Now that Biden has stared Vladimir Putin in the eye, it’s time for his administration to deal with the ongoing challenge Russia presents to our democratic order. How? Three words: Quiet political warfare.
Vladimir Putin is weak. Russians are getting tired of him, the economy is terrible, living standards are declining, inflation has set in, wages are stagnant—this is all serious danger territory for Russian autocrats. Putin is mired in two stagnant foreign conflicts and the political upheaval in Belarus is a massive liability because of the country’s proximity and economic integration. Putin’s cronies are getting restless, his political party’s favorability stands near its lowest point ever, and he faces parliamentary elections in September. In short: The man is vulnerable.
Here’s a five-point playbook for Biden to take him on.
(1) America should start mucking about in his internal affairs. We need to get back into the business of operating opposition broadcasts. Highlight the corruption, highlight the miserable conditions in which most Russians live—and don’t lie. You can highlight Putin’s (many) domestic failures while being totally on the level. All you have to do is make some of Russia’s horrible local and regional problems into national problems.
Putin controls the national media, but not the local outlets. This is precisely what happened in the case of Meduza anti-corruption reporter Ivan Golunov, whom Putin’s henchmen arrested on the pretext of a drug offense. This local story became a national story after scores of local stations, which Putin could not control, kept reporting it. That national story inspired mass protests, and Golunov is now free from prison. Russian political chaos lurks just under the surface, and the type of domestic news that could trigger it is out there waiting to be amplified.
(2) The Biden administration should be pouring gasoline all over Belarus. Putin probably fears upheaval in Belarus more than anything, but he is caught in a bind: If the situation there deteriorates, he probably can’t send in the tanks. Yet Russia needs Belarus. Because of the marvel of Soviet planning, Russia has all the oil, but Belarus has all the refineries.
Because of the Russia/Belarus Union Treaty, the Russian and Belarusian economies function as one. Since the 1996 treaty, Belarus has effectively resided inside Russia. Belarus has become a Western gateway with particularly close relations with Lithuania. Russians would immediately notice that gateway closing, if nothing else because Belarus has become an important end run around for sanctions. (You may find suspiciously good parmesan from Belarus on your Russian pasta, for example.)
All of which means that Putin cannot intervene in Belarus on the pretext that the Belarusians are Nazis (which is what he has done with Ukraine) because has spent the last 20 years arguing exactly the opposite.
And if the autocracy in Belarus did implode, it would be a transmission mechanism for chaos to Russia. Most of Russia’s population lives near the Belarussian border. Most important Russian military bases are arrayed along their side of the line. And Belarusians harbor a prickly nationalism. They all speak Russian and may travel visa-free in Russia.
Revolutionary ideas feed on discontent. Make it a a giant headache for Putin.
(3) Go after Russian corruption like crazy. In Putin’s People, Catherine Belton methodically described how Putin built his “Power Vertical” on corruption. Undermine this crooked foundation and you undermine him. Putin is a mob boss. Mobsters like to mob. Take away Putin’s lieutenants’ ability to do so, and they will blame the boss.
This point circles back to the first: When exposing Putin’s grotesque Black Sea Palace, Alexei Navalny made sure to point out that the toilet brushes in each of the bathrooms cost 700 Euros each, multiples of the average Russian daily wage.
(4) Find a way to pull the plug on the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline project. It’s impossible to overstate just how huge of a geopolitical and domestic political project it is for Putin. The Biden administration’s quick cave allowing it to go forward set a tone of weakness in the relationship and Putin quickly returned the favor by promising advanced satellite surveillance technology to Iran.
Biden has the perfect rationale to press pause on Nord Stream 2: Former Trump adviser Ambassador Richard Burt, a longtime Gazprom lobbyist, appears to have won the administration’s concessions. The administration explicitly exempted his client, New European Pipeline AG, which will allow pipeline construction to go forward. The lobbying powerhouse BGR, formerly Ukraine’s lobbyist, also seems to have played an important role in securing the administration’s decision. The administration should press pause on the project until it investigates the role Putin’s lobbyists may have played in U.S. national security policy.
(5) Watch to see if Russian soldiers start coming home from Syria and Ukraine in body bags, and, when they do, make sure every man, woman, and child in Russia hears about it. Military casualties are such a hot-button issue that the Russian military used crematoria in Ukraine in 2014 so that there wouldn’t be physical coffins coming home. Had there been plane loads of coffins, there might have been a revolution.
This is a massively volatile political issue in Russia. The widows and “gold star mothers” from the Afghanistan days don’t get enough credit for bringing down the Soviet Union. They were fearless, pissed off, and effective. Never—ever—get cross with thousands of Russian women. We should do our best to put Putin on the defensive here. Take pictures of the crematoria, fund organizations in Russia tracking MIAs, publicize deaths, and do not let the Russian government get away with lying about where these Russians are dying.
We don’t have to arm the opposition, kill scores of Russians or anything like that. But if the Russian military becomes embroiled in a hot conflict somewhere we ought to make sure Russians at home know all the gory details about it.
Do three of those five things, and Putin won’t have the time to mess with America. He might even have an internal crisis on his hands. And should those sparks grow into flames, break out the gasoline.
At a minimum, America needs to create bargaining leverage. Which is precisely why neither the CIA nor the State Department should be in charge of the project. For it to be effective leverage, it must carry our imprimatur: Hell, create an internet TV channel called America Today or Color Revolution Media.
Covert political war, the stuff that the CIA does, makes for pretty sorry bargaining leverage. And the State Department can’t handle the mission because their primary job is keeping diplomatic lines of communication open. They would be incentivized to trade away that leverage to the first time Russia complained about it.
Even if the Biden administration stood up a nimble, stand-alone agency to focus on political warfare, you could probably do most of the above for millions, rather than billions, of dollars.
Understandably, the administration would prefer not to touch this until it has sufficiently gelled its domestic agenda. But if we have learned anything from Putin’s 20-year rule, it should be that he will rudely intrude on the conversation.
Unless Biden sets aside some time and effort to put Putin in a box, he will try to become Biden’s agenda. Putin won’t pass up this opportunity unless Biden persuades him not to.