the Kremlin will.

Bauman: Congress’s recent passing of the sanctions bill against Russia is an example of a tough policy. Do you think the surprisingly quick and bipartisan support was a way to affirm a hardline stance against Russia and offer consistency amongst Trump’s often confusing tweets?

Pirchner, Jr.:

  • It must be kept in mind that if Trump did not agree with it or support a hardline stance, he would not have signed the bill. He technically did not have to sign the bill.

Polyakova:

  • They could have just passed a bill in line with the Obama-era Russian stance, but instead, they passed a harsher bill. The sanctions were based on a classified assessment of specific individuals and companies which are involved in “dirty dealings.”

 

Q&A:

1. What are your thoughts on how U.S. policymakers should tackle cybersecurity problems? 

Polyakova:

  • The Kremlin manipulates narratives, which is different than just putting out false stories and “fake news.” U.S. intelligence communities must be aware of their own cyber vulnerabilities. While strides have been made, such as prohibiting the use of Kaspersky on government computers, there is still a long way to go.

Latynina:

  • NATO is more vulnerable to cyber attacks than many realize. Their cyber defense headquarters are located in Estonia and has faced cyber attacks from Russia in the past.
  • The hype about Russian “fake news” wrongly overshadows the threat of cyber warfare, as Russian DOS attacks often do not get investigated in the U.S.

 

2. What do the shell ties that private military companies have to the Putin regime mean for the future of US-Russian relations and military action?

Latynina:

  • The phrase “private military company” in Russia is ironic in itself. The majority of entities have ties to the government.
  • Putin wants diminished liability and plausible deniability where we cannot be 100% sure that Putin is the man behind it. He achieves this by delegating roles to others, such as restaurateur Yevgeny Prigozhin, who also owns a stake in private military group Wagner, which was involved in Russia’s operations in Syria.

Polyakova:

  • Plausible deniability inevitably leads to warfare by proxy, in both the conventional and nonconventional spaces (such as cyber warfare and disinformation).

 

3. When it comes to those who assist Russian oligarchs in transferring and hiding money, what has been and can be done?

Polyakova:

  • The U.K. has a serious problem with dirty Russian money (as do Miami and New York). Especially in the wake of Brexit, London is dependent on foreign capital to support its status as a prestigious metropolis.
  • In the battle against shell companies and law firms with shady funding, it is vital to establish clearly articulated legislature and the UK is considering legislation which points to identifying transparency. 

Pirchner, Jr.:

  • During the last days of U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, laws were drafted which called for a substantial disclosure of where money is coming from. They were not implemented due to the influx of Russian money funneled into both the Tory and Labour parties.

 

Maggie Tinner and Alisa Drevesnikova compiled this briefing.

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