Vladimir Putin's playbook for disrupting the West

By Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist  |  Nov. 20, 2017 at 7:57 AM
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Make no mistake, comrade: What better credentials exist for someone wishing to manipulate the West than those of a former intelligence specialist and judo expert? While comrade Vladimir Putin may categorically deny Russian involvement in Western elections and politics, the evidence to the contrary seems overwhelming. And if British Prime Minister Theresa May is correct, Russia intervened in last year's Brexit vote presumably to support the "leavers."

Intelligence officers are trained to assess strengths and weaknesses of targets and how to manipulate both. Judo is about turning strength into weakness and weakness into strength. For a president, prime minister or any head of government, the combination can become lethal in advancing the interests of the state or the individual.

The Russian president is turning a very weak hand into a very formidable one. Russia is far more than, as certain members of the U.S. Senate assert, a gas station with nuclear weapons. It is a state with great pride and a history that has not always been kind from the tyranny of the tsars and Stalin's repressions to Napoleon's ill-fated invasion over two centuries ago and Hitler's failed attempt in 1941. As Putin often regrets, the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geostrategic catastrophe of the 20th century.

Further, and despite the efforts of U.S. presidents dating back to George H.W. Bush to support Russia, according to Putin, American policies have destabilized the world, making it less safe. From the abrogation of the ABM Treaty in 2001 -- the centerpiece of détente between the two Cold War super powers -- to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the ill-advised promise in 2008 by George W. Bush to extend NATO membership to Georgia and Ukraine, whether inadvertent or not, these actions as viewed from the Kremlin were very harmful to Russia and the world at large.

Perhaps the final denouement was Barack Obama's decision to protect citizens of Benghazi in 2011 with airstrikes that ultimately led to the death of Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi and the outbreak of civil war. At that point, Putin became convinced that America was too dangerous to be allowed to continue along this path of sowing destruction wherever it intervened. The crucial question facing Moscow was what to do, especially when oil prices began to plummet, eviscerating much of Russia's wealth?

Russia embarked on a clever strategy to enhance its influence. It began an affordable military buildup relying on technology and a profound understanding of how to exploit the strengths and weaknesses of Western militaries. It learned from its Georgian intervention of 2008 with the purpose of imposing contested borders making that country ineligible for NATO membership. It repeated this strategy in Ukraine six years later when it appeared that this former and integral part of the Soviet Union might actually turn to the West following the Maidan Square revolution. This time, its military was far more effective. Indeed, when it intervened in Syria in 2015, it did so with relatively token forces that had decisive impact in keeping Bashar al-Assad in power. A further bonus was the surge in international sales of its military weaponry, increasing its supply of foreign exchange.

Regarding the linkage between intelligence and judo, Moscow set about exploiting the strengths of the West and the United States. Among the United States' greatest strengths are a political system guaranteed by a constitution with a bill of rights including due process, freedom of speech, press and religion, assumption of innocence until proven otherwise and an electoral process in which the governed choose their governors by vote. And government was purposely divided into three branches as the ultimate protection for its citizens to prevent one branch from becoming all-powerful.

With electrons, bots, trolls and the Internet at virtually no cost, Moscow began destabilizing Western domestic politics. In the United States, Russia has tried to delegitimize the electoral process by casting doubt on its integrity. What next?

How about planting scandalous news about America's elected and appointed leaders alleging sexual misconduct to corrupt financial dealings? Given the spate of allegations filling the press, no one is any longer innocent until proven guilty in the court of public opinion.

Done cleverly and with focus on the Senate, Russia could induce a Democratic majority in 2018 by discrediting Republicans. Such a campaign would guarantee complete political paralysis at least until 2020. One does not have to admire Putin's playbook while admitting how clever it may be.

Harlan Ullman has served on the Senior Advisory Group for Supreme Allied Commander Europe (2004-16) and is senior adviser at Washington D.C.'s Atlantic Council, chairman of two private companies and principal author of the doctrine of shock and awe. A former naval person, he commanded a destroyer in the Persian Gulf and led over 150 missions and operations in Vietnam as a Swift Boat skipper. His newest book, "Anatomy of Failure: Why America Has Lost Every War It Starts," is just out. Follow him on Twitter @harlankullman.

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