Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, one of the administration's most uncompromising critics of Russia, said last week that the Kremlin's meddling in elections in the United States and Europe is part of an "active threat of a recently resurgent Russia."
This week, national security adviser H.R. McMaster tore into Russia for pioneering "new generation warfare" involving campaigns of "subversion and disinformation and propaganda" to pit Americans against each other and destabilize democracies.
The remarks by two key members of the Trump administration's national security team reflect a growing concern that Russia is expanding its influence around the world at a time when the Western pillars of Europe and the United States are focused on their own domestic problems.
Against that backdrop, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace is about to launch a two-year analysis of Russia's activist foreign and military policies, called "The Return of Global Russia: A Reassessment of the Kremlin's International Agenda." The project aims to spotlight ways in which the Kremlin's influence has spread far beyond Russia's immediate neighbors and is rooted in countries throughout Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Latin America.
"Obviously, the Russian role in the U.S. election and what Rex Tillerson referred to as the use of hybrid warfare has generated much attention in the wake of Ukraine and the events around the election," said Andrew Weiss, who oversees Carnegie's research on Russia and Eurasia. "What needs to be assessed is seeing the broader level of Russian foreign policy ventures. It's our ambition to see what patterns emerge, and how it's likely to evolve."
Russia's alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. election, a matter being investigated by congressional committees and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, grew out of suspicions in Russia that it was itself under siege.
According to Weiss and Paul Stronski, a fellow in Carnegie's Russian and Eurasia Program, the Kremlin thought that mass protests in Moscow in 2012 were propelled by Western efforts to promote democracy in Russia, and ultimately to bring about regime change. Two years later, Russia annexed Crimea and bolstered pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine.
Weiss and Stronksi say Moscow is trying to systematically undermine democracies such as the United States and alliances like the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
It has set about making deals and offering financial aid to friendly governments and interfering in countries that it perceives as adversaries. Depending on the region, it can find markets for Russian military equipment, unchain Moscow from the isolation imposed by sanctions over its intervention in Ukraine or simply be a thorn in the side of one of its chief adversaries, Washington.
In the past year alone, Russia has provided debt relief and wheat to the embattled Maduro government in Venezuela and has built facilities in Nicaragua to train Central American forces to combat drug trafficking.
In the Middle East, besides sending warplanes that helped the Syrian government beat back Islamic State militants and anti-government rebels, it has forged a partnership with a warlord in Libya and conducted joint military exercises with Egypt. Last month, it signed a preliminary agreement for Russian warplanes to use Egyptian air bases.
In Africa, it has deals to build nuclear power plants in Ghana and Nigeria, while plans to build the plants in South Africa have stalled amid controversy over Moscow's role in the country.
Meanwhile, Russian interference is suspected not only in the United States, but also in several countries across Europe, including France, Germany, Britain and Spain. In many cases, the primary tools are social media and state-run Russian news outlets, such as RT and Sputnik, that push pro-Kremlin views.
Recently, questions have been raised about whether Russia is preparing to spread disinformation in advance of the 2018 elections in Mexico — an allegation rebutted in Sputnik Mundo, which interviewed a Mexican sociologist who labeled the fears groundless and laughable.
"Some of it may be obnoxious behavior just to wag their finger at the United States and amplify anti-American sentiment in the Mexican body politic," Weiss said. "But at the same time, as seen in the U.S. election, a small investment can have a big impact and take on a life of its own."
The Carnegie project intends to examine the scope of Russia's activities abroad, which Weiss in an initial analysis co-written by Stronski said is designed to "compensate for lackluster socioeconomic conditions at home."
The project aims to analyze how Russia's tactics are evolving, identify which operations may be more annoyance than menace and examine which pose major threats to the West.
"We will try to determine where this matters to our interests and where it doesn't," Stronski said. "We pose a lot of questions that we don't have clear answers to yet. Over a two-year period, we want to get a better sense of the economic, security, political and economic threats Russia may pose and come up with policy guidance. We need to not just look backwards, but at how they're adapting."