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Putin, the ultimate chess player

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a meeting

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a meeting with Russian journalists in the office of Russian popular newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Jan. 11, 2018. Credit: AP / Alexei Druzhinin

Red Square is circling back to bite us. In case anyone is wondering what Russian President Vladimir Putin is up to, and how his government operates, look no further than a new Senate Foreign Relations Committee Democratic staff analysis published last week.

The report, titled “Putin’s Asymmetric Assault on Democracy in Russia and Europe,” details Putin’s nearly 20-year campaign to undermine democratic values, and it underscores the need for the United States to more forcefully and urgently acknowledge the Kremlin’s strategy, and to take stronger actions to protect our homeland from cyber intrusions.

The extent of Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election is yet to be determined, but Putin’s longer term pattern of behavior is critical to understanding how his cycle of disruption erodes public confidence and national security — including in America.

The report rewinds the tape about two decades to unravel the story of Russian meddling, unfolding like a James Bond thriller.

It starts years ago, when Putin tightened the noose around Chechnya and consolidated his power at home by restricting media access, tossing out Western organizations, and swaying public opinion through disinformation. Yes, before Donald Trump even ran for president, Russia was testing U.S. limits — like a good global chess player — spotting opportunities to upend the Western order.

Those moves include intervening militarily in Syria and the broader Middle East; invading Georgia; ordering troops into Ukraine, and annexing Crimea in an effort to reassemble the Soviet empire.

Putin also has stacked his own Duma with pro-Putin nationalists — feathering the nests of his officials along the way. According to the report, an estimated $24 billion has been amassed by Putin’s inner circle through the pilfering of state resources — part of a broader scheme to enrich his own and dilute the resources and authority of others.

Not content just to meddle in Georgia and Ukraine, Putin moved to cyber activities in the Baltics that included attacks on email servers and disinformation campaigns to confuse elections.

In 2016, Putin trained his energy on the United Kingdom and the chance to sway voters, using misinformation to stir up British voters on issues like immigration and jobs. Voilà. He succeeded. The UK voted in favor of Brexit. At the same time, Russia propagandists targeted voters in Bulgaria and Moldova, swinging elections to the right.

Trump was simply the next big fish to be caught in the crosshairs of Russian disinformation. Phony ads and recycled fake news enabled a groundswell of conservative opinion, based often on sentiment alone, to ensure voter confusion. A coup for Putin was the election of a man pre-determined not to like sanctions against Russia.

The report provides a blueprint for action. We have to do a better job of educating our citizens. We have to hold social media companies accountable. We have to strengthen our cyber defenses to uncover plots to block servers and hack systems. We have to better detect foreign funding that erodes democracy. We have to speak up more strongly about our values.

For the United States to ignore the evidence outlined in the report is to play a deadly game of Russian roulette with a country that has shown only some of its capability.

Tara D. Sonenshine is a former undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs and currently advises international students at The George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs.

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