According to the most recent United States intelligence community report on international meddling in American elections, Russia is “using a range of measures” to interfere in the 2020 elections. It is not surprising that, after seeing the outsized returns on a minimum monetary investment to create chaos in the 2016 elections, Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinFBI chief says Russia is trying to interfere in election to undermine Biden Traces of nerve agent found in water bottle in Navalny’s hotel room, colleagues say Russia: US trying to foment revolution in Belarus MORE would be executing the strategy again.
If current polls hold true — and they may not — and President TrumpDonald John TrumpObama calls on Senate not to fill Ginsburg’s vacancy until after election Planned Parenthood: ‘The fate of our rights’ depends on Ginsburg replacement Progressive group to spend M in ad campaign on Supreme Court vacancy MORE is defeated and a new administration with a more combative attitude toward Russia takes over, many people may feel we can all relax. In particular, people may be tempted to feel a sense of triumphalism at having “pushed back the Russian threat” and negated the ability of Putin to meddle in U.S. politics.
This would be a mistake.
A United States at war with itself and unable to participate internationally long has been Putin’s goal. He has used the past few years to his advantage to give Russia an outsized role in world affairs — certainly a role out of proportion to Russia’s economic, military or political strength. Syria, Iran, North Africa, Britain, Eastern Europe and the rise of the right wing in Western Europe and America are all hallmarks of Putin’s success in promoting Russia’s power and influence abroad.
A Biden administration could be a significant setback for Putin. A less politically compliant, more traditional, more predictable, and less disorganized America in 2021 would be something Putin would have to address quickly and aggressively. To do so, he likely would turn his attention to other areas of American life, to include setting Americans against each other in the culture wars, fomenting racial and socio-economic strife, and instigating violence through — to use the Russian operative words — “active measures.”
The susceptibility of the commercial world will ensure it is a target.
Business leaders will need to fully understand Russia, the influence of Putin and the oligarchs in the business world, and the potential role of the Russian intelligence services in taking advantage of the Western objective for profit and commercial success. Going forward, Putin will use his intelligence and security apparatus assets more urgently and deftly in order to sustain the gains he has made over the past six or more years, particularly in the area of destabilizing democracy, as he has in Europe — with Russia’s role in the Brexit vote — or throughout Latin America, all of which also serves to distract from the focus on the United States.
Among those tools will be the continued use of American media and social networks to propagate disinformation and pit Americans against each other, efforts to access and infiltrate American business and cultural institutions to spread opinions and create influence. Consider Maria Butina’s impact on the National Rifle Association and others. America’s already bifurcated media system could become even more scattered if supporters of the then-former administration starts a media company or the already-in-place truly fake news organizations such as OANN, InfoWars or Russian-controlled RT gain larger audiences.
Putin and his bench of oligarchs will continue investing in Western companies through overtly innocuous surrogates in critical tech, health care and infrastructure companies to gain access to intellectual property, personal data and industries.
This doesn’t mean we can’t do business with Russia; but for business leaders, law firms and investment institutions, this means more diligence in examining Russian business counterparts, understanding the oligarch and business class and their linkages to Putin and the Russian state. We must take steps to ensure that deals, acquisitions and partners are not being wielded against the West to the detriment of companies’ reputations — such as Deutsche Bank has experienced — and bottom lines.
Similarly, executives traveling to Russia or Russian-allied countries need to be particularly vigilant of where they stay or eat, and with whom they meet. Any activity, even those considered mildly questionable, can be weaponized — even more so as corporate America continues to adjust to the still new stakeholder capitalism and consumer-activist dynamic. In Russia, kompromat is king.
Regardless of who wins the U.S. presidential election in November — or whenever a victor will be declared — Putin’s long game to undermine the United States will continue. It is incumbent on every level of American society — especially the business, legal, investment communities and management class — to remain alert to Russia’s capabilities and to sustain efforts to minimize the influence Putin’s chaos agents, be they a few dozen cyber warriors working in a warehouse in Russia, or billionaire investors, can have on American political and economic life.
Thaddeus Troy is a managing director at the strategic advisory firm Martin+Crumpton Group LLC. He spent more than 30 years with the CIA’s Clandestine Service, serving as chief of station in four posts and as a senior executive at the National Counterterrorism Center. He was one of the first U.S. officials to meet with Vladimir Putin when Putin was head of the FSB in the late 1990s.