Updated October 6, 2018
This morning, the Justice Department indicted seven Russian intelligence officers for cyberattacks meant to interfere with a United States investigation into doping allegations. It’s the latest in a string of indictments and sanctions targeting Russian entities, which are meant to dissuade Russia from interfering in and undermining American democracy.
Most of the counter-Russia actions taken by the United States, however, have happened without vocal support from President Donald Trump. “The president remains separate, and refuses to acknowledge publicly that we are at war with Russia,” said Samantha Vinograd, a former Obama administration official who is now a senior adviser at the University of Delaware’s Biden Institute. At a panel at The Atlantic Festival in Washington, the gulf between Trump’s statements and his administration’s actions took center stage.
“You have to bet that Russian bots and trolls are working overtime every time they see this disconnect,” said Vinograd*. “We’ve seen this in North Korea as well. Everyone’s catching on.”
Not only has Trump not been publicly supportive of congressional sanctions—he called one set “seriously flawed” and pushed to weaken them—but he has also voiced consistent approval of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Without vigorous support from the executive branch, the United States hasn’t taken the offensive role against Russian attacks that it would have under previous administrations, said Seth Jones, the chair of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and that’s had global implications. “Moscow has displaced Washington as the major power in the Middle East right now,” he said. “If you took a nap, slept for the last couple years, and woke up, it’d be stunning to see that development.”
The Atlantic staff writer Natasha Bertrand, who also spoke on the panel, made a connection between Trump’s posture toward Putin and Russia and Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. “Why has he been working so hard to undermine the credibility of the FBI and the Justice Department and former officials he sees as a threat?” Bertrand asked.
The panelists agreed that the disconnect between Trump and the intelligence community on the danger posed by Russia, along with partisan divides over Mueller’s probe, is breeding distrust within the American public—distrust that Russia, in turn, is exploiting.
“The longer this Russia investigation goes on, it’s helping Putin while it does,” Vinograd said.
“It’s just become so politicized,” Bertrand said, referring to the inquiry. “I think that the way to get past this is by having a president who acknowledges that this is not a left-right issue—that this is an attack on the United States.”
And it’s not just cyberattacks. “The reason that the scale of the Russian interference is so unprecedented is because it was focused on using so many ways of undermining our democracy,” Vinograd said. Russia has exploited extant American divisions through disinformation campaigns, hacks of Democratic campaign servers, and massive social-media campaigns.
The United States, Jones said, could do more. “I think [there’s] a lot the U.S. could do on the offensive side in terms of identifying areas of corruption,” he said. “Russians politically aren’t as strong in terms of allies as they seem to indicate. Continuing to support Ukraine against the Russians, supporting the spread of democracy to Moldova, another ally of Russia—these are all things being considered that might weaken Russia … But that’s not really being done, certainly not in a systematic fashion.”
Despite the efforts the U.S. has taken—sanctions, indictments, and investigations—“it’s not working,” Vinograd said. “We’re still under attack.”
*Correction: This article originally misattributed a quote to Seth Jones that was, in fact, from Samantha Vinograd. We regret the error.