Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Putin's Grand Offensive Against the West and What We Must Do About It - Part 2

by Nomad

In part one of this two-part series, we looked at Putin's strategy and the origins of his ire with the West. Writing for Foreign Affairs, Michael Anthony McFaul, the US ambassador to Russia between 2012 and 2014, offers his recommendations on the best path forward for the US.

The Humiliation of a Superpower in Decline

Even before the Trump-Putin summit last week, Russian state-run media outlets were hard at work praising the Russian president's strategy.
According to the Washington Post, one Russian state TV host brazenly asserted that "Trump is ours" and he "joked" that the recent visit by US lawmakers- on July 4, no less - was an attempt “to make deals with our hackers, so they can rig the midterms in favor of Trump’s team.”  

The Russian reporters predicted that Putin would run circles around the “political neophyte” and would be giving the American president an education on world events.
And in the end, it was even worse than those predictions. Much worse. Yet, for Putin supporters, US humiliation must have been as sweet as Bashkir honey.

Here's how Mother Jones described the event and its aftermath.
After spending 45 minutes bashing U.S. intelligence and praising Vladimir Putin – who stood grinning at Trump’s side – the president was lambasted from just about every direction, including Fox News, where one of Trump’s most trustworthy lapdogs, Neil Cavuto, went so far as to call the display “disgusting.”
It was an embarrassment all around and validated every warning about Trump's loyalty to his nation and his fitness for office. It was also a measure of how far the US is from developing a coherent strategy in dealing with the threat Putin poses.

As the US ambassador to Russia between 2012 and 2014 under President Obama,  Michael Anthony McFaul has a few specific recommendations about how we should respond to that threat.

What Must Be Done

Above all else, McFaul stresses that we must be extremely realistic about this situation. Expecting Putin to change is just not going to happen.
Furthermore, Russia under Putin's control is incapable of change. So, it's an exercise in futility to hold out the hand of peace, with the expectation that Putin's entire character and mentality will react positively.
The United States must dig in for a long and difficult confrontation with Putin and his regime. On most issues, the aim should be to produce a stalemate, as preserving the status quo will often be the best the United States can hope for.
Political change- or at least, desirable change- can only begin the moment Putin steps down or is forced out of power. Until then, there are steps that must be taken.

Firstly, the West can continue to support human rights and democratic values. We must, says McFaul, "embrace people inside Russia fighting for those values." Even though it might not seem like it, that's the future and Putin and his way of thinking is the past.
Admittedly, it doesn't seem like that at the moment.

Containment, McFaul says, must begin at home. The US must take steps to limit the kind of damage that Putin has already demonstrated. His ability to throw into question the legitimacy of our election must be a top priority.  

Experts have been warning about the need for cybersecurity for the last 20 years. In the past, the threat came from mercenary hacking groups. These days, it is a state-run enterprise.
McFaul's advice?
It is time for the Congress to take cybersecurity seriously with a determined bipartisan approach.

Just this week, director of National Intelligence Dan Coats warned:  
"Today, the digital infrastructure that serves this country is literally under attack."
Coats identified the "worst offenders" are Russia, China, Iran and North Korea. Among them, Russia is, without a doubt, the "most aggressive." Putin is determined to undermine our democracy with this new form of war.

Every day, those countries "are penetrating our digital infrastructure and conducting a range of cyber intrusions and attacks against targets in the United States."  The attacks target the federal government, the US military, state and local governments, and US businesses.

So, it not merely our election infrastructure that's at risk. Large-scale cyber-attacks are a threat to our energy grid. Shut that down and the entire nation grinds to a halt almost overnight.
It was reported only yesterday by the Wall Street Journal that Russian hackers were able to gain access to the control rooms of US electric utilities last year.
The hackers -- working for a state-sponsored group previously identified as Dragonfly or Energetic Bear -- broke into utilities' isolated networks by hacking networks belonging to third-party vendors that had relationships with the power companies, the Department of Homeland Security said in a press briefing on Monday.
Actually, this is not new news. Congress has ignored warnings about such a capability for years. As one source noted:
A 2012 report by the National Research Council concluded that a cyberattack could black out a large region of the nation for weeks or even months. Public health and safety would be in jeopardy from an extended, widespread power outage, resulting in loss of life support systems in hospitals, nursing homes, and households, disruption of clean water supplies and sanitation, and a massive breakdown of the transportation system.
In the face of these threats, President Trump apparently views the FBI and other intelligence agencies not as the first line of defense providing a warning. He sees the FBI as the enemy and agents of an imaginary deep state.
And the Republican-led Congress seems much more interested in investigating the private emails of FBI agents and another related to Hillary Clinton.  

The good- or more positive news, at least- is that Congress finally seems to be taking a more serious look at the problem. The Washington Post reported this week:
Lawmakers have struggled to advance election security legislation in the months since they approved a $380 million funding package for states to upgrade their election systems. But a flurry of election-related hearings on Capitol Hill in recent weeks — including a pair of hearings Wednesday that featured testimony from some of the government’s top cybersecurity and election officials — shows they’re sharpening their focus on the issue.
As November mid-terms loom on the horizon, intelligence officials continue to warn of ongoing attempts by the Russian government to disrupt the U.S. political system.
It is up to Congress to do something about it and time is running out. 

Upgrading the Voting Systems
Back in late January 2016, Nomadic Politics warned that the sorry state of voting systems could lead to a constitutional crisis. Back then, it was not about Russian infiltration, but the basic legitimacy of the presidential election results.

The Institute for Southern Studies reported that all across the red states of the south, voting machines were well-past their retirement age. They should have been replaced and upgraded years ago. 
Of the 14 states across the country using machines that are 15 or more years old, four are found in the South: Florida, Louisiana, Texas and Virginia. Of those states, two are considered swing states, Florida and Virginia, and the outcomes of those states could determine who the next president will be.

And the problem went further. Sources claimed that the high cost of replacing older machines impacted counties with lower median incomes — likely smaller, rural areas. "leaving voters in those counties with a higher chance of experiencing problems on election day."According to one study, an estimated 500,000-700,000 people were unable to vote in 2012 election due to long lines.  

Some on the Left understandably blamed the Republican party for deliberately allowing the voting system to fall into decay.
Later that vague conspiracy theory would be blown out of the water when it became known that Russians had been involved. 

In the summer of 2017, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced that it had evidence of Russian attempts to break into election systems in 21 states.  Astoundingly, the DHS failed to inform the states but instead told those who had "ownership" of the systems — which in some cases were private vendors or local election offices.
State election officials were finally contacted by federal authorities on several months later about whether their election systems were among those targeted for attacks last year by Russian hackers.
McFaul stresses that the problem will entail an extensive overhaul of America's voting system. The federal government must require all state adhere to elementary cybersecurity protections such as dual authentication for all processes related to voting during a presidential election.
In addition, those who operate the systems that maintain voter registries must be required to receive training about how to spot common hacking techniques, and an even more rigorous set of standards must be adopted for the vote count.
Finally, there must be a paper trail for each ballot cast and every precinct must be able to produce a paper record for every vote. It is shocking to know that in certain precincts in battlefield states, like Florida or Pennsylvania, no paper trail is required.

Don't think a paper trail is important? In one case reported by Techcrunch, researchers found vulnerabilities in voting machines that would allow anyone within half a mile to modify every vote, undetected. And the steps to do so required no technical expertise.

Exposing Russia on Social Media
New laws must be introduced, McFaul suggests, to curtail or to monitor Russian media activities inside the United States. This includes a legal requirement for social media companies to take active measures to expose fake accounts and disinformation.
Through regulation, Washington should encourage social media platforms to grant less exposure to Kremlin-created content. Algorithms organizing search results on Google or YouTube should not overrepresent information distributed by the Russian government.
Social media companies have long resisted editorial responsibilities; that era must end. Companies like Twitter and Facebook and others must know they may be held legally responsible for selling ads to influence voter preferences. Even though America values are committed to free expression, this should not mean that our enemies should be allowed to covertly create a false consensus using bots and trolls.

This doesn't mean, of course, that social media must be controlled by the government, only that we must appreciate the proven national security threat of giving Russia unfettered access to social media.

Support Honest Journalism at Home and Abroad
It almost goes without saying that, for a variety of reasons, respectable journalism- the kind of reporting that our founding fathers once thought deserved constitutional protection- is under threat.
In terms of the offensive against the West, Putin's strategy relies strongly on equating honest journalism with fake news. (It's no coincidence that Wikileaks started out as a powerful tool for whistle-blowing journalism before it was successfully flipped to becoming a mouthpiece for Russia propaganda.)

We saw how effective this was in the last election cycle. Fake websites were established as a platform for fake news. The fake news was picked up by bots and trolls and widely linked in more reputable sites. Like a poison, the erroneous report spread upward until it finally reached right-wing news organizations and was reported as unconfirmed facts.
(In September 2016, Nomadic Politics reported on exactly such a case involved a fake poll.)

In McFaul's opinion, with democracy hanging in the balance, this trend must be reversed.
Readers must know who created and paid for the articles they read and the videos they watch.
Our commitment to honest journalism must, writes McFaul, also apply to independent Russian journalists.
Western foundations and philanthropists must provide more support for independent journalism, including Russian-language services both inside and outside Russia.
Independent non-partisan organizations should fund news organizations that need to locate their servers outside Russia to avoid censorship and help journalists and their sources protect their identities.

Trump's Disastrous Path

According to McFaul, Russia is winning only because the US - and Europe to a lesser extent- has failed to defend itself. It has failed to take Putin's challenge seriously. In this time of "hot peace," Putin will continue to win as long as we allow him to.

But no matter how effective a containment strategy U.S. policymakers put in place, they must be patient. They will have to endure stalemate for a long time, at least as long as Putin is in power, maybe even longer, depending on who succeeds him.

This is not the time for Trumpian appeasement. History has shown that this is exactly the most disastrous path the West can take in confronting fascist leadership.
When the current confrontation winds down, most likely because of political change inside Russia, future U.S. presidents must stand ready to seize the moment. They will have to do better at encouraging democracy within Russia and integrating Russia into the West than their predecessors have done.
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Here's a Frontline interview with McFaul.