For the better part of 20 years, Russian President Vladimir Putin has engaged in a relentless assault against democratic institutions abroad, universal values and the rule of law. He has carried out these attacks with an asymmetric arsenal: cyberattacks; disinformation; support for fringe political groups; the weaponization of energy resources, organized crime and corruption; and even military aggression.
Putin has used such techniques because he has operated from a position of weakness, hobbled by a faltering economy, a substandard military and few followers on the world stage. And his attacks have grown in intensity and complexity over the past few years, driven by a desire to also repress democratic aspirations among his own citizens. While our European partners have taken steps to better defend themselves, the United States has done little to protect its institutions.
Despite the efforts of some in national security leadership, as well as dedicated career public servants across the executive branch, one person is preventing a strong, government-wide response that holds Russia accountable for its destabilizing activities: the president of the United States. Never before has the White House so clearly ignored a national security threat.
If we fail to respond with the urgency this threat requires, the regime in Moscow will be further emboldened — not just to undermine European stability but to build on its success in interfering in our 2016 presidential election by undermining the 2018 midterm elections and the 2020 presidential election.
These are some of the findings of a report that I am releasing Wednesday. Research began in the months following the 2016 election because it is critical that the American people better understand the scope and scale of the Russian government threat to democratic institutions and support the steps necessary to defend our system of government and our very society. The report shows that Putin’s threat to our nation, and our allies, is growing.
The Russian president’s rap sheet of meddling in Europe is long and sordid. Some of the most egregious examples include:
●A coup attempt in Montenegro to storm the nation’s parliament and capture or kill the prime minister ahead of that nation’s attempt to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
●Russian media propaganda, especially Internet trolls and bots, which were discovered in the public debate ahead of recent major referendums such as “Brexit” in Britain and the Catalonia independence movement in Spain, as well as national elections in France and Germany. Indications are that Italy may well be next.
●The murder of a number of Russian opposition figures and critics across Europe.
●The violation of international law by invading Russia’s neighbors, such as Georgia and Ukraine.
Several countries in Europe have realized the danger that the Kremlin poses and have taken serious steps to build resilience against Putin’s aggression. These governments have bolstered cyberdefenses, conducted media literacy efforts, gone after Russian organized crime, and started to diversify energy supplies, rallying multiple sectors of society in mutual defense — government, corporations, civil society, the media, academia and students.
The same cannot be said in the United States. But even beyond electoral interference, the report also found examples of Kremlin-backed efforts to affect the daily lives of Americans and things that they care about: cheating Americans out of medals at the Olympic Games and supporting cybercriminals who attack American businesses and who steal the financial information of millions of American consumers.
So what should we do about it?
First, President Trump must provide unequivocal presidential leadership to mobilize our own government and the American people. Second, the United States must embark on an effort to build more resilience here at home and in democratic institutions across Europe — the best defense against Russian interference. Third, the United States and our allies should go on the offence and expose and freeze Kremlin-linked dirty money, placing Moscow under a preemptive and escalatory sanctions regime as a deterrent to future attacks on democratic institutions. Fourth, we should work with social-media companies and hold them accountable for their role in allowing the Kremlin’s disinformation campaigns to spread unchecked, toxifying public discourse and exacerbating political and societal divisions.
Out of the ashes of World War II, the United States led the world in constructing the current liberal international order through democratic institutions, shared values and accepted norms. The enduring transatlantic bond between America and Europe — the foundation for that order — is anathema to Putin, who seeks to protect little more than his own power and wealth.
The United States must therefore work closely with our European allies to counter the Kremlin’s ongoing, intensifying assault on democracy around the world.
Ben Cardin represents Maryland in the U.S. Senate, where he is the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee.