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From the Bronze Soldier to Solarwinds, tracking unfettered Kremlin disruption across 15 years
The black and the grey and the white blur together, shredding the international framework that guarantees our safety and prosperity.
This article is Part 2 of Order from Chaos: The Architecture of American Renewal Comes from a Mindset of Grey-Zone Superiority — a Great Power monograph. You can read the introduction here, Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 here, Part 4 here, and Part 5 here, but you can also read each section as a separate piece.
PART 2: From the Bronze Soldier to Solarwinds, tracking unfettered Kremlin disruption across 15 years
Part of what I’ve learned in the years since Trump became president: it’s really easy to theoretically debate what the Kremlin’s mindset is as a tactic for disarming a response to the particular threat that Russia represents, but significantly harder to deny the threat when looking at what the Kremlin actually does. So let’s measure those actions across the past decade or so as we launch into a new one.
The years of Putin’s first two (then shorter) terms as president focused on consolidating control — establishing some new appearance of order in Russia after the upheaval of the ‘90s and the Soviet collapse. He laid down the new reality for the oligarchs; he ground Chechnya into rubble; he undid the constitution to recentralize control. In February 2007, Putin delivered a confrontational speech at the Munich Security Conference to signal this period of relative Russian quiet on the world stage was coming to an end. He didn’t leave much time for people to mull over what this meant.
In April, the Kremlin targeted parallel attacks on Estonia, sparking a street uprising in Tallinn in response to the removal of a Soviet war memorial, and then launching a crippling nation-wide cyberattack. The cyberattack was the first such demonstration of these new capabilities by the Kremlin, while the Bronze Night riots (as the uprising would come to be called) showed that Russian intelligence was still deeply engaged in the kinds of provocations and active measures that the KGB had been famous for. Old disruption meets new disruption — a tasting menu of what was to come.
Much of the following year was then spent preparing the invasion of Georgia in August 2008 — a five day war that the Kremlin didn’t lose, but it didn’t exactly win either. The war kept Georgia out of NATO, but Russia was forced to confront the reality that its clunky, unreformed conscript army wasn’t so great for anything beyond flattening Chechens. In the aftermath of the August war, the Kremlin evaluated this failure and took action so it wouldn’t happen again. It focused first on building the hard power they would need: training massive special operations units to do any serious soldiering, investing heavily in new weapons systems and defense technologies, and developing an obsession with logistics. All of these are on display now in Ukraine and Syria.
But they also looked at the other side, the toolkit of political warfare, of achieving strategic objectives without needing tanks. Russia knew that it had lost the initial information war over Georgia. It was during the time after the August war that huge sums of cash were injected into RT and other state media, in particular to build up glossy media capabilities in English and other languages. There were new investments into compatriot groups, political parties, and cultural initiatives across the West. Oligarchs were given assignments in these domains. It was also during this time that Russia became interested in the potential of social media: they saw how it was used by then-Senator Barack Obama’s campaign to mobilize voters in 2008, and then how it was used by new, western-oriented political parties in Moldova to oust the decrepit communist-leftovers government in 2009. Russian entities hired advisors and consultants who helped them learn about things like micro-targeting and data harvesting. The Kremlin welcomed US support for a Russian attempt at a Silicon Valley — Skolkovo — only to turn that aid and openness into weapons of hybrid warfare. Russian oligarchs invested in big tech.
This quiet period of learning and revision paid off. In 2011, Russia began its military intervention in Syria to support Bashar al Assad, and its political intervention in Georgia during a divisive election. Both of these campaigns were largely under the radar, but both succeeded in achieving their objectives. Then, in 2014, unable to save pro-Russian Ukrainian President Yanukovych from the popular uprising against him, Russia used the run-up to the Sochi Olympics to provide cover for the coming invasion of Crimea in Ukraine.
Putin’s speech in March 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea was the defiant bookend to the Munich speech in 2007. The Kremlin told us what they were going to do — and then they did it.
Suddenly, we were in a new world. Or at least, we finally accepted that we were in one. The terms “hybrid warfare” and “disinformation” were suddenly all over the place. But we still didn’t devote enough attention to understanding the pattern of Russian activities in different regions in the world.
The landscape of Europe has been remade politically by austerity and migration crisis and COVID and Brexit and war, and in three of those categories, Russia earned a merit badge as leading or supporting actor. Europe is riddled in proxy groups and advocacy organizations that have taken Russian support of some kind to advance specific causes designed to fuel conflict within the EU. Anti-EU and populist political parties have been aided in their ascendency by Russia, its media, and its influence networks. Russian energy projects cause conflict in the alliances, and are used to influence security decision-making. The Kremlin looks for moments to exploit — like supporting Brexit — and opportunity in crisis — like the refugee crisis from Syria that Russia helped manufacture (more on this in the next section), the invasion and annexation of Crimea, and the war in eastern Ukraine. Across the phases of the war against Ukraine, Russia has tested cyber weapons, electronic warfare, drones, mercenaries, “green men.” Their famed sniper school now consists of shooting Ukrainians on the front lines. They pretend it is all “proxies and separatists” — and largely, we let them enjoy this charade. There are sanctions, but these are mostly about keeping Western partners from cooperating with Russian entities, not inflicting damage on the Kremlin.
There are too many crazy things that the Kremlin did in Europe to quantify during this decade. Russian intelligence tried to assassinate the prime minister of a NATO-ascendant country. Russian proxy forces in eastern Ukraine shot down a civilian passenger jet. Russian intelligence operatives continued a wave of assassinations and attempted assassinations in European nations, including the use of nerve agent, but the unspoken rule that we all turn a blind eye to Russians killing Russians mostly seems to stand. Basically the entire political elite of Moldova was corrupted by the process through which Russia laundered money — more than $40 billion — out of Russia and into EU banks. Far right extremists went to Russia for training, and then went home to conduct terror attacks. Information operations like the “Lisa case” in Germany and the “crucified boy” in Ukraine were used to spark unrest. For every item on a much longer list, Russia paid little price. So they pushed on. Across an uprising in Belarus, a significant war in the Caucasus. They are there, shaping outcomes. Where are we?
Both the Obama and Trump administrations, in very different ways, prioritized Russia over our allies, and tried to encourage our European allies to step up within our security partnerships. For very different reasons that are not at all comparable, US-Europe relations weren’t really so smooth during either administration. Across the decade, the message the Europeans felt they were getting, and more recently openly heard, was “maybe the Americans won’t show up if something happens, so maybe we need to make our own deals.” Trump calling for a rapid, largely unplanned drawdown of US forces out of Europe is a final gut punch to an alliance that needs American steel to maintain its purpose. Even stalling until the Biden administration takes office can’t repair the doubt that remains. Reinvigorating the alliance now, when trust is eroded between European partners as much as across the Atlantic, will take far more than increased defense expenditures. This weakening has been a top strategic objective for Russia; they helped achieve it by manipulating the fairytale of better relations with Russia, amongst other measures.
In the greater CENTCOM area of responsibility — including Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq —Russia has intervened directly to reshape the region. The Kremlin has armed the Taliban, empowered Iran, manipulated ISIS, and played Turkey to help in this effort. Russian support of Assad from the earliest days of the uprising ensured that the Syria that was no longer exists. The terms Assad agreed to in exchange for Russian support put Syria on-par with territories occupied by Russia, rather than an independent state. Russia supported ISIS to turn the war away from Assad and toward Iraq, which had and has lasting consequences for US forces in the region, our relationship with Iraq, the Iraqi political landscape, and the expanding Iranian-aligned military presence. Bombing campaigns by Russia and Assad targeted civilians and civilian infrastructure like schools and hospitals to drive a refugee crisis that ultimately destabilized and reshaped the political landscape of Europe. A new generation of political parties feeds off of the anti-immigrant sentiments that flared during the height of the crisis, calling for enhanced sovereignty that chafes against common European frameworks.
Syria became a giant Russian arms expo; the logistics line from occupied Crimea to Syria and Libya (and points south) via the Bosporus is now a well-oiled machine. Russia’s new military and naval outposts are accepted, and their enhanced presence from the Black to Baltic seas isn’t questioned, including when they do joint exercises in the Mediterranean and Baltic Sea with the Chinese. Russian mercenaries and soldiers and aircraft butt up against US forces in Syria consistently. Nonetheless, Trump took his marbles and went home, abandoning US bases to Russian forces and ensuring what remained in the region was less than what we needed to support what was left — a self-defeating mission that will lead to more withdrawal absent achieving strategic objectives, just like in Afghanistan. Afghanistan, where Russian intelligence has paid bounties to the Taliban to target American forces during the negotiations of the supposed “peace deal” as an incentive for us to sign on the dotted line and get the heck out.
Turkish President Erdogan’s feelings about Russia may be ever-changing, but Moscow has charted a course to egg-on some of Erdogan’s worst impulses — including Erdogan’s fixation with the Gulenists, which he has used as a pretext for mass arrests and the erosion of the rule of law, and his rehabilitation of Eurasianists, who look to Moscow, following the July 2016 ‘coup’ attempt— while also increasing bilateral military ties and arms sales. Russia both stokes and checks Turkish regional ambitions via the war in Syria — at times, the two countries read the same sheet of music; other times, they are near open conflict. (The big loser, of course, is the Kurds.) Together, the erosion of democracy and the opening to Russia have escalated doubts about Turkey’s dependability within NATO.
Egypt, to which we still pay a billion dollars a year in military aid, is enjoying a period of warm relations with Russia, including driving around in two French Mistral helicopter carriers that were actually built for Russia, and recently conducting joint naval exercises with Russia in the Black Sea. Russia has been on all sides of the Libya mayhem. Russia is firmly entrenched across the eastern and southern Mediterranean, turning their old complaint about NATO encirclement on its head.
Across the rest of Africa, old Russian influence habits have been juiced with new offerings and partnerships. American influence on the continent has declined across two successive administrations, undoing many of the underrated successes of the Bush administration and making it far harder to compete ideologically with the free-stuff-and-tools-of-oppression gift baskets that China offers to African nations in exchange for prime deals on natural resources. Gone are the days when reforming nations were incentivized: transactional dealmaking with an eye toward maintaining the power of ruling parties has become the standard of the day.
As the Kremlin has refocused on Africa over the latter half of the decade, they have adapted to this new reality shaped by China, focusing limited resources on yielding maximum returns. Kremlin still relies heavily on arms deals and security partnerships to pave the way for diplomatic cooperation in Africa (they’ve signed partnership agreements with 20 nations in the past 5 years, hosting a parade of African heads of state in Moscow, though the legacy relationship with Algeria still accounts for much of the arms sales), but it has experimented with a new turnkey model that leverages its mercenary forces (Wagner group, controlled by the same close ally of Putin who was the face on resources used in US election interference in 2016 — so “mercenary” is really a euphemism doing heavy lifting here).
In the Central African Republic, for example, Russia has provided mercenaries to secure the president’s hold on power and technologies that enable this control. President Touadera’s national security adviser is a Russian. The package includes securing key economic assets and aiding in the extraction of natural resources, creating a self-financing security model that benefits both parties — provided neither of those parties believes in competitive democracy, human rights, or anti-money laundering frameworks. CAR just had an election, sort of, at the end of December, just after Touadera accused a predecessor of staging a coup and Russia flew in heavy arms and hundreds more forces to protect his hold on power (all of whom are referred to as “trainers”). The yuckiest part of this is how the mercenaries have de facto been accepted by the UN peacekeepers, so they operate in the open as if anything about this arrangement — which instrumentalizes an African nation to the Kremlin via essentially criminal enterprise — were normal.
But the way Russia uses “mercenaries” to control territories and in some cases entire nations is barely even discussed — even though it allows them to remain cloaked in deniability and shirk accountability. It’s also worth pointing out that where these defense agreements are signed, and in particular where the mercs go, the situation tends to get weird and destabilize, and in more than one case, suddenly Americans were getting shot at. It’s not a direct through-line, but it’s a possible contributing factor to why many of the new, small-footprint US deployments on the continent were suddenly scrapped in the final months of this administration, resulting in another hastily-planned reshuffling of all our in-theater forces. There are undercurrents we don’t and won’t see without human assets engaged in security, and currently we seem pretty blind to when we are being penned in. A troll farm for Russian information operations was exposed in Ghana: surely no one thinks this was the only ping to find.
Another place where these mercenaries have appeared is of course in Latin America, where they helped President Maduro in Venezuela survive disputed elections and an embarrassing badly-resourced effort by Trump’s White House to oust him from office. Again, this mercenary presence is wrapped up in economic arrangements with the Kremlin. With significant American security presence across the region, and equally significant Chinese economic presence in the region, Russia maintains a Soviet-style presence, collecting on everything to disrupt US activities, funding any group or individual to enhance anti-American rhetoric and objectives, flying strategic bombers between its ideological lilypads, and reminding everyone they are still around waiting to throw stinkbombs — and that Cuba is still a thing. Also not to be missed is the exposure of a drug trafficking ring from Latin America that used Russian diplomatic channels, highlighting how Russian intelligence has self-financed with such methods in the past — earning huge sums from illegal activities to finance influence operations and active measures — and hasn’t stopped since absorbing Russian organized crime networks around the turn of the century. Overall, Russian intelligence’s footsie with drug trafficking and terrorism is something we need to devote more resources to understanding. The latter in particular is not something most officials ever want to discuss.
We can end our global tour in Asia, where Russia-China strategic cooperation is increasingly integrated and an important aspect of the Kremlin’s global future. It’s important to repeat this: there is no reality-based universe in which the US or the West manages to split Russia from China in any meaningful way, and attempts to do so will compromise our values rather than their strategic interests. Russia and China share a geopolitical worldview if not precisely an ideology, and what we care about is on the wrong side of that line. Russia is the disruptor that China drafts behind, and for now, this suits them both. The mismatched nature of this partnership somehow makes it even less likely to break down in the ways we imagine. Additionally, as Russia expands its presence in the warming Arctic and exploitation of Arctic resources, it’s bringing China along as an Arctic (or “near-Arctic”) power. Both have been content to watch Trump commune with Kim Jong Un while bullying traditional American allies in the region. Both exploit all the spaces that we abandon, anxieties we create (see also: EU-China trade deal). Both rely on influence campaigns to gain advantage over adversaries. Just before the new year, Presidents Xi and Putin heralded their “unbreakable relationship” in a phone call, with Xi saying together they can resist all attempts to “suppress and divide” the two powers. They share they same objective of setting the rules in a world where America influence declines.
This list could of course be a dozen times longer. The first part of this tour frames out actions of impunity that the Kremlin gets away with and largely pays no price for. The last part explains how this connects to broader strategic objectives to systematically counter US interests. Tools of disruption become diplomatic assets and financing protocols. Annexed territory becomes a strategic hub for outward influence and military operations. Economic deals undermine security. Civilians are slaughtered, but alliances frayed. Everywhere — everywhere — Kremlin narrative warfare paces and amplifies the rest. The black and the grey and the white are all mixed up together, evading and shredding the international framework that guarantees our safety and prosperity.
This is what Russia does in the world. But do we see how this applies to us?
/end Part 2
Catch up on all the sections of Order from Chaos: The Architecture of American Renewal Comes from a Mindset of Grey-Zone Superiority, on Great Power:
Introduction: Autocracy ascends the cracks of democracy
Part 5: THE WAY AHEAD. Civil defense to build resilience. Influence monitoring to lessen infiltration. Enhanced unconventional warfare capabilities to detect grey zone threats and help design a response. A whole-of-government approach to waging and deterring political warfare. Fight for our ideals at home and abroad.
A full copy of the monograph will also be available on Great Power. It is my hope that it will orient us toward action that structures order that allows us to navigate this time of disruption, and to lead again.
An EXTRA SPECIAL THANK YOU to Great Power’s founding subscribers, who supported the writing of this monograph, and who want thoughtful American leadership, at home and abroad. —MM