Countering Putin’s grand strategy

In 1965, at the height of the Cold War, the comedy series Get Smart premiered on US television. The popular show featured the bumbling secret agent Maxwell Smart, who represented the American counterespionage agency CONTROL in its fight against its archenemy, an organisation called KAOS—one of whose agents was virtually always Russian.

Today, as a recent RAND study put it, Russia is ‘a well-armed rogue state that seeks to subvert an international order it can no longer hope to dominate’. In other words, having lost control, it is seeking to sow chaos.

US President Joe Biden’s administration is aware of the Russia threat. But, as the recent G7 and NATO communiqués show, it is focused primarily on Russian cyberattacks on American and European targets. As Russia pursues a global grand strategy to expand its influence and undermine the liberal world order, this is not enough.

Russia’s strategy entails, first, intervention in ongoing conflicts to support governments or militant forces hostile towards the West. For example, in the Central African Republic, Russia is providing military and political support to President Faustin-Archange Touadéra. In return, Russian companies are permitted to mine gold and diamonds.

Similarly, in Libya, Russia’s government and its mercenary contractors, such as the Wagner Group, support rebel General Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the Libyan National Army and enemy of the United Nations–recognised Government of National Accord. This has given Russia access to Libya’s oil, transportation and defence sectors. Russia is also using this strategy in West African countries, such as Mali, as the French government seeks to reduce its footprint.

The second pillar of Russia’s grand strategy is arms sales. In Southeast Asia, Russia is selling weapons to Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar and Vietnam. In the Middle East, where the United States is withdrawing, Russia has effectively opened an arms bazaar. In 2017, the United Arab Emirates purchased over US$700 million worth of Russian weapons during the International Defense Exhibition and Conference. Egypt has also increased its purchases of Russian arms over the past decade. After the Biden administration temporarily suspended arms sales to Saudi Arabia at the beginning of this year, Riyadh looked to Moscow.

Russia’s proliferating arms deals partly reflect the fact that it needs the money. After all, its economy has been crippled by Western sanctions and the Covid-19 crisis. But Russia has also signed military cooperation pacts with 39 countries (as of early 2020), which suggests that its motives are not merely commercial.

The third pillar of Russia’s global strategy—which harks back to Soviet tactics during the Cold War—is support for former colonies in pushing back against their ‘imperial masters’ and those masters’ liberal world order. For example, in a meeting with his Sierra Leonean counterpart in May, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recalled that ‘Russia, and the Soviet Union, made a decisive contribution to supporting the battle against colonialism’ there. Today, Lavrov continued, Russia believes in ‘an African solution to African problems’ and supports developing-country demands for greater representation on the UN Security Council. While that commitment has yet to be backed up by action, the declaration clearly aims to distinguish Russia from the Western countries that resist reform.

Russia is also pushing anti-colonialist narratives in Latin America. According to EUvsDisinfo, the Spanish-language social-media accounts of the Russian state-funded news sources RT and Sputnik have more than 26 million followers. Among the stories the Kremlin is peddling is that the US is blocking delivery of Russia’s Covid-19 vaccine, Sputnik V, to Latin America.

Now, the Russian News Agency (TASS) has announced plans to launch a free Spanish-language newsfeed. It claims it is responding to numerous requests for ‘news reflecting the Russian point of view’ in the local language. ‘Currently,’ TASS General Director Sergei Mikhailov stated, ‘this demand is met by foreign media offering only one side of the story, often hostile to both Russia and the people of the countries themselves.’

The US must do more to push back against Russia. True, today’s Russia is not the superpower it once was, but Russian President Vladimir Putin has proved adept at playing the role of opportunistic international spoiler. The US must respond with a strategy that addresses the full range of Russia’s disruptive tactics.

Soft power is essential here, and the effort to end the Covid-19 pandemic represents a golden opportunity to generate it. The US recognises the critical importance of vaccinating the world. But, beyond rallying wealthy economies to ensure the delivery of vaccines globally, US leaders must mobilise resources for strengthening developing-country health systems in the long term.

The US should also work to win the trust of the populations whose governments are now buying arms from Russia. Biden has already rolled out a strong anti-corruption policy. He should consider also building a global coalition of governments, corporations and civil-society actors to develop and deploy technological tools that enable citizens to participate more directly in holding their governments accountable. For example, civil-society actors are leveraging technology to combat virus misinformation, share accurate data based on national conditions, and empower citizens to engage government institutions. This mobilisation can serve as an example for future efforts to hold governments accountable.

Finally, to counter the growing influence of both Russia and China, the West needs to develop a strategy for building a more inclusive international system. This means, first and foremost, getting fully behind expansion of the UN Security Council, and ensuring that a far wider range of global actors is engaged in shaping the international order. Other forms of international cooperation—such as ‘impact hubs’, which are oriented around multi-stakeholder networks, rather than nation-states—are also worth exploring.

Russia is playing a global game, and the US and Europe are so busy protecting their corners that they are leaving the goals wide open. Only with a global counterstrategy, including a model for a more inclusive international system, do the US and Europe stand a chance of regaining control of the field. They need to get smart.