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Vladimir Putin isolates Russia with 'unfriendly' stumble

By
Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist
Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers his annual address to the Federal Assembly in Moscow on April 21. Photo by Maxim Shipenkov/EPA-EFE
Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers his annual address to the Federal Assembly in Moscow on April 21. Photo by Maxim Shipenkov/EPA-EFE

At a critical moment during the 13-day Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, Soviet merchant ships headed for Cuba suddenly stopped and reversed course. With great relief, then-Secretary of State Dean Risk observed, "I think the other side just blinked." Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin did more than blink. He stumbled.

Along with the United States and the United Kingdom, Putin designated as "unfriendly countries" five former Soviet Republics and two (possibly three) former Warsaw Pact members. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Georgia and Ukraine were Soviet Republics. The Czech Republic and Poland were in the Warsaw Pact. And Bulgaria, long seen as leaning toward Moscow despite NATO membership, expelled Russian diplomats on grounds of conducting espionage, as have the Czechs and Poles and may also be named persona non grata by Russia.

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This stumble, not blink, isolates Russia. If these unfriendly states are clever, Putin has made an unforced error to be exploited. The Russian playbook, purloined or borrowed from Lenin, relied on "active measures" short of the direct use of military force to advance Moscow's interest and to divide and seed chaos in the West and target states. Among these measures: disinformation and propaganda using sophisticated and crude social media; cyberattacks and espionage penetrations such as SolarWind; military intimidation with exercises such as the one being conducted around Ukraine and blatant publicizing of new and threatening weapons; and economic leverage and potential energy blackmail, as well as the occasional assassination attempts.

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Active measures have been working well in large part because NATO and the West have failed to devise policies and plans of actions not only to counter these methods but to reverse engineer them and send them back to Russia. It is interesting that NATO members spend about $1 trillion on defense each year (as opposed to Russia's estimated $65 billion) and virtually nothing to prevent the direct danger posed by measures. Rather like the weather (and climate change), so far, talk rather than action has been the response.

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Since this concept is to take "active measures" and redirect them back to Russia, Lenin's question of "what is to be done?" must be addressed. The seven or eight "unfriendlies," depending on Bulgaria, should band together informally to create and implement an anti-active measures coordinated campaign to isolate Russia further. How would this work?

First, each of the unfriendlies would concentrate on their region. The Baltics and Poland would take aim at St. Petersburg to the east and the Kaliningrad enclave to the west, using their economic and political successes as comparisons with the domestic problems in Russia from alcoholism, low longevity and poor health, corruption and wealth disparities in part to counter disinformation. A good start is to call Kaliningrad by its origin name of Konigsberg.

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The other unfriendlies would target the rest of Russia as Russian TV reports on the weaknesses and flaws of the West. The media, writ large, electronic as well as print, would be used emphasizing on social media. The U.S. European Command published the Southeast European Times newspaper that was an antidote to disinformation and fake news until it was closed in 2015. To that end, a rejuvenated and expanded network based on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty could broadcast from these states to challenge the disinformation, propaganda and falsehoods of active measures with fact and truth.

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The strategic center of gravity is Putin. With Russian presidential elections on the horizon in March 2024 and Putin's popularity well below its once stratospheric levels, an assault of truth and fact will certainly not be in his interest. The off-ramp is de-escalation by both sides and a lessening of active measures and other Russian means to disrupt and destabilize.

In a rational world, it would seem NATO is the ideal organization to take the lead. But NATO is and will be a military alliance originally conceived to deter the military threat of the Soviet Union, and now, 30 years later, a more aggressive Russia. Hence, its ability to take on what is akin to psychological activities is probably a bridge too far. That does not mean other NATO members such as Romania might not be interested in joining this consortium.

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The Biden administration has a special coordinator for Asia and China in the National Security Council staff. It needs one for NATO and Europe. And a high priority for that person would be to organize a coalition of the willing "unfriendlies" to exploit the Putin stumble.

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Harlan Ullman is UPI's Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist, senior adviser at Washington, D.C.'s Atlantic Council and author of the upcoming book, "The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Threat to a Divided Nation and the World at Large."

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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