The Kremlin must be deterred from more interfering in this year’s midterm elections, not to mention violations of democracies in Europe. But Mr. McMaster, the country’s intelligence chiefs and experienced Russia hands agree that Russian President Vladimir Putin feels too little pressure. “The Kremlin’s confidence is growing,” Mr. McMaster said.
To be sure, the outgoing national security adviser argued that Mr. Trump has responded to the Russian threat, highlighting the recent expulsion of 60 Russian officials who might otherwise have helped “orchestrate Russia’s sustained campaign of propaganda, disinformation and political subversion.”
But Mr. McMaster described a determined adversary that cannily exploits both traditional and nontraditional methods of disruption, from dangerous intercepts of NATO aircraft to the sowing of internal U.S. political divisions via Russian-backed social media accounts. All of it is designed to create trouble without eliciting a punishing response — and so far, the strategy has worked. The danger of further interference is clear: It would take the tainting of only one ballot tally or election roll to inspire doubt about every election result this November — particularly on the losing sides. At the least, the United States appears destined to see another election in which Russian Internet trolls encourage Americans to distrust their democratic institutions — and each other.
Congress made a down payment on a more effective response in the omnibus funding bill it passed last month, setting aside money for hardening election infrastructure against Russian intrusion, upgrading voting machines and investing in the FBI’s mission to counter Kremlin plots. But while these sorts of defensive measures might foil some interference operations, they do little to arrest the source of the meddling, imposing no costs on Mr. Putin or his circle.
The Treasury Department last month announced sanctions against a handful of Russian hackers and organizations. Yet this move mostly targeted entities that were already facing indictment or other penalties. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has vowed further sanctions, and we hope they are indeed coming. This promised response to 2016 Russian election interference, which was clear in the days following the vote, is already months late.
The Trump administration should strike at the foundations of Mr. Putin’s regime — imposing asset freezes and visa bans on the network of oligarchs and officials who execute Russia’s aggressive campaigns against the West. U.S. allies, such as Britain, where wealthy Russians have an appetite for expensive real estate, must be enlisted to cooperate. The alternative is further emboldening a foreign power that has made clear its aim of undermining the foundations of the West.