July 2, 2020
IntelBrief: Russia Acts with Impunity as the United States Struggles to Respond
Last weekend The New York Times broke a story investigating allegations that Russian military intelligence, known as the GRU, offered money in the form of a bounty to Taliban insurgents who killed American or British troops in Afghanistan. Few national security analysts were surprised by the allegations given Russia’s track record, even as many were disturbed by President Trump’s failure to take any action against Moscow after receiving information about the bounty plot in a Presidential Daily Brief (PDB) from several months ago. The White House has attempted to downplay the story, although this is far from the first instance of President Trump going soft when confronted by aggressive Russian tactics. Over the years, President Trump has expressed a strong affinity for Russian President Vladimir Putin, even siding with him over the U.S. intelligence community in its assessment of Moscow’s interference in the 2016 election. Despite the objections of key American allies, President Trump has expressed a desire to invite Putin to the G7 Summit in the United States in the fall of 2020.
Russian bounty payments to Taliban insurgents is entirely consistent with the way the Kremlin operates—outside of the boundaries of international law, with little concern for the norms of statecraft or international relations. And while much has been made about the so-called ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’ and Russia’s operations in the ‘gray zone,’ the reality is that Russian asymmetric warfare and influence operations have garnered a significant return on investment for Putin. As with the recent revelations about the bounty program in Afghanistan, when Russia engages in actions considered ‘beyond the pale,’ and these actions are met with no response, the Kremlin is merely emboldened. At the same time that Russia has encouraged Taliban fighters to target American and British troops, Moscow has worked back channels in an effort to increase Russia’s leverage in the peace process.
Whether operating in its near abroad, including Crimea and Ukraine, or further afield in the Middle East, Western Europe, or Latin America, Russia has not shied away from using a devastating combination of mercenaries, cyberattacks and other covert operations, including assassinations, to further its national security objectives. In Syria, Russian forces are moving closer to the eastern part of the country where U.S. troops are located, while in Libya, Moscow has sent more mercenaries from the Wagner Group, Mig-29 jet fighters, and an advanced radar system to help bolster the Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar. In Venezuela, Russia has helped reinforce the regime of strongman Nicolas Maduro, while in Africa, the Kremlin has stepped up its propaganda efforts to burnish its own image while discrediting Western nations, especially the United States. Russia has also dispatched mercenaries to Sudan, Mozambique, and the Central African Republic to curry favor with African leaders attempting to quell internal unrest.
It has now been well-documented that the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM), labeled a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) entity by the U.S. Department of State this past April, provided training to white supremacist terrorists from throughout Europe at training camps in St. Petersburg, Russia and also cooperated with U.S.-based white supremacists. The leader of the neo-Nazi group The Base, an American citizen named Rinaldo Nazzaro (aka Norman Spear) is believed to be living in St. Petersburg. In addition to providing various levels of support to violent non-state actors, including but not limited to white supremacists, Russia also relies on disinformation that is finely tuned, yet mass produced at troll farms by an army of bots, ‘sockpuppets’ and other inauthentic online personas. Russian influence operations highlight divisive issues in Western society, exacerbating tensions related to race, socio-economic inequality, and most recently, how to respond to the coronavirus.
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