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The Russia Probe Went After the Wrong People

As lawmakers here kept turning inward, they lost focus on the real Russian danger.

Robert Johnston7.23.19 4:58 AM ET

After Russia interfered in our election, Washington blew it by turning inward—to Trump and the collusion question—instead of outward. The resulting political turmoil was a gift to Vladimir Putin. From the Kremlin’s perspective, the Mueller Report was an after-action report showing the election-interference op was more successful then he had hoped. 

American lawmakers are running out of time to repair and strengthen our defenses ahead of the 2020 election—a threat I saw firsthand while leading the investigation into the breach of the Democratic National Committee by Russian foreign intelligence services in 2016.

Yet when Robert Mueller delivers his long-awaited testimony this week, I don’t anticipate the questions will focus on Russia and the vicious attack on our electoral process in 2016 so much as they will on America’s internal strife. 

Donald Trump obstructing justice, Paul Manafort evading taxes, or Roger Stone lying to Congress did not contribute to one of Russia’s greatest military victories since World War II. A myopic focus on domestic criminal activity during Mueller’s testimony this week will only leave America more vulnerable to future attacks from Russia and other countries.

Volume I of the special counsel’s investigation into election interference focused on criminal acts committed by the Internet Research Agency (IRA) and the Russian military intelligence agency, GRU, resulting in two federal indictments naming 25 Russian citizens and three corporate entities as defendants. Those appear impactful and, in fact, the thrust of U.S. deterrence against state-sponsored cyberattacks since 2014 has been the use of federal indictments to officially attribute them to state sponsors, also including China and Iran. 

But federal indictments have proved to be an imperfect tool for deterrence. Metaphorically, they are a theatrical performance designed to captivate the media and provide an illusion of decisive action. 

The first issue with the indictments of Russian operators is that there is no method of enforcement. Without the ability to compel extradition of those individuals, the United States is unable to enforce any action unilaterally. Under these conditions, they are a paper tiger.

Second, the indictments are micro in their effect. For example, one of the GRU defendants is 2nd Lt. Artem Andreyevich Malyshev, born in 1988, making him only 28 years old during the 2016 presidential election. While I am sure the U.S. indictment has changed the lives of those officers forever, the remote prospect of a trial for Malyshev does little to deter the Russian Federation from committing election interference in the future. The officers named in the indictment are expendable. 

Along with the indictments have come some sanctions, covering more than 100 Russian oligarchs, government officials, and other citizens along with 12 corporate entities for their roles interfering in our elections. Despite the bite of these sanctions, the attacks continue. In early 2019, the same unit that launched an attack on the 2016 elections conducted a massive cyberattack against U.S.-based think tanks and nonprofits.

History instructs us that to create a successful deterrent model against Russia you must establish consequence. President Kennedy initiated the blockade of Cuba to deter the Soviets from delivering ballistic missiles. President Truman authorized the Berlin airlift, putting an end to Soviet aggression in Germany. And President Reagan invaded Grenada, eliminating global fear of the Soviet Brezhnev Doctrine. While there are many soft- and hard-power levers that meet our current needs, any action should focus on two principles: marginalizing Russian expansion and escalating negative pressure on the Russian sphere of influence. 

To marginalize Russian expansion, the U.S. could use its influence in the Gulf states to drive down the price of oil and shift European oil and gas imports from Russia to NATO countries, creating an immediate loss of value within the Russian economy. Or the U.S. can increase foreign military sales to countries like Israel and Saudi Arabia, putting increased pressure on Russian allies like Iran and Syria. Finally, the U.S. should strongly consider significant weapons and troop deployments to Russia’s geographic borders.

As tensions between our two countries increase, U.S. policymakers can’t afford to keep revisiting 2016 to the detriment of establishing the conditions needed for a safe and secure election in 2020. There’s little sign so far that we’ve learned our lesson.