Emboldened by successes in Syria and in influencing the 2016 American election, Russia will use high-tech disinformation campaigns combined with “limited” military actions as the cornerstones of a grand plan to divide the West and re-establish itself as a global force — a broad geopolitical strategy that analysts and insiders fear has caught the U.S. and its allies flat-footed.
In revealing public remarks, top Russian military officials in recent weeks have cast the plan as a necessary response to U.S. intervention around the world. They cited as examples Iraq and Libya, along with the more recent push for regime change in Venezuela, an ally of Moscow.
The approach will combine Russia’s infamous “hybrid warfare” method of using fake news stories and cyberattacks to achieve political goals. Analysts say the move is on display right now as Moscow tries to influence upcoming elections in Ukraine with the targeted deployment of military forces to thwart the U.S. and NATO.
The strategy was updated in the wake of a U.S. overhaul of military strategy last year that de-emphasizes the fight against stateless terrorist groups and focuses on traditional big-power state rivals such as China and Russia.
The Russian military strategy proved effective in Syria, where relatively small numbers of troops and paramilitary forces were able to keep dictator Bashar Assad in power, turn the tide of a civil war and greatly complicate America’s ability to conduct operations inside the country.
Analysts say the strategy retains many traditional elements of the Kremlin’s national security approach but also represents a clear, comprehensive vision for a quickly changing international security environment. Central to the broader plan is dividing the U.S. and its NATO allies in order to prevent a strong, coherent international response to further aggression in eastern Europe, in the Middle East and in cyberspace.
Russia has made no secret of its plans, but foreign policy observers say the Western response is flawed.
“While the U.S. and our allies have made some progress, the response thus far has been insufficiently robust and poorly coordinated,” said Brad Bowman, senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“Working with our allies, we must more effectively counter Russia’s aggressive disinformation operations,” he said. “The effectiveness of the NATO deterrent depends on both military capability and the political will to oppose Moscow’s aggression.”
‘One step ahead’
Top Russian Gen. Valery Gerasimov — whose namesake, the Gerasimov Doctrine, lays out Russia’s 21st-century hybrid warfare strategy — said this month that recent U.S. foreign policy moves necessitate a revised response from Moscow.
“The Pentagon has begun to develop a fundamentally new strategy of warfare, which has already been dubbed the Trojan horse,” Gen. Gerasimov said. “Its essence lies in the active use of the protest potential of the ‘fifth column’ for the destabilization of a situation while simultaneously attacking the most important facilities with high-precision weapons.”
Mr. Gerasimov said Moscow will respond in kind and declared that the Russian military’s top priority is figuring out the most effective ways to protect its own interests.
“The justification of the measures that are being developed should constitute the scientific activity of military scientists,” he said. “This is one of the priority areas for ensuring state security. We must be ahead of the enemy in the development of military strategy, one step ahead.”
U.S. military officials are well aware of the threat. The Trump administration’s National Defense Strategy, spearheaded by James Mattis before he resigned as defense secretary at the end of last year, and other key policy documents have consistently identified Russia as a primary security challenge.
“They have accelerated their own military modernization efforts and vigorously pursued the development and fielding of advanced technologies with a clear intent: create an asymmetric military advantage against us, our allies and our partners,” acting Defense Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan told a Senate committee.
Administration and Pentagon officials stress that the U.S. response centers on deterrence: identifying specific Russian actions and responding to them, or preventing them whenever possible. Some analysts say that philosophy makes sense because the U.S. and its allies must accept that Russian President Vladimir Putin has settled on a strategy and is unlikely to be deterred.
“The Russians are the one piece you can’t impact. Putin is going to be Putin,” said James Carafano, a leading national security and foreign policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “Putin is an immovable object.”
On election meddling, Moscow clearly intends to follow the path it carved out in 2016: using cyberattacks, fake news and other tools to impact votes. The front line in that fight right now is Ukraine, which is set to hold key elections this month.
In addition to the use of social media and fake news, Ukrainian officials say, they have uncovered evidence that Russia is working with sympathizers inside Ukraine to set up a complex bribery system in order to guarantee victory for its favored candidates.
“This activity is illegal and implies an impact on the election results,” top Ukrainian security official Viktor Kononenko told the Reuters news agency last month.
Russia has used similar tactics coupled with disinformation campaigns to target elections across Eastern Europe, along with its more high-profile efforts to impact the U.S. presidential election and Britain’s Brexit referendum in 2016.
On the military side, Mr. Gerasimov repeatedly cited Venezuela as the latest example of a U.S. violation of another nation’s sovereignty by pushing for regime change. The Trump administration now recognizes Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido as the nation’s leader and has encouraged the incumbent president, socialist Nicolas Maduro, to step down.
Although it seems unlikely that Moscow would dispatch troops to Venezuela as it did in Syria, analysts say, Mr. Putin and his deputies have considered a military option to protect the government from U.S. threats.
“They’ve played with the idea of putting missiles in Venezuela or having a military base there,” said Ariel Cohen, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council.
At the heart of Russia’s strategy, analysts say, is a calculated effort to divide the U.S. from its NATO allies. Moscow believes that fomenting discord within the alliance will make the West far less likely to resist the movement of more Russian troops into Ukrainian territory or to fight even greater cyberassaults.
“You want to find a scenario where you can do something and win quickly and force NATO to not” respond, Mr. Carafano said. “Get NATO to blink … and really show that the emperor has no clothes.
“We’re all fighting the last war,” he said. “We’re all worried about Ukraine, where I think the real threat is not on the frontier. It’s in Paris, it’s in Berlin, it’s in Istanbul.”
Indeed, Russian policy moves in recent years suggest that Moscow is intent on driving a wedge between Europe and the U.S. wherever possible.
With Germany, for example, Moscow has worked to finalize the massive Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline. The Trump administration vehemently opposes the project for security reasons, but Berlin is eager to complete it because it would bring a financial windfall.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte visited Russia last fall and quickly announced his opposition to continuing European Union sanctions on Moscow. The U.S. strongly supports the continuation of those sanctions.
Russia also has divided the U.S. and Turkey by pushing a deal for Ankara to buy the Russian S-400 missile system. The Trump administration has said the U.S. will cut off sales of F-35 fighter jets if Turkey proceeds with the purchase.
Those and other examples underscore the strategy of division, which analysts say largely has been a success.
“I think the Russian anti-NATO strategy is working,” Mr. Cohen said.
For Moscow, the approach comes at an opportune time. Analysts say Mr. Putin and other top Russian officials are keenly aware that Mr. Trump — through his demands that NATO increase defense spending, his withdrawals from the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal, among other moves — has not ingratiated himself with key NATO allies.
“You play this card: The Europeans already want to hate him,” Mr. Carafano said.