Tag Archives: Vladimir Putin

Election Mirage: Why Claims of Russian Meddling Should Be Questioned

By David B. Rivkin, Jr., and George Beebe

28 February 2020 in The National Interest

What does one do when the country’s intelligence leadership is acting, well, not very intelligently? That is the inescapable question prompted by last week’s reports that a senior representative of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) told members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) in an official briefing that Russia is interfering in the 2020 U.S. presidential election and hopes to see President Donald Trump re-elected.

According to the New York Times account, Trump learned of this briefing only after the fact. And if press reports are accurate, the briefer cited no direct evidence of meddling on Trump’s behalf or of Russia’s broader intentions regarding U.S. presidential elections. Rather, the case was apparently based on inferences from such inherently ambiguous evidence as Russian hacking of the Ukrainian energy firm Burisma, supposedly done to help Trump dig up dirt on Hunter Biden. Such inferences were evidently reinforced by an assessment, lacking in analytical merit but redolent with politics, that the Kremlin would somehow naturally favor Trump over other 2020 presidential candidates.

Republican HPSCI members reportedly erupted in response. They disputed the plausibility of an assessment that Russia would prefer a president who has built up the U.S. military, proved willing to use force in the Middle East, greatly stiffened sanctions on Moscow, fought Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project, and toughened other policies affecting Russia. Why would Russians not favor Democrats who would cut the U.S. defense budget, balk at using military force, and impose a ban on fracking that would drive up global oil and gas prices and benefit Russia’s energy export earnings? Trump, in turn, called the allegation of Russian support a “hoax.”

Should Intelligence Assessments Be Taken with a Grain of Salt?

Should intelligence overseers in Congress, the White House, and media subject the judgments of professional analysts to tough scrutiny? History says yes. Formulating intelligence assessments is an inherently uncertain and difficult business. Even establishing basic facts is a challenge when dealing with adversaries, who attempt to shroud their capabilities in secrecy. Intelligence assessments of the Soviet nuclear forces buildup, for example, were plagued by both over- and under-estimations, leading first to erroneous American concerns about a “missile gap” under Khrushchev, and later to surprise when the Soviets tried to put missiles in Cuba and then pushed well past nuclear parity in the 1970s.

In fact, one of the key reasons for the consistent underestimations of the Soviet nuclear force posture circa 1970s–1980s, was not a failure of the U.S. technical collection capabilities, but the CIA’s failure to accept that Moscow’s key strategic goal was to be able to fight and win a nuclear war. Ironically, Moscow was not trying to hide its thinking on this issue, as numerous Soviet military officials laid out their nuclear war-fighting ethos in published books and articles. However, U.S. intelligence analysts discounted this evidence, believing that Moscow, whatever it might have been publicly saying and doing, somehow subscribed to a mutually assured destruction theory as the best way to both maximize deterrence and minimize the risks of nuclear war.

By contrast, in earlier years, the CIA greatly overestimated the then-existing Soviet nuclear capabilities. By the late 1950s, the Soviet Union was locked in a strategic arms competition with the United States, and it was losing badly. America enjoyed a considerable and growing advantage in both long- and intermediate-range nuclear forces. Yet, having embarked on an ambitious foreign policy designed to test American resolve, and possibly drive U.S. forces out of Berlin, Khrushchev was not prepared to curtail his aspirations.

To enhance his military capabilities vis-à-vis the United States, he could have deployed a number of costly, inaccurate and vulnerable first-generation ICBMs. Alternatively, he could have chosen to invest the USSR’s large, but not unlimited, resources in the development of more advanced land-based missiles (with deployment many years in the future) and other, more reliable, strategic delivery systems that might tip the nuclear balance in his favor.

Sensibly enough, he chose the latter course. However, to maintain the highest quality deterrence against the West and, even more to the point, to support the enhanced Soviet prestige necessary for an ambitious foreign policy, Khrushchev also engaged in an elaborate deception designed to make the West believe that Moscow had already fielded strategically meaningful numbers of advanced ICBMs. The Soviet leader’s public statements were supported by a carefully tailored intelligence disinformation campaign that not only tried to hide Moscow’s actual capabilities but also masked Soviet insecurities by suggesting Khrushchev wanted to challenge directly the United States in building up nuclear forces.

From Khrushchev’s perspective, the plan worked like a charm, at least temporarily. The alleged “missile gap” between the United States and the USSR was seized upon by a young Democratic Senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, to discredit the Eisenhower Administration and to defeat then-Vice President Richard M. Nixon in the 1960 presidential election. Not only did the Soviet Union avoid wasting billions of rubles, but Khrushchev concluded that he could outmaneuver the inexperienced Kennedy.

To be sure, Moscow’s gambit ultimately failed, as the U.S. eventually discovered that Moscow was not “cranking out missiles like sausages,” in Khrushchev’s oft-used expression, and blocked the Soviets from installing medium and intermediate-range missiles in Cuba. This did not, however, negate the fact that for a considerable period of time U.S. intelligence estimates about Soviet capabilities were profoundly wrong.

Divining Intentions Is Extra Hard

Discerning adversary capabilities is difficult enough, particularly when dealing with closed societies with strict government controls on information. But divining an adversary’s intentions is an even more challenging task. In part, this is because capabilities, even when ascertained with the utmost precision, often lend themselves to multiple explanations of intent. Americans accurately recognized that Japan would have enormous disadvantages in an extended war with the United States, but they did not imagine that Tokyo might nonetheless attempt a knock-out blow of the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. Israelis correctly understood that Egypt could not hope to defeat their forces on the battlefield, but they failed to consider that Sadat might still see some advantage in launching a surprise offensive in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Moreover, decisions made by heads of state can often surprise even their closest aides. Intelligence reporting can accurately convey information from highly-placed foreign officials, yet still miss the mark when it comes to portraying foreign intentions. This problem can arise either because the officials just do not know enough about the intentions of their superiors, or because their superiors changed their minds, or simply because their superiors chose to lie to them. Saddam Hussein, for example, deceived his own generals in leading them to believe that, despite the international sanctions imposed in the aftermath of the first Gulf War, Iraq retained operational weapons of mass destruction

The difficulty in grasping intentions is particularly acute when it comes to foreign influence operations. Often, media operations are aimed at little more than reinforcing a state’s diplomatic messaging. The BBC and Voice of America have long broadcast content into countries dominated by state-controlled media, hoping to provide audiences with alternative perspectives on events. But sometimes media campaigns are not intended to persuade, but to deceive and even subvert—to tear the social and political fabric of their target audiences and undermine government authority.

The objectives of such subversion, however, can be agonizingly difficult to ascertain with much confidence. Sometimes the goal of subversion can be to topple a foreign authority—to so damage the operations of a regime so that it can no longer function effectively and crumbles from within. In other instances, the aim is less ambitious and more pragmatic—to force the target leadership to do things it would rather not do, such as refrain from behavior perceived as threatening. And when creating controversial online content also happens to be the most effective way to attract views, generate clicks, and bolster advertising revenues, separating subversive intent from other more mundane motivations in digital media campaigns becomes even more challenging.

More generally, given the past record of intelligence failures—particularly when it came to the analysis of intentions of various hostile powers, and the fact that there are still ongoing debates about such key Cold War episodes as the real Soviet motivations that drove a series of Berlin crises, and the Cuban Missile Crisis—the notion that the judgments of the Intelligence Community about Russian intentions virtually delivered in real-time today should be accepted without skepticism is nothing short of risible.

What Does Moscow Want?

In view of such inherent challenges, what can we say about the renewed controversy over Russian electoral meddling? There is no doubt that Russians are continuing to post digital news and social media content aimed at American audiences. It is also clear that Russian hackers have targeted American electoral databases and vote-counting systems in the past. What is less clear are the motivations that lie behind this activity.

That it is aimed at securing the victory or defeat of any particular candidate or party is an unproven hypothesis at best. The Kremlin cannot fail to realize that any significant pro-Trump meddling would be exposed and would hurt rather than help his electoral prospects. This being the case, one might plausibly argue that the real reason Moscow might unveil some footprint of a pro-Trump campaign is because it would expect this to be discovered and actually harm Trump. In fact, such a scenario illustrates perfectly how difficult it is to ascertain Putin’s intentions, even if one had perfect evidence of what Moscow was actually doing in U.S. elections.

Source: https://nationalinterest.org/feature/election-mirage-why-claims-russian-meddling-should-be-questioned-127992

Trump is right on Nord Stream 2

President Trump was right to criticize Chancellor Angela Merkel’s plan for a new pipeline carrying Russian natural gas to Germany. This project threatens European independence and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and it was opposed by the Obama administration and many Senate Democrats, although not much was done to stop the pipeline’s construction. Numerous European countries have also been sharply critical of Mrs. Merkel’s energy plans. Mr. Trump has correctly sought to diminish Moscow’s European energy footprint, belying claims he is a stooge of Vladimir Putin.

In 2015 the European Commission cited Russia’s politically motivated disruptions of energy exports as one of the main causes of Europe’s energy insecurity. Moscow is the largest energy exporter to Europe; Gazprom alone supplied almost 40% of Europe’s natural gas in 2017. According to World Bank data, Gazprom’s European gas prices last year were more than double the U.S. domestic price. Russia has also repeatedly used its gas to blackmail Europe, cutting off the supply in 2006, 2009 and 2014, and causing severe shortages in Eastern Europe.

Germany has sought for years to maintain a special energy relationship with Moscow as a means of securing its own energy-supply predominance in Europe. Once the Nord Steam expansion is completed, it will account for 80% of Russian gas imported to Europe, making Germany the Continent’s major gas-distribution hub.

The Nord Stream 2 project has received particularly strong support from the center-left Social Democratic Party, a key member of Mrs. Merkel’s shaky governing coalition. Gerhard Schröder, a former SPD chancellor, has served as chairman of Nord Stream 2 AG, a Gazprom-owned consortium.

Berlin signed the original Nord Stream pipeline deal with Russia during Mr. Schröder’s chancellorship in 2005. In 2017 the Russian government nominated Mr. Schröder to the board of Rosneft, the Russian oil giant. German media report that Mr. Schröder was paid some €250,000 annually at Gazprom, and is expected to be paid €300,000 to €425,000 at Rosneft. But Germans have largely shrugged at the spectacle of a former chancellor on Russia’s payroll.

Many other European countries, however, have been critical of Germany’s Russian-energy romance. Thirteen EU states vehemently oppose the Nord Stream expansion. They are concerned about the loss of transit-fee revenue from existing pipelines that run mostly through Ukraine and the security risk of Russia’s growing dominance over Europe’s gas market. They have demanded the European Commission transfer negotiating power over the pipeline from Germany to the EU.

The new pipeline would enhance Russia’s blackmail capability by enabling Moscow to cut off gas supplies to Eastern Europe without subjecting Western Europe to the same treatment. Not surprisingly, Eastern European states have taken the lead in trying to develop alternatives. In 2016 Croatia and Poland led the formation of the Three Seas Initiative, or 3SI, which united 12 states from the Baltics to the Balkans.

At a 3SI summit in Warsaw in June 2017, Mr. Trump pledged that the U.S. would bolster exports of liquefied natural gas to Europe so the Continent “can never be held hostage to a single supplier.” That statement was anchored in the administration’s broader strategy of transforming the U.S. into a pre-eminent low-cost global energy supplier.

Russia’s gas stranglehold is a source of vulnerability as well as power. Europe accounts for more than 80% of Gazprom’s exports. Energy accounts for almost half of Russia’s exports and 40% of its national budget. The implementation of a 3SI energy plan would drain Russia’s pocketbook and frustrate its geopolitical ambitions.

Moscow has recognized the challenge and done its best to block efforts to diversify European energy supplies. Russian proxies have moved to delay or stop the 3SI project. According to the Croatian media, Gasfin, a Luxembourg company acting as Gazprom’s cat’s-paw in Europe, is supporting local environmentalists opposed to construction of a new LNG terminal on Croatia’s Krk Island. Gasfin has even purchased land on the island so that it can hobble the project via legal challenges—while at the same time suggesting that Gazprom might support the Krk project if it receives only Russian gas. During Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic’s visit to Russia last October, Mr. Putin publicly offered a partnership to gasify Croatia.

Mr. Trump’s leadership on this issue has had tangible results. Poland has committed to buying LNG from the U.S. and has already completed a new LNG terminal. It will not renew a contract with Gazprom set to expire in 2022, ending a 74-year exclusive partnership. U.S. LNG imports to Europe rose 22% last year, and will likely keep growing.

Yet the fate of 3SI is uncertain. The Trump administration should ramp up its energy strategy in two ways. First, promote U.S. investment in all facets of 3SI projects. Second, nudge European countries to accept a long-term package of sanctions on Russian energy, patterned after Carter- and Reagan-era sanctions, including restrictions on technology transfers and financing of Russian gas production and exports. If the Europeans balk, the U.S. should impose such sanctions unilaterally.

An all-out U.S. effort to stop Nord Stream 2 would help restore credibility in the aftermath of the Helsinki summit. Over time, this strategy would reduce Moscow’s European gas exports dramatically, freeing Europe from Moscow’s blackmail. American energy exports to Europe would be reliable and fairly priced. More Americans would have jobs, trans-Atlantic ties would be stronger, and it would be a major blow to the Putin regime.

Mr. Rivkin, a constitutional litigator, served in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations at the White House Counsel’s Office and the Energy and Justice departments. Mr. Zuzul is a former Croatian foreign minister and ambassador to the U.S.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/trump-is-right-on-nord-stream-2-1532289915

Putin’s anti-Obama propaganda is ugly and desperate

By Paula J. Dobriansky and David B. Rivkin Jr. in the Washington Post

January 4, 2016, at 7:13 PM

Although international relations are not conducted under Marquess of Queensberry rules and political satire can be expected from one’s foes, intensely personal attacks on foreign leaders are uncommon except in wartime. While Soviet-era anti-American propaganda could be sharp, it did not employ slurs. But in recent years racist and scatological salvos against foreign leaders have become a staple of official Russian discourse.

Turkish, German and Ukrainian officials are cast as sycophantic stooges of the United States. While slamming Ankara at a December news conference for shooting down a Russian plane that violated Turkish airspace, Russian President Vladimir Putin opined that “the Turks decided to lick the Americans in a certain place.” Sergey Glaziev, a senior adviser to Putin, has called Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko “a Nazi Frankenstein,” and Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin compared Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk to “a rubber doll from a sex shop.”

The ugliest vilification campaign, however, has been reserved for President Obama. Anti-Obama tweets come openly from government officials. Rogozin, while commenting on Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address, compared Obama to a Tuzik, Russian slang for a pathetic small dog. Irina Rodnina , a well-known Duma member, tweeted doctored images of Barack and Michelle Obama staring longingly at a banana.

Nobody in Russia gets to freelance propaganda-wise. Thus, anti-Obama rants, even when coming from prominent individuals outside government, have Putin’s imprimatur. Russian media personalities, including Dmitry Kiselyov, the host of the widely viewed “News of the Week” TV roundup, often deliver racist slurs, as compiled by Mikhail Klikushin on the Observer Web magazine. Evgeniy Satanovskiy, a Russian academic and frequent guest on Kiselyov’s program, recently also referred to Obama as a “monkey,” prompting derisive laughter and applause from the audience. Meanwhile, the famous nationalist comedian Mikhail Zadornov regularly deploys the term “schmoe” — a slang Russian prison acronym for a person who is so debased he deserves to be defecated upon — alongside Obama’s name. “Obama schmoe” has become ubiquitous enough to be scrawled on the runway of Russia’s Latakia air base in Syria.

Russia’s print and electronic media channels carry stories depicting Obama as lazy and incompetent. Shops sell bumper stickers, posters, T-shirts and cardboard cut-outs with images of Obama as an ape and a chimney sweep. One Russian city held a contest inviting children to kick Obama’s cardboard image. Obama has been burned in effigy on numerous occasions, and zoo animals have been named after him, including a black piglet at the Volgograd zoo.

This despicable onslaught is not just the random venting of a narcissistic Kremlin leader but also an indispensable component of Putin’s efforts to mobilize domestic support for his policies and enhance his standing. The fact that this propaganda campaign is working — Putin and his policies remain popular — is attributable to several factors.

First, the Kremlin controls the news and entertainment media. Journalists who have refused to toe the official line have been fired, jailed or killed. This state monopoly, particularly when combined with the palpable failure by the West to communicate effective rebuttals to Russian audiences, has enabled the regime to mold Russian perceptions on every major policy issue.

Second, these propaganda themes skillfully capitalize on nostalgia felt by the Russian people about Moscow’s imperial past, which is often perceived in a highly idealized light. The repression of the Soviet and Czarist periods has been played down, and a key related theme is that Russia has always been the victim of foreign machinations and intrigue.

But Putin’s propaganda campaign also bespeaks of certain desperation. The Russian economy is in free fall, buffeted by both falling oil prices and Western sanctions. Fuel shortages and the resulting disruption of deliveries of key commodities pose a particular challenge to the Kremlin. Corruption and mismanagement are rampant and have drawn the ire of the Russian people.

There is widespread labor unrest in cities where private-sector workers have not been paid for months at a time. There also have been months of strikes by long-distance truckers protesting extortionist road fees and corruption. Even fire and rescue first responders employed by the federal Ministry of Emergency Situations have not been paid in months. That emergency personnel in such major cities (and places where revolutions have started in Russia’s past) as St. Petersburg and Moscow, with responsibilities for handling public protests, have gone without pay underscores the precariousness of Russia’s finances and the risks it is forced to incur.

Against this backdrop, and lacking either democratic or ideological legitimacy, Putin’s government is increasingly brittle. As the Kremlin doubles down on its aggressive foreign policy and increases domestic repression, it has also intensified its global propaganda efforts. Moscow has heavily invested in its broadcasting assets, with the satellite network RT being the pivotal component, giving it an unprecedented ability to reach domestic and foreign audiences.

All Americans should be outraged by the Kremlin’s messaging campaign and support a robust U.S. response. To present such a response effectively to global audiences, Congress should promptly enact bipartisan legislation proposed by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward R. Royce (R-Calif.) and ranking Democrat Eliot L. Engel (N.Y.) to revitalize America’s public diplomacy infrastructure. Winning the global battle of ideas is an essential part of fostering a stable democratic world order. Consistent with our core values, the United States must lead in challenging Moscow’s racist propaganda and highlighting the moral narrative of democracy, tolerance, human rights and rule of law.

Paula J. Dobriansky was undersecretary of state for global affairs from 2001 to 2009 and is a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. David B. Rivkin Jr. is a constitutional lawyer who served in the Justice Department and the White House under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Source: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/putins-anti-obama-propaganda-is-ugly-and-desperate/2016/01/04/57647c48-b0c4-11e5-b820-eea4d64be2a1_story.html

Congress Can Respond to Putin With More Sanctions

By PAULA J. DOBRIANSKY And DAVID B. RIVKIN JR., Oct. 4, 2015 6:11 p.m. ET

From Ukraine to Syria, the Obama administration has consistently misread Russian President Vladimir Putin ’s objectives and the implications of cooperating with him. This has led to costly failures, but the administration is unlikely to change its approach. Congress need not sit idle too. By enacting new sanctions on Russia, U.S. lawmakers can send a strong signal to Moscow that its continued aggression against Ukraine and growing complicity in a genocidal war in Syria will come at a heavy price.

After Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014, the Obama administration and many U.S. allies imposed sanctions on Russian businesses and individuals. But those measures clearly haven’t been effective in discouraging Mr. Putin’s quest to exert Russian power and influence.

In Ukraine, despite the supposed cease-fire effected by the Minsk Accords negotiated by Germany, France, Ukraine and Russia, Moscow-supported aggression continues in the contested east. Russian troops remain in the region, as an extensive Sept. 14 report from the Atlantic Council documents, and Reuters has reported that new Russian military bases are being built.

In Syria, Mr. Putin, under the guise of fighting Islamic State, supports the Bashar Assad regime, which has used barrel bombs and chemical weapons in slaughtering tens of thousands of civilians, mostly Sunni Muslims—making Russia complicit in, and legally accountable for, these actions. The Obama administration over the past week has hinted that it might cooperate with Russia’s anti-ISIS campaign.

The danger of association with an aggressor like Mr. Putin, who is also working with Iraq and Iran, can be seen in Russian airstrikes over the past few days directed not at ISIS but at other opponents of the Assad regime. The Obama administration’s initial seeming openness to working with Mr. Putin in Syria has already compromised the White House’s ability to hold Moscow accountable on any front, including for its aggression in Ukraine.

Under the U.S. Constitution, the president has formidable authority for conducting foreign policy, but there are several steps—practical and symbolic—that Congress can take that would demonstrate a resolve toward Russia that hasn’t been forthcoming from the Obama administration.

On the symbolic side, Congress can legislate a finding, based on ample evidence, that the Russian military has committed war crimes in Ukraine, and is aiding and abetting the Assad regime’s genocide and Iran’s terrorism-sponsoring activities. Using the congressional bully pulpit can help drive the public debate, especially during the 2016 presidential election campaign.

Congress can also enact new sanctions that will have an immediate and profound effect—starting with the Russian oil-refining industry.

Despite Mr. Putin’s far-reaching strategic aspirations, Russia is punching well above its weight. The Russian economy continues to shrink, buffeted by falling oil prices and Western sanctions, and 2014 capital flight has exceeded $150 billion. Hundreds of Russian casualties in Ukraine are causing discontent, with Russian media reporting how Russian contract soldiers—in the part-volunteer, part-draftee military—are refusing to deploy to Ukraine or Syria. According to the Moscow-based independent polling organization Levada, fewer than 14% of Russians support military intervention in Syria.

Russia’s greatest vulnerability may be its refineries. While Russia is one of the world’s top energy producers, its refining facilities are antiquated, with low product quality, no spare capacity, and infrastructure in desperate need of significant investment. The refining infrastructure is so weak that Russia ran out of gasoline in 2011, precipitating shortages and substantial popular discontent. Russian media reported that the head of the majority-government-owned Rosneft oil company, Igor Sechin, sent Mr. Putin a letter on July 15 warning of a major shortfall in refined products by 2016-17 unless the refining sector gets emergency financial assistance.

Most of Russia’s approximately 50 major refineries date to the Soviet period. According to a 2014 report prepared for Russia’s parliament, the refiners also require a steady supply of Western, particularly American, equipment. Current U.S. sanctions apply only to new Russian oil and gas production projects. But an embargo—even if only a unilateral one by the U.S.—on exports of refinery pumps, compressors, control equipment and catalytic agents would cause widespread shortages of refined products, putting tremendous pressure on Russia’s civilian economy and Moscow’s ability to carry out military operations. The Putin regime would suffer major political damage.

President Obama might veto such refinery sanctions legislation because of its potentially drastic effect, but as Russia’s behavior becomes ever more outrageous, he might not be able to summon Democratic support as readily as he did for the Iranian nuclear deal. In any case, Congress would do well to make U.S. policy toward Russia a matter for serious discussion during an election year—and to remind Mr. Putin that with the Obama administration’s days dwindling, a significant course correction in U.S. foreign policy could be on the horizon.

Ms. Dobriansky is a former undersecretary of state for democracy and global affairs in the George W. Bush administration. Mr. Rivkin is a constitutional lawyer who served in the Justice Department under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Source: http://www.wsj.com/articles/congress-can-respond-to-putin-with-more-sanctions-1443996688