Why you should care

Moscow’s foreign policy is unequivocal. America should be just as exacting.

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

In America’s current dealing with Saudi Arabia over their alleged killing of a Saudi citizen in Turkey and in our relations with Russia, it is important that Washington remains firm about what it knows and what standards it will uphold. Thinking of this, I was reminded of a time when Russian hosts took me to tea in Moscow’s legendary Lubyanka prison. The tea was pleasant and thankfully free of the lethal potions Russia has apparently been using in Britain. Still, it was hard to get your mind off what used to go on in the building’s basement: The Lubyanka was the headquarters of Russia’s secret police in the days of Lenin and Stalin, and the basement was used for torture and executions. Now it holds a KGB museum and office space for Putin’s spooks.

I had been sent there in the late 1990s by the Clinton administration — one of many U.S. emissaries charged with discouraging Moscow from aiding a U.S. adversary seeking nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. On this occasion, a Russian aide was pouring tea for me and a few colleagues as a statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of Lenin’s dreaded Cheka, looked menacingly over our shoulders. We were also being served a heaping portion of Russian malarkey (read: lies) — denials of any Moscow involvement in the programs at issue. Through a variety of means, we knew that the Russians were lying, and without hesitation were able to tell them that. They continued to deny it, as we expected, but we did subsequently notice a change in Russian behavior — not as much as we wanted but enough to make a difference.

The takeaway? Russians will never admit you’re right in this kind of argument. But it’s important, whether dealing with an adversary like Russia or an ally like Saudi Arabia, that they know you know if and when they are lying. No guarantees, but if they know you know, your chances of progress go up significantly.

This is why it matters when President Donald Trump credits Putin’s denials on U.S. election interference more than the conclusion of Trump’s own intelligence community. It plays into an old saying about dealing with Russia: When they push and feel mush, they keep pushing; when they feel steel, they stop.

If you are not clear about what you want, Russia will roll right over you.

One of the ironies is that Trump’s deference to Putin contrasts sharply with his administration’s tough on-the-ground policies — tougher in some respects than Barack Obama’s. This is true in Ukraine, where Washington has provided more lethal weapons to Ukrainians resisting Russia’s invasion. And the U.S. expulsion of Russia’s officials following its apparent poisoning of British citizens was swift and sweeping. Against that backdrop, Putin must be delighted with the cushion he gets from what looks like an impressive personal sway over Trump. He must wish he could similarly influence Trump’s key advisers, such as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — all of whom have a clear-eyed view of the Russian threat.

The contrast between Trump’s personal approach and his advisers’ leaves the question of what the U.S. ultimately wants from its relationship with Russia. Does it have a clear end point in mind, as every strategist must? This is important, because in my experience Russia always knows what it wants. If you are not clear about what you want, Russia will roll right over you — and Russia these days means Putin.

Apart from unchallenged dominance at home, Putin is reaching for global influence, well-documented in a study last year by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is seeking to decisively influence his immediate neighbors, weaken Western institutions such as NATO and the European Union, reassert Russia in areas of traditional influence such as the Balkans and gain leverage farther afield — in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America especially (Asia is harder because of China’s dominance).

That may sound like another Cold War, but that can be a misleading metaphor for the U.S. It harks back to a struggle in which our opponent, the USSR, simply disappeared. Russia will not. So a strategy organized around “winning” another Cold War will lead to frustration. What we need is a strategy geared to limiting Russia’s worst tendencies — while remaining open to cooperation where our interests coincide.

What does this mean in practice?

We can’t make Russia love NATO or the EU, but we can add to NATO’s heightened military readiness (four forward battalions spread through the Baltics and Poland) with a stronger diplomatic effort aimed at countering Russian exploitation of societal divisions, nationalism, populism and separatism in countries ranging from Poland and Hungary to France, Italy and Spain.

Russia will not break an espionage habit that goes back to czarist times, but we can strengthen our counterintelligence watchfulness and systematically expose the “fake news” that Russia weaves into our social media.

We can’t expect Russia to be indifferent to events among independent countries on its periphery that once were part of the Soviet Union. But we can encourage democratic pluralism there and hold Russia accountable for border violations like those it carried out in Ukraine.

We can’t keep Putin from wanting to spread more widely the regional influence he’s achieved in Syria. But we can deepen our diplomatic engagement across a broader swath of the world than has been possible under Trump’s weakened State Department — a problem Pompeo seemingly wants to fix.

Weaving this into a strategy requires something that makes it greater than the sum of its parts — and in the U.S., that can only come from vigorous presidential leadership. And there’s the rub. As long as Trump holds off, Putin, to mix sports metaphors, will be dealing with blocking and tackling by a handful of U.S. officials — but never a full-court press.

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