In his recent annual “town hall”, the Russian president Vladimir PoutineVladimir Vladimirovich PutinJohn Kerry to Visit Moscow Officials to Discuss ‘Global Climate Ambition’ Hillicon Valley: Warren Calls on SEC to Take a Closer Look at Cryptocurrency Exchanges | Maryland Town Taken Offline in Massive Ransomware Attack | Huawei hires three new lobbying firms New START expansion lacks critical points for strategic stability MORE signaled his determination to take Moscow’s confrontation with Washington to the next level – an outright war that he says the United States is unable to win. Having served as the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) intelligence officer for Russian doctrine and strategy, I fear that our government bureaucracy is indeed woefully ill-prepared for all-out war with Russia, which no longer appears to be a hypothetical scenario.
In his question-and-answer session with seemingly ordinary Russian citizens, Putin answered questions, almost certainly posed by the Kremlin, regarding the June 23 incident involving the Russian and British military in the Black Sea. The incident, in which Russia claimed to drive a British destroyer from Crimean waters, clearly demonstrates that the military policies of the United States, NATO and Russia are on a collision course, risking kinetic warfare – a war that the Kremlin apparently believes inevitable.
A British Navy destroyer has sailed near Crimea, which Russia considers its sovereign territory following Putin’s annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula. The United States and NATO do not recognize Crimea as Russian and claim the ship’s movements were in accordance with international law. Moscow, however, sees the incident as a violation of its territorial waters. The Russian government has said its army fired a warning shot to ward off the British warship, a claim the British are disputing. Moscow has also warned the West that it will not issue any warning if its perceived sovereign territory is violated in the future, implying it will go straight to the point. We have seen Moscow’s willingness to take risks in situations that it considers to be high stakes. The Russians, and the Soviets before them, were accused of downing the Malaysian MH-17 in 2014 and the Korean airliner KAL007 in 1983, both civilians, killing everyone on board in both cases.
In his exchange with “the people”, Putin was asked if the June 23 incident brought the world to the brink of a third world war. He replied no, accusing the Americans and the British of a “complex” provocation. Putin explained his conclusion by saying that the United States knows that it could not win such a war. He seemed so confident in America’s unpreparedness to retaliate that he speculated that even if Russia sank the British warship, it would go unanswered.
Putin’s confidence stems from Moscow’s belief that he can fight and win the war with Washington on Russian terms. Russia has taken note of the United States’ reliance on technology, even in conflicts with low-tech adversaries such as terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq. Putin’s master plan, which he often calls “asymmetric,” exploits America’s perceived vulnerabilities. Cyber and space are the new areas that Russia has designated as a level playing field. Russia has demonstrated its willingness to use cyber in peacetime to attack our food and gasoline supplies, and more, including last Friday’s attack on IT company Kaseya and the companies using its software. In times of war, the Kremlin will wage unrestricted cyber warfare.
We haven’t seen much of Putin’s space war targeting our homeland yet, but it is happening. Although the United States does not recognize them as a separate category of weapons, what the Russians call “space weapons” can strike our orbiting space-based defense system.
The US government and business have been caught off guard by US adversaries’ willingness to attack our unsecured computer networks and their success in doing so. Our satellites are also defenseless.
For two decades, Washington admired the ingenuity of Putin’s playbook, having done little to protect Americans. Former CIA Director General Michael Hayden said Russia’s intelligence operation targeting the 2016 presidential election was “the most successful covert influence operation in history.” Former director of national intelligence Dan Coates said in 2018 that the alert system was “blinking red”, in reference to the Russian threat. In May, following Russia’s hack of our meat and gas, FBI Director Christopher Wray again drew parallels between the Russian cyberattacks and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He called on the “average American” to have a “shared responsibility” for the defense of the territory against cyber attacks. I hope the bureaucrats don’t expect us to fend for ourselves when it comes to Putin’s Star Wars.
Americans must demand more from our government than metaphorical language about the Russian threat and the theatrics of calling Putin “a killer”, given the possibility of war. In March, General Glen VanHerck told the Senate Armed Forces Committee that the Russians were “repeating potential strikes on our homeland”, citing “multiple flights of heavy bombers, anti-submarine planes and collection of information”. In 2018, General Terrence O’Shaughnessy, Commander of NORAD / NORTHCOM, acknowledged that the “American homeland is no longer a sanctuary”. NORTHCOM is a combat command tasked with defending the United States and Canada against missile attacks.
The US bureaucracy’s unpreparedness for Russia’s war mode was confirmed in the 2016 US military assessment titled “Outplayed: Regaining Strategic Initiative in the Gray Zone”. The authors concluded that the United States had not offered a coherent counter-strategy to Russia’s war doctrine, which exploits the traditional American conception of war and peace. Americans tend to understand war as tanks rolling and planes dropping bombs. The Russians are waging a low-intensity war, as in the cyber realm, intentionally below the US military response threshold – but Putin is ready to step up the fighting in a kinetic blitzkrieg.
The Black Sea remains one of the most likely hot spots, which could spark an outright war between Russia and NATO, dragging down the United States. Both sides regularly conduct military exercises in the region, and Russian military planes frequently perform dangerous maneuvers near the United States and NATO warships and fighter jets. With Ukraine and Crimea being the “hot button” for Moscow and Washington, each claiming the area as part of their respective spheres of influence, a single misstep could trigger a shootout. With Putin confident that Washington hasn’t figured out how to handle it, and that it can win such a war, the problem may be even worse than it looks.
Rebekah Koffler is a former DIA intelligence officer and the author of Putin’s upcoming playbook: Russia’s Secret Plan to Defeat America.