Russia: The Threat, the International Order, and the Way Forward
I have had the privilege of serving in the Obama Administration for eight years: first in the White House and for the last three and a half years as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. I have never had a more meaningful job. And now I have just three days left.
This is my last major speech as a member of this Administration. And much as I would have liked to use it to urge young people to go into public service or to make the pragmatic case for strengthening the United Nations, I feel that the circumstances require me to focus on a much more immediate subject, a major threat facing our great nation: Russia.
Before getting to the core threat posed by Russia, I want to stress from the bottom of my heart that some of the most rewarding and impactful work I have done at the United Nations has come in the times when my Russian counterpart and I have been able to cooperate. Back in 2013, together we negotiated a resolution to get the most dangerous chemical weapons out of Syria. Russia, as you all recall, was a key pillar in imposing sanctions on Iran for its illicit nuclear program — sanctions that were essential in bringing Iran to the table, so that we could forge an agreement that cut off Iran’s pathways to a nuclear bomb. And Russia worked really constructively with the rest of the Security Council to select the best candidate for a new UN Secretary-General, a leader with tremendous experience and vision.
While people tend to look to the Cold War as the paradigm for understanding the nature of U.S.-Russia relations, the reality is that for pivotal parts of our shared history, U.S. and Russian interests have frequently aligned. We fought together in both of the 20th century’s world wars. Indeed, had it not been for the colossal sacrifices made by the Soviet Union in World War II, in which they lost more than 20 million people — many times more than any other nation, friend or foe — the war would have dragged on for much longer, millions more Americans and people of other allied countries would have lost their lives, and fascism might well have prevailed in large parts of the world, not to mention that the post-World War II order may never have been built. Russia’s immense contribution in that war is part of their proud history of standing up to imperialist powers, from the Mongols in the 16th century to Napoleon in the 19th century. In addition, many of the challenges that Russia faces today, from violent extremism and China’s territorial expansionist aims, to national industries and jobs that have been rendered obsolete by globalization, are ones we also face here in the United States. So — let me say from the outset — it is very much in our interest to try to solve problems with Russia. Dialogue between us is absolutely imperative.
Having said that, anyone who has seen my debates in the UN Security Council with Russia knows that I and my government have long had serious concerns about the Russian government’s aggressive and destabilizing actions. The argument I want to make today goes beyond any particular action Russia has taken to its broader strategy and what that means for the security of the United States and the American people.
Today, I will set out how the Russian government under President Putin is taking steps that are weakening the rules-based order that we have benefitted from for seven decades. Our values, our security, our prosperity, and our very way of life are tied to this order. And we — and by “we,” I mean the United States and our closest partners — must come together to prevent Russia from succeeding in weakening that order. This means better understanding and educating our public about how Russia is challenging this order. This means reaffirming our commitment to the rules and institutions that have long undergirded this order, as well as developing new tools to counter the tactics that Russia is using to undermine it. And this means addressing the vulnerabilities within our democracy that Russia’s attacks have exposed and have exacerbated. To do this, we cannot let Russia divide us. If we confront this threat together, we will adapt and strengthen the order on which our interests depend.
Now, terms like “international order” can seem quite abstract. So let me be very concrete about what is threatened by Russia’s actions. The order enshrined in the UN Charter and other key international agreements in the aftermath of the Second World War was built on the understanding that all of our nations would be more secure if we bound ourselves to a set of rules. These included the rules that the borders between sovereign states should be respected; that, even in times of war, some weapons and some tactics should never be used; that while forms of government might vary from one nation to another, certain human rights were inalienable and necessary to check state power; and that the nations that break these rules should be held accountable.
Now, as we all know, a lot has changed in the seven decades since that order was created. When the United Nations was founded, there were just 51 Member States, a fraction of today’s 193; some great contemporary powers were not yet independent nations; and many countries that did exist did not have a say, much less an equal voice, in developing its rules. In addition, some of the threats that we face today, such as violent terrorist groups and cyber-attacks, would have been unimaginable to the architects of that system. So there are many reasons why the rules-based order conceived in 1945 is not perfectly tailored to the challenges that we as an international community face in 2017. And it is reasonable to think that we need to update those rules with more voices at the table, some of which we will not agree with. Yet, evolve as the system may, the vast majority of countries today recognize that we all benefit from having rules of the road that constrain certain kinds of behavior to enhance our shared security, rules that must not be rewritten by force.
Now, I also acknowledge that there are times when actions the United States takes in the interest of defending our security and that of our allies can be seen by other nations as offensive moves that threaten their security, and we need to be alert to this, which is why dialogue is so very important. And some may argue — not unreasonably — that our government has not always lived up to the rules that we invoke. As President Obama made clear when he entered office, while the United States strives to lead by example, there are still times when we have fallen short. Yet, under President Obama’s leadership, we have shown our commitment to investing in and abiding by the rules-based international order. The same cannot be said for the Russian government today.
For years, we have seen Russia take one aggressive and destabilizing action after another. We saw it in March 2014, not long after mass peaceful protests in Ukraine brought to power a government that favored closer ties with Europe, when Russia dispatched its soldiers to the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea. The “little green men,” as they came to be called, for Russia denied any ties to any of them, rammed through a referendum at the barrel of a gun, which Mr. Putin then used to justify his sham attempted annexation of Crimea.
We saw it months later in eastern Ukraine, where Russia armed, trained, and fought alongside separatists. Again Russia denied any role in the conflict it manufactured, again flouting the international obligation to respect the territorial integrity of its neighbor.
We saw it also in Russia’s support for Bashar al-Assad’s brutal war in Syria — support it maintained even as the Assad regime blocked food and medicine from reaching civilians in opposition-held areas, civilians who were so desperate that they had resorted to eating leaves, even as photographs emerged of countless prisoners who had been tortured to death in Assad’s prisons, their bodies tagged with serial numbers, even as the Assad regime repeatedly used chemical weapons to kill its own people.
We saw it in 2015, when Russia went further by joining the assault on the Syrian people, deploying its own troops and planes in a campaign that hit hospitals, schools, and the brave Syrian first responders who were trying to dig innocent civilians out of the rubble. And with each transgression, not only were more innocent civilians killed, maimed, starved, and uprooted, but the rules that make all of our nations more secure — including Russia — those rules were eroded.
We saw it in Russia’s effort to undercut the credibility of international institutions like the United Nations. For example, in an emergency UN Security Council meeting last month, then-Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the Member States that the Assad regime forces and Iranian militia were reportedly disappearing men as those forces took parts of eastern Aleppo. In response, the representative of Russia, which was providing air cover for the offensive, not only claimed that Russian investigations had uncovered “not a single report of ill treatment or violation of international humanitarian law against civilians of eastern Aleppo,” but also accused the Secretary-General of basing his information on fake news. Minutes later, Syria’s representative to the UN echoed Russia’s line, holding up as proof what he claimed was a photograph of a Syrian government soldier helping an elderly woman. The only problem was that the photo was taken six months earlier, in June 2016, in Fallujah, Iraq.
In this same period, we also saw Russia’s systematic efforts to sow doubt and division in democracies and to drive a wedge between the United States and our closest allies. Russia has done this by supporting illiberal parties, like France’s National Front, which has a xenophobic, anti-Muslim platform. When the National Front was having trouble raising funds for its 2014 campaign, a Russian bank with ties to the Kremlin stepped in to loan the party more than $11 million. While that may not seem like a very large amount compared to the budgets of U.S. national campaigns, it was roughly a third of what the party was aiming to raise, and the National Front made significant gains in that election. With national elections coming up in France this year, the National Front has said that it is looking again to Russian financing for help. Little surprise that the party’s leader has repeatedly attempted to legitimize Russia’s attempted land-grab of Crimea.
Russia has also used hacking to sow distrust in the democratic processes of some of our closest allies and undermine the policies of their governments. Consider the case of Germany. According to German intelligence agencies, groups linked to the Russian government carried out a massive May 2015 attack targeting the German parliament, energy companies, telecoms, and even universities. And just last month, Germany’s domestic intelligence agency reported an alarming spike in what it called “aggressive and increased cyber spying and cyber operations that could potentially endanger German government officials, members of Parliament, and employees of democratic parties.” The agency attributed this to Russian hackers. The head of Germany’s foreign intelligence service said the perpetrators’ aim is “delegitimizing the democratic process.”
In other instances, Russia’s interference in democratically elected governments has been far more direct. Late last year, officials in Montenegro said that they uncovered a plot to violently disrupt the country’s elections, topple the government, install a new administration loyal to Moscow, and perhaps even assassinate the prime minister. Montenegro’s prime minister had been pushing for the country to join NATO, a move that Russia openly opposed. The plotters reportedly told investigators that they had been funded and equipped by Russian officials, who had also helped plan the attack.
It is in this context that one must view the Russian government’s latest efforts to interfere in America’s democracy. As our intelligence community found and as you are now familiar, we know that the Russian government sought to interfere in our presidential election with the goals of undermining public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrating one candidate, and helping the other candidate. Our intelligence agencies assess that the campaign was ordered by President Putin and implemented by a combination of Russian government agencies, state-funded media, third-party intermediaries, and government-paid trolls. We know that, in addition to hacking the Democratic National Committee and senior Democratic Party officials, Russia also hacked U.S. think tanks and lobbying groups. And we know that Russia hacked elements of multiple state and local electoral boards, although our intelligence community’s assessment is that Russia did not compromise vote tallies. But think for just a moment about what that means: Russia not only tried to influence our election but to access the very systems by which we vote.
At first glance, these interventions by Russia in different parts of the world can appear unrelated. That is because the common thread running through each of them cannot be found in anything that Russia is for. The common thread can be found only in what Russia is against — not in the rules that it follows but in the rules that it breaks.
Russia’s actions are not standing up a new world order. They are tearing down the one that exists.
And this is what we are fighting against. Having defeated the forces of fascism and communism, we now confront the forces of authoritarianism and nihilism.
There are multiple theories as to why the Russian government would undermine a system that it played a crucial role in helping build and that has fostered unparalleled advances in human liberty and development. Perhaps, as some speculate, it is to distract the Russian people from the rampant corruption that has consumed so much of the wealth produced by the nation’s oil and gas, preventing it from benefitting average citizens. Perhaps it is because our rules-based order rests on principles, such as accountability and the rule of law, that are at odds with Russia’s style of governing. Perhaps it is to regain a sense of its past glory or to get back at the countries that it blames for the breakup of the Soviet Union, which President Putin has called the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.”
It is not my aim here to theorize about which, if any, of these motives lie behind the Russian government’s actions, which not only threaten our democracy but the entire order upon which our security and our prosperity depends. It is instead to ask: what are we going to do to address this threat?
First, we must continue to work in a bipartisan fashion to determine the full extent of Russia’s interference in our recent elections, identify the vulnerabilities of our democratic system, and come up with targeted recommendations for preventing future attacks. The congressional hearings initiated last week, the bipartisan inquiry announced on January 13th by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the Joint Analysis Report on Russian Malicious Cyber Activity and Harassment, and the Joint Intelligence Report prepared at the request of President Obama are all important steps toward achieving these crucial objectives.
The purpose of such efforts is not to challenge the outcome of any races in our recent election. The purpose is to identify the gaps in our defenses that Russia exploited, as well as other gaps that may not have been seized upon in this attack but that Russia or others could take advantage of in the future. And the purpose is to determine the steps needed to close such gaps and strengthen the resilience of our system because it would be deeply naïve and deeply negligent to think that those who have discovered vulnerabilities in our system would not try to exploit them again and again — and not just Russia but all of the governments and non-state actors who see undermining our democracy as a way of advancing their interests. Indeed, it already has happened repeatedly. As we know, there were also hacks in our presidential elections in 2008 and in 2012.
That these efforts be bipartisan is absolutely essential. Allowing politics to get in the way of determining the full extent of Russia’s meddling and how best to protect our democracy would undermine our core national security interests. It is healthy for our parties in our political system to debate issues such as how to expand our middle class or what role our nation should play in the wider world. What is not healthy is for a party or its leaders to cast doubt on a unanimous, well-documented assessment of our intelligence community that a foreign government is seeking to harm our country.
Second, we have to do a better job of informing our citizens about the seriousness of the threat the Russian government poses. Here too, our unity is crucial. When we send conflicting messages about a threat Russia poses, it sends a mixed message to the American people. A recent poll found that 37 percent of Republicans hold a favorable view of President Putin, up from just 10 percent in July 2014. That is an alarmingly high proportion for a leader that has had journalists, human rights activists, and opposition politicians murdered, for one who has ridiculed our constitutional safeguards, and tried to tip the scales in our elections. I know that some have said that this focus on Russia that we are bringing is simply the party that lost the recent presidential election being “sore losers,” but it should worry every American that a foreign government interfered in our democratic process. It’s not about the leader we choose — it’s about who gets to choose — who gets to choose our leader. That privilege should belong only to Americans.
We must also forcefully reject the false equivalency between the work that the U.S. government and the Russian government are doing in other countries. There is a world of difference between supporting free and fair elections, and investing in independent institutions that advance human rights, accountability, and transparency, as we do; and, on the other hand, trying to sow distrust in democratic processes, misinform citizens, and swing elections toward illiberal parties, as Russia is doing.
Third, we must reassure our allies that we have their backs, and we must ensure that Russia pays a price for breaking the rules.
That means maintaining our robust support for NATO and making clear our nation’s steadfast commitment to treat an attack on any NATO member as an attack on us all. We expect all of our NATO allies to do their part in keeping the Alliance strong, which includes meeting the pledge made in 2014 to spend at least two percent of their GDP on defense — a commitment that we in the Obama Administration have pushed relentlessly for them to fulfill. We also need to increase cooperation and intelligence sharing to deter, detect, and defend against the next generation of hacks and cyber threats, particularly as France, Germany, and the Netherlands look forward to national elections this year.
That also means maintaining the sanctions placed on Russia, including those imposed by President Obama in response to Russia’s meddling in our election. Now, some have argued that the most effective way to get Russia to start playing by the rules that undergird the international order is actually by easing sanctions. If only we reduce the pressure, they claim, Russia will stop lashing out against the international order. But they have it backwards: easing punitive measures on the Russian government when they haven’t changed their behavior will only embolden Russia, sending the message that the best way to gain international acceptance of its destabilizing actions is simply to wait us out. And that will not only encourage more dangerous actions by Russia, but also by other rule-breakers like Iran and North Korea, which are constantly testing how far they can move the line without triggering a response.
Similarly flawed is the argument that the United States should put recent transgressions aside and announce another reset with Russia. Yes, the Obama Administration tried this approach in our first term. But 2017 is not 2009. In 2009, Dimitri Medvedev was president of Russia, and we were able to find common ground on issues such as counterterrorism, arms control, and the war in Afghanistan. More important, in 2009, Russia was not occupying Crimea, fueling an ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine, and bombing hospitals and first responders in Syria. Nor, most importantly, had Russia interfered directly in the U.S. election.
Yet it would be a mistake to think that all we need to do to defend ourselves and our allies against the threat Russia poses is to rely on the same tools we have been using; that if we just close the gaps in our defenses, inform our public, maintain or even ratchet up sanctions, shore up NATO, we do all that, it would be a mistake to believe that we will be able to protect the rules-based order. We have to do more, because Russia has an edge in one respect. It turns out is easier to break institutions down than to build them up. It is easier to sow skepticism than to earn people’s trust. Making up fake news — ask the reporters here today — is a lot easier than reporting the facts required for real news. Put simply, in international affairs in 2017, it is often easier to be bad than good.
Let me give just one example. On September 16th, 2016, as you might remember, a humanitarian convoy of the Arab Red Crescent was bombed in the Syrian city of Urem al-Kubra, killing at least 10 civilians, and destroying 18 trucks filled with food and medicine intended for desperate Syrian civilians. Because the strikes were carried out in a region where only the Assad regime and its Russian allies were flying, the attack was widely reported as likely being carried out by the regime or Russian forces. Yet rather than accept any responsibility, rather than even try to get to the bottom of what had happened, the Russian government did what it always does in the face of atrocities with which it is associated: deny and lie.
Russia’s Ministry of Defense initially said no airstrikes had been carried out in the area by Russian or Syrian planes, and that its expert analysis of video footage of the strike showed that the aid convoy had been destroyed by a fire. Then President Putin’s press secretary said that terrorists had been firing rockets nearby, suggesting they were the ones who had struck the convoy. Then Russia claimed that a U.S. drone had been detected above the convoy just minutes before it was struck, contradicting its initial assessment that the convoy had not been hit from the air. Two days. Three stories. All false.
Yet Russia’s willingness to lie turned reporting on the attack into an “on the one hand, on the other hand” story, even in respected outlets like the New York Times, the BBC, and CNN. And Russian government-controlled networks like RT played a critical role in this effort, rapidly disseminating those lies while questioning the accounts of witnesses. As RT’s own editor once said, “Not having our own foreign broadcasting is the same as not having a Ministry of Defense. When there is no war, it looks like we don’t need it. However, when there is a war, it is critical.” In other words, lying is a strategic asset. It didn’t matter whether Russia’s accounts were accurate or even consistent; all that matters was that Russia injected enough counterclaims into the news cycle to call into question who was responsible. By the time the UN issued a report on the incident more than three months later, concluding that the convoy had been struck by an airstrike that could only have been carried out by the Assad regime or Russia, the finding and Russia’s cover-up received almost no attention. Deny and lie.
At times, it can start to feel that the only way to outmaneuver an adversary unbounded by the truth is to beat them at their own game. But that would be deeply misguided.
If we try to meet the Russian government in its upside-down land — where right is left and black is white — we will have helped them achieve their goal, which is creating a world where all truth is relative, and where trust in the integrity of our democratic system is lost.
We don’t need to gin up our own propaganda networks, bankroll our own army of trolls, and inundate social media platforms with even more fake news targeting our adversaries. We have to fight misinformation with information. Fiction with facts. But documenting and spreading facts, just like manufacturing fake news, takes resources. A report by the UK parliament found that the Russian government spent between $600 million and $1 billion a year on propaganda arms like RT. So we need to be spending at least as much — and arguably much more — on training and equipping independent reporters, protecting journalists who are under attack, and finding ways to get around the censors and firewalls that repressive governments use to block their citizens from getting access to critical voices.
This brings me to the fourth and final way to address the threat Russia poses to the rules-based international order: we must continue to seek ways to engage directly with the Russian people and, coming back to where I started, with the Russian government.
It can be easy to forget that virtually all the tactics the Russian government is using to undermine democracy abroad are ones that they fine-tuned at home, on the Russian people, to devastating effect. After all, when Russian soldiers are killed fighting in a conflict in eastern Ukraine that their government denies it has any role in, it is Russian mothers, widows, and orphans who are denied the benefits and recognition they deserve as the family members of slain soldiers. The mafias that the Russian government uses to sow corruption abroad profit most off the backs of the Russian people. And it is Russian journalists and human rights defenders who have been harassed, beaten, and even killed for uncovering their government’s abuses.
So we must be careful to distinguish between the Russian government and the Russian people. We cannot let America’s relationship with a nation of more than 140 million people — people who have made remarkable contributions to the world, who have a proud, rich history and culture, and whom we fervently wish to see prosper — be defined solely by the nefarious actions of a tiny subset in their government. And yet we have less contact with ordinary Russians today than at any time in decades. This is no accident; in the past few years, the Russian government has closed 28 U.S. government-funded “American Corners,” which offered free libraries, language training, and events about American culture to Russian citizens, and has shuttered the American Center in Moscow, which hosted more than 50,000 Russian visitors per year. It has also expelled U.S. government-supported and independent non-profits, such as the National Endowment for Democracy and the Open Society Foundation, which had spent decades fostering civil society and the rule of law in Russia. As the Kremlin closes off these outlets for reaching the Russian people, we must find others to take their place.
We also cannot give up engaging with the Russian government. We should do this in part because collaborating on issues of shared interest will allow us to show, not just tell, what we know to be true — that our nations have a lot more to gain by working to build up a system of shared rules and principles than tear it down; and, in part, because by working together, we may be able to rebuild the respect and the trust needed to tackle unprecedented global threats that we face today — many of which cannot be solved without one another’s help.
Let me conclude. In 1796, our nation’s first President, George Washington, used his farewell address to issue a stark warning to the American people about the danger of foreign governments trying to interfere in our democracy. He told his audience: “Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence (I conjure you to believe me, fellow-citizens), the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government.”
More than 220 years later, Washington’s warning feels strikingly relevant. For if anything, the vulnerabilities that Washington saw, in his words, “to tamper with domestic factions, to practice the arts of seduction, to mislead public opinion, to influence or awe the public councils” — those are his words — those have only multiplied with modern technology. And unlike in 1796, it is no longer enough for us simply to protect our own democracy against foreign interference; we also have to protect the integrity of the entire rules-based international order, on whose foundations our security and our prosperity rest.
Yet while so much has changed since Washington issued his warning, the essence of the threat has not. It goes to the creation of America itself — a nation born out of a simple, yet revolutionary idea: that it was the American people, ordinary citizens — and not a government, domestic or foreign — who should enjoy the rights to shape our nation’s path. That is a right that we have had to fight to defend throughout our history. And while in recent decades we may have felt confident that no power would dare try to take that right away from us, we have again been reminded that they will try.
Just as the threat is fundamentally unchanged since Washington’s time, so is our most effective way to confront it. And that is by renewing the faith of the American people in our democracy. Our democracy’s vitality has long depended on sustaining the belief among our citizens that a government by and for the people is the best way to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe, to preserve the freedoms we value most, and to expand our opportunities. It is not that we have a perfect system, but a perfectible system — one that the American people always have the power to improve, to renew, to make our own. That faith is the engine that has powered our republic since its creation, and it is the reason other nations still look to America as a model.
And it is precisely that faith that the Russian government’s interference is intended to shake. The Kremlin’s aim is to convince our people that the system is rigged; that all facts are relative; that ordinary people who try to improve their communities and their country are wasting their time. In the place of faith, they offer cynicism. In the place of engagement, indifference.
But the truth is that the Russian government’s efforts to cast doubt on the integrity of our democracy would not have been so effective if some of those doubts had not already been felt by many Americans, by citizens who are asking whether our system still offers a way to fix the everyday problems they face, and whether our society still gives them reason to hope that they can improve their lives for the better. In this way — and we need to reckon with this — the attack has cast a light on a growing sense of divisiveness, distrust, and disillusionment.
But we know here in America not only what we are against, we know what we are for. So just as we are clear-eyed about the threat that Russia poses from the outside, and unified in confronting it, we must also dedicate ourselves to restoring citizens’ faith in our democracy on the inside, which always has been the source of America’s strength, and always will be our best defense against any foreign power that tries to do us harm.