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ALLARD: Vladimir Putin and the Cold War II
The old Russian bear has learned new tricks
Question of the Day
Blinding flashes of insight aren’t needed to see the obvious. Last week provided numerous examples of sudden “discoveries” by a media establishment clearly out of its depth reporting on Cold War II. The following are some of the best examples:
The week began with The Wall Street Journal’s breathless story about a secretive Russian military unit — known as the GRU — being detected while orchestrating a systematic campaign of covert actions in eastern Ukraine. Unreconstructed Cold Warriors know from personal experience that there is nothing new about the GRU, the Main Intelligence Directorate, formerly of the Soviet Army General Staff.
Forget about the name changes and staff reorganizations since the fall of communism. The GRU is nothing less than Soviet military intelligence in spiffy new camouflage uniforms. Making their presence known in Crimea, these elite military formations often appear without insignia. Watch the silent, sinuous way they move, like a distinctive triangular fin suddenly breaking the ocean surface. Evident is not only a glimpse of a lurking predator, but also the serious training and deadly intent accompanying the deployment of these hand-picked irregular forces.
Other “signatures” that intelligence officers look for: the sly orchestration of dissident “uprisings” in eastern Ukraine, the anti-Semitic provocations and pro-Russian narrative subtly entering the news cycles. All are vintage GRU tactics perfected over generations of Soviet “dezinformatsiya.” The only shocking thing is that anyone would be shocked that the Russians are leading from the front with time-tested tactics.
Cyberwarfare is clearly underway, as a bevy of Western analysts belatedly remembered that Russian cyberwar units — probably controlled by President Vladimir Putin — suddenly shut down Estonian industrial and governmental infrastructure in 2007. In 2008, the Russians used similar tactics: wide-ranging denial-of-service attacks featuring botnets that effectively hamstrung the Georgian government and preceded intervention by Russian ground forces.
Could something like that happen in Ukraine? The blog site Mashable quoted Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution, who reasoned that by disrupting communications and targeting critical infrastructure, “You could certainly destabilize a state . But that’s not the same as taking over the state. For that you need physical force on the ground.”
In similar fashion, Russian cyberwar traces its lineage back to Soviet radio-electronic combat, where enemy networks were to be monitored, jammed or physically destroyed. Today’s Russian cyberwar is similarly single-minded. It is a strategic enabler, an information war making actual military forces more efficient. At least 40,000 Russian troops now wait in proximity to Ukraine’s eastern border, a “physical force on the ground” ready to follow up the cyber-advantage.
In a recent edition of Foreign Policy, Harvard’s Joseph Nye was lauded as the “most influential scholar” affecting policymakers. Mr. Nye, foremost exponent of “soft power,” has heavily influenced the policy salons of the Obama administration. Every utterance of Secretary of State John F. Kerry invokes sanctions and social media, the soft soap of 21st-century statesmanship.
Even The New York Times sensed the shifting winds. Michael Gordon wrote last week that “Russia’s operations in Ukraine have been a swift meshing of hard and soft power.” Former NATO commander Adm. James Stavridis said that the well-integrated use of special operations and cyberwar showed that the Russians “have played their hand of cards with finesse.” Stephen J. Blank, long an Army War College guru, added that the new sophistication “reflects the evolution of the Russian military and of Russian training and thinking about operations and strategy over the years.”
The experts quoted by Mr. Gordon agreed that Russian aggressiveness, backed by their new military capabilities, had consistently enabled Moscow to stay a step ahead of the Obama White House. Even worse, the new combination of hard and soft power had larger implications, in Europe and elsewhere. Maybe Estonia or Latvia are vulnerable, but where else would a paper tiger be vulnerable to real ones?
This changing strategic calculus is now being studied carefully in foreign ministries around the globe. At an instinctual level, they understand the manifold opportunities conveyed by President Obama’s relentless hollowing-out of American power. “Weakness is provocative,” as Donald H. Rumsfeld famously pointed out.
There are urgent lessons to be learned from the Obama foreign policy: First, there are two kinds of sanctions — ones that don’t work and the ones that cause wars. Second, the re-emergence of Russian power suggests the proverbial foot race between the tortoise and the hare, but there is also deadly folly in hare-brained ideas such as the end of history or the obsolescence of military power.
Third, “leading from behind” or making war because of some vague international “responsibility to protect” are empty phrases conjured by minds in full intellectual retreat. Finally, American decline, like American freedom, is fundamentally about choices, some wiser than others.
Ken Allard, a retired Army colonel, is a military analyst and author on national-security issues.
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