It's easy to look at a string of recent indictments against members of U.S. President Donald Trump's former campaign staff and get sidetracked by the partisan rhetoric flying back and forth. But calls for impeachment from the left and claims of a state-sponsored set-up from the right ignore the deeper intrigue beneath the surface.
At the heart of the political turmoil is Russia, which believes itself to be a great power by right but has been held back by an international system designed and dominated by the West, with the United States at its helm. From its seat in Moscow, the Kremlin is determined to see this system undone and has worked tirelessly toward that end using every means it can except military force. Its inherent weakness, however, has determined the tools at its disposal.
Characterizing Russia as a weak nation might seem counterintuitive, but that doesn't make the description any less accurate. The country's options are limited and will likely only narrow in the years ahead. Over the past few years, cracks have begun to emerge in the political structure that Russian President Vladimir Putin built around himself. The government's tight grip on power is slowly starting to slip in the face of growing opposition groups, mounting regional resistance, enduring economic stagnation, increasing financial burdens, substantial international pressure and the rise of a new generation of citizens more willing than ever to challenge the establishment over corruption and hardship. All of these issues signal greater internal instability on the horizon, and as the Russian state grows more fragile, it will act decisively to mitigate any additional threats from beyond its borders.
Over the past few years, cracks have begun to emerge in the political structure that Russian President Vladimir Putin built around himself.
Moscow has thus turned to a grand strategy born of weakness, using asymmetric abilities to intertwine statecraft with unconventional military force. This approach offers a low-cost opportunity for confrontation that is just indirect enough to avoid eliciting a coordinated response from more powerful adversaries. Russia's activities in Ukraine are a case in point. Moscow was well aware that no Western nation would risk nuclear war — a possible outcome of any military conflict with Russia — to yank back the Ukrainian territory it had seized. Russia's reliance on a nuclear arsenal, particularly its tactical nuclear weapons, is therefore a key component of its asymmetric strategy.
Another is its use of information, including propaganda and disinformation campaigns. Russia has wielded such programs to great success in the past, gaining impressive advantages at the operational and strategic level, often at very little cost. The Kremlin's approach to the information realm is twofold: One part is geared toward influencing its audience at home, while the other is directed against states abroad. The second category, aimed at countries, includes sowing discontent, exacerbating political and social divisions, and wreaking havoc in strategic parts of the globe to keep the attention of other powers fixed elsewhere instead of on Russia.
Information operations are neither new nor exclusively Russian. They also aren't a tactic solely for the weak. Rather, they have long been part of international cooperation and competition, particularly for countries with complex interests that stretch far and wide. But what makes their use today different is technology. Recent advances, especially the birth of the internet, have dramatically expanded the scope of "information confrontation," creating a new and virtual battlefield where Russia has excelled. The Kremlin's information operations are highly nuanced and, by disseminating data that is partially true, they are often far more effective than those that rely on falsified news. In this way, Moscow's messaging appears more plausible to its audience and gradually builds support for Russian interests.
Until it is stopped, Russia will not abandon the tactics that have already proved so effective in the subtle war it is waging against the international system and the states that lead it.
Recent testimonies before Congress on election meddling, coupled with revelations of Russia's sophisticated "fake" news and targeted propaganda efforts, play perfectly into the Kremlin's strategy. Because at the end of the day, its activities have little to do with picking an election's winners and losers, and everything to do with sowing discord throughout the West.
The real question, then, is how will the United States and its European allies respond? So far they have not found a comprehensive and coordinated solution to the threat they face. It will take time for the piecemeal fixes that have emerged to coalesce into a cohesive policy that prevents, punishes or deters Russia — especially since some of their most potent tools, such as the control of information, run counter to the fundamental rights that their democracies hold dear. Until it is stopped, Russia will not abandon the tactics that have already proved so effective in the subtle war it is waging against the international system and the states that lead it.