If you're among the millions of people who spent hours in line this week trying to get gasoline, you might keep in mind a couple of salient facts. One, according to President Joe Biden, is that DarkSide, the Russian hacking outfit that is allegedly behind the attack, may or may not be linked to Vladimir Putin's operations. The other is that the leader of the Republican Party, Donald Trump, is, and has been, a Russian asset for more than 40 years.
At a time when Americans desperately want to leave behind the twin traumas of Trump and Covid and reclaim the rich, full lives we once had, that connection remains highly relevant so long as Trump imposes his will on the Republican Party. Trump's Russian ties remain pressing in the context of the SolarWind hack that U.S. intelligence has determined was authorized by the Russian government and that penetrated so many government agencies. And Trump's constant deference to Putin is also central, though little remarked upon, in his directed purge of Liz Cheney, who is a hawk on Russia's aggressions, from her perch as head of the House Republican Conference. Count that as yet another Trump ordered win for Putin.
Even though he is bereft of the Oval Office and his Twitter account, Trump is still center stage as he extends his grip over the GOP. As Nancy Pelosi once put it, when it comes to Donald Trump all roads lead to Vladimir Putin. That hasn't changed.
Americans are accustomed to thinking of intelligence operations in cloak and dagger terms of spies being caught red-handed making a pickup from a dead drop. When it comes to war, we think in terms of missiles, shock and awe.
However, this is the new era of hybrid warfare. It is an ongoing war of sorts, with no clear beginning or end, and without bombs, bullets, or boots on the ground. Its weapons are active measures, as they are known in the intelligence world, including elaborate disinformation operations, cyberwarfare, and hacking.
The assaults are so pervasive that it is not possible to get to the bottom of each and every attack we face. In cyberwarfare alone, hackers attempt to penetrate American utility companies 260 times per week, according to The Hill —and that's just what we know. If we examine just one of them that has been definitively tied to Russia—the 2020 breach of SolarWinds, whose software helps manage networks for businesses and various administrative bodies—it may have left as many as 18,000 SolarWinds client organizations vulnerable, including vital government agencies.
Similarly, the ransomware attack reported last week on Colonial Pipeline, a private company that supplies nearly half the liquid fuels for the East Coast and controls a major part of the U.S. energy infrastructure, underscores the vulnerability of critical sectors within the U.S. infrastructure. In 2017, according to the New York Times, Russia got inside an American power plant and was able to manipulate its controls, stopping just short of sabotage. More recently, the hack of the water treatment plant just outside Tampa, Florida, first reported in February, resulted in the amount of sodium hydroxide(lye) in the drinking water being ramped up by a factor of 100. The breach would have badly sickened Florida residents had it not been discovered in time.
Not all these attacks have been definitively tied to state actors in Russia. But one would have to be extraordinarily naïve to believe that a hacking group could operate within Russia without the sanction, at least passive, of Putin's regime. Does anyone doubt that if Putin wanted to shut it down he could do so?
Donald Trump, on the other hand, has been closely tied to Russian state actors, again and again. More specifically, in my most recent book, American Kompromat, former KGB officer Yuri Shvets explains at length how the Soviets first cultivated Trump as a KGB asset in 1980 when a so-called "spotter agent" sold him hundreds of TV sets from a New York electronics store that was really a KGB front. Shvets went on to describe a series of sequential operations through which Trump met with several heretofore unnamed KGB agents, and became a "special unofficial contact" of the KGB who could be relied upon to perform favors for the Soviet spy service and, later, its successors in the Russian Federation.
So, it should come as no surprise that Trump's party has adopted as its credo the Russian narrative that American democracy is corrupt, a fraud, and a hoax. "This the [the] Russian active measure narrative—Stop the Steal," says Shvets. "This party is still under Trump's influence, so the whole party has become a Russian intelligence asset, because it [is] us under a Russian asset and they are doing one Russian active measure after another."
Indeed, with its Stalinist purge of Liz Cheney for refusing to legitimize Trump's false claims of electoral victory, the GOP, with Trump at its helm, is following the Kremlin Playbook. He is not only attempting to silence the leading Putin critic in the Republican Party, he is also further discrediting democracy. So, six months after voters exiled Trump to Mar-a-Lago, the party of Lincoln remains in Trump's hands. By dictating that all Republicans must accept the Big Lie that the election was stolen, Trump has transformed it into an American version of the Party of Regions, the notoriously corrupt and treasonous Ukrainian political party that looted the country's coffers and blindly followed the dictates of Vladimir Putin.
"The key Russian M.O. now," Shvets told me, "is the widespread corruption of the political elite."
To that end, lawyers in multinational law firms in D.C. are paid millions of dollars a year to represent Putin's oligarchs, commodity firms, and banks—in the process becoming, in effect, highly paid agents of influence. Thousands of Russian nationals work in Silicon Valley, and, Shvets points out, many have allegiance to Moscow. Wild conspiracies—cult warfare, really—are being widely disseminated by QAnon, the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, and other purveyors of paranoia who often are secretly supported by Russian hackers and trolls. And again and again, Russians make the most exploiting loopholes in money laundering laws, campaign fundraising, using think tanks as fronts for intelligence operations, powerful white shoe lawyers, and all manner of good old-fashioned corruption. So, when Oleg Deripaska, the aluminum oligarch who is particularly close to Putin, puts together an abortive attempt to expand his aluminum holdings in Kentucky, does anyone really think he has no idea that he is helping out the most powerful Republican currently in office, Senator Mitch McConnell?
In January, Congress passed the Corporate Transparency Act requiring all American businesses to file "beneficial ownership" information with the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), in an attempt to ban the use of anonymous shell companies that criminals and foreign operatives use for illicit purposes.
That's a start. But let's not forget that Russia already has succeeded in installing an intelligence asset in the White House. And it will take more than strict regulatory measures and ongoing oversight by Congress and federal agencies to make sure they do not succeed in compromising the Oval Office ever again.
And in the meantime, President Joe Biden has an approaching summit conference with Vladimir Putin during which he will have to deal with Russia and the attack on a crucial part of America's infrastructure. As Biden said, "So far, there is no evidence based on, from our intelligence people, that Russia is involved, although there is evidence that the actor's ransomware is in Russia."
But according to Shvets, "There is no way for this to happen without the approval of the Russian government. If this administration doesn't show that it is tough, it will be equivalent to surrender to an autocratic Russian regime."
And, of course, within the Republican Party no one in any responsible leadership position is willing to stand up against Trump. Recognizing that Trump has long been a Russian asset, as Shvets has documented, is the beginning of the recovery of American democracy. If anyone choses to dismiss Trump's Russian link they might first consult the former KGB officer who has so much knowledge about the initial operation forty years ago. Then, they try to figure out how powerful those ties are today by asking Liz Cheney, who was eliminated from her party position this week. As she put it, Trump's hold over the GOP is "frighteningly reminiscent of the cult of personality built around foreign dictators like President Vladimir Putin of Russia."
Craig Unger is the author of seven books, including the New York Times bestsellers American Kompromat, House of Bush, House of Saud, and House of Trump, House of Putin. For fifteen years he was a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, where he covered national security, the Middle East, and other political issues.