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Understanding the Battleground

Parrying Putin's Playbook

In More Detail

For two decades, various American leaders tried to counter Russia’s aggressive foreign policy through a conciliatory approach. But strategic narcissism blinded those who hoped for warm relations with Russia because they underestimated the power of ideology, emotions, and aspirations that drove Vladimir Putin’s strategy toward the United States and Europe.

Since he ascended to power in 1999, Putin’s goal has been to return Russia to great power status. But with a declining population, dwindling influence, and a weak economy, Russia can’t compete directly with the United States or a cohesive European Union.

So Putin adopted a strategy to drag others down by sowing division, weakening rival states, and unraveling alliances. Foundational to that strategy are disinformation campaigns designed to destroy trust in democratic principles, institutions, and processes.   

Russian disinformation campaigns use cyber-enabled information warfare to shake citizens’ belief in their common identity. They manipulate social media and create false stories and personas. These campaigns attempt to widen divisions on contentious issues such as race, immigration, and gun control. The objective is to incite fear and anger on both the far right and the far left in a way that leaves Americans and other free peoples polarized and pitted against one another.

Russian agents want to discredit legitimate news sources so that Americans are less able to distinguish between falsehood and reality. The Kremlin also attempts to discredit election processes and politicians of all parties, so that regardless of who wins, he or she is viewed as illegitimate and citizens’ faith in democracy is diminished. 

When confronted with evidence that exposes their lies and aggression, Russian leaders sow conspiracy theories, issue false statements, and make adamant denials. This implausible deniability allows Russian leaders sometimes to literally get away with murder and fosters a sense of helplessness and anxiety concerning what the Kremlin might do next to target free and open societies.

So how should the United States and European nations defend against Russia’s toxic combination of disinformation and denial as well as its use of disruptive technologies?

Because Putin’s playbook depends heavily on cyber-enabled information warfare, defense begins with exposing the Kremlin’s efforts to sow dissension within nations and among them.

Truth may be the best antidote to falsehood. Putin and those around him are sensitive to the truth about Russian government corruption and abuse of power. The United States and partner nations should amplify the voices of Russian opposition groups, anti-corruption organizations, and investigative journalists while communicating support for Russian reform efforts.

Parrying Putin’s playbook in cyberspace and in the physical world also entails imposing costs on the Kremlin that exceed what Russian leaders thought they would face in retaliation for attacking or undermining America’s vital interests.

Because it is unlikely that Putin will give up his goals, deterring Kremlin aggression must extend beyond the threat of punitive action. America and other democracies might look inward and emphasize education to alert citizens of the dangers of disinformation and restore confidence in democratic principles, institutions, and processes. A restoration of civility in political and social discourse would diminish fissures in our society that the Kremlin is eager to exploit. And strong relationships among Americans and our allies might convince President Putin that he cannot divide us and accomplish his objectives through disinformation and denial.

America should take a long view of its relationship with Russia. Despite changes to the Constitution that could leave him in power until 2036, Vladimir Putin cannot lead Russia forever. Many Russians have grown weary of him, especially after the COVID-19 crisis, the recession, the collapse of oil prices, and the continued weight of economic sanctions imposed after the 2014 annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine. It is important to foster relationships with Russians outside of Putin’s inner circle so they know that, under responsible leadership, Russia would once again be welcomed into the Euro-Atlantic community.