On Friday, the New York Times broke the story that Russian military intelligence has been making payments to terrorists in Afghanistan—the same terrorists the United States is seeking a peace deal with—in exchange for killing U.S. servicemembers. Further reports confirmed that the rewards contributed to the deaths of American servicemembers. These are, plain and simple, bounties being put on the heads of American soldiers even as the American president sucks up to Vladimir Putin.
As Putin was rewarding the killing of U.S. troops, President Trump and his Republican supporters in Congress and friendly media were repeating the Kremlin’s debunked conspiracy theory about Ukrainian meddling in the U.S. elections, the administration was sending healthcare aid to Russia amidst the pandemic, and Trump himself was having secret conversations with Vladimir Putin with no notetaker or adviser present in the room—an unprecedented risk.
The Trump administration has not denied the story. Instead, the president of the United States claims to have been blindsided by it.
If that’s true, then it means that he hasn’t been paying attention. Because the Russian bounties should surprise no one.
It’s the Russian way of war.
Russia’s use of mercenaries and proxies goes back to the tsarist days, when they used Swedish mercenaries against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. During the Cold War, the Soviets supported both the North Koreans and the North Vietnamese in order to prolong those wars and prevent Western success. In both conflicts, these proxy wars became direct, as U.S. and Soviet forces eventually engaged in direct air combat—though the Soviet pilots flew with Korean- and Vietnamese-marked aircraft to avoid responsibility. (The Russians finally acknowledged their actions in 1989.)
And this modus operandi has continued in the post-Soviet years. The Daily Beast’s Michael Weiss has covered Russia’s employment of mercenaries in Syria and Libya, and he acknowledges that Russian mercenary operations are not limited to these two countries. The most famous, recent case of Russian mercenaries might be the 2018 confrontation between mercenaries of the Wagner Group, a paramilitary outfit overseen by an oligarch with close ties to Putin, and American special operations forces in Syria. Wagner Group contractors have also shown up in different numbers and for different roles in Venezuela, Ukraine, and Libya.
Why has Russia historically used proxies? For the same reasons other countries sometimes do. Like all people, Russian citizens are more sensitive if their servicemembers die in defense of another government than if mercenaries do the dying, especially since Russia still has a military draft.
And also, there’s the issue of plausible deniability. Upon American retaliation against his mercenaries, Putin can decide whether he would like to escalate or cease action without public embarrassment. All he has to do in the latter case is claim that the people pursuing Russian military goals are not under his command. Which is exactly what he did after the battle in Syria. In the case of the Taliban, the proxies aren’t even Russian, so the deniability is that much easier.
But those are the strategic reasons. What is Putin’s policy objective in this case, for offering bounties for the killing of American soldiers?
Putin is a revisionist leader, meaning that his chief priority is to undermine the goals of the status quo power—the United States.
The Afghanistan war has been America’s longest war. For the past two decades, victory has been around the corner but never achieved. The Trump administration is seeking an honorable departure from Afghanistan—at least honorable in their own minds—and Putin wants to prevent this.
If the United States were to leave Afghanistan, we would have more resources available for deployment elsewhere—perhaps in contravention of Russian interests.
Putin would be happy to have America remain entangled in Afghanistan indefinitely. And he would also be happy to have America pull out precipitously, without having arranged a deal that turns Afghanistan into a permanent U.S. ally. Either of those outcomes weakens America’s standing as the status quo power, and amping up the American death toll is helpful to both potentialities.
Putin is playing an ambitious game with very bad cards, and he’s playing it well.
He wants to diminish U.S. influence around the world but is short of cash, conventional military power, and time. Which is why he has turned to low-cost strategies, including disinformation campaigns to create political chaos, election interference, cyberattacks, building nuclear weapons, building electronic warfare capabilities, support for anti-U.S. and anti-Western proxies, and employment of mercenaries—all of which are much cheaper than maintaining a large, conventional military.
The conventional wisdom in American foreign policy circles is that China is our biggest long-term challenge. Indeed, nobody should underestimate the Chinese threat, but the Russian bear is no less dangerous. To begin with, Putin is a much shrewder operator than his Chinese counterparts. While Western sanctions against the Russian economy have hurt its long-term growth path, Putin’s government has taken steps to mitigate its political exposure to economic stagnation, from closer integration with China to reorganizing the base of political support for the ruling elite domestically. Finally, Putin’s nuclear stockpile is significantly larger than that of China, making Russia’s aggregate firepower much greater than China’s.
Again, this is not to understate the Chinese threat. The old “two-and-a-half-war doctrine” existed for a reason. The United States and its allies should be working to contain both powers.
In the meantime, Americans—including our president—should learn the lessons of the last two decades of Russo-American relations, conducted by two Democratic and two Republican administrations: Putin’s Russia cannot be engaged with because Putin’s legitimacy is dependent on his opposition to the West.
The Russian bounties are just one more piece of evidence suggesting that we should accept reality and form a long-term foreign policy—accepted by both political parties—that treats Russia as a long-term challenge.