Samantha Power, the outgoing US ambassador to the United Nations, gave her final public speech in office on Wednesday — and she devoted basically all of it to the threat Vladimir Putin’s Russia poses to global stability. Speaking at the Atlantic Council, Power offered what might be the simplest and clearest explanation of Putin’s grand strategy I’ve heard from a US official. Here it is, in one sentence:
“In international affairs in 2017, it’s often easier to be bad than good.”
What Power is saying is that given the realities of 21st-century politics, it is far easier to tear things down than to build them up. It’s easier to indiscriminately bomb Syrian rebels than it is to craft a sustainable peace agreement in the war-torn country, easier to use propaganda outlets to cast doubt on the truth than to prove that something is actually false, and easier to smear a presidential candidate than to build one up.
Putin has recognized that fact, according to Power, and has crafted a strategy aimed at strengthening Russia's hand by undermining the stability of America and its allies — without proposing an alternative to the American-led global order.
“Russia’s actions are not standing up a new world order,” Power said. “They are tearing down the one that exists.”
It’s an extremely smart diagnosis of what Russia is doing. The problem, listening to the speech, is that Power has no good ideas for what to do in response. The solutions she proposed either involved maintaining status quo policies, such as economic sanctions against Russia, or were almost laughably modest, like providing more funding to US government-run media outlets to try to counter Russian propaganda.
Power seems to have no idea what to do about the Russian strategy she cleverly identifies. And neither, I suspect, does anyone else in the US government.
Power’s diagnosis of Russian strategy is spot-on
Early in the speech, Power ran through a series of “destabilizing” Russian actions from the past three years — sending disguised Russian soldiers into eastern Ukraine to fight alongside pro-Russian “rebels,” wiring money through a Russian bank to the French far-right Front National party, and hacking the email accounts of Hillary Clinton allies and releasing information that made the Democratic nominee look illegitimate.
What these actions have in common, according to Power, is that they are all fundamentally destructive.
The strategy is to exploit internal divisions that make the people of rival countries angry at their leaders — be they ethnoregional tensions in Ukraine, fears about immigration in France, or deep partisan divides in the United States. Russia plays up these divisions to weaken its rivals or, ideally, install pro-Russian leaders in the corridors of power. It’s about breaking down political systems and the rules that normally govern international relations — not creating new ones.
“At first glance, these interventions by Russia in different parts of the world can appear unrelated,” Power said. “That is because the common thread running through them cannot be found in anything that Russia is for — but rather in what Russia is against.”
Contrast this with the Cold War. The US and the Soviet Union struggled over two distinct ideological visions, democratic capitalism versus authoritarian communism. Today, Russia isn’t offering any alternative vision of how societies or the world should be run — it’s just trying to tear down the one America built.
Russia’s war on truth
One of Russia’s key tools in this fight, according to Power, was its decision to reject the idea of objective truth — a sort of postmodern geopolitics.
Power offered a really good example of this from the Syrian conflict. On September 19, 2016, an airstrike by either Russian or Assad forces killed 10 civilians and destroyed lifesaving medical supplies, prompting strong criticism from human rights watchdogs and the United Nations.
The official Russian response, as Power explained, was to “deny and lie”:
Russia’s Ministry of Defense initially said no airstrikes had been carried out in the area by Russian or Syrian planes, and that its expert analysis of video footage of the strike showed that the aid convoy had been destroyed by a fire.
Then President Putin’s press secretary said that terrorists had been firing rockets nearby, suggesting they were the ones who had struck the convoy.
Then Russia claimed a US drone had been detected above the convoy just minutes before it was struck — contradicting its initial assessment that the convoy had not been hit from the air.
Two days. Three stories. All false.
By saying a lot of made-up, contradictory stuff, Russia made it incredibly difficult for the press, activists, or even official bodies like the UN to convince the public of the truth of what happened. And by merely sowing skepticism, Russia essentially escaped any real scrutiny for murdering 10 people.
“Lying is a strategic asset,” Power said. “It didn’t matter whether Russia’s accounts were accurate or even consistent; all that mattered was that Russia injected enough counterclaims into the news cycle to call into question who was responsible.”
This isn’t to say the US and its allies are always completely honest. They very much aren’t. But they haven’t weaponized doubt and skepticism, deliberately attempting to obfuscate the idea of shared agreement on facts, in the way Russia has.
How Russia’s strategies fit together
These two strategies — divide your enemies and lie constantly — feed on each other. Because Russia’s opponents — from the US to Germany to Ukraine — are so starkly divided internally, with many people deeply dissatisfied with the political status quo, many citizens don’t trust what official institutions and media tell them. This makes them receptive to lies told by Russia — lies that are designed to exacerbate these tensions.
The fake news epidemic in the US is a great example.
Russia created a lot of ramshackle conservative “media outlets” that viciously slandered Hillary Clinton and other Democrats throughout the 2016 presidential campaign. Because so many Americans, particularly conservatives, hate Clinton so much, they’d believe the Russian lies and actually spread them. This had the effect of intensifying partisan division among Americans, by helping to convince conservatives that Clinton wasn’t just a politician they disagreed with — but that she was secretly dying and lying to the American public about her terrible illness.
Russia’s strategy, then, is one uniquely designed for our political moment: a time when Western citizens are deeply disenchanted with their leaders and there’s zero way to control how people receive and distribute information.
“The Russian government’s efforts to cast doubt on the integrity of our democracy would not have been so effective,” Power said, “if some of those doubts had not already been felt by many Americans.”
What is to be done? Not all that much, apparently.
The problem here is that it’s not obvious how to fix the structural problems that allow Russia’s strategy to work. Restoring American faith in government and developing a better way of differentiating between good and bad information in the internet age are very tall orders — big problems that don’t lend themselves to obvious policy fixes.
Power, to her credit, didn’t pretend to have all the answers to these fundamental structural problems. As a result, the meager policy options she did offer were woefully unsuited to the task.
Her first proposal was for Congress to take unspecified “bipartisan” action on Russia’s interference in the US election. “We must continue to work in a bipartisan fashion to determine the full extent of Russia’s interference in our recent elections, identify the vulnerabilities of our democratic system, and come up with targeted recommendations for preventing future attacks,” she said.
That is way too vague to be of any real use — what exactly is Congress supposed to find that hasn’t already been uncovered by the US intelligence community? But more fundamentally, it assumes away the problem. The issue is that Russia has aligned itself with a key partisan actor: Donald Trump. How can there be strong bipartisan agreement about Russian interference in the US election — interference that was explicitly designed to benefit the GOP candidate — while said candidate is in office?
Second, Power proposed that the US government “do a better job of informing our citizens about the seriousness of the threat the Russian government poses.” This runs into the same problem as the first suggestion: partisan politics. Since Trump’s rise, Republicans have grown markedly more favorable to Putin’s Russia, a direct result of Trump aligning himself with Putin (and vice versa). It’s not at all clear what the US government could do to overcome this.
Third, Power says, the US can’t abandon its support for NATO or sanctions on Russia. This is less a new policy idea for countering Russian geopolitics and more a veiled warning to the new administration. It’s unclear, to say the least, whether it will choose to listen.
Finally, Power suggested “directly engaging with the Russian people,” but how to actually do that isn’t obvious. She suggested ramping up funding for US government-backed media, like Radio Free Europe — but this suggestion feels like Power is missing her own point.
On Power’s own analysis, the issue isn’t that people lack for information. Rather, it’s that sowing doubt is much easier than telling the truth — and the Russian government is incredibly good at sowing doubt, even among Western publics that barely read Russian state media. How expanding US state-run media is supposed to counter this fundamental feature of the modern media landscape is unclear.
And so we’re back to the core dilemma: There are fundamental features of modern society that make information warfare and the politics of division successful. And Putin is well aware.