Putin, Trump, and Cold War II

Sergei Chirikov/Pool photo via AP

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during a news conference after meeting with his staff at the campaign headquarters in Moscow

In the past month, we’ve learned that 13 Russian officials and three Kremlin-linked agencies were involved in 2016 election trolling and hacking, to a sufficient degree to indict them; that the Kremlin was almost certainly behind the assassination attempt on a Russian former double agent living in Britain; and that Russian cyber-war agencies penetrated vital US electrical and other infrastructure systems, and could have shut them down.

That latest finding, reported last week by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, was sufficiently alarming that even the Trump White House bleated a mild protest, for the very first time. And the Trump administration joined Britain and other allies in condemning the attempted hit job.

Three things are now clear. First, Vladimir Putin has crossed a bright red line and is waging an aggressive Cold War II against the U.S. and the West, using multiple forms cyber-warfare as well as assassinations using nerve agents banned by treaties.

Secondly, counter-measures within the cyber-realm are not sufficient. There are simply too many ways to penetrate, too many constantly mutating strategies to try out.

And to the extent that U.S. social media platforms are used by the Russians, Facebook and others have been stunningly unhelpful in aiding the effort to shut the Russians down. Mark Zuckerberg is far more zealous about defending his business strategy of using proprietary algorithms to invade users’ privacy and to maximize profits than about helping to defend his country.

In the latest revelations, of Cambridge Analytica’s misuse of data from 50 million Facebook accounts to hack the 2016 campaign, Zuckerberg has been more concerned about covering his butt than about helping investigators get to the bottom of what happened and making sure it never happens again.

Facebook keeps scooping up the world’s smartest cyber scientists and cutting-edge artificial intelligence geniuses at large salaries, and may well be better at this than the NSA or the Pentagon’s Cyber Command, according to one senior person whom I interviewed on background. The issue of how government and Facebook should interact is tricky, but Zuckerberg’s behavior is drastically at odds with the close working relationship between the Pentagon, the intelligence agencies, and others in the private sector with sensitive roles in the national defense.

In short, trying to play pure defense again aggressive Russian cyber attacks is like playing whack-a-mole. Yet that has been the premise of recent congressional hearings questioning General Paul Nakasone, head of Cyber Command and nominee to head the NSA.

It’s also clear that the mild sanctions imposed by British Prime Minister Teresa May, like those imposed by President Obama late in 2016 after U.S. intelligence agencies confirmed the Kremlin role in trolling, are treated by Putin as a mild inconvenience.

Ousting a few diplomats, blocking a few bank accounts, or making a few Russian oligarchs persona non grata confirm to Putin that the West is a sitting duck, too weak to rise to its own defense.

Yes, we need stronger and more sophisticated cyber defenses. Vital civilian infrastructure, as in the case of nuclear weapons, may need to be disconnected from the internet to harden it against penetrations. But one person—Vladimir Putin—has decided to wage Cold War II, and that same one person has the power to reverse course. 

This is one of those fateful confrontations between Russia and the West, like the Berlin blockade of 1948, or the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. It doesn’t feel like one because it lacks a dramatic showdown event. The fact that it is insidious, gradual, and hydra-headed only makes it more of a threat.

But there are several ways that the West could raise the costs to Putin to the point where serous conversations about de-escalation could begin. The common theme is this: Normal states do not make-cyber war on each other’s vital systems. If Putin is going to behave like a pariah nation, Russia will be treated like a pariah nation.

That doesn’t mean threating to shut down Russia’s electrical system in a game of cyber-tit-for-tat, a strategy that would be as risky as it would be futile. It does mean threatening Russia’s vital interests in other areas there the West has the power to deliver and Russia has the weaker hand.

For instance—Russia is dependent on access to the West’s banking system. That could be cut off, as it was during the Cold War.

Russian business interests are shockingly free to invest in the West at will, to buy real estate, often with shell companies to hide assets. That could be closed down, as well.

Russians are free to travel to the West. That could also be limited.

Obviously, not all of these sanctions should be imposed at once. But they should be on the table, and serious level de-escalation talks should commence.

What’s needed is an engagement with Putin at the highest level, to address Russia’s legitimate concerns for its own security, to make clear what actions will not be tolerated, to move the two superpowers back from the brink and safeguard American democracy.

But here’s the worst part of the story. About the last person on earth likely to consider this course is the current president of the United States. Putin is able to escalate these incursions because of one man: Donald J. Trump.

A normal president might be a little slow or a little risk averse, but eventually a normal president would appreciate the scale of the threat and pursue an appropriately tough diplomacy.

But the Russians, all too accurately, view Trump as their stooge. He epitomizes corrupt interlocks between oligarchs and the state, as well as interlocks between Russia and Trump himself. He both mirrors the Russian system, and is its captive.

We don’t yet have all the details. We may soon get more of them from the Mueller investigation. But either the Russians have enough on Trump to blackmail him, or his business interests are so thoroughly entangled with those of oligarchs close to Putin, or he owes Putin and his cronies big time for past favors—or all three.

I am aware that I am playing against type by arguing this case. As a progressive, I am all too aware that the U.S. does not have clean hands—America has a long history of destabilizing and even overthrowing regimes that it doesn’t like.  

I am also aware of the terrible costs of war, even cold war, and am not one to suggest military escalation lightly. I spent my youth opposing the Vietnam War. But then, Ho Chi Minh was not an existential threat to the U.S. If he had been, the U.S. would not be having happy commercial and diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of Vietnam today.

But Russia’s actions do pose an existential threat both for American democracy and for America’s basic physical security. It’s true that our own hands are far from clean. But America is still far more of a democracy than Putin’s Russia; and America’s core security must be defended.

Even though the president makes foreign policy, there is a major role for Democrats in confronting the Kremlin. By demanding that America get serious about Putin with a diplomacy that he will take seriously, Democrats demonstrate that are more patriotic and more reliable on national security than Donald Trump. They hit Trump where he is most vulnerable—where his personal corruption meets his willingness to sell out his country. And they split the Republican Party.

Maybe they can even pressure Trump to be more assertive. If America is under siege by the Kremlin, how can it be great again?

This is one of those moments where smart politics is also the right thing to so. Some day, Trump will be gone, and we can get serious about defending our country.

An earlier version of this article appeared at The Huffington Post. Subscribe here

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