WASHINGTON, DC — The coordinated moves last week by 27 countries as well as NATO to expel over 150 undeclared Russian intelligence agents from their soil sent a loud and clear message — this kind of behavior will not be tolerated. The response was notable for its scale and swiftness. But it was especially notable given that previous acts of aggression failed to generate unified action.
Putin’s use of an asymmetric toolkit to undermine democracies, weaken NATO, and try to break up the EU is one of the greatest challenges to democracies and the transatlantic community today. Through the Skripal attack, however, Putin has provoked a reaction 180 degrees at odds with his goal — a united front against the Russian government’s aggression is exactly what he has been trying to prevent.
Mark Galeotti has argued that the expulsion of these “diplomats” will damage Putin’s ability to carry out covert actions on foreign soil, but others have argued that it is largely symbolic and subject to tit-for-tat responses. Indeed, the Kremlin’s reciprocal expulsion of diplomats from Russia highlights the counterstroke nature of this action. And questions about whether the U.S. decision would actually prevent Russia from simply replacing these expelled officers could undermine the strength of the U.S. response. The allied measure must be just one part of a broader response to Putin’s use of a chemical weapon on U.K. soil.
Having now come together in response to Putin’s aggression, it is critical that the democratic allies continue to stand united and push back on his efforts to undermine democracies.
But things cannot stop there either. Having now come together in response to Putin’s aggression, it is critical that the democratic allies continue to stand united and push back on his efforts to undermine democracies. They also must not tolerate information operations, cyber-attacks, financial influence, economic coercion, and subversion of civil society. Putin must be clear that these activities are equally unacceptable, nor should he be allowed to retreat to other destabilizing activities that he believes fall below the threshold that would trigger a response. Differing threat perceptions about Russia across the transatlantic space have been one of the biggest obstacles to a unified response — this moment should be used as a galvanizing force to maintain a united front to push back on Putin’s broader efforts to undermine the institutions and order that are essential for our stability and security. Indeed, the united response to the Skripal attack provides a template for how to respond to Putin’s assault on democracies.
NATO and the EU have already taken steps to address these threats, but they remain fragmented and are supported unevenly at the senior level. In addition to stepping up these efforts, for example, NATO, the EU, their member states, and other democracies should articulate a clear declaratory policy that interference in elections will result in swift imposition of sanctions and freezing of the assets of Russia’s leadership. States should also deny visas for those affiliated with Russia’s interference efforts, and should clean up the banking and real estate systems where the Russian leadership launders its money. Increased coordination on cyber defenses is critical to closing off vulnerabilities. And the U.K.’s swift and strong response to Russia’s concerted disinformation campaign to sow doubt about the facts of the Skripal attack and undermine the British case presents a model for countering the Russian government’s efforts to manipulate the truth.
In response, Putin is sure to take steps that try to create cracks in this unified front. The transatlantic community needs to prepare for and resist that — though initial indications are not encouraging. Several European nations refused to join with their NATO and EU partners in the expulsions, and Germany’s decision to move forward with the Nord Stream 2 pipeline undercuts the strength of its response and signals to Putin that there will be return to business as usual. And President Trump’s invitation to Putin for a summit indicates once again that notwithstanding tough measures by his administration, Trump remains in Putin’s corner.
But it is not too late to build and sustain a unified response – if the political will exists. This should be recognized as a moment when Putin is finally on his heels — and he should be pushed into retreat.