OP-ED: How Biden can punish Putin

Eli Lake
Bloomberg Opinion (TNS)
Russia's President Vladimir Putin holds a video conference meeting in Moscow on June 19, 2020. (Alexei Nikolsky/Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/TASS/Abaca Press/TNS)

According to a series of detailed dispatches from The New York Times, Russia’s military intelligence agency has offered bounties to Taliban fighters for killing U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. Some details remain unclear, and the White House says that “the president was never briefed on this.”

Nonetheless: The undisputed facts are bad enough. If it’s true that President Donald Trump knew about the Russian scheme in February, it’s horrifying that as recently as last month he was lobbying allies to re-invite Russia into the Group of Seven industrialized nations. And if Trump didn’t read his intelligence, or his staff kept the news from him, it’s no better. Even if all the details are not yet verified, the political peril in which Trump now finds himself is well deserved.

That said, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s response on Sunday was delusional. “Just as I have said to the president, with him all roads lead to Putin,” she said. “I don’t know what the Russians have on the president, politically, personally, financially, or whatever it is.”

Pelosi apparently believes this despite the failure of the special prosecutor tasked with investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election to find any evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

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The more pressing question for both Trump and his opponent in November, Joe Biden, is what should be done.

The context here matters. No one should be surprised that the Russian intelligence agency, the GRU, would target U.S. forces in Afghanistan. More than two years ago, the general in charge of coalition forces in Afghanistan said there was evidence that Russia was arming the Taliban. Russian President Vladimir Putin, has openly groused about the collapse of the Soviet Union and sees the U.S. as his country’s primary adversary. And while it’s no excuse, the Russians have accused the U.S. of supporting some proxies in Syria that have attacked Russian positions.

More important, the GRU has long specialized in plausibly deniable provocations against the U.S. and its allies. The GRU orchestrated the hack and release of Democratic emails during the 2016 election, of course, but that is only the most recent example. In 2010, there was an attempted bombing of the U.S. embassy in Tbilisi. Fortunately the bomb was removed before it exploded. But the Obama administration was in the midst of its “reset” with Russia, so a clear provocation that U.S. intelligence agencies had pinned on the GRU passed without a U.S. response.

Trump so far has shown no indication that he intends to respond to the GRU’s sinister meddling in Afghanistan. Biden, though, has an opportunity. He should announce that, if elected president, he would designate the GRU as a foreign terrorist organization. The precedent here is what the Trump administration did with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in 2019.

This would have the advantage of making the GRU’s assets toxic for the legitimate financial industry. It would also force Putin to choose. Right now, he has two foreign policies: His diplomats demand that Russia be shown the respect of a great power, while his spies assassinate rivals, bankroll terrorists and interfere in elections. If Putin wants respect, his regime must earn it.

— Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.