Keeping the Bear Out of the Mountains: Whole of U.S. Government Competition and Putin’s Invasion of Ukraine
By Doug Livermore
The United States (U.S.) can successfully compete with Russia by synchronizing efforts across the diplomatic, informational, military, and economic (DIME) spectrum consistent with the 2017 National Security Strategy and the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS). Diplomatic initiatives to strengthen alliances improve the overall strength of the U.S. vis-à-vis Russia, while efforts to control the narrative in the information environment increase the U.S.’s comparative influence among international populations. Limited military activities can deter Russian aggression and create dilemmas for Russia’s forces. Finally, economic initiatives coordinated with U.S. partners, such as suppression of oil prices and sanctions against Russian entities and individuals undermine the ability of Russia to fund its competition with the U.S. The crisis in the Ukraine offers several examples of how the U.S. can compete with Russia across the complete DIME spectrum.
The U.S. has treated Russia as a diplomatic equal on the world stage, affording Russian President Putin a level of legitimacy that inordinately benefits him and Russia. The U.S. should cease high level engagements between American officials and their Russian counterparts. Additionally, the U.S. should strengthen relationships such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and build international consensus constraining Russian misbehavior. To avoid antagonizing Putin and Russia, the U.S. has refrained from the sort of pro-American messaging that the U.S. Information Agency used to influence Soviet populations during the Cold War. The U.S. should pursue a renewed effort through a reformed USIA or existing U.S. government departments and agencies to engage the Russian people and other key populations. This engagement should present information contrasting the freedoms enjoyed by the West with the authoritarianism Russia experiences under Putin to undermine his influence and hold on power.
By isolating Russia diplomatically in response to its invasion of Ukraine, the U.S. is limiting Russia’s freedom of maneuver in the international space. This effort is further supported by preemptive and effective control of developing narratives in the global information environment. Despite Putin’s implausible attempts to paint the Ukrainian government as some gaggle of neo-Nazis engaged in widespread genocide against ethnic Russians in Ukraine, the West successfully exposed his lies through rapid release of intelligence predicting these slanders and highlighting the blatantly predatory nature of Putin’s military preparations. As a result of the U.S. and its partners’ efforts, the United Nations passed a resolution condemning Russia for its invasion of Ukraine with 141 nations supporting and only five opposing. Growing global consensus against Russia’s invasion is providing Putin fewer and fewer avenues through which to advance his malignant designs on the former Soviet sphere of influence.
The U.S. military traditionally seeks to employ combat power in a conventional fashion, an approach inadequate for opposing recent Russian military expansion employing primarily irregular warfare. The 2020 Irregular Warfare Annex to the NDS outlined means by which the U.S. can compete with Russia through more nuanced military and related activities, such as through the provision of military training and equipment to partners vulnerable to Putin’s nefarious intentions. Additionally, discrete activities by the U.S. Defense Department and other agencies allow the U.S. to effectively compete with Russia below the threshold of traditional conflict. Limited military and interagency activities, especially the delivery of lethal equipment to the Ukrainian military, deters Russian escalation of its Ukrainian invasion to neighboring NATO members and creates dilemmas for Russia’s security forces that further exhaust its operational capacity. Finally, concerted initiatives coordinated with U.S. partners to sanction Russia, such as barring major Russian banks from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications, are causing the rapid collapse of the Russian economy and leading powerful Russian oligarchs to question Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. These coordinated efforts, while remaining below the threshold of traditional conflict, are allowing the U.S. and its allies to contest Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and even fomenting opposition to Putin’s policies within Russia.
The U.S. can successfully compete against Russia only if it is able to coordinate the full spectrum of its DIME activities. Diplomatic efforts to isolate and delegitimize Putin limit his ability to pursue malign objectives, while engagement in the information environment with international audiences and the Russian people undermines Putin and further constrains his behavior. Carefully calibrated military activity can deter Russian aggression without escalating to massively destructive conventional conflict while further overextending the operational capacity of the Russian security forces. Economic measures such as targeted sanctions and suppression of oil markets severely degrade the financial foundation of Russia’s power and help opposition elements in Russia oppose Putin’s maniacal policies. Such a holistic approach employing the full range of DIME capabilities will allow the U.S. and its partners to effectively contend with Russia and other revisionist states.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Government or any of its departments or agencies.
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