This column is about a massive cyber attack and a pair of poisoned underpants that lead to a giant question: Can Joe Biden figure out how to handle Putin’s Russia after President Trump leaves town?
Trump is ignoring the just-discovered hack of federal government and corporate America by Moscow (even as he still claims the Russia election hack in 2016 was “a hoax.”) Never mind that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has named Russia as the culprit. Trump blamed the “Fake News Media” and China.
The president falsely tweeted “everything is well under control,” but his former homeland security adviser Tom Bossert wrote that the attack’s magnitude “is hard to overstate,” and will take years to unravel. In other words, Trump is leaving office just as he entered, covering up for Putin, while refusing to confront a Kremlin that is endangering America’s security. And polls show his GOP base has become soft on Putin, thanks to Trump’s lies.
Meantime, the president has never publicly condemned the Kremlin’s near fatal poisoning of Russia’s leading opposition politician Alexei Navalny, who is recovering in Germany. He has ignored irrefutable evidence produced by the internet investigative group Bellingcat and CNN. They traced the attack to a top-level Russian hit team, which smeared a banned nerve agent on Navalny’s briefs in a Russian hotel room. And Navalny conned one of the poisoners into confessing by phone.
So President-elect Biden will enter office facing a Russian opponent who has been enabled for four years by Trump’s incoherent policy - and who is ready to take risks to prove his failing country is still strong.
Biden has said the right things: that he will make “dealing with this breach a top priority from the moment we take office.” He will also work to “disrupt and deter” adversaries from trying such attacks, by “imposing substantial costs” on those responsible, in coordination with U.S. allies.
Cynics will point out that President Obama and his team (including Biden) never managed to handle the Kremlin or reverse its 2014 invasion of Ukraine. But Obama never demonstrated the pathological obeisance to Putin that Trump has.
So how can Biden approach the Russia mess that Trump has left in his lap?
First of all, it’s necessary to ask a basic question: Who is Mr. Putin? Clearly Trump never grasped the answer, despite Putin’s two decades in office. Putin was never his pal, but rather a hostile leader determined to prove his failing country was still a great power.
“Putin has an obsession with being relevant,” says Fiona Hill, who served on Trump’s National Security Council, until her expertise put her at odds with the president. “He’s saying, ‘We are a superpower in cyberspace. We’ve gotten all your data.’” She says Putin doesn’t mind that the hack was discovered, because it boosts the image of Russian technological prowess.
Moreover, understanding Putin’s background is the key to dealing with the Russian leader.
Yevgenia Albats, a leading Russian scholar and investigative journalist, explains that “Today’s Russia is run solely by the KGB [the former Russian intelligence service] under a new acronym — the FSB.” Former KGB officer Putin has surrounded himself with ex-intelligence operatives.
“You have to understand,” she told me, “that Russia is not the Soviet Union lite. In the Soviet Union, the Communist Party respected certain rules. Now you are dealing with KGB guys who hate [America] and who see cheating you as their main agenda. Russia signed the chemical weapons treaty, yet they used Novichok on Navalny” - and against Putin’s enemies in Europe.
So dealing with Putin requires full realization of his implacable hostility to the West.
That does not mean that Biden can’t deal with Putin on issues of mutual interest, such as renewing the New Start nuclear treaty, which will expire two weeks after he takes office. However, it means doing so with fulling willingness to call out cheating.
And it certainly means setting out new markers on cyber, putting more government money and manpower into cyber defenses, and working closely with allies. As Sen. Mark Warner, ranking Democrat on the intelligence committee, told CNN, “We need a common doctrine on when we will strike back.”
Clint Watts, a former FBI special agent and Russian information warfare expert at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, says the allies “should do offensive cyber where Russia is running wild. We have no hesitation to do it with Iran, but we take it off the table with Russia. Sanctions are not a deterrent.”
Indeed, it is hard to imagine pushing back at Russia without some cyber-response that makes Putin aware of the risk of launching another massive attack.
Albats thinks it is also necessary to “go after the money, of Putin and his people. The only thing they value is money.” She is referring to the property, yachts, and bank accounts Putin’s inner circle has all over the world.
But one thing is certain, once the days of Trump’s bizarre bromance with Putin end, Biden must set a new tone in dealing with Russia. Biden’s incoming White House chief of staff, Ron Klain, said Sunday that the hack response will go beyond “just sanctions.” It should.