This column is about a massive cyberattack and a pair of poisoned underpants that lead to a giant question: Can Joe Biden figure out how to handle Vladimir Putin’s Russia after President Donald Trump leaves town?
Trump is ignoring the just-discovered hack of federal government and much of corporate America by Moscow, even as he still claims the Russia hack of the 2016 election 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 in The New York Times 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 at home and abroad. And polls show that his GOP base has become soft on Putin.
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. Trump has also ignored the stunning, irrefutable evidence produced this month by the internet investigative group Bellingcat and CNN, along with Navalny. 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.
So President-elect Biden will enter office facing a huge cyber mess and a Russian opponent ready to use multiple means 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” working to “disrupt and deter” adversaries from trying such attacks, by “imposing substantial costs” on those responsible, in coordination with US allies.”
Cynics will point out that President Barack 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 repeatedly shown.
So how can Biden approach the Russia mess that Trump has left in his lap?
First of all, say Russia experts whom I respect, it’s necessary to understand the basic question: Who is Putin? Clearly Trump misunderstood the answer, despite Putin’s two decades in office.
“Putin has an obsession with being relevant,” says Fiona Hill, who served on Trump’s National Security Council until her expertise ultimately 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, US sanctions against Russia, and some wealthy Russian oligarchs, have not led Putin to change direction. Yevgenia Albats, a leading Russian scholar and investigative journalist, writes 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 former counterintelligence 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 (international) rules. Now you are dealing with KGB guys who hate you 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 on cyber and other aggression 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 that 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 cyberdefenses 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.”
The allies “should do offensive cyber where Russia is running wild,” says former FBI special agent and Russian information warfare expert at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. “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,” 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 bromance with Putin come to an end, the Biden team must take a hard look at Kremlin operations. Biden’s incoming White House chief of staff, Ron Klain, said Sunday that the hack response will go beyond “just sanctions.” And it should.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the the Philadelphia Inquirer. -- Ed.
(Tribune Content Agency)