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The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit and Expo 2017 hosted in the Kazakh capital Astana in June served to highlight important regional trends to which US policy makers should play close attention.
Russia has decisively expanded its global footprint in a way that analysts say challenges the West and will force US President Donald J. Trump to rethink his “America First” strategy.

This challenge extends well beyond Russia’s neighborhood—Ukraine, Georgia, and the Baltic States—to Syria, Libya, and even Afghanistan. Western governments and intelligence agencies have also accused Russia of meddling in elections in the United States and Europe.

John E. Herbst, director of the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center, said Russian President Vladimir Putin is “pursuing a clear revisionist agenda designed to change the post-Cold War order in Eurasia; permit Moscow to establish a clear sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space; weaken NATO and the EU; weaken the transatlantic relationship; diminish American prestige and power; and project Russian power globally.”

With this as a backdrop, Trump and Putin will meet on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, on July 7. The meeting takes place amid investigations by a special prosecutor and congressional committees into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.
US President Donald J. Trump’s proposed cuts to the State Department’s budget would deprive the United States of the tools it needs to combat Russian hybrid warfare, Madeleine K. Albright, a former US secretary of state, said at the Atlantic Council on June 29.

Trump’s proposed budget would sharply cut funding for diplomacy and development. With these cuts, “we are losing a tool to deal with what is hybrid warfare,” said Albright.

US Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX), meanwhile, echoed Albright’s call to bolster diplomatic efforts in the fight against disinformation stating: “We can’t cut the State Department 30 percent because we need our diplomats out there working with their partners,” to counter the spread of disinformation.

Albright and Hurd spoke at the DisinfoWeek conference jointly hosted by the Atlantic Council and Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung in Washington, DC. The weeklong conference featured discussions and meetings held at Stanford University in California and in Washington, DC.
Fighting fake news—no, not the kind US President Donald J. Trump has made it a habit of railing against—has been the subject of a weeklong series of meetings and public events co-hosted by the Atlantic Council and Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung from June 26-30.

The disinformation campaign being waged by various state and non-state actors seeks to “undermine the legitimacy of objective truth,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT). “It demands a response and whether we like it or not that response has to be led by the United States,” he added.

Murphy and Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), both members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, have overcome the increasingly bipartisan nature of Washington to work together in the fight on disinformation. They co-authored the Countering Disinformation and Propaganda Act, signed by then US President Barack Obama in December of 2016. The act seeks to improve the United States’ ability to counter propaganda and disinformation from countries such as Russia and China, and help US allies do the same.
Disinformation has become a hot topic since Russia’s interference in the US presidential elections in 2016. As seventeen US intelligence agencies agreed in December of last year: “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election.” This influence operation aimed to undermine faith in democracy and the credibility of the Western institutions.

Cyberattacks played a key, but relatively small part in this operation. Kremlin-backed hackers used targeted phishing e-mails to steal troves of documents and communications between Democratic Party operatives, but the bigger, and more sophisticated, part came later. Rather than using the stolen information for intelligence gathering—a normal and expected technique in the world of spycraft—the data instead appeared on WikiLeaks and other sites beginning in July 2016. It was at this point that an intelligence-gathering operation turned into an influence operation.
When considering the state of Ukraine’s banking reforms, it is important to consider not only what remains to be done, but how much the country has achieved, according to an economic adviser to the Ukrainian government.

“The fact that Ukraine is even alive, and surviving, and growing today, is quite amazing given where it was in 2014,” Daniel Bilak, chief investment adviser to the prime minister of Ukraine, said at the Atlantic Council on April 20.

Though Ukraine’s economy has endured what Valeria Gontareva, governor of the National Bank of Ukraine, describes as “a perfect storm” during “real wartime in our territory,” Bilak said that now, as a result of comprehensive reforms, “the trend is actually very good and when investors see this, they see Ukraine in a very different light than what they might read in the media.”
The presence of “strategic and moral clarity” in Washington is essential before a reset in the US-Russia relationship can be attempted, John E. Herbst, director of the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center and a former US ambassador to Ukraine, said in Washington on March 28.

US President Donald J. Trump has expressed a desire for renewed relations with the Kremlin.

Once the Trump administration has “produced polices that will stop [Russia] from further aggression and limit their danger” it can then “engage them in areas of mutual interest,” such as fighting Islamic extremism, said Herbst.

US senators, Russian opposition activist call for calibrated pressure on Vladimir Putin

Two US senators—one a Republican and the other a Democrat—and a Russian opposition activist who has survived two apparent attempts on his life made a call for greater international pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin to respect human rights. Speaking at the Atlantic Council on March 30, all three stated quite clearly that even as this pressure is applied, care must be taken not to hurt the Russian people in the process.

Vladimir Kara-Murza, an ardent critic of Putin who has twice slipped into a coma after mysteriously falling ill—once in 2015 and more recently in February—said it was important to turn up the heat on Putin and his cronies, but noted that it is equally important not to equate Putin’s regime with the Russian people.

“We’re against sanctions on Russia. We’re against sanctions on the Russian people,” said Kara-Murza, vice chairman of Open Russia. “It is essential that the US is not seen as seeking to punish the Russian people for the actions of a regime that they can neither unseat in a free election—because we don’t have any—and cannot hold to account through independent media or a legitimate parliament—because we don’t have any either,” he added.
US sanctions on Russia, imposed in response to the annexation of Crimea in 2014, must not only be maintained, “they should be tightened,” according to Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH).

As recently as March 20, Russia has performed military drills practicing “offensive and defensive operations,” in Crimea, Chabot said, adding: “The fact that Russia has successfully claimed another country’s sovereign territory as its own and then carries out unprecedented offensive military drills there [is] absolutely unacceptable.”

Chabot suggested that “in the last number of years America’s traditional leadership role around the world has often times been lacking.” He went on to describe a “power vacuum around various parts of the globe” that Russian President “Vladimir Putin and other bad actors have taken advantage of.” He called Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014 an “egregious example of that power vacuum.”

The West cannot afford to stand idly by, said Chabot.
The rapidly climbing numbers of Russians fleeing the country in search of political freedom and economic opportunity in the West has become the greatest threat to the stability of the Russian Federation, said an Atlantic Council analyst.

According to Alina Polyakova, director of research for Europe and Eurasia at the Atlantic Council, “the fact that you have this outward migration is a significant national security threat to the Russian Federation.” She said: “this is the number one threat to a Russian Federation that seeks to gain its foothold in the world again.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s leadership ushered in an era where a revanchist Russia has clamped down on social freedoms at home in order to exert its aggression and influence on the global stage. However, these efforts may be impacted by instability at home. Between 2000 and 2014, approximately 1.8 million Russians left the country “under [Putin’s] watch,” said Polyakova, citing official numbers from the Russian Federation. “This trend has only intensified,” she added.


    

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