Four short years ago, President Obama and the Democratic Party laughed Mitt Romney out of the room for saying that Russia was the greatest geopolitical threat to the United States. How quickly things do change. Today, with a humanitarian disaster unfolding in Aleppo, Syria, Eastern Europe under threat, and the revelations of Russian meddling in our election, Mr. Obama and his inner circle are suddenly warning his successor of the Kremlin’s perfidy.
Russian hacking activities during the last presidential election should not become a political talking point for Democrats to question the legitimacy of Donald Trump’s election. For all the controversy over the president-elect’s reaction to the hacking news, it’s easy to forget that Obama still has more than a month in office and is still the commander-in-chief. In taking action against Russia now, he could help correct the sins of two presidential terms where Russia’s influence has grown almost unchecked.
During Obama’s tenure, Russian President Vladimir Putin has invaded Ukraine, annexed the Crimean Peninsula, spread propaganda networks around the world, bombed large swathes of Syria into oblivion while pretending to fight ISIS. Not only has the United States not pushed back against Russian and Iranian support for Assad, it has continuously maintained a delusional quest for coordination with Moscow against radical groups, years after the failure of the initial “reset.”
The president’s supporters can point to the sanctions passed against individuals linked the regime but those can be quickly undone and are insufficient. If Obama is truly concerned about Russia and its growing ability to play spoiler, he can and should choose to finally do something about it in his lame duck period.
Obama has already ordered a full review of what transpired during the 2016 presidential election, and intends for it to be completed and at least partial results made public before his successor’s inauguration. This is an admirable step but far more must be done to expose all that we know about the criminal networks that support Moscow’s aims both at home and abroad. The Kremlin’s cyber-crime and corruption schemes are now actively harming the integrity of our democracy and we must fight back.
Without compromising its sources, the United States government should – where possible – release the information that it knows about Russian involvement in recent cyber-attacks and hacks of the Democratic National Committee, the Republican National Committee, the email accounts of high-ranking officials, and any government offices.
The revelations should not stop there. German Internet provider Deutches Telekom, the Ukrainian Ministries of Finance and Treasury, French television channel TV5 Monde, the German parliament and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party, a western Ukrainian power grid, and many other significant groups have also purportedly been the target of similar groups of Russian-backed hackers. Any U.S. information on these crimes should also be released.
Corruption has become a key mode through which the Russian government actively undermines Western democracies. Kleptocracy is at the heart of the Russian’s regime inner workings, it is not a feature of it. Yet despite our government’s accumulated knowledge of the criminal syndicates that underpin the Russian government, it has been left to journalists to expose such crimes through leaks like the Panama Papers.
Hundreds of billions of dollars in illicit money has flowed out of Russia in the past years and has found a comfortable home in New York or Miami real estate and Delaware shell companies. Putin himself is said to be worth over $40 billion dollars, much of it stolen from Russian citizens. The president could release directly or through journalists the U.S. government’s knowledge of where this wealth is hidden and how it was accumulated.
Would such revelations weaken Putin’s hold on power? Perhaps not, most of his citizens are under no illusion over the reality of their ruling regime. But it would send a clear signal to the kleptocrats in the Kremlin as well as adversaries around the world that such asymmetric warfare tactics can and will be answered to in kind. It would make those engaging in business with Russia think twice about the reputation cost they could suffer. And it would help the American people better understand the true nature of Russia as an emerging adversary.
While the Obama administration may take a hit for making these revelations during a lame duck period, such a move could be deftly exploited by his successor even if he choses to re-engage with Moscow. After all, Donald Trump could easily distance himself from President Obama’s revelations while still benefiting from the added leverage it will offer, alongside a path to lifting sanctions. A book once said “Leverage: don’t do a deal without it.” That book? The Art of the Deal.