How the West can confront a resurgent Russia

Atlantic Council Distinguished Fellow Daniel Fried testifies before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on May 1, 2019.

The United States, working with its allies and democratic partners, can push back against Russian aggression, which has been marked by interference in elections in the United States and Europe; the harassment, invasion, and annexation of neighbors; and the propping up of despots in places such as Syria and Venezuela, Atlantic Council Distinguished Fellow Daniel Fried told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on May 1.

“The world’s great and emerging democracies have the power and political legitimacy” to not only push back against Russia, but also “to maintain a rules-based system that favors freedom and advances our nation’s interests and other nations’ interests,” Fried said at a hearing on “Countering a Resurgent Russia.”

Fried, who spent forty years in the Foreign Service and played a key role in designing and implementing US policy in Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union, told lawmakers that a wise US response to the actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin would contain three pillars: bolstering NATO’s eastern defenses, defending against disinformation using democratic means, and employing sanctions tools effectively.

Harden the Line in the East

While Fried said he understood the desire of many to enjoy a “peace dividend” after the conclusion of the Cold War and a drawdown of military forces in Europe, he applauded the efforts of the United States and European NATO allies to increase their presence in Eastern Europe following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014. “The Obama administration deserves credit for leading NATO to make this shift and the Trump administration deserves credit for continuing, and even strengthening, it,” Fried added.

While US President Donald J. Trump has often complained about the lack of defense spending by the United States’ NATO allies, Fried said “our allies stepped up” in Eastern Europe. “The British lead NATO forces in Estonia, the Canadians in Latvia, and the Germans in Lithuania,” he said. On top of that, Fried reported, “the United States leads NATO’s battalion in Poland and has stationed an armored brigade in Poland on a rotational basis. These deployments seek to deter, to show Russia that they cannot mount a sudden assault on NATO countries, conventional or hybrid, without triggering a wider conflict.”

Despite this new commitment, Fried argued that “more needs to be done. That means strengthening NATO and US capacity for rapid reinforcement, through additional forces military infrastructure in Europe. It means strengthening NATO and US cyber defense and deterrent capacity, now underway.” Fried specifically underscored an Atlantic Council recommendation to put a mix of rotational NATO units, standing deployments, and permanent military infrastructure in Poland.

Defending Against Disinformation

The non-military threat from Moscow also requires urgent attention, Fried maintained. Russian efforts to interfere in elections and divide democratic societies through online disinformation and manipulation may tempt some policy makers to adopt the draconian content controls and censorship favored in authoritarian regimes, but Fried assured lawmakers that “as we learned in the Cold War, we need not become them in order to fight them.”

Fried argued that “the US government should support transparency and authenticity on social media, not content controls.” Measures could include requiring the disclosure of funders for political and issue advertisements, requiring or assisting social media companies to remove inauthentic or impersonator accounts, addressing algorithmic bias toward sensational or extremist content, and potentially re-assessing online anonymity. “Angry Bob from Boise may in fact be Ivan from the St. Petersburg troll farm and we shouldn’t let Ivan get away with it,” he said. “Legislation and regulation do have a place.”

In addition to these new requirements, the US government “needs to get organized to fight disinformation,” Fried argued, suggesting that Congress designate a lead agency or interagency body to lead the country’s counter-disinformation efforts.

Fried added that the United States also “must work with our friends” and take a page from the European Union, which “is way ahead of the United States in addressing Russian disinformation.” He suggested the creation of a “counter-disinformation coalition,” which could connect allied and partner governments, social media companies, and civil society groups to share information, skills, and techniques.

Use Sanctions Wisely

Fried freely admitted that sanctions are becoming the default tool of the US government to counter Russian aggression. “We are using sanctions a lot to deal with a lot of Russian misbehavior. There is a lot of Russian aggression around. But sorting out our options is a challenge,” he said.

Fried told lawmakers that they need to clearly “decide what we are trying to achieve, and with what priority,” rather than trying to implement sanctions on the whole array of Kremlin misdeeds. “We should focus our best sanctions options on key goals,” he argued, adding that he thinks “we ought to save our best sanctions escalatory options for Ukraine-related and election-related [actions].”

“Get them ready,” he instructed the legislators, because “if the Russians act, we need to be able to respond promptly and the Russians need to know that we are prepared to act.”

He also cautioned that sanctions need to be implemented in coordination with US allies to have the maximum effect and should “maintain operational flexibility” so that they can be reversed if behavior changes. “We need to be able to remove sanctions if Russian behavior improves,” he explained.

“Sanctions work if they are embedded in a policy that makes sense. The administration needs to articulate a Russian policy and mean it,” Fried argued. “But there is more,” he added. “A Russia policy should be linked to an American grand strategy that recognizes that a rules-based world that favors freedom is in our national interest. At our best, America has recognized that our interests and our values advance together or not at all.”

While Putin and other authoritarian leaders believe that their obsession with power and control will win the day over democracy, “we saw the results of such thinking in the first half of the 20th century,” Fried said. “America can do better.”

David A. Wemer is assistant director, editorial, at the Atlantic Council. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAWemer.