In the wake of tensions in Ukraine, the migrant crisis in Belarus, and potential sanctions on Nord Stream 2, the world is speculating how Russia’s regional policies will impact the United States’ security and diplomacy. Professor Jill Dougherty, former CNN Moscow Bureau Chief and current CNN Foreign Affairs Correspondent, joins GJIA to discuss the implications of Russian strategy in Eastern Europe and Asia. This is part one of our two-part dialogue with Professor Dougherty and focuses on Eastern Europe.
GJIA: Many believe that conventional arms-control agreements are impossible with cyberwarfare. Consequently, is it feasible for the United States and Russia to even contemplate bilateral cooperation, as they did historically for ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles) for nuclear deterrence, to prevent cyberwarfare?
JD: It is a great question because in the class that I’ve been teaching at Georgetown, on information wars, we got into the subject of whether nuclear creates a template for cyber just the other day. And it seems possible, but I actually do not think that it does so for a number of reasons. To start, the first question would be of quantifying something. During the Cold War and today, you can physically count weapons, you can physically count delivery vehicles, and you can count their power (kilotons, megatons, etc.). But with cyber, it’s virtually impossible because what would you do? Count the number of computers? It’s really more counting the ability of people to use cyber for everything, from ransomware to a cyberattack on a nuclear facility. So that would be one very big difference.
The other is monitoring. In nuclear agreements, there is always a monitoring mechanism. That could be physical inspectors who fly over to Moscow or the United States and physically inspect the facilities, count, and say ‘Yes, you are adhering’ or ‘No, you are not.’ We also have national technical means like spy satellites, which can drill down, pay attention to what is going on, and monitor compliance. In cyber, the only way you could really do that would be to go into the other guy’s system because you can’t use a satellite to look at a cyber system. If you get into the other guy’s system, then they do not know exactly what you are doing. Are you conventional spying or about to attack the water supply for Moscow or Washington DC? Compliance is really, really difficult.
However, there are some things that can be done after the summit between President Putin and President Biden. These talks are called bilateral strategic stability dialogue. It was not a “negotiation,” but they were talking about cyber. Essentially what they were talking about was ransomware, which is actually a good place to start because ransomware is more quantifiable. You can say that the bad guys stole $500 million, and there is a possibility that something could be done about it. We do not know whether Russia actually helped to shut down some of these cyber criminals, but they could have. Essentially the United States, during this, kept it focused on cyber criminality, and the Russians would have liked to broaden it. However, as soon as you begin to broaden those discussions, you get into questions of, “How do you control cyber?”; “Do you control the content of cyber?”; “Do you control disinformation attempts?”; “Is it simply controlling physical attacks on the infrastructure, water systems, etc.?” To sum up, it is something that will have to be addressed. That is why both sides are doing it. Eventually, it will also need to include other countries. However, right now, nuclear agreements are not a precise template for cyber.
During the Cold War, HUMINT (human intelligence gathering) and clandestine human espionage were vital to the trade of intelligence. To what extent do you feel that cyber-espionage has rendered traditional espionage redundant?
It has to a certain extent, because you can hack into the other person’s system and get some information. Cyber can be used in those ways. But I do believe that there is still a place for human intelligence, and the reason I believe that is because President Putin, for example, does not use the internet. He is not on a cell phone, and he is not communicating in any type of hackable system as far as we know. I am not an expert in the government, but I am presuming that it is very, very difficult, if not impossible, to get into his systems. However, you can use a human being. For example, about a year ago, a Russian had given what we believe was information about President Putin giving the green light for interference in the 2016 presidential elections in the United States. That worked because they exfiltrated that person out of Russia. So there is a place for individuals and real spies in the old sense because I do not think you can hack into the brain of Vladimir Putin and vice versa. But that said, you can get a lot through cyber, only not quite that much.
I think that depends on where you live. Do you live in Moscow or do you live in Washington? This is a debate that has been going on for a very long time. The Russians would say it is strictly defensive and that they had no offensive ideas whatsoever. I think, let’s give them a little bit of slack here. They believe they are surrounded by NATO, so when they move nukes to Kaliningrad, which actually is their territory, you could make an argument that they have nukes on their territory. They have the right to do that, even if it happens to be in the middle of Eastern or Central Europe.
However, I do not think that this is the most dangerous part. It becomes dangerous when Russia denies involvement in weapons, arming people at the nuclear level, and operations like the “Little Green Men” in Crimea. Russia wants deniability. They said that they had nothing to do with the invasion of Crimea, and that it was not their troops. Russia invaded without insignia, so they were obviously trying to hide their involvement. Later, they did admit that it was their troops, but that is where you get into these dangerous areas of trying to use deniability. Even though there are high tensions right now, I do believe the United States and Russia, to a certain extent, will continue nuclear deterrence from the old Soviet days and the Cold War. Neither side wants to blow up the other, at least on a nuclear level.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is suspected of providing an exorbitant amount of tourist visas to refugees in hopes of provoking a humanitarian crisis with Poland, who is a NATO and EU member. Was this a destabilization strategy coming from the united Belarus and Russia? Or, with Angela Merkel calling Lukashenko twice to resolve the migrant crisis, was this a tactic to get European leaders to legitimize his leadership after his controversial campaign?
I think it is more of the latter. Lukashenko has a complicated relationship with Russia. They are not always on the same page. If you look at what Lukashenko said two weeks ago about potentially cutting off gas supplies to Europe, those gas supplies are coming from Russia. President Putin made it very clear that that is not a good idea because Russia wants to be seen as a reliable supplier of gas. So Lukashenko and Putin do not always see eye-to-eye. That said, because Lukashenko is relying upon Russian support to even exist at this point, he does tend to follow what Russia wants. It is not out of the realm of possibility that President Putin at least gave the green light to them. I think the basic reason would be Lukashenko trying to get back at the Europeans who were sanctioning him for stealing the presidential election, which angered Lukashenko. The Europeans don’t want to consider him the duly elected president, which is very galling for Lukashenko. He decided that this migrant crisis was one way to get back at them. He had been depicting himself as a protector of Europe against the possible onslaught of migrants coming from all over the world. He felt that if he stopped helping Europe with migrants, it would make them pay attention to him.
In their efforts for more integration through their 28 Union State Programs signed off on in November 2021, Russia and Belarus are merging their economic markets and militaries. Russia has even provided bomber planes for Belarus to mitigate their recent migrant crisis at the Polish border. To what extent should the United States be worried about this new alliance, and how do you anticipate this integration impacting U.S. national security policies?
I do not anticipate that directly impacting US security policy because it is down the line compared to issues like China and Russia. That said, destabilization in that area is very dangerous because Belarus is near Ukraine, and Ukraine is on the border with Russia. You have a lot of forces right now. Dangers like the Poles and keeping out migrants creates not only a lot of military instability, but political instability as well. That is very bad for that region because it can spill over into violence very quickly. It is not going to cause the United States to send troops into Belarus or Ukraine, but the U.S. could be faced with a highly dangerous political situation if things get out of control.
Recently, a large number of Russian troops were positioned at the Russian-Ukrainian border. Do you anticipate Russia re-igniting their conflict with Ukraine? How should the United States react if Russia invaded Ukraine?
This is a very dangerous situation. It is possible that Vladimir Putin will decide he needs to invade. And I use the phrase “needs to” because of how Putin looks at this. A couple of years ago, when President Zelensky of Ukraine was elected, the Russians felt they could negotiate with him. However, two years later, Zelensky has become an anti-Russian leader. So the Russians have generally given up on the idea that they could politically affect Ukraine. In other words, Ukraine is moving quickly into the Western camp. It has signed a cooperation agreement with the EU. NATO is training Ukrainian forces. The United States provided them with $140 million in lethal weapons and supplies this year. So they are moving toward the West. For years, President Putin has considered it untenable to have NATO this close to Russia’s doorstep. He might feel that this is not a bad time to take military action. He is looking at the United States and its policies that are geared toward China. U.S. policies are not geared toward Ukraine. Ukraine is not a member of NATO. So there is no legal reason, no Article Five requirement, for the U.S. to come to Ukraine’s aid if they are invaded by Russia. The United States has no official security agreement or responsibility with Ukraine, so Putin could assume that the United States is not going to stop Russia from invading Ukraine. I also think that Putin could view the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan as a message to Ukraine that the U.S. would not protect them. With all of these factors, there is a dangerous possibility for military action in the region.
What do you think are Russia’s goals for Eastern Europe?
Russia’s goals for Eastern Europe are the goals that they have had for quite a long time. They want the neighborhood, which includes Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, and all the countries that are on the border of or close to Russia under Russian control in some fashion. It does not mean that they are part of Russia. We are not talking about the old Soviet Union, but they want governments in those areas that are pliable and will go along with what Russia wants. They also do not want any interference by NATO and the West in general. This is why it is a painful subject for them to even think of having any of those countries join NATO. Russia does not agree with any assurances by the West that Ukraine and Georgia are not going to be, in the near future, part of NATO. They still believe that these countries could become part of NATO, and therefore they have to protect their territory. Putin wants a zone of protection for Russian interests in Eastern Europe.
How do you anticipate Russian policy changing when Putin dies or leaves office?
I do not anticipate it changing much. Putin has structured everything. Russians, Russian government officials, people whom I used to know when I was in Moscow, and members of think tanks and other influential groups are actually supportive of Putin’s view that the West is trying to take advantage of Russia. I am not going to say that they believe that the West is going to invade Russia, but they certainly believe that the West wants to weaken Russia and probably overthrow President Putin. So I do not think that much is going to change.
In 2021, Russia was the largest provider of natural gas and petroleum to the European Union. To what extent do you believe that such a heavy reliance on Russia for energy impacts EU member nations’ security policies?
It definitely does because Russia uses oil and especially gas as a foreign policy weapon. Right now, they are discussing Nord Stream 2, the pipeline from Russia to Germany bypassing Ukraine and Belarus. They are saying that they are already diminishing the amount of gas that they are supplying to Western Europe and that the approval of Nord Stream 2 would provide more. However, Russia already has the capacity to supply more. They just do not want to do that, so they are using energy as a weapon and as a foreign policy tool. The Europeans feel that they need that gas at this stage and so they are vulnerable. The only ultimate vulnerability is weaning the West, the United States, and Europe off carbon fuels. That is a problem for Russia down the line, but it is not happening now. So Russia does have a card that it can play.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Professor Jill Dougherty was CNN’s Moscow Bureau Chief for nearly a decade, analyzing and reporting on noteworthy events in Russian history including Boris Yeltsin’s presidency, post-Soviet transitions, the Chechnya conflict, regional terrorism, revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, and Vladimir Putin’s presidency. She also served as CNN’s US Affairs Editor; White House Correspondent; State Department Correspondent; and Managing Editor, CNN International Asia/Pacific, based in Hong Kong. After her 30-year career at CNN she was a Fellow at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. Currently she is a CNN on-air Contributor, providing commentary on Russia, and a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She teaches “Information Wars” and “Putin’s Generation” at Georgetown University’s Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies.
Interview conducted by Editorial Assistant Anoushka Ramesh.
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