Why is Trump Turning a Blind Eye to Russia’s Covert Warfare?

The Kremlin’s payment of bounties for the killing of American and British soldiers in Afghanistan is a dangerous step in the ladder of escalation. For years, the Kremlin has waged a covert war against Western democracies without most Americans even knowing it.

Unable to challenge America directly on the battlefield in Afghanistan or Iraq, the Kremlin siloviki — or security hawks — have sought to undermine the United States through various “active measures” operations. Such operations are usually conducted under the guise of semi-plausible deniability: cyberattacks waged by “patriotic hackers,” information warfare run from suburban troll farms, illicit finance operations managed by unknown oligarchs, and of course, covert operations run by the intelligence services.

Russia’s shadow war has intensified in recent years. The Kremlin’s arming of the Taliban and its extremist allies is a case in point. A year ago, I testified before the Congressional Helsinki Commission that “Russia’s weapons and night-vision equipment enable the Taliban and its extremist allies to directly target U.S. and NATO service members on the ground.” This sort of escalation is extremely dangerous and could well have led to U.S. or NATO casualties. But even then there was a semi-plausible alternative explanation. Moscow might claim its actions were to help the Taliban fight a common enemy in ISIS or were more forward-looking as a hedge in case the Taliban comes back to power.

Placing bounties on American lives is a different level of escalation. A bounty is no different than a mafia boss ordering a hit. It is murder. While arming combatants in an internal conflict is inflammatory, it is not uncommon: in Syria, the Kremlin has armed the Asad regime since the very beginning of the civil war; in Libya, it is currently arming the insurgent forces of General Haftar. Viktor Bout, the notorious Russian arms trader known as the “Merchant of Death,” sold Russian arms on the black market to just about anyone who would buy them – ostensibly as a private actor.

Bounties are different. They are akin to Russia’s special services targeting Americans for assassination. Reports that the “prize” paid was $100,000 per American soldier killed underscores the alarming nature of the contract.

President Trump’s refusal to take action or even acknowledge the issue, in spite of vast evidence uncovered by the media detailing the name of a key middleman and the precise manner in which the bounty money was disbursed, is shocking. A Commander-in-Chief’s refusal to defend the lives of American troops who are serving in harm’s way is both a massive dereliction of duty and an invitation for the Kremlin to keep targeting Americans.

When Western powers fail to push back, the Kremlin keeps prodding and probing — until it meets resistance, or until the costs for President Putin and his regime exceed the perceived benefits. In 2018, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson Jr., publicly raised his concerns about the Russian supply of weapons to the Taliban. A year earlier, Defense Secretary Mattis also publicly voiced concerns about the Russian support to the Taliban. As David Ignatius recently explained, “Trump didn’t press the Russians to stop, and so they continued.”

When Western powers fail to push back, the Kremlin keeps prodding and probing — until it meets resistance, or until the costs for President Putin and his regime exceed the perceived benefits.

We have to understand the basic fact of how the Kremlin pushes until it meets resistance because in the last five years, the GRU has managed a proxy war in Ukraine; targeted civilian hospitals and schools in rebel-held areas of Syria; used an extraordinarily dangerous chemical nerve agent to conduct an attempted assassination inside the territory of a NATO member; conducted an assassination in a Berlin park, in another NATO member state; tapped into the WiFi connections of the World Anti-Doping Agency; attempted a coup d’état in Montenegro; and hacked into a U.S. presidential campaign in an operation described by the Russian group as “information warfare against the United States of America.”

Given this track record, even the most unconfirmed reports suggesting that Russia was paying bounties for American lives needed to be addressed urgently. The White House was apparently alarmed enough to convene a high-level meeting with the participation of the U.S. Special Envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, to discuss the bounty payments in late March. Ambassador Khalilzad apparently considered the intelligence information sufficient to call for confronting the Russians directly. Since then President Trump has called Russian President Vladimir Putin at least six times – but not once has he raised the issue of bounties. In fact, three days after the New York Times broke the story, Trump’s press secretary claimed the president still had not been briefed on the matter. This lack of action is unconscionable.

For a White House that persists with the preposterous claim that no one has been stronger on Russia than President Trump, the fact that Putin has placed a bounty on the heads of American soldiers shows how much whatever Trump thinks he is doing has failed us.

The broader context for Trump’s refusal to act now is troubling. Trump’s failure to condemn the Kremlin for its ongoing war in Ukraine, his calls for readmitting Russia to the G8, his withdrawal of troops from Germany, his gratuitous references to Putin as a “great guy” and a “terrific person,” his questioning of whether the United States would come to the defense of “delinquent” allies, his snap withdrawal from Syria, and his reported near-withdrawal from NATO, all beg the question about why this President consistently advances the Kremlin’s interests over those of the United States.

The American people deserve to know what the president knew and when he knew it. They need to know why he failed to act and why his Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense have remained relatively silent. The families of American service members also deserve to know what their Commander-in-Chief is going to do now to protect their loved ones. Nothing less than American lives are at stake.

 

Photo credit: President Donald Trump shares a Thanksgiving dinner with US troops at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan on Nov. 28, 2019 (Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)

 

About the Author(s)

Michael Carpenter

Senior Director of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy. Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense with responsibility for Russia, Ukraine, Eurasia, the Balkans, and Conventional Arms Control. Follow him on Twitter (@mikercarpenter)