For the past five years, Russia and Vladimir Putin have targeted the UK and the U.S., Europe, the Western Alliance, and by now most countries on the planet. It has meted out serious damage to “Special Relationship” tandem, as well as France and Germany, and a vast array of other countries in both the Global South and Global North. In the new era of full spectrum warfare—from military conflict to cyber election interference—it is becoming difficult if not impossible to come to an alternative conclusion: Russia has won.
Russia has succeeded in meting out significant harm to the U.S. and UK in particular, knocking both down multiple pegs in the international order. First it weakened the UK via massive interference in the Brexit referendum, with 10 million bot hits in the month preceding the vote inter alia. Then Russia managed to subdue the U.S. via similar means—a result it could not accomplish during the near half century Cold War. As General James Clapper states in his book, if not for Russian interference Hillary Clinton would be president.
Russia is not the proto superpower that China has become, with the latter’s coming out party during the Covid shutdown for its bid for full-fledged superpower status. But Russia doesn’t have to be a superpower. It has managed to play a weaker geopolitical hand brilliantly, serving its interests of supplanting Western influence around the world and consolidating Vladimir Putin’s aim to become the equivalent of Russia’s eternal leader with relative ease.
Russia has been engaging in full spectrum warfare against the U.S. and its allies, and at least with regard to the U.S., Germany, France, and the UK Russia has hit its targets and caused sizable damage to the vital national security interests of the West and a growing list of other countries. Germany’s Angela Merkel has had to crawl back from the near loss of her coalition government—amply aided by massive Russian interference—and France’s Emmanuel Macron has been unable to fully recover from the Russia-aided “Yellow Vest” movement inter alia.
Russia has skillfully accomplished all of this without firing a shot. The closest Russia has gotten to attacking the western forces militarily was in Syria a couple of years ago, when Russian soldiers turned mercenary fighters employed by the Wagner Group—an outfit with close ties to the Kremlin—tried to attack Kurdish allies of the West. In repelling the force the U.S. killed around 300 Russians in the process, a minor, brief battlefield defeat the Kremlin then covered up. Russia largely sticks to cat and mouse games with its ships and fighter jets, deterred from taking on a NATO country’s forces directly (but undeterred from full-fledged military interventions in Georgia, Ukraine, Syria, and Libya etc.).
Russia is in fact so accomplished at the full range of full spectrum warfare capabilities, for all intents and purposes Russia is the most powerful “weak country” in modern world history. Far weaker that the U.S.S.R. was militarily, with little soft power, and even less economic prowess, Russia has managed to have more success on the battlefield alone than any other country in the last five years. When you add its hybrid and cyber efficacy, there is ample evidence of Russia’s punching above its weight so successfully against its western adversaries and others that it becomes difficult to avoid accurately describing it as a global power—perhaps not a superpower, but deadly effective nonetheless.
Russia has certainly boiled the American and British frogs. The UK is faring even worse than the U.S. in acknowledging, let along dealing with Russian interference. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s delay of releasing a devastating report on this from the UK Parliament’s Select Intelligence Committee amounts to a serious scandal, as it reports inter alia of Russia agents playing tennis with himself and his two Conservative predecessors and they and their cronies filling the party coffers of the Tories. Russian interference in the UK started far earlier than its successful interference in the run up to the Brexit referendum, and as the SIC report indicates the British government and much of the UK establishment appear to be uninterested in discovering the truth. Set, or is it match, to Russia.
Regarding the U.S. Exhibit A is the large scale social media assault against the American electorate, far beyond the stolen Clinton campaign emails. Former DNI General James Clapper has written, and both he and former CIA Director John Brennan have stated, that Russia decisively interfered in the 2016 presidential election, i.e. Trump would not have won without Russia assistance. This astounding victory has been only half of the damage to the U.S., with Trump doing Russia’s bidding in nearly 50 serious instances since the 2016 election. The Trump sons have admitted why this is the case, as Russian oligarchs and their companies have “invested” i.e. laundered vast sums, potentially billions, through Trump companies for years.
In fact there is ample evidence that Trump and his associates abetted, amplified, and benefitted from the Russia’s cyber war against this country. The Trump team was not in on it from the beginning, but when they found out about it—from Russia officials and operatives—they forsook the United States by assisting a Russian act of war against it. If that does not amount to treason, what does? The fact that it has not resulted in successful charges against Trump, a la the inert Mueller Report and the feckless impeachment by the House of Representatives, demonstrates the depth and array of Russia’s successful full spectrum multi-year operation against the U.S. As one high ranking Russia official has stated, “We can change the minds of Americans any time we wish.” These are twin tragedies of vast proportions.
Germany and France are hardly better off. The Russian take down of France and its hard charging leader is so complete that Macron has not only failed to learn the lessons of his failed charming of Trump, he is now quixotically but damagingly engaged in full at present in a dalliance with Putin himself. Macron is also helping Russia with its intervention on the wrong side in the Libyan civil war, thus on the wrong side of history abroad and brought Icarus like back to earth via Russian interference at home. Macron has not been able to regain his earlier stature partly because of his personal mistakes, but largely because France too has been bamboozled by Russia and is even less collectively aware of it than Britain.
At least Germany is more fully aware of Russia’s full spectrum salvos against it, and more effective too in dealing with them at least in terms of Merkel’s political comeback and Germany as a whole being in better shape than those mentioned above. Germany has led the EU in sanctioning Russia over Ukraine and cyber issues, as it has reacted harshly to large scale Russian espionage and even moreso to Russian assassinations on German soil. Yet Germany has been cowed to a degree as well by Russia, with former Chancellor Shroeder and numerous other German elites have become full Russo philes, and Merkel and a string of her Foreign and Defense Ministers 100% in favor of helping Russia and harming Ukraine with the infamous Nordstream II project to bring bountiful Russia gas to Germany, bypassing Ukraine. Germany’s clinging to the project in the face of massive pressure from the U.S./UK/France is close to unthinkable, damnable in full. More sets to Russia (if not quite boiled frogs).
Russia, as I point out in a pair of recent New York Times op-ed pieces, has also been successfully waging full spectrum warfare against a wide array of additional countries. These interventions are partly to supplant the top four Western counties and their influence in other areas of the world—Syria and Libya at the top of this list—and partly to inveigh against the economic harm western sanctions are doing to Russia via gaining ownership or access to raw materials from countries on every continent. Tiny Madagascar is a case in point: Russia engaged in massive overt and covert election interference recently there, and somehow managed to see their candidate lose the election only to quickly pivot and bribe the winner and still get ownership of the cadmium mine that it was seeking all along. Occasionally Russian influence is invited in the form of military training for payment, but with little soft power in its possession Russia intervention typically is unwelcome if not ineffective.
So sufficiently successful has Russia been at the “game” of full spectrum warfare, that a turn-around in its fortunes will likely only occur if Biden replaces Trump, Johnson gets serious, Macron gets smart, and Merkel reneges on her promise to stand down at the next election. The odds of even have of these happening are not great, thus as Russia continues to decline by traditional measures of nation state power it is only likely to continue to succeed via a more up to date strategic understanding of its out-sized influence around the globe. One has to hand it to Putin and his cronies on a certain level, for they have pulled off a miraculous feat. In the State Department in the Obama Administration, we used to malign Russia with the phrase, “That Putin, not a strategic thinker—merely tactical at best.” The fact is, we were all wrong. In deep geostrategic terms, our national interests aside for the moment, a collective tipping of our caps to Russia’s monumental success is in order.
Now, recovering our senses and our rightful pride in our own nations’ ability to protect our national security interests and the welfare of our people, Putin and Russia deserve not so much to be excoriated, but effectively responded to. The fate of the liberal international order, which is believe it or not still fairly intact, may depend on it. Ironically but thankfully, the rearguard action against Russia and the populist challenge—the “backlash to the backlash”—has occurred not in Western Europe as many were expecting, but in Central Europe where over 15 different countries have successfully stood up to Russia via either electing pro-western leaders (kicking out pro Russian populists), engaging in large scale protests against populists (leading to measurable reform/change), and throwing out Russian agents (after they mount coup attempts, intel theft, and referendum interference).
There are strong voices in the U.S. in the form of Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi, but where are the Pelosis and Bidens in the rest of the Western Alliance, beginning with the UK, Germany, and France? At least the reckoning in the U.S. has begun, as odds are that not even Russian interference will save Trump from electoral doom in November. There appear to be ample legal crimes for Trump, if he couldn’t be convicted by the Senate for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” And by aiding Russia with his decisions, history will be cruel to William Barr, and potentially also on a different level to Robert Mueller himself. Barr has crossed a spate of not only political, but legal lines, and also doing material harm to vital U.S. national interests was Mueller who in his final missed the geopolitical woods for the legal trees.
The West is at a crossroads. Russia has successfully engaged in warfare against the Alliance, having won the first round in this new era and ensuring it is not deterred from additional rounds. Other countries were counting on the U.S., UK, Germany, and France to identify Russia’s full spectrum warfare, highlight it, and decisively act against it, all the way through to punishing it for what is has done, and thwarting any of its behavior in the future. That this is not happening only further underscores Russia’s remarkable victory.
By Jeffrey A.Stacey @JeffreyAStacey
*Author’s note: all mixed metaphors entirely intentional.