What are Americans supposed to think when their leaders contradict one another on the most basic question of national security—who is the enemy? This is happening every day on the floors of the House and the Senate, in committee hearing rooms, on television news programs, and in President Donald Trump’s Twitter feed. Is Russia the enemy, or was the investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election just a slow-motion attack on the president and his supporters? Are Russian fake-news troll farms stirring up resentment among the American electorate, or are mainstream-media outlets just making things up?
U.S. military commanders, national-security officials, and intelligence analysts have a definitive answer: Russia is an enemy. It is taking aggressive action right now, from cyberspace to outer space, and all around the world, against the United States and its allies. But the public has been slow to catch on, polls suggest, and Trump has given Americans little reason to believe that their president recognizes Russia’s recent actions as a threat.
All the uncertainty is part of Vladimir Putin’s plan. America’s confusion is both a product and a principal goal of a qualitatively new kind of warfare that the Kremlin is waging—a campaign that systematically targets a democratic but politically divided society whose economy, media environment, and voting systems all depend on vulnerable electronic technologies. The essence of this strategy is to attack U.S. interests just below the threshold that would prompt a military response and then, over time, to stretch that threshold further and further. The purpose of this shadow war is simple: to create what Russian General Valery Gerasimov has called “a permanent front through the entire territory of the enemy state.”
In a 2013 article bearing the innocuous title “The Value of Science Is in the Foresight,” Gerasimov, one of Russia’s top military leaders, spelled out his government’s intentions. “In the twenty-first century, we have seen a tendency toward blurring the lines between the states of war and peace,” he wrote. “Wars are no longer declared and, having begun, proceed according to an unfamiliar template.”
Today Russia is applying this “unfamiliar template” on multiple battlefields at once. During the Cold War, Moscow had few levers by which to manipulate American public opinion or meddle in American political campaigns. But the rise of social media created opportunities for troll farms, and poorly secured email systems offered a bonanza for hackers. According to the January 2017 assessment of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Russia interfered in 2016 to “denigrate Hillary Clinton and harm her electability” with “a clear preference for President-elect Donald Trump.” It tried to interfere in the 2018 campaign, and all evidence suggests it will do the same in 2020.
Meanwhile, Russia’s military preparations continue. In outer space, Russia has deployed weapons designed to damage or destroy U.S. satellites, the basis for a host of systems that undergird American military and economic superiority in the world. Under the waves, Russia has deployed two new classes of attack and ballistic-missile submarines that are harder to track and therefore more capable of expanding the nuclear threat right to America’s shores.
And on land, Russia has invaded and occupied territory in sovereign nations, including Ukraine and Georgia, and attempted a coup in Montenegro, threatening treaties and the rule of law that have helped keep the peace in Europe for decades.
In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea in violation of a peace agreement it had signed with Ukraine, the United States, and Europe. Months later, it then occupied large swaths of eastern Ukraine. In both cases, Moscow sent in special forces posing as something other than soldiers of the Russian Federation. The “little green men” who turned up in unmarked uniforms were supposedly helping ethnic Russians who feared for their safety in what was then part of a sovereign Ukraine, and what is still recognized as such by the United States and the West today.
In retrospect, those events should not have come as a surprise. In his article the year before, Gerasimov was remarkably specific in describing the exact tactics Russia would soon employ. “The open use of forces—often under the guise of peacekeeping and crisis regulation—is resorted to only at a certain stage, primarily for the achievement of final success in the conflict,” he wrote.
Yet for years after the end of the Cold War, leaders in the United States and other Western nations were willfully blind to Russia’s hostility. They fell victim to “mirroring,” imagining that the Russians—and the Chinese, for that matter—wanted what the U.S. wanted: for them to be drawn into the rules-based international order. But leaders of both Russia and China view that system as skewed toward the interests of the West. Perhaps not coincidentally, China is pursuing a strategy nearly identical to Russia’s, and with similar success—from stealing U.S. trade and government secrets to manufacturing territory in the disputed South China Sea to deploying offensive weapons in space. Only now, as these events unfold, are decision makers in the American public and private sectors abandoning misconceptions about the kind of relationship they might have with Moscow and Beijing.
“It took a long time to sink in,” former Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told me in an interview for my new book.
Yet even when the United States and the West have recognized Russian aggression, the penalties have proved wanting. Following Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, the U.S. named and shamed the Kremlin a full month before Election Day, and later imposed a series of sanctions on Russian individuals and entities. But Russian election meddling has continued. What happened in the intervening months and years that allowed Russia to get away with one act of aggression and then lay the groundwork for another, even bolder one? By the simplest measure—did Russia then stop or soften its attacks?—the U.S. response has failed. This cycle of Russian aggression, followed by an ineffective U.S. retaliation, followed by more Russian aggression, is the shadow war in action.
The West’s handling of Russian aggression in Europe has been similarly futile. Today, despite U.S. sanctions and public condemnation, Crimea is effectively a part of Russia, and parts of eastern Ukraine remain very much under Russian control. In eastern Ukraine now, Russia may be laying the groundwork to assert more formal authority, offering passports to ethnic Russians—a step it also took before its 2008 invasion of Georgia. America’s NATO allies in eastern Europe, including the Baltic states, fear they may now be next.
Belatedly, the United States is adjusting its strategy and defenses to meet these new threats. Aboard submarines and surveillance aircraft, in National Security Agency operations centers, and on bases that make up the growing Air Force Space Command, I’ve met many of the Americans who are now on the front lines of the shadow war, doing all they can to shore up their country’s defenses. However, U.S. intelligence officials, military commanders, and lawmakers all agree that an effective response requires firm leadership from the very top.
Despite their own failures, officials from the Barack Obama and George W. Bush administrations argue that they at least directly confronted Russia over its boldest acts of aggression. Writing in The Washington Post in August, on the tenth anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Georgia, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice noted that the Bush administration had returned Georgian troops from Iraq to help protect Tbilisi, their country’s capital. She wrote that she had personally warned Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov against forcing out Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s democratically elected president.
Officials in Obama’s administration say he twice warned Putin personally against further election interference, first in a face-to-face conversation at the G20 summit in China in September 2016 and then eight days before the election over a hotline originally designed to help prevent nuclear war.
President Trump has shown far less appetite to confront Russia. He has in fact repeatedly questioned whether Russia is an enemy at all. By accounts from within his own administration, Trump’s reluctance to confront the Russia threat is driven in part by his perception that acknowledging the 2016 interference would diminish his victory. Special Counsel Robert Mueller may have absolved Trump of an explicit conspiracy with Russia. But Trump’s continued reluctance to identify and address the Russia threat may be just as damaging to the U.S. and just as helpful to Russia—and the possibility that political intrigue will leave America paralyzed suits the architects of Russia’s shadow war just fine.