Moscow’s strategic calculus is much harder to parse.
In the week since it became public that the United States had evidence Russia was offering bounties to Taliban-linked militants to kill American troops in Afghanistan, questions have swirled about the Kremlin’s motivation.
The revelation has created a firestorm in Washington, with Democrats — and some Republicans — calling for harsh penalties on Moscow if the intelligence is determined to be credible.
Why would Russia take such an escalatory step, some analysts have asked, when the Taliban were already killing Americans in Afghanistan of their own accord?
For former senior diplomats to the region, the answer is likely simple: Russian President Vladimir Putin saw an opportunity to cause harm to the United States, and he took it.
The best explanation, said Steven Pifer, the ambassador to Ukraine under President Clinton, is that Russia is “trying to do whatever they can to frustrate the Americans.”
There are two diverging theories about Russia’s strategic calculus. Some analysts suggest that Russia’s goal is to hasten the U.S. departure from Afghanistan, something President Donald Trump has talked about doing since taking office in 2017.
But it’s not clear that Moscow actually wants the United States gone, Pifer pointed out. Although Russia has for years given the Taliban some amount of small arms and cash, the support seems less aimed at bringing the group to power and more to assure warm relations if it does.
“What doesn't make sense is there's no strategic reason for the Russians to be advancing the Taliban, because if they come back to power the place most at risk would be central Asia — Russia's backyard,” Pifer said, pointing to Tajikistan in particular, where Russian troops already patrol the shared border with Afghanistan.
“At the end of the day, I think it's not in the interest of the Russians for us to totally quit” Afghanistan, he said.
Mike McFaul, who served as ambassador to Russia under President Obama, believes the bounties are more likely part of an effort to bog down the United States in the already two-decade-long war, just as Trump is pushing forward with a peace deal with the Taliban designed to extricate U.S. troops from the country. That explanation, McFaul said, is more “powerful.”
“Why does Putin care if we’re in Afghanistan right now? He could care less. It’s not like he’s trying to move into Afghanistan,” he said. “I think as long as we’re there, distracted, spending resources there, we’re not spending resources in places like the southern flank of NATO.”
Other analysts also point to Putin personally.
“Maybe you need to look at this not so rationally,” said Brian Whitmore, the director of the Russia program at the Center for European Policy Analysis. “Putin is famously vindictive.”
Although there was no official government response to a February 2018 confrontation between Russian mercenaries and U.S. troops in Syria that left hundreds of Russians dead, Whitmore said, it’s possible that the bounty program was delayed revenge for that incident.
“Putin is like a cat in that way,” he said.
McFaul and others emphasized that the United States has notoriously poor insight into Putin’s strategic thinking. But it’s clear that since 2014, the Russian leader has acted with increasingly flagrant disregard for international norms, institutions, and laws. The same military intelligence unit alleged to be responsible for the bounty program was also behind the attempted killing of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy then living on U.K. soil. The attempted assassination of Skripal, the interference in the 2016 American election, and the annexation of Crimea, McFaul and others said, are all part of a pattern of antipathy for the international system largely dominated by the west.
“There was a time in his career, it’s important to remember, that he wasn’t doing that,” McFaul said. “When he first started as president, he wanted to be part of the system. He wanted to go to the G8, and cooperate with Bush on terrorism.”
But after watching autocratic leaders in the Middle East toppled by the Arab spring, surviving massive demonstrations against his own regime in Russia in 2011, and watching the fall of the Moscow-backed Ukrainian president in Ukraine in 2014 — something Putin believes was orchestrated by the west — ”that’s when he decided, ‘The hell with these folks; we are in battle with them’,” McFaul said.
Trump has called for Russia to be readmitted to the G7, the group of the world’s largest so-called “advanced” economies. But it’s not clear that Putin would even want to return, McFaul said.
“He wants to destroy that system,” he said.
Whatever the strategic goals Putin may have had with the alleged bounty program, it carried the risk of U.S. retaliation in the event it was uncovered. Lawmakers and former diplomats have called for a range of response measures, from demarching Russia to sanctions and indictments. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, on Thursday appeared to suggest a military response, saying on the Senate floor that if the reports are true, “it demands a strong response, and I don't mean a diplomatic response.”
“The thing that was hard for me to wrap my head around is: killing Americans is a big deal. Putin wouldn't do something like that unless he was reasonably certain that there wasn't going to be much pushback,” Whitmore said.
Critics of the president believe that Putin calculated that Trump, who has been notoriously flattering of the autocratic leader and publicly sided with Putin’s word on election meddling over that of his own intelligence community, would do nothing in response.
The Kremlin likely believed Putin “can wrap Trump around [his] little finger,” Pifer said. “If he calls you on it, you can basically give him a story that he'll probably buy just as he's bought everything else,” he said, imagining what advisors might have said to the Russian president.
In the end, it’s also entirely possible that Russia simply believed it wouldn’t get caught offering or paying the bounties, McFaul said.
“My experience in the government [was that] I think they underestimate how good our intelligence is,” McFaul said. “They think they’re going to pull off certain things. I remember many episodes where they were quite surprised that we could have that fidelity of intelligence.”