Standing Up to the Russian Bear: Time for A Comprehensive Strategy for Countering the Threat of the Russian Federation

By: Doug Livermore, Columnist

Photo Credit: Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

The United States National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2018 (FY18), which the US Congress resolved and sent to the White House in mid-November 2017, includes in it a requirement for the interagency to develop and implement a comprehensive strategy to counter threats posed by the Russian Federation. Section 1239 of the FY18 NDAA directs the Department of Defense (DoD), Department of State (DoS), and other departments and agencies of the United States Government (USG) to cooperate in drafting this strategy that is meant to deter the United States’ clearest international adversary.[i] However, the interagency apparatus has repeatedly failed to deliver on similar guidance in the past, specifically Section 1097, which Congress included in both the FY16 and FY17 NDAAs. Section 1097 of these prior NDAAs directed the development of a general strategy for countering unconventional warfare by unspecified threats, a strategy that the USG never delivered.[ii] Given this past failure, it is imperative that President Trump immediately sign the FY18 NDAA and assign the National Security Council (NSC) the critical role of coordinating the USG drafting and implementation of the Section 1239-directed strategy to counter the Russian Federation’s machinations.

Since 2014, the world has seen pervasive and increasingly ambitious interference by the Russian government in a wide range of arenas affecting both national and international sovereignty. The Russian government’s highly illegal annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, the Kremlin’s ongoing support to violent separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine (to include the downing of a civilian airliner that killed hundreds in 2014), and the various propaganda campaigns Moscow is currently waging against the Baltic states demonstrate Russia’s willingness to engage in destabilizing activities in the Eastern European “Near Abroad”.[iii] The US intelligence community, which is composed of 16 separate agencies headed by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, explicitly concluded in its 2017 report that the Russian government engaged in a comprehensive influence campaign to try and sway the outcome of the 2016 US presidential elections.[iv] The Russian government has attempted similar interference in a number of European elections to include Britain, France, and Germany, all while making increasingly threatening statements towards its Eastern European neighbors that are considering closer ties to the West. Russia considers any expansion of Western influence along its borders as a direct national security threat.[v] In mid-November, the Russian Ministry of Defense posted several official statements to various social media forums that accused the United States of abetting the Islamic State. These posts presented unrelated archival footage and even video from a popular video game as “irrefutable evidence” of America’s collusion with the Islamic State.[vi] It is high time that the USG develop and implement a “whole of government” response to the Russian government’s aggressive attempts to nefariously assert its influence.

The USG has inadequately coordinated and implemented efforts to counter and deter this destabilizing Russian threat. Section 1097 of the NDAAs for both FY16 and FY17 directed the USG to develop and enact a general strategy for countering the unconventional warfare of unspecified adversaries. While Congress misapplied the doctoral definition of unconventional warfare, the intent was clear—to deter the malignant influence and low-intensity conflict activities by adversaries conducted in the so-called “gray zone” between traditional warfare and peace.[vii] However, neither Congress nor the White House established the necessary oversight and integration mechanisms to ensure that the USG actually produced and delivered the required strategy in a timely fashion. Section 1239 of NDAA FY18 subsumed any language related to “unconventional warfare” from the past two NDAAs.[viii] With the abortive experience of Section 1097 in mind, it is clear that the White House should immediately sign the NDAA for FY18 and establish NSC oversight to ensure the development and implementation of a “whole of government strategy” for countering Russian threats.

During the 2016 US presidential elections, the Trump campaign repeatedly highlighted the overwhelming need for a “new” strategy to defeat the Islamic State. Only days after President Trump was sworn into office, the White House issued National Security Policy Memorandum Three (NSPM-3), which directed the USG to develop just such a comprehensive strategy under the direction of the NSC.[ix] President Trump tasked the NSC to oversee and coordinate the rapid development and implementation of this strategy across the USG, integrating the strengths of each organization and resolving any potential conflicts. This unequivocal decision on the part of President Trump demonstrated a clear commitment to ensuring an appropriate level of emphasis for producing an effective national strategy to counter a significant threat. Just as President Trump demonstrated his commitment to counter the threat from the Islamic State, he should indicate a similar level of commitment by signing the NDAA for FY18 and issuing another NSPM that directs the NSC to coordinate an interagency strategy for countering the threat posed by the Russian Federation. A NSC-directed strategic process is the best hope to develop an effective and comprehensive strategy that leverages the diverse capabilities of all the departments and agencies of the USG.

About the Author:

Doug Livermore works in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Intelligence) as an operational advisor as well as serving as a Special Forces officer with Special Operations Detachment-NATO in the Maryland Army National Guard. In addition to multiple combat deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan, Doug led special operations elements during sensitive contingency operations across Africa. He is a West Point graduate currently pursuing his master’s degree full time through Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program. The views expressed in this article do not represent the positions of the Department of Defense or any other part of the U.S. Government.

[i] “House Resolution 2810 – National Defense Authorization Act of 2018,” U.S. Congress, November 16, 2017, accessed November 19, 2017,

[ii] “House Resolution 1735 – National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016,” 114th U.S. Congress, 295-296, accessed June 24, 2017,

[iii] Michael Kofman, Katya Migacheva, Brian Nichiporuk, Andrew Radin, Olesya Tkacheva, and Jenny Oberholtzer, Lessons from Russia’s Operations in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine (Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, 2017).

[iv] “Background to ‘Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections’: The Analytic Process and Cyber Incident Attribution,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Jan 6, 2017, accessed July 14, 2017,

[v] Ron Synovitz, “Europe Bracing Against Risk Of Russian ‘Influence Operations’,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, January 16, 2017, accessed August 13, 2017, europe-russian-influence-operations/28236212.html.

[vi] Daniel Brown, “It turns out Russia’s ‘evidence’ of the US helping ISIS was just video game screenshots,” Business Insider, November 14, 2017, accessed November 19, 2017,

[vii] Douglas Livermore, “It’s Time for Special Operations to Dump Unconventional Warfare,” War on the Rocks, October 6, 2017, accessed November 19, 2017,

[viii] “House Resolution 2810 – National Defense Authorization Act of 2018,” U.S. Congress, November 16, 2017, accessed November 19, 2017,

[ix] “Presidential Memorandum Plan to Defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,” The White House, January 28, 2017, accessed November 19, 2017,

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