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Russian threat cannot be underestimated

US must work closely with its European allies to counter the Kremlin’s intensifying assault on democracy

Gulf News

For the better part of 20 years, Russian President Vladimir Putin has engaged in a relentless assault on democratic institutions abroad, universal values and the rule of law. Putin has operated from a position of weakness, hobbled by a faltering economy, a substandard military and few followers on the world stage. And his attacks have grown in intensity and complexity over the past few years. Despite the efforts of some in national security leadership, as well as dedicated career public servants across the executive branch, one person is preventing a strong, government-wide response that holds Russia accountable for its destabilising activities: The president of the United States. Never before has the White House so clearly ignored a national security threat.

If America fails to respond with the urgency this threat requires, the regime in Moscow will be further emboldened — not just to undermine European stability, but to build on its success in interfering in the 2016 presidential election in America by undermining the 2018 midterm elections and the 2020 presidential election.

These are some of the findings of a report that I wrote. Research began in the months following the 2016 election because it is critical that the American people better understand the scope and scale of the Russian government threat to democratic institutions and support the steps necessary to defend the American system of government and its very society. The report shows that Putin’s threat to the American nation, and its allies, is growing.

The Russian president’s rap sheet of meddling in Europe is long and sordid. Some of the most egregious examples include:

n A coup attempt in Montenegro to storm the nation’s parliament and capture or kill the prime minister ahead of that nation’s attempt to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

n Russian media propaganda, especially internet trolls and bots, which were discovered in the public debate ahead of recent major referendums such as “Brexit” in Britain and the Catalonia independence movement in Spain, as well as national elections in France and Germany. Indications are that Italy may well be next.

n The violation of international law by invading Russia’s neighbours, such as Georgia and Ukraine.

Several countries in Europe have realised the danger that the Kremlin poses. These governments have bolstered cyberdefences, conducted media literacy efforts, gone after Russian organised crime and started to diversify energy supplies, rallying multiple sectors of society in mutual defence — government, corporations, civil society, the media, academia and students.

The same cannot be said in the US. But even beyond electoral interference, the report also found examples of Kremlin-backed efforts to affect the daily lives of Americans and things that they care about: Cheating Americans out of medals at the Olympic Games and supporting cybercriminals who attack American businesses and who steal the financial information of millions of American consumers.

So what should America do about it?

First, President Donald Trump must provide unequivocal presidential leadership to mobilise his own government and the American people. Second, the US must embark on an effort to build more resilience at home and in democratic institutions across Europe — the best defence against Russian interference. Third, the US and its allies should go on the offensive and expose and freeze Kremlin-linked dirty money, placing Moscow under a pre-emptive and escalatory sanctions regime as a deterrent to future attacks on democratic institutions. Fourth, the US should work with social-media companies and hold them accountable for their role in allowing the Kremlin’s disinformation campaigns to spread unchecked, toxifying public discourse and exacerbating political and societal divisions.

Out of the ashes of the Second World War, the US led the world in constructing the current liberal international order through democratic institutions, shared values and accepted norms. The enduring transatlantic bond between America and Europe — the foundation for that order — is anathema to Putin, who seeks to protect little more than his own power and wealth.

The US must therefore work closely with its European allies to counter the Kremlin’s ongoing, intensifying assault on democracy around the world.

— Washington Post

Ben Cardin represents Maryland in the US Senate, where he is the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee.

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