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Russia must be warned to stay out of our elections — or else

The president’s unwillingness or inability to directly confront Putin has long been known, but it remains as unacceptable as it is inexplicable.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump
Russia's President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump shaking hands during a bilateral meeting at the G20 leaders summit in Osaka, Japan, on June 28.
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

In our contentious, inconclusive debate over the investigation of the 2016 Trump campaign’s alleged conspiracy with Russia and/or subsequent cover-up, we are giving too little notice to one central finding about which there is no ambiguity: Russia interfered in our presidential election. Failure to address the implications of this stark fact is a clear and present threat to our democracy.

In his report, special counsel Robert Mueller did not find that Donald Trump’s campaign conspired with Russia. But he carefully documented what Russian agents did to try to influence the 2016 electoral contest, activities that led to indictments against some two dozen Russian citizens. Mueller also warned that Russia’s “multiple, systemic efforts” were a danger that “deserves the attention of every American.”

Asymmetrical warfare

We can safely assume that Russian President Vladimir Putin, a trained KGB operative, has studied “The Art of War” by the sixth-century, BC, Chinese strategist Sun Tzu. Sun Tzu wrote that “the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting,” a concept our president does not seem to recognize. Tricking voters and manipulating them is a cost-effective way to win a struggle for supremacy without firing a shot. Today’s experts call that “asymmetrical warfare.”

And yet, as recently as the G20 meetings in Japan last weekend, President Trump made light of Russia’s assault on our democracy. Asked by reporters whether he’d warned Putin against interfering in the 2020 contest, our commander in chief dismissed the subject with a silly smirk.

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The president’s unwillingness or inability to directly confront Putin has long been known, but it remains as unacceptable as it is inexplicable. What Russia did in 2016 was a hostile act, in effect an act of war against our country. Failure to stand up against it is a violation of the oath all Americans presidents swear to defend the country “against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

Technicians and security specialists in various federal agencies and local governments are working diligently to counter current and future cyberwarfare threats from Russia and other hostile forces. These defensive measures are necessary and important, but they will not by themselves be enough to protect our news organizations, social media, private communications and electoral mechanisms. Cyber defense is always playing catch-up ball; hackers can invent ways around most security measures faster than they can be put in place.

Strong message should come from the top

What is missing in our national strategy is a strong political message that we will exact a prohibitive price for future interference. We need to persuade Russia – and every other country considering using cyberwarfare against us – to butt out or be prepared to face severe consequences.

Such a message should come from the top and be delivered with conviction. We have gotten nothing of the sort. A few members of the Trump administration have made occasional warnings to Russia, and Congress has levied some new sanctions on Moscow. But these moves have been undercut by the commander in chief’s refusal to call out Putin or Russia despite the damning conclusions of the Mueller investigation, our intelligence community and Congress.

Waving the flag at a military display on the 4th of July is no substitute for actually doing what is required to provide for the common defense, as the Constitution demands of our government’s leaders.

Why the president will not face up to what Russia did – and address it forcefully — remains a mystery as well as a scandal. No reasonable explanation has been offered. Maybe it’s about money. Or Kompromat. Or the expectation of more help in 2020. Some say it’s insecurity about the validity of his 2016 election, though in fact few observers go so far as to demand that the elections results be thrown out because of Russia’s actions. Too many factors determine why citizens vote as they do — or choose to stay home – to conclude that Russia’s role was decisive.

Essential point: They tried, and they’ll keep trying

The essential point is not that the Russians swung the election – no one knows whether that’s true — but that they clearly tried to do so. And they will keep subverting our democracy unless we convince them that we mean business. There is zero evidence that Trump has seriously conveyed this message to his Russian friend — or is disposed to do so in the future.

The silence is deafening. If our president cannot or will not warn Putin and his regime with the strength and resolve they respect, our congressional representatives and senators must. Influential Americans of all stripes – this should not be a partisan issue – need to stand up and insist that further Russian mucking around in our elections will not be tolerated. Trump will not be president forever, and Russians are more than capable of thinking ahead. Putin may already be considering hedging his bets. By speaking out, we can remind him that, in our country, unlike in his, we the people rule.

Dick Virden is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer and a graduate of the National War College.

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