The U.S. is ill-equipped to counter the increasingly brazen political warfare Russia is waging to undermine democracies, the Pentagon and independent strategists warn in a detailed assessment that happens to echo much bipartisan criticism of President Donald Trump’s approach to Moscow.
The more than 150-page white paper, prepared for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and shared with POLITICO, says the U.S. is still underestimating the scope of Russia’s aggression, which includes the use of propaganda and disinformation to sway public opinion across Europe, Central Asia, Africa and Latin America. The study also points to the dangers of a growing alignment between Russia and China, which share a fear of the United States’ international alliances and an affinity for “authoritarian stability.”
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Its authors contend that disarray at home is hampering U.S. efforts to respond — saying America lacks the kind of compelling “story” it used to win the Cold War.
The study doesn’t offer any criticisms of Trump, but it comes amid continued chaffing by security hawks in both parties who have objected to the president’s repeated slights at U.S. alliances in Europe and Asia, public affection for authoritarian leaders like Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un, and his habit of scoffing at the evidence that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. A grinning Trump added to that pattern Friday in Osaka, Japan, where he got a chuckle out of Putin by admonishing him, “Don’t meddle in the election, president.”
In interviews with POLITICO, other Russia watchers supported the report’s warnings that the U.S. needs to up its game.
“Russia is attacking Western institutions in ways more shrewd and strategically discreet than many realize,” said Natalia Arno, president of the Free Russia Foundation, an anti-Putin Washington think tank that recently completed its own study of Russian efforts to undermine the West. “The attacks may seem more subtle and craftier, but they are every bit as destructive as governments are influenced, laws are changed, legal decisions are undermined, law enforcement is thwarted and military intervention is disguised.”
The unclassified “Strategic Multilayer Assessment” marks a clear warning from the military establishment to civilian leaders about a national security threat that strategists fear, if left unchecked, could ultimately lead to armed conflict.
“In this environment, economic competition, influence campaigns, paramilitary actions, cyber intrusions, and political warfare will likely become more prevalent,” writes Navy Rear Adm. Jeffrey Czerewko, the Joint Chiefs’ deputy director for global operations, in the preface to the report. “Such confrontations increase the risk of misperception and miscalculation, between powers with significant military strength, which may then increase the risk of armed conflict.”
The Pentagon paper, which has not been widely disseminated, assesses Russia’s intentions in an attempt to understand what drives its strategy, outlines a range of malign activities attributed to Russia in regions as diverse as Africa and the Arctic and lays out ways the United States could strengthen its response. Among other steps, it recommends that the State Department spearhead more aggressive “influence operations,” including sowing divisions between Russia and China.
The study addresses what it refers to as Moscow’s “gray zone” activities — the emboldened attempts by Putin’s regime to undermine democratic nations, particularly on Russia’s periphery, using means short of direct military conflict.
“These activities include threatening other states militarily, or compromising their societies, economies, and governments by employing a range of means and methods to include propaganda, disinformation, and cultural, religious, and energy coercion,” writes Jason Werchan, who works in the strategy division of the U.S. European Command, the military headquarters responsible for deterring the Russian military, in one chapter.
Yet the report laments the lack of a unified message within the United States, in turn due to a lack of coordination or agreement among executive branch agencies and Congress.
Belinda Bragg, a research scientist for NSI, a government consulting firm that specializes in social science research, adds in the study that “we need to better articulate U.S. interests and strategy to both ourselves and others.”
But that requires coming to an agreement about what the U.S. message should be, said Anna Borshchevskaya, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who wrote a chapter about Russian efforts to win over both governments and opposition forces in Africa.
“We still have a story to tell but because we are so polarized and are doubting ourselves we have a narrative problem,” Borshchevskaya said in an interview. “Russia does not.”
Another crucial step, Bragg recommends, is to develop a better understanding of how much target populations trust the United States “and have in place strategies to bolster that trust when it is low.”
The paper also raises alarm about what the authors view as a burgeoning anti-American alliance by Russia and communist China, who have traditionally been fierce competitors despite being on the same side of the Cold War’s ideological divide. Steps to counter that could include sowing Russian distrust of China’s expanding power on Russia’s eastern periphery, as well as Beijing’s economic and infrastructure projects on multiple continents.
“The world system, and America’s influence in it, would be completed upended if Moscow and Beijing aligned more closely,” warns Werchan.
On the other hand, the assessment sees an urgent need for cooperation with Russia in key areas — especially in the realm of nuclear weapons.
“It is clear that a fresh round of arms racing threatens,” writes another of the study’s Pentagon contributors, John Arquilla, a director at the Naval Postgraduate School. “The United States can either embrace this, hoping to outpace the Russians, or try to head off such a costly competition with a rededicated arms control/reduction policy.”
Such an approach should also seek to “corral” other nuclear weapons states such as North Korea, China, Iran, India and Pakistan, Arquilla wrote. “Revisiting Ronald Reagan’s offer to Russia, made back in the ’80s, to share research on ballistic missile defense, would be an adroit move as well.”
Arquilla acknowledged that former President Barack Obama failed in his attempted “reset” with Russia failed, and that “Trump wanted to do this but he was derailed by the electioneering apparently orchestrated by Moscow.”
“Still it is not too late for such a move,” he wrote. “After all the United States works closely with Russia on space operations. Is it a bridge too far to hope for more cooperation at the terrestrial level?”
The greatest check on Putin’s ambitions could be the Russian people, said the study, which pointed to evidence of deep public wariness about Moscow’s foreign policy, including the 2014 invasion of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, military support for Russian separatists and “the Kremlin’s assertions that the US is a looming external danger.”
Survey data compiled for the study by Thomas Sherlock, a professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, suggests “relatively weak approval among the [Russian] public for a forceful external posture, including intervention in the ‘near abroad’ to check American power or protect Russian-speakers from perceived discrimination.”
Even Russian elites seem skeptical of Putin’s strategy, the paper contends. “While both elites and members of the mass public are supportive of restoring Russia’s great power status, they often define a great power and its priorities more in terms of socio-economic development than in the production and demonstration of hard power,” it says. “These perspectives increasingly come into conflict with those of the Kremlin.”