Opinion: The trouble with Trump's Russia reset
Until Russia backs away from a strategy of digital attacks – coupled with physical strikes – and spreading disinformation to undercut democracy, the pursuit of better relations with Putin is a mistake.
—Despite concerns over Russian interference in the election, President Trump is still looking to repair relations with Russian President Putin. It would be an "asset," he said, even as national security experts from both parties push for further investigation into Russia's meddling with the presidential campaign.
And even as the president and his allies appear to be forging ahead with this new Russia reset, it's important to keep in mind that the US has gone down this path before.
Remember when former President George W. Bush looked Putin in the eye in 2001 and “was able to get a sense of his soul”? A reset didn’t work that time, nor when President Obama sought to redirect the “dangerous drift” of US-Russian bilateral relations with former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
Despite these failed attempts, on the surface, improved relations between the two countries with the world’s largest nuclear stockpiles seems like a good idea. Unfortunately, this is an extremely myopic view that dramatically underestimates Mr. Putin and Russia. In fact, by considering Russia’s digital and military activities over (at least) the last decade, a pattern quickly emerges of a revisionist nation determined to disrupt the global order and weaken democracy.
The most recent Russian campaign to influence American elections is no anomaly. By 2015, the annual Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community had ranked Russia as the No. 1 cyberthreat to US national security, largely for their ability to compromise critical infrastructure and three known intrusions in industrial control system vendors. But this was by no means the start of Russian digital activity.
As far back as 1996, Pentagon officials attributed the largest known intrusion and data breach to the Russians, dubbing the campaign Moonlight Maze. Data breaches on the unclassified networks of the State Department and White House in 2015 have been linked to Russia, and that same year, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter claimed that Russia attacked the Pentagon. These attacks continued through 2016, targeting both the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee.
Beyond US borders, Russia also implemented an expansive global hacking campaign in 2014, targeting hundreds of companies (including oil and gas, healthcare and defense) in 84 countries. In 2007, Russia launched a crippling distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack in Estonia, which disrupted financial and governmental communications, and followed that up with similar DDoS attacks, including a 2008 attack on Lithuania and 2009 attacks in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.
Outside of DDoS attacks, in 2015, the massive German Bundestag attack, linked to Russia, gathered information on Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party, German leaders and NATO. Russia also attacked the Dutch government and Finland’s foreign ministry and now there are signs of Russian intervention in this year’s elections in Germany, the Netherlands, and France, leading to increased vigilance over Russian interference. This is all part of Russia’s larger playbook to influence elections in Central and Eastern Europe, and help pro-Russian candidates win elections.
Furthermore, Russia’s digital activity is increasingly used in conjunction with its military activities. In fact, their digital activity and security strategy are one in the same. In 2008, Russia coordinated cyberattacks with military incursions to cut off Georgian internal communications. Russia used a similar approach in Ukraine in 2014, which included a DDoS attack 32 times larger than what they used in Georgia, as part of the ongoing Russian "annexation" of Crimea.
Even with all this in mind, some may argue that a reset is still worth pursuing and that American activities – such as the sanctions and diplomatic evictions – only exacerbate and embolden Russian global activism.
However, Russia will continue to pursue this playbook regardless of what the US says or does. Even though the sanctions are tightly targeted at organizations and people close to Putin, the Kremlin’s propaganda machine – including the well-known troll factories – is phenomenal at crafting an anti-US narrative that persistently portrays Russia as the victim.
After years of recession and oil prices that remain low, coupled with a military that cannot compete on the international stage, Putin is behaving exactly how any rational model may predict. He is leveraging his comparative advantage – disinformation and propaganda campaigns – to disrupt other powers while demonstrating the extent of Russian influence and power.
To be clear, this does not mean we should never seek better relations with Russia. But Russia currently is a revisionist state and has no interest in maintaining the status quo world order from which the US and democracies around the world benefit. Until Russian military and digital activities show concrete departures from their usual playbook, the US and allies should preclude any notions of appeasement.
Simply put, we know Putin's playbook. Let's not get fooled again.
Dr. Andrea Little Limbago is the chief social scientist at the cybersecurity firm Endgame. Follow her on Twitter @limbagoa.