How to tame Putin

A transatlantic working group report.

By Maura Reynolds

Vladimir Putin isn’t just undermining our democracy, he’s securing his own long-term power in Russia by destabilizing the West — a strategy that United States and Europe have been dangerously slow to understand and counteract.

That was the unnerving takeaway from a high-level working group POLITICO convened on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York on September 19. Amid threats like North Korea, ISIS and surging right-wing populism on both sides of the Atlantic, we wanted to see what some of the smartest security minds from Europe and the U.S. would say if we put them in a room and let them speak candidly about the most dire security threats facing our continents.

What we heard was a preoccupation with Russia and the ambitions of Putin, who at 64, several participants predicted, could remain in power for a decade or more. But the Russian president faces the long-term challenge of keeping power with neither democratic legitimacy nor the prosperity of a modernized economy.

As a result, Putin is working to undermine Western institutions and sow dissent in Western societies, participants said. Those efforts are aimed less at picking specific election winners and losers than at making the West look weak and dysfunctional — and bolstering Russian power and legitimacy by comparison. For Putin to keep Russians under his autocratic thumb, he needs them to see that the freedoms of Berlin, London and Washington are nothing to be envied.

“Putin wants to make the world safe for Russian autocracy, and that means he has to discredit democracy in principle, which he’s trying to do, and weaken Western institutions, which he’s also trying to do,’’ said one participant.

The conversation — kicking off the launch of The POLITICO Cabinet, a transatlantic journalism project by POLITICO newsrooms in the U.S. and Europe — was conducted under Chatham House rules: Names of the participants are public, but specific quotes are not attributed to individual participants. (For a list of participants click here.)

ussia is just one of several growing threats to the West, the participants agreed. America’s showdown with North Korea is volatile and one military miscalculation “could ruin your day,” in the words of one participant. China is a long-term challenge and competitor that requires close attention, even if Beijing so far appears interested in working within the existing international order, not undermining it. And terrorism — which one participant was careful to label a “tactic” instead of an enemy — remains a menace that costs lives and undermines social stability.

But the consensus in the room was that as a geopolitical threat, Russia is No. 1. Several participants said that Russia has effectively declared political war on the West, even if Europe and the United States haven’t quite grasped that yet.

“Russia is active and virulent and immediate,’’ said one participant.

“Russia is a political threat, waging political warfare against our societies, undermining our values, trying to demoralize us and divide us and polarize our politics [so that] we give up the fight to prevent them from colonizing countries like Ukraine,’’ said another.


Here are other key takeaways from the conversation.

Ukraine is the fulcrum of the struggle between Russia and the West. Whether Ukraine becomes a vassal state to Russia or succeeds in integrating into Europe is an “existential” matter for Russia and for Putin, one that will affect the legitimacy and longevity of his rule.

“Russia has to win in Ukraine because a Europeanizing Ukraine is the end of Putinism — not the end of Russia, but the end of Putinism,’’ said one participant.

Putin’s hold on Russia may be more fragile than it appears. One reason is Western economic sanctions, which are biting and causing hardship to Russian businesses and ordinary citizens. Another is the dependence of Russia’s economy on fossil fuels at a time when oil prices are down and not expected to rebound soon.

To the extent that Putin’s legitimacy rests on prosperity, Russia’s economic woes are a problem for him. One participant suggested that he might seek to modernize the economy if he secures an expected reelection next year. But that would require a less confrontational relationship with the West.

“Putin is not so stupid that he wants only to continue this oligarchic, ineffective system of economy,’’ the participant said. After next year’s election, there may be a “very small window of opportunity” for Putin and Western nations to reset their relationship, as long as the United States and European countries are working together. “That is absolutely a pre-condition of everything.”

The United States isn’t acting like the leader of the free world, and that’s a problem. “Both NATO and the U.N. were designed for strong U.S. leadership … and they’re not getting it,’’ one participant said. “They’re not getting it and they haven’t been getting it for a while.”

In part that’s because of President Donald Trump’s open skepticism about the post-World War II transatlantic project, from NATO to the European Union. But another participant noted that European countries are also frustrated that President Barack Obama seemed to consider relations with their continent a second-tier priority.

“The strategic question on the table that the world is certainly grappling with right now is, ‘My goodness, how fragile is the American commitment to democratic values?’ And that’s reverberating everywhere,” one participant said.

We’re getting beaten at cyber. “We are failing when it comes to figuring out how to respond to cyber intrusions,’’ one participant said. Russian hacking has exposed “that we are decades behind the way that threats are going to advance and that our most urgent need is to figure out how to catch up.”

“[Companies] think of cyber as IT until they realize they need policies in place that are much different than IT policies,” said another participant. “So the question is, ‘Who owns what piece of it? And how do we decide it?’ And we haven’t figured out those fundamental questions.”

On cybersecurity, we haven’t decided who’s in charge. It’s not just industry that’s struggling with cyberdefense. Governments, too, are still trying to figure out who should take the lead: the intelligence community, the military or domestic security agencies.

Some participants disagreed sharply over which part of the U.S. government is best equipped for the task. Some thought the National Security Agency or the Pentagon-run U.S. Cyber Command, both of which can draw on deep institutional expertise. Others preferred the Department of Homeland Security, saying that there was too much “idolatry” of the military when it comes to cyberthreats.

“A national security approach to security is strategic, centralized and top-driven. … I can’t think of three more useless words in English to describe the internet and what’s going on in cyberspace.” By contrast, the dissenter said, “homeland security is decentralized, transactional and bottom-driven.”

Russian propaganda is winning the information war. Participants drew a distinction between Russian cyberattacks aimed at sabotage — such as changing election results or shutting down the electric grid — and those designed to sow confusion and dissent. Western governments may be better at combating the former; instances of the latter can still confound them. One participant noted a recent Russian effort to stir anti-immigrant sentiment in Germany with fake news stories about a Russian-German girl allegedly raped by Arab migrants.

“They’re going to run down our system to create doubts and divisions, promote any extremists, whether it’s white supremacists or, you know, radical leftists,” one participant said. “They don’t care, it’s just anything that disrupts and confuses and causes disarray within NATO and the EU.”


Participants identified at least six possible policy solutions to protect the West from the evolving threats from Russia.

1. Keep Ukraine — at least most of it — out of Putin’s hands.

A strong point of consensus was that the West can thwart Putin by fostering a European, democratic Ukraine — even if parts of the country, such as Crimea, remain in Russian hands. A Europeanized Ukraine would undermine Putin’s legitimacy inside Russia, raising questions about why Russia has an autocratic government and a kleptocratic economy when a country as historically and culturally close as Ukraine has succeeded in Westernizing.

“The key to deter and potentially to change Russia is Ukraine,’’ one participant said.

2. Give Ukraine some kind of junior status in the European Union.

Several participants agreed that the European Union needs to develop a status for Ukraine short of full EU membership, since its economy is a long way from being ready to integrate. Corruption is a major impediment that Kiev must continue to combat. In the interim, an “associate” EU member designation would signal a European commitment to the country. That would strengthen its pro-European democrats and block Putin’s attempts to draw Ukraine tighter into Russia’s orbit.

3. Keep up economic pressure on Russia through sanctions.

Participants agreed that U.S. and EU sanctions imposed on Russia after Putin’s 2014 seizure of Crimea are exacting a toll on his economy and have raised the cost of his effort to destabilize the rest of Ukraine. But they warned of fissures in the Western coalition, and said Ukraine’s fate may depend on staying united.

4. March 2018 is a key moment for Putin.

Few doubt Putin will be reelected to a new six-year term as president next March. But then he will need to make some strategic decisions. If Putin wants to modernize the Russian economy and reduce its reliance on oil, gas and mining, he will have a window of opportunity to do it at the start of his new term. Participants said that after the election, the West should look for signs that Putin wants a different kind of relationship, one that is more collaborative, and should be prepared to respond to his signals. A key sign to look for is whether he picks a modernizer for prime minister.

5. Governments need to share more secrets with the private sector.

The U.S. government has done a poor job of informing private firms and the public about cyberthreats, one participant said, thanks to rules that prevent intelligence sharing.

“There are things that the government knows that we don’t share with industry, and it drives me absolutely insane because some of the things are things that our industry needs to know to defend us,’’ the participant said, referring to an FBI probe of a Moscow-based internet security company. “If our government now is saying you shouldn’t be working with a certain computer company — why didn’t our government tell the world that before?”

6. Better security requires cyber “hygiene” campaigns.

Basic cyber hygiene, like changing passwords and not clicking on attachments, could prevent 80 percent to 90 percent of known cyberattacks, one participant said. “Why isn’t the government promoting this agenda of basic cyber hygiene? I mean, we have commercials to wash our hands. Why aren’t we doing this?”

7. The best way to combat Russian information warfare is with more information.

NATO and the EU should expand their efforts to detect, analyze and rebut Russian disinformation, the participant said. Both have small “cottage industries” underway, but they “could be funded five times more substantially so that you have a sort of core capability to counter the Russian disinformation.”

“The defense is exposure. Exposing the bots, the trolls, with a big red stamp: ‘Russian Propaganda,’” another participant said.


We ended the conversation by asking each participant to describe the threat to the United States and Europe that keeps them up at night. Here’s a selection:

“What keeps me up at night is the danger of miscalculation.”

“The political lack of confidence, self-confidence, throughout the West. The sense that it’s just not working for us.”

“That we will lose faith in each other is the deepest threat that we face. I agree with that. I think that is the deepest threat.”

“My nightmare … is just the concern that the new [U.S.] presidential administration will undo a lot of the work that we did over the past 50 years.”

List of participants:


Evelyn Farkas, senior fellow, Atlantic Council; national security contributor, NBC/MSNBC; former deputy assistant secretary of defense

Dan Fried, distinguished fellow, Future Europe Initiative and Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center, Atlantic Council; former assistant secretary of state for Europe and former ambassador to Poland

Jane Harman, director, president and CEO, The Wilson Center; former congresswoman

Christoph Heusgen, permanent representative of Germany to the United Nations

Aleksander Kwaśniewski, former president, Republic of Poland

Jane Lute, CEO, SICPA Securink North America; undersecretary-general, United Nations; former CEO, Center for Internet Security; former deputy secretary of homeland security

John D. Negroponte, Vice Chairman, McLarty Associates; former director of National Intelligence and deputy secretary of state; former ambassador to Honduras, Mexico, the Phillipines, the U.N. and Iraq

Amy Pope, partner, Schillings; former deputy homeland security adviser, National Security Council staff, the White House

Fabrice Pothier, chief strategy officer, Rasmussen Global; former head of policy planning, NATO

Alexander Vershbow, distinguished fellow, Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, Atlantic Council; former deputy secretary general, NATO; former U.S. ambassador to Russia and the Republic of Korea


Source: 10/2/17

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