Now, Russia’s military intelligence service is shipping small fortunes in cash to the Taliban in Afghanistan — bounty, apparently, for killing American soldiers occupying their country.
This dirty business may seem like a taste of revenge for a Russian intelligence veteran of the Cold War like Vladimir Putin. But it’s also part of a grander strategy. Russia and its intelligence services have been at war with the United States, almost ceaselessly, since 1945. Putin, who plans to remain in power until 2036, seeks to weaken the United States through any means short of open warfare.
His goal is to make the United States look like “a pitiful, helpless giant,” to quote Richard Nixon in the depths of the Vietnam War. He wants to watch American forces beat an ignoble retreat from Afghanistan, following in the footsteps of the vanquished Soviet army three decades ago. He clearly swears by a maxim attributed to Lenin: “Probe with bayonets. If you encounter mush, proceed; if you encounter steel, withdraw.”
He has met his enemy and encountered mush, and so he strives to advance his authoritarian agenda throughout the world, in every nation where President Trump no longer cares to defend American interests — including, ultimately, America.
The Russians have a name for the dark arts they employ to achieve their goals: “active measures.” They encompass espionage and sabotage, deception and disinformation, attacking our elections by backing their chosen candidate — and using proxy armies against us. Let others do the fighting and dying, goes the thinking. Our enemy pays the price in blood and treasure. We reap the rewards of his losses.
The United States calls these stratagems by another name — political warfare. In the Cold War, we threw almost everything we had against Moscow short of launching nuclear weapons or sending in the Marines to breach the Iron Curtain, using the full spectrum of our intelligence and diplomacy to project our power and foil their imperial ambitions. Political warfare helped America speed the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Both superpowers used stealthy weapons in sneak attacks. The United States secretly backed ragtag armies in Central America to undermine the pro-Soviet government of Nicaragua. The Kremlin armed Wadi Haddad, the most militant and merciless Palestinian terrorist of the era. The FBI recruited a top American Communist Party official; he spied on the leaders of the Soviet Union. The Soviets suborned turncoats inside the FBI and the CIA; their treachery wiped out a legion of recruited foreign agents working against Moscow. The CIA covertly supported the Polish labor movement Solidarity, whose underground battles against the Kremlin-backed regime in Warsaw set off a chain reaction of resistance in Eastern Europe. And those uprisings led directly to the downfall of the Soviet empire.
America’s multibillion-dollar Afghan operation served as payback for the Soviets’ arming of North Vietnam. I traveled through Afghanistan as a newspaper reporter every few years from September 1987 to December 2001, as misfortune’s wheel slowly turned from the Soviet occupation to the American occupation. I came to know some of the Afghan fighters and more than a few of the CIA officers who armed and supported them. The goal of giving the Afghans AK-47s and artillery and Stinger antiaircraft missiles wasn’t simply to bleed the Russian bear. It was to damage, irreparably, the image of the Soviet Union as a superpower. And when the Red Army left Afghanistan in February 1989, defeated by a rabble of jihadist guerrillas, that mission was accomplished.
Now that those roles are reversed, Russia won’t stop at killing American soldiers if it will serve Putin’s strategic aims.
The bounty program, according to the New York Times, the first to report on it, was run by Unit 29155, one of Putin’s favorite political-warfare weapons, a team inside the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service. Its members have included Afghan war veterans. It has tried to assassinate Putin’s enemies abroad, notably executing a nerve-agent attack on a GRU defector in Britain. Another GRU team ran the 2016 election hack designed to put Trump in the White House. Two years before, in a brazen assault on Ukraine, the GRU’s cyberattacks allowed Putin to annex the Crimean Peninsula without firing a shot. As you read this, the GRU and its sister intelligence services in Russia are seeking ways to disrupt the 2020 election, to pour salt into the wounds of American society, to deepen our divisions, all in the hope that the United States might come apart.
Putin already sees an America whose place in the world has been undermined by Trump’s presidency. Trump says he wants out of Afghanistan, but he has no plan for a strategic withdrawal, a dangerous maneuver even when you have a plan. He wants out of the Middle East, again without a germ of an idea as to why or how. He has inexplicably ordered thousands of American troops out of Germany, soldiers whose role is to deter the Kremlin and project global power in a crisis. He wants out of America’s alliances, created after World War II to guard against a revanchist Russia.
This all makes life easier for Putin, who has practiced political warfare in one form or another since he joined the KGB in 1975. The United States, on the other hand, is all but out of that game nowadays. It isn’t playing much offense. It’s barely playing defense. And Putin knows that.
On the day of the 9/11 attacks, and for many years thereafter, counterterrorism consumed almost everything in the realm of national security for the United States. American intelligence services lost their once-fierce focus on the Kremlin. They slowly abandoned the art of political warfare against the Russians. Meanwhile, Putin “turned significantly back towards what was essentially Russian behavior during the Cold War, which is challenge the United States everywhere you can in the world, and do whatever you can to undermine what they’re trying to accomplish. Do whatever you can to weaken them,” in the words of former acting CIA director Mike Morell.
Russia’s “active measures” don’t threaten only American soldiers. They threaten American democracy. That mortal threat will remain unless this administration, or the next, awakens to the danger.