Messaging Moscow

By Alan W. Dowd, ASCF Senior Fellow

MARCH 2018—During the Cold War, Washington and Moscow became adept at sending signals to each other, often through military moves and countermoves. Some were subtle and private, like Eisenhower’s response to Khrushchev’s boast about the Red Army’s overwhelming conventional edge in Germany: “If you attack us in Germany,” the steely former general explained, “there will be nothing conventional about our response.” Some were public and overt, like Truman’s deployment of nuclear-capable B-29 bombers to Europe during the Berlin Crisis of 1948-49 or Nixon’s nuclear alert in 1969. However, after the Soviet Empire’s collapse and America’s emergence as the sole superpower, U.S. civilian leaders seldom had to engage in the sort of messaging that kept the Cold War from turning hot. With Vladimir Putin seemingly intent on triggering Cold War 2.0, Washington is relearning the fine art of signal-sending.

Putin, like most dictators, is adept at contriving grievances to justify his actions. But let’s keep in mind the events of the past 10 years: Putin’s Russia has invaded, occupied and annexed parts of Georgia and Ukraine; provided diplomatic and military cover for Assad’s beastly war in Syria; threatened nuclear strikes against Poland, Norway and other NATO members; conducted extensive, destructive and destabilizing cyberattacks against the U.S., Estonia and other NATO members; hacked into the U.S. political system in an attempt to sway the outcome of a presidential election; conducted similarstrategic influence operationsagainst the Netherlands, Estonia, Germany, Italy, Macedonia, France and Britain; attempted a coup in Montenegro; laid claim to most of the Arctic; armed the Taliban; broken the INF Treaty; and withdrawn from the CFE Treaty.

What Churchill said of his Russian counterparts remains true of Putin and his puppets: “There is nothing they admire so much as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than for weakness.” In short, the best way to get Putin’s attention, change his behavior, persuade him and dissuade him is to answer his actions with proportional responses.

Initially committed to a “reset” in U.S.-Russia relations, the Obama administration recognized the importance of these responses and messages late in the game. The Trump administration has taken a hard-nosed approach from the outset.

Consider military spending. Russia’s military outlays have mushroomed by 125 percent since 2006, and Russia’s military budget now consumes 4.5 percent of GDP—up from 2.4 percent of GDP in 2006.

Yes, Putin’s military is a shell of the Red Army. But it pays to recall that his military-spending binge occurred as the U.S. and NATO slashed military outlays. In a time of war, the bipartisan gamble known as sequestration allowed the defense budget to fall from 4.7 percent of GDP in 2009 to 3 percent by 2016.

The Trump administration has reversed this decline. President Donald Trump signed a $700-billion defense budget for 2018—a 13.2-percent increase over the previous year—and $716 billion for 2019. However, a couple budget cycles are not enough to repair the damage. “It took us years to get into this situation,” Defense Secretary James Mattis explains. “It will require years of stable budgets and increased funding to get out of it.”

The Trump administration, like the Reagan administration in the 1980s, recognizes that America’s ability to deploy and equip a military capable of deterring Moscow (and Beijing) depends on a vibrant economy. Thus, the administration has pared back the regulatory state and cut taxes—opening the way for economic growth, technological innovation and industrial resurgence.

Related, the Trump administration has moved rapidly to leverage America’s advantages in fossil fuels. “My administration will seek not only American energy independence,” Trump declared in 2017, “but American energy dominance.” Toward that end, the White House has opened up vast stretches of offshore oil fields to development, approved pipelines and secured deals to deliver U.S. energy resources to Eastern Europe. This, too, sends a message to Moscow.

In 2016, the U.S. rocketed past Russia and Saudi Arabia in total oil reserves, with the U.S. sitting atop at least 264 billion barrels of oil, compared to Russia’s 256 billion barrels and Saudi Arabia’s 212 billion barrels. In addition, new discoveries reveal that the Rocky Mountain states hold as much as 260 trillion cubic-feet of natural gas. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the Arctic holds some 90 billion barrels of oil (a third of it in Alaskan territory). But conventional reserves are just a tiny part of the picture. The U.S. possesses vast deposits of oil-shale and oil-sands. The Government Accountability Office reports that oil-shale deposits in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming “contain up to 3 trillion barrels of oil, half of which may be recoverable.” As RAND’s James Bartis observes, “We’ve got more oil in this very compact area than the entire Middle East.”

The implications are far-reaching. As Gen. James Jones (national security advisor to President Barack Obama) concludes, “We are blessed with abundant and diverse energy resources that are unmatched anywhere else in the world. What we do with this abundance and diversity will have geostrategic consequences that we are just now beginning to comprehend”—especially vis-à-vis Russia.

Oil and gas account for more than 40 percent of Russia’s federal budget revenue. Flooding global energy markets with American oil, gas and coal will weaken Russia’s one-dimensional economy, limit the Russian government’s influence and deprive the Russian military of resources. “If we increase our supply of oil, especially into Eastern Europe,” as Gen. Martin Dempsey suggested during his stint as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, “we will dent Russia’s leverage on other countries and reduce the revenues that fund Russia’s aggression.”

The White House is following Dempsey’s playbook. “We are committed to securing your access to alternate sources of energy,” Trump declared in his July address to the Polish people, “so Poland and its neighbors are never again held hostage to a single supplier of energy.” Thanks to new contracts for American natural gas, crude oil and coal, Poland recently announced it will not renew its energy deal with Moscow, which has been Poland’s exclusive natural-gas supplier since 1944.


Washington, under both Obama and Trump, has begun sending overt military signals to Moscow as well.

After Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the Obama administration quadrupled military spending in Europe (from $789 million to $3.4 billion), launched the European Reassurance Initiative to provide evidence of America’s commitment to NATO, increased air deployments in Eastern Europe, returned three armored brigades to Europe, expanded NATO exercises and committed U.S. troops to NATO’s forward-deployment plan in the Baltics and Poland.

The Trump administration has earmarked another $1.4 billion for Europe’s defense, brought Montenegro into NATO, authorized weapons deliveries to Ukraine, increased naval operations in the Black Sea, deployed troops to Georgia for training exercises, pointedly rebranded the European Reassurance Initiative as the “European Deterrence Initiative” and cajoled several NATO members to invest more in the common defense.

In addition, the Pentagon is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to repair and/or update U.S. military installations in the Atlantic and across Europe. As Air Force Times reports, the new resources will be used to construct or enhance installations in Iceland, Luxembourg, Norway, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Latvia and Estonia.

Beyond Europe, the U.S. has increased support to Syrian rebels fighting the Russia-backed Assad regime; conducted missile strikes against Syrian government targets in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons; announced its intention to maintain a long-term military presence in Syria; and, most dramatic of all, conducted kinetic strikes against pro-Assad units advised by Russian mercenaries.

In early February, Russian mercenaries working for a private military firm linked to the Kremlin repeatedly shelled positions where U.S. Special Operations personnel were co-located with friendly forces. According to Reuters, the Russians’ objective was “to test if the U.S.-led coalition would react.” The U.S. responded to Russia’s test with a three-hour pummeling that included artillery fire, F-15Es, B-52s, AC-130s, Apache attack helicopters and Reaper drones. The U.S. counterpunch—a firsthand account is available hereleft hundreds of pro-regime soldiers dead. Among that number were as many 200 Russian nationals.

This may seem too dangerous a message to send. But we must remember that on a tactical level, U.S. forces were defending themselves, their partners and their positions. And on a strategic level, if this is indeed Cold War 2.0, the first Cold War reminds us that Moscow will push until America pushes back—and that Mattis knows how to employ language Moscow understands.

All for One

Doubtless, the Pentagon, CIA and State Department are crafting other messages for Moscow.

Russia is trying to prevent NATO’s further expansion and to drive wedges between Europe and America. In response, Trump should use the NATO summit in July to make amends for his previous missteps on Article V by reiterating America’s unequivocal support for NATO’s all-for-one collective defense clause. And the U.S. should make sure that Macedonia, which has been left in NATO’s waiting room for almost a decade, is finally welcomed into the alliance this year.

Russia lays claim to half the Arctic Circle and the entire North Pole, underlining its claims with massive exercises in the Arctic, six new bases north of the Arctic Circle and nine new airfields in the Arctic by the end of 2018. In response, the U.S., Canada, Denmark, Norway and Iceland—NATO members all—should develop an Arctic partnership, either within or outside NATO auspices. Along with Sweden, which is a de facto member of the alliance, these Arctic allies should forge a common approach to Arctic security, pool their resources, maximize their joint capabilities, play niche roles in the Arctic, and block another landgrab by Putin.

In hopes of sowing discontent and undermining democratic institutions, Russia is continuing to interfere in Western elections. In response, Washington should rejoin the battle of ideas. As Reagan argued, “a little less détente…and more encouragement to the dissenters might be worth a lot of armored divisions.”  

The White House should highlight how Putin has engineered his way from prime minister to president to prime minister to president the past 18 years; point out the vast freedom gap between Russia and its neighbors; and offer a platform to Putin’s enemies—journalists, religious minorities, NGOs, political dissidents.

Congress should reopen the U.S. Information Agency (USIA), which was shut down in 1999, after decades of countering Moscow’s Cold War propaganda. Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper says America needs “a USIA on steroids” to meet the Russia challenge.

Just as Reagan helped create the National Endowment for Democracy “to foster the infrastructure of democracy,” it’s time for the world’s foremost groupings of democratic nations—the G-7, European Union, NATO and its partners in Israel, Japan, South Korea and Australia—to create a pool of resources to reinforce the infrastructure of democracy worldwide; expose Moscow’s meddling; and help democracies under assault preserve the integrity of their political institutions.

Further up the ladder, it’s not difficult to imagine the U.S. executing a cyber-operation that turns Putin’s stage-managed elections into a full-blown farce: returns showing Leonid Brezhnev finishing second or Czar Nicholas II winning a few oblasts.

Putin will get the message.

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