The “Lame Duck” president has proven to have a surprisingly sharp and accurate peck, and as the USA strikes back against the Russian hacking and its role in the US elections with a welcome series of sanctions. Two point are worth bringing up: the way the issue instantly and depressingly becomes a partisan one. It also suggests that the incoming administration is woefully ill-informed about the Russian intelligence community, or willing to leap through rhetorical hoops to protect it; and the needless and limiting philosophy behind the sanctions.
The Sanctions and the GRU
Kellyann Conway, counsellor to President-Elect Trump, told CNN, while disparaging these so-called “symbolic” sanctions, that “the GRU doesn’t really travel here, doesn’t keep its assets here.” OK, let’s start with that.
If by “the GRU doesn’t really travel here,” she means senior officers such as the four figures directly sanctioned don’t pop over to Epcot for family holidays, that is perfectly true. If by “the GRU …, doesn’t keep its assets here” she means the agency as a whole doesn’t have McMansions in Texas and skiing chalets in Vermont, also technically true. But.
First of all, the GRU has many assets in the espionage tradecraft terms in the USA: agents, networks, safehouses, dead drops, etc. This is an expansive and aggressive agency that while focusing on military intelligence has broadened out into covering a wide range of other missions, not least because of the competitive dynamic I outline in my recent ECFR report Putin’s Hydra. So if we are talking about the GRU as a whole — and Conway’s phrasing suggests she was — then of course the GRU has huge (even yuge) assets in the States, including its rezidentura, its base within the embassy in DC.
Secondly, the point about sanctioning the guys at the top of the GRU is not because you’re worried about them popping over the take advantage of the New Year sales on Fifth Avenue, but to demonstrate commitment. Yes, this is “symbolic” but much of politics is precisely about symbolism.
Punish the Criminal, Not the Instrument
However, here’s my beef with the current philosophy of sanctions, the need artificially to create comparability and demonstrate direct connection. What does it matter if the hacks were done by the GRU (and as I understand it, they got the emails, but it was the FSB that pushed for their leakage and handled the dissemination and exploitation side of the operation)? These are simply arms of a single, authoritarian state? Why not hit people in the Presidential Administration, Duma, Senate, Putin’s friends, his dogwalker, whoever?
When we convict a thug of punching someone, we don’t punish him by breaking his arm, we punish the criminal as an entire person. By the same token, sanctions should target the state, not its individual instruments. This is a reasonable set of sanctions, and can be welcomed. But for real effectiveness, for deterrent impact, arguably sanctions ought to be unreasonable, and directed at the source of the attack, not the instrument.