- The Trump administration is facing increasing pressure to respond to reports that Russia paid bounties to Afghan militants to kill US troops in that country.
- But short of targeting Russian military intelligence with direct military action, the US has little political recourse when it comes to mopping up the mess created by the bounties, writes Candace Rondeaux is a senior fellow and professor at the Center on the Future of War.
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With public pressure growing on the Trump administration to take action in response to the reported Russian scheme to pay bounties to Taliban-linked militants to kill American troops in Afghanistan, a natural question to ask is, “What is to be done?”
Much of the congressional attention for now will inevitably focus on who in the White House knew what and when about intelligence on the Russian plot. But the reality is that Washington has a limited range of policy options to manage an escalation of tensions with Moscow, and this Congress isn’t likely to do much months before an election.
Congress this week held the first of what is likely to be many hearings in the coming months on the credibility of the intelligence and reporting that Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, apparently paid upward of $100,000 to fighters tied to the Taliban to target American and coalition soldiers.
While the intelligence on the existence of a bounty program appears to be well founded, there are reasons to be skeptical of any causal claims linking Russian payments to American casualties in Afghanistan.
As Gen. Frank McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command and military operations in South Asia and the Middle East, pointed out in an interview this week, intelligence always comes with caveats and uncertainties that make it difficult to connect one action to another event.
One of the least credible claims to surface so far, for instance, is that the Russian-Taliban bounty program is a direct response to the US airstrike in Syria in February 2018 that killed an estimated 200 Russian paramilitaries from the Wagner Group, the opaque private military contractor backed by the Kremlin.
That deadly strike in Deir Ezzor, in eastern Syria, instead appeared to be the residual outcome of multiple unhappy accidents and near misses between American and Russian troops at the height of the campaign against the Islamic State. Russian and American efforts to “deconflict” military operations in Syria began with the joint monitoring of air operations in late 2015, and most famously reached their peak with the establishment of a joint cell for monitoring the movement of ground forces in 2017.
While the Russian appetite for vengeance cannot be discounted, the fact that deconfliction was required at all underscores how foggy the battlefield in Syria was.
Moreover, as my fellow columnist Frida Ghitis and Alina Polyakova, the CEO of the Center for European Policy Analysis, have both recently noted, the bounty program is just one of many steps the Kremlin has taken to quickly fill the void left by US disengagement from the Middle East and elsewhere, especially when it involves NATO.
The name of the game for the Kremlin is and always will be knocking down NATO by any means necessary. NATO’s presence in Afghanistan alongside the United States has long provided President Vladimir Putin with myriad opportunities to meddle with both American and alliance objectives.
Sometimes, that Russian meddling in Afghanistan has come in the form of providing weapons to the Taliban, as Gen. John “Mick” Nicholson, the former commander of US and NATO forces there, noted repeatedly while on duty in Kabul and again in his testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Thursday.
It was only four years ago, after all, that Russia’s special envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, a legendary top Taliban handler for the KGB, boldly stated that Russia and the Taliban have shared objectives: the elimination of the Islamic State’s affiliate in Afghanistan.
On many more occasions over the years, however, Russian attempts to influence outcomes in Afghanistan have been guided by the very able and experienced diplomatic hands in the Russian Embassy, including Kabulov, who hails from neighboring Uzbekistan and has worked in the region since the 1980s.
But since few in the US Embassy in Kabul have the bandwidth to track the ups and downs of Russian diplomacy in Afghanistan, it is not surprising that the reportedly more sinister stuff that the GRU does grabs more attention.
Under the leadership of avowed anti-NATO hawk Igor Kostyukov over the past two years, the GRU has shown it has both a healthy appetite and tacit permission from the Kremlin to creatively pursue perceived enemies and to eliminate threats to Russia’s ability to project power beyond its borders.
The long laundry list includes messy GRU poisonings and the widely reported activities of its notorious Unit 29155. But all that detracts from the more urgent policy question Washington now finds itself confronting, again: How should it respond to and manage escalating frictions with Russia?
Short of targeting elements of the GRU with direct military action, the United States has precious little political recourse when it comes to mopping up the mess created by the bounties. Assume that any military action being contemplated by the CIA or the Pentagon, or more likely both, will be covert and off the books, and would take considerable time to assess and plan, let alone execute.
Moreover, the Trump White House lacks the means and the will to mollify the growing American domestic outcry to punish Putin. The political furor over President Donald Trump’s dissembling over US intelligence assessments has shrunk the menu of possible public responses considerably. The only viable public response to Russian aggression, therefore, is sanctions, sanctions and more sanctions.
The United States has already imposed hard-hitting sanctions on Russia for its misadventures in Ukraine and Syria and its meddling in the 2016 presidential elections through the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act in 2017.
So the question now is not so much whether more sanctions are coming, but what is left to sanction and how much political will there is on Capitol Hill to move up a couple more rungs on the escalatory ladder by hardening sanctions against Russian state banks as well as state-backed energy and defense conglomerates.
Within days of the initial New York Times report on the Russian bounties, The Washington Post’s Editorial Board called for Congress to take steps toward putting those sanctions in place by passing the bipartisan Defending Elections From Threats by Establishing Redlines Act.
Introduced in the Senate a little more than two years ago by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the DETER Act calls for a stepwise evaluation of intelligence on reports of Russian interference in US elections, to be led by the director of national intelligence, who would deliver to Congress a report on any indications of foreign interference within the 30 days after a US federal election, presidential or otherwise.
Interference would include not only evidence of direct tampering with the balloting process, but also the promotion of malign disinformation via social media.
The part of the DETER Act that would probably have the most bite, however, is the provision that calls for a freeze and prohibition on all transaction in all “property and interests in property” held in the United States by specific Russian state-backed entities — including most notably the majority state-owned VTB Bank, a subsidiary of VTB Group, Russia’s largest financial institution, and Gazprom, Russia’s majority state-owned energy giant, among others.
Russian leaders of both conglomerates are already subject to a range of sanctions linked to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. But the broader application of sanctions in the DETER Act would effectively topple the twin pillars of Russia’s sovereign wealth.
That sounds like a good jumping-off point to respond to the reported Russian bounties on American soldiers. But given that Russia has time and again emerged as a political third rail in a Republican-dominated Senate in the Trump era, and that Election Day is less than four months away for an increasingly weak incumbent Republican president, I wouldn’t hold my breath or count on seeing substantive policy action anytime soon.
Candace Rondeaux is a senior fellow and professor of practice at the Center on the Future of War, a joint initiative of New America and Arizona State University. Her WPR column appears every Friday.