Countering Putin’s Grand Strategy
By Anne-Marie Slaughter and Heather Ashby
In 1965, at the height of the Cold War, the comedy series Get Smart premiered on US television. The popular show featured the bumbling secret agent Maxwell Smart, who represented the American counterespionage agency CONTROL in its fight against its arch-enemy, an organisation called KAOS – one of whose agents was virtually always Russian. Today, as a recent RAND study put it, Russia is, “a well-armed rogue State that seeks to subvert an international order it can no longer hope to dominate.” In other words, having lost control, it is seeking to sow chaos.
US President Joe Biden’s administration is aware of the Russia threat. But, as the recent G7 and NATO communiqués show, it is focused primarily on Russian cyberattacks on American and European targets. As Russia pursues a global grand strategy to expand its influence and undermine the liberal world order, this is not enough. Russia’s strategy entails, first, intervention in ongoing conflicts to support Governments or militant forces hostile toward the West. For example, in the Central African Republic, Russia is providing military and political support to President Faustin-Archange Touadéra. In return, Russian companies are permitted to mine gold and diamonds. Similarly, in Libya, Russia’s Government and its mercenary contractors, such as the Wagner Group, support rebel General Khalifa Haftar, the Commander of the Libyan National Army and enemy of the United Nations-recognised Government of National Accord.
This has given Russia access to Libya’s oil, transportation, and defence sectors. Russia is also using this strategy in West African countries, such as Mali, as the French Government seeks to reduce its footprint. The second pillar of Russia’s grand strategy is arms sales. In Southeast Asia, Russia is selling weapons to Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Vietnam. In the Middle East, where the United States is withdrawing, Russia has effectively opened an arms bazaar. In 2017, the United Arab Emirates purchased over $700 million worth of Russian weapons during the International Defence Exhibition and Conference. Egypt has also increased its purchases of Russian arms over the past decade. After the Biden administration temporarily suspended arms sales to Saudi Arabia at the beginning of this year, the Kingdom looked to Russia.
Proliferating arms deals
Russia’s proliferating arms deals partly reflect the fact that it needs the money. After all, its economy has been crippled by Western sanctions and the COVID-19 crisis. But Russia has also signed military cooperation pacts with 39 countries (as of early 2020), which suggests that its motives are not merely commercial. The third pillar of Russia’s global strategy – which harks back to Soviet tactics during the Cold War – is support for former colonies in pushing back against their ‘imperial masters’ and those masters’ liberal world order.
For example, in a meeting with his Sierra Leonean counterpart in May, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recalled that “Russia, and the Soviet Union, made a decisive contribution to supporting the battle against colonialism” there. Today, Lavrov continued, Russia believes in ‘an African solution to African problems,’ and supports developing-country demands for greater representation on the UN Security Council. While that commitment has yet to be backed up by action, the declaration clearly aims to distinguish Russia from the Western countries that resist reform.
Russia is also pushing anti-colonialist narratives in Latin America. According to EUvsDisinfo, the Spanish-language social-media accounts of the Russian State-funded news sources RT and Sputnik have more than 26 million followers. Among the stories the Kremlin is peddling is that the US is blocking delivery of Russia’s COVID-19 vaccine, Sputnik V, to Latin America. Now, the Russian News Agency (TASS) has announced plans to launch a free Spanish-language newsfeed. It claims it is responding to numerous requests for “news reflecting the Russian point of view” in the local language. “Currently,” TASS General Director Sergei Mikhailov stated, “this demand is met by foreign media offering only one side of the story, often hostile to both Russia and the people of the countries themselves.” The US must do more to push back against Russia. True, today’s Russia is not the superpower it once was, but Russian President Vladimir Putin has proved adept at playing the role of opportunistic international spoiler.
The US must respond with a strategy that addresses the full range of Russia’s disruptive tactics. Soft power is essential here, and the effort to end the COVID-19 pandemic represents a golden opportunity to generate it. The US recognises the critical importance of vaccinating the world. But, beyond rallying wealthy economies to ensure the delivery of vaccines globally, US leaders must mobilise resources for strengthening developing-country health systems in the long term. The US should also work to win the trust of the populations whose Governments are now buying arms from Russia. Biden has already rolled out a strong anti-corruption policy.
He should consider also building a global coalition of Governments, corporations, and civilsociety actors to develop and deploy technological tools that enable citizens to participate more directly in holding their Governments accountable. For example, civil-society actors are leveraging technology to combat virus misinformation, share accurate data based on national conditions, and empower citizens to engage government institutions. This mobilisation can serve as an example for future efforts to hold Governments accountable. Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former director of policy planning in the US State Department (2009-11), is CEO of the think tank New America, Professor Emerita of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University, and the author of ‘Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family’. Heather Ashby is a US national security and foreign policy professional.