Summary: President Trump can take quick and practical steps to protect American elections from Russian interference by developing a deterrence capability.
Background: Russian interference in the American political process is nothing new. It goes back to the 1920s.
The West never insisted that Russia make a permanent break with the Soviet past by releasing the Soviet archives and uprooting the old KGB. Many of the old Soviet political subversion agent networks remain in place. Specifically, Russia never disclosed the extent of past Soviet “active measures” (i.e., non-violent and even violent influence operations) and we must presume that the continued secrecy is to maintain agent networks and retain a Soviet-like subversion capability.
Trump’s statements: Following the Helsinki Summit, President Trump acknowledged the depth and scope of Russian subversion against the United States and said he would not tolerate it. “I let him know we can’t have this,” he said of Putin. “We’re not going to have it and that’s the way it’s going to be.” He noted on Twitter that “President Obama knew about Russia before the election. Why didn’t he do something about it? Why didn’t he tell our campaign?”
Apply a Deterrence Strategy: Trump can cheaply and quickly build his own enforcement tools without an Act of Congress. Those tools are the ability to retaliate against Putin for any interference in the American political system. Like nuclear deterrence, that ability has to be on par with the threat. Nuclear deterrence has helped prevent the Kremlin’s aggression for more than six decades. The United States can apply a similar strategy against Russian subversion of America’s political system.
Show Putin the Ability – and the Will – to Exploit his Vulnerabilities: Putin’s hold on power is more fragile than it seems. Strict information controls and news censorship, combined with the occasional murders of investigative journalists, show that the Kremlin fears exposure of the systematized corruption of Putin’s rule. The territorial and political integrity of the Russian Federation is also vulnerable. Russia’s control structure is plagued with unsustainable strains. Centralized power in Moscow has come at the expense of the rest of Russia, much of which is seething over Putin seizing political authority from the regions and sucking out their wealth to the corrupt oligarchs in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Autonomy and independence movements across Russia are growing: Not only along ethnic and cultural lines, but among ethnic Russians who resent the police-state controlling them from far-away Moscow. Ethnic Russians are declining in absolute numbers in their own country. In Siberia, massive illegal immigration and investment from China could cause the region to split away.