Testimony before U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence
By Eugene B. Rumer, Senior Fellow and Director, Russia and Eurasia Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
March 30, 2017
….To understand why the Russian government is engaged in this large-scale and diversified
influence operation, which blends overt and covert activities, one needs to step back and put it in
the context of events of the quarter century since the end of the Cold War.
Every country’s foreign policy is a product of its history, its geography, and its politics. Russia is
no exception to this rule, and to understand the pattern of Russian behavior at home and abroad,
we need to look at Russian history, Russian geography, and Russian domestic politics.
War in Europe is integral to the formative experience of every Russian. The country’s national
narrative is impossible without the record of two wars—the Patriotic War of 1812, which Russians
view as a war of liberation from Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, and the Great Patriotic War of
1941-1945. Both wars were fought to liberate Patria, the Fatherland, from foreign occupiers. In
1812, Napoleon entered Moscow and the city was burned. In 1941, Hitler’s armies were stopped
just outside the city limits of Moscow. Americans, too, had their war of 1812, and Washington too
was burned, but few Russians know or remember it, just as they think little of the fighting in the
Pacific theater against Japan in the second world war. Stalin’s armies didn’t enter it until nearly
the very end, three months after the war in Europe ended. The end of the Great Patriotic War is
celebrated in Russia every year as a great national holiday on May 9. The greatest Russian novel
of all times is Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, all Russians read it in high school. They are also
taught in history classes that their country’s greatest accomplishment of the 20th century was the
defeat of fascism in the Great Patriotic War.
The war of 1812 ended for Russia when the armies of Tsar Alexander I entered Paris in 1814. The
Great Patriotic War ended in 1945 when Stalin’s armies entered Berlin. From 1945 to 1989, when
the Berlin Wall came down, Russia was at its most secure, or so successive generations of Russian
leaders have been taught to believe. The history and the strategy taught in Russian military
academies for decades after it ended were the history and the strategy of the Great Patriotic War.
The map for tabletop exercises at the Military Academy of the General Staff in 2001 was a giant
map of the European theater. U.S. strategists were by that time “done” with Europe and shifting
their focus from the Balkan edge of the continent to South Asia and the Middle East. Russia was
not “done” with Europe.
Little appreciated in the West at the time was the trauma suffered by the Russian national security
establishment when it lost its outer and inner security buffers—the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet
empire. The sense of physical security afforded by this dual buffer between NATO’s armies and
the Russian heartland was gone. Russian declaratory policy may have been to sign on to the 1990
Charter of Paris as the Cold War ended, but the historical legacy and the geography of Russian
national security could not be altered with the stroke of a pen. Even as the Communist system was
dismantled and the Soviet Union disbanded, Russia’s national security establishment, which had
been brought up for generations to think in terms of hard power, could not and did not embrace the
new vision of European security based on shared values.
In 1991, with their society in turmoil, their economy in tatters, their military in retreat from the
outer and inner empires, and their country literally falling apart, Russian leaders had no choice but
to go along with that vision. They also accepted as given that history is written by the victors, and
that the victors would also make the rules for the new era. Russia would have to go along with it
for as long as it remained weak.
The 1990s were a terrible decade for Russia. Its domestic politics remained in turmoil, its
economy limped from one crisis to the next, and its international standing—only recently that of a
superpower—collapsed. Western students of Russia were entertaining the prospect of a world
without Russia. It was not lost on Russian political elites that the 1990s were also a time of great
prosperity and global influence for the West. For them, brought up on the idea of importance of
hard power, the dominance of the West was inextricably tied to its victory in the Cold War, the
defeat of Russia, its retreat from the world stage, and the expansion of the West in its wake.
Russia Is Back
But Russia would not remain weak indefinitely. Its economic recovery after the turn of the
century, buoyed by soaring global prices for commodities and hydrocarbons, and its domestic
political consolidation around Vladimir Putin and his brand of increasingly authoritarian
leadership, so different from the leadership of Boris Yeltsin, have laid the groundwork for a return
to Russia’s more assertive posture on the world stage.
That increasingly assertive posture has manifested itself on multiple occasions and in different
forms over the past decade and a half—in Vladimir Putin’s speech at the Munich Security
Conference in 2007; in the war with Georgia in 2008 and the statement in its aftermath by then-
president Dmitry Medvedev about Russia’s claim to a sphere of “privileged interests” around its
periphery; and finally in the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the undeclared war in eastern
Ukraine to keep Ukraine from slipping from Russia’s orbit.
For the West, Russia’s return to the world stage has been nothing more than pure revanchism. It
violates the basic, core principles of the post-Cold War European security architecture—which
Russia pledged to observe over a quarter-century ago.
For Russia, it is restoring a balance—not the old balance, but some semblance of it. Currently,
NATO troops are deployed to deter Russian aggression against Estonia. (Curiously, former
speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has described it as the “suburbs of St. Petersburg.”) Russia’s
security establishment views this commitment by NATO countries to its vulnerable ally as a threat
to the heartland.
The narrative of restoring the balance, correcting the injustice and the distortions of the 1990s,
when the West took advantage of Russia’s weakness, has been the essential element of Russian
state-sponsored propaganda since the beginning of the Putin era. Whether or not we choose to
accept this narrative, these beliefs undergird Russia’s comeback on the world stage and political
consolidation at home. In public and private, top Russian officials proclaim that the wars in
Georgia and Ukraine were fought to prevent Western encroachment on territories vital to Russian
security. The military deployment in Syria merely restores Russia’s traditional foothold in the
Middle East, from which Russia withdrew when it was weak, and where it was replaced by the
West with consequences that have been tragic for the entire region.
In domestic politics, Putin’s authoritarian restoration is treated by the majority of average and elite
members of Russian society as the return to the country’s traditional political health, free from
foreign interference in its political and economic life. The more pluralistic system and dramatic
decline of the 1990s are linked in this narrative to the influence of the United States and other
foreign interests in Russia’s economy and politics, to their desire to introduce alien values in
Russia’s political culture and take Russia’s oil. U.S. support for Russian civil society is an effort to
undermine the Russian state, to bring Russia back to its knees, and take advantage of it, both at
home and abroad. Western economic sanctions imposed on Russia in the wake of its annexation of
Crimea and the undeclared war in eastern Ukraine are a form of warfare designed to weaken
Russia and gain unfair advantage over it. Western support for democracy in countries around
Russia’s periphery is an effort to encircle it and weaken it too.
This narrative has dominated the airwaves inside Russia, where the Kremlin controls the
television, which is the principal medium that delivers news to most Russians. With independent
media in retreat and alternative sources of information marginalized, this narrative has struck a
responsive chord with many Russians. The narrative has been effective because it contains an
element of truth—Russia did implode in the 1990s, and the West prospered; Russia did recover
from its troubles and regained a measure of its global standing on Putin’s watch; the West did
promote democracy in Russia, which coincided with its time of troubles; and the West has been
critical of the Russian government’s retreat from democracy as Russia regained strength.
Moreover, foreign policy traditionally was and is the preserve of the country’s political elite and
its small national security establishment. Whereas there are some voices inside Russia who, like
the leading anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, have challenged the many domestic failings
and authoritarian leanings of the Putin government, there are hardly any who have challenged its
foreign policy record. Worse yet, the Kremlin propaganda has been apparently so effective, and
the legal constraints imposed by it so severe, that few Russian opposition voices dare to challenge
the government’s foreign policy course for fear of being branded as foreign agents, enemies of the
people, and fifth columnists.
Warfare by Other Means
For all the talk about Russian recovery and resurgence on the world stage, its capabilities should
not be overestimated. Its GDP is about $1.3 trillion vs. U.S. GDP of over $18 trillion. The Russian
economy is not “in shambles,” but in the words of a leading Russian government economist it is
doomed to “eternal stagnation” unless the government undertakes major new reforms.
Russian defense expenditures are estimated at about $65 billion, or little more than President
Trump’s proposed increase in U.S. defense spending for FY 2018. The Russian military is
estimated at just over 750,000—well short of its authorized strength of one million—vs. U.S. 1.4
million active duty military personnel.
By all accounts, the Russian military has made huge strides in the past decade, benefiting from far-
reaching reforms and generous defense spending. It is undeniably far superior militarily to its
smaller, weaker neighbors and enjoys considerable geographic advantages in theaters around its
Yet, the overall military balance does not favor Russia when it is compared to the United States
and its NATO allies. They have bigger economies, spend more on defense, have bigger, better
equipped militaries, and are more technologically sophisticated. A NATO-Russia war would be an
act of mutual suicide, and the Kremlin is not ready for it. Its campaign against the West has to be
prosecuted by other means.
That is the backdrop for the subject of today’s hearings. Since Russia cannot compete toe-to-toe
with the West, its leaders have embraced a wide range of tools—information warfare in all its
forms, including subversion, deception, dis- and mis-information, intimidation, espionage,
economic tools, including sanctions, bribery, selective favorable trading regimes, influence
campaigns, etc. This toolkit has deep historical roots in the Soviet era and performs the function of
the equalizer that in the eyes of the Kremlin is intended to make up for Russia’s weakness vis-à-
vis the West.
In employing this toolkit, the Kremlin has a number of important advantages. There is no domestic
audience before which it has to account for its actions abroad. The Kremlin has few, if any
external restraints in employing it, and its decisionmaking mechanism is streamlined. There is no
legislature to report to, for the Duma is a rubber stamp body eager to sign off on any Kremlin
foreign policy initiative.
The circle of deciders is far smaller than the Soviet-era Politburo, and it is limited to a handful of
Putin associates with similar worldviews and backgrounds. They are determined to carry on an
adversarial relationship with the West. They can make decisions quickly and have considerable
resources at their disposal, especially given the relatively inexpensive nature of most of the tools
they rely on. A handful of cyber criminals cost a lot less than an armored brigade and can cause a
great deal more damage with much smaller risks.
Shame and reputational risks do not appear to be a factor in Russian decision-making. In early-
2016, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov did not shy away from repeating a patently false
fake media story about the rape of a Russian-German girl by a Syrian asylum-seeker in Germany.
Moreover, a version of selective naming and shaming—or targeting of political adversaries with
false allegations of misconduct—has been used by Russian propaganda to discredit political
adversaries in the West. Russian propaganda, and Putin personally, have sought to deflect the
attention from the fact of the intrusion into the DNC server and the top leadership of Hillary
Clinton’s presidential campaign to the information released as a result of it that has presented
various political operatives in an unfavorable light.
This not only deflects the attention from Russia’s role in this episode, it helps the Kremlin convey
an important message to its domestic audience about the corrupt nature of U.S. politics. Russia
therefore is no worse than the United States, which has no right to complain about corruption and
democracy deficit in Russia.
Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election is likely to be seen by the Kremlin as a
major success regardless of whether its initial goal was to help advance the Trump candidacy. The
payoff includes, but is not limited to a major political disruption in the United States, which has
been distracted from many strategic pursuits; the standing of the United States and its leadership in
the world have been damaged; it has become a common theme in the narrative of many leading
commentators that from the pillar of stability of the international liberal order the United States
has been transformed into its biggest source of instability; U.S. commitments to key allies in
Europe and Asia have been questioned on both sides of the Atlantic and the Pacific. And last, but
not least, the Kremlin has demonstrated what it can do to the world’s sole remaining global
It Is Not a Crisis, It Is the New Normal
Events of the past three years, since the annexation of Crimea by Russia, have been referred to as a
crisis in relations between Russia and the West. However, this is no longer a crisis. The
differences between Russia and the West are profound and are highly unlikely to be resolved in
the foreseeable future without one or the other side capitulating. The U.S.-Russian relationship is
fundamentally broken, and this situation should be treated as the new normal rather than an
exceptional period in our relations. For the foreseeable future our relationship is likely to remain
competitive and, at times, adversarial.
The full extent of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election is not yet publicly known.
But the melding of various tools (e.g, the use of cyber operations to collect certain information
covertly) and the provision of this information to outlets such as Wikileaks and the news media
was certainly a first. Unfortunately, it is not a first for U.S. allies and partners in Europe and
Eurasia. It is not the last either. Just a few days ago, Vladimir Putin received France’s right-wing
presidential candidate Marine Le Pen in the Kremlin. Previously, her National Front had received
a loan from a Moscow-based bank, and Russian media outlets have tried to injure the reputation of
her chief opponent Emmanuel Macron by spreading rumors about his sexuality and ties to
financial institutions. The chiefs of British and German intelligence services have warned publicly
about the threat from Russia to their countries’ democratic processes. The Netherlands recently
chose to forego reliance on certain computer vote tabulation systems due to elevated fears of
Russian interference and hacking.
The experience of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election should be judged an unqualified
success for the Kremlin. It has cost it little and paid off in more ways than can be easily counted.
To be sure, U.S. officials should expect it to be repeated again and again in the future. 2016 was a
crisis, but it was not an aberration and should be treated as the new normal. Cyber is merely a new
domain. Deception and active measures in all their incarnations have long been and will remain a
staple of Russia’s dealings with the outside world for the foreseeable future.