Friday News Roundup–September 4, 2020
Shinzo Abe’s Legacy; Moscow’s Latest Skullduggery; Rethinking Defense Modularity; Narrowing the Transatlantic Divide
Good morning to you from Washington, D.C. It is Labor Day weekend, the unofficial end of summer, yet the return to school and fall routines are upended by the COVID pandemic. On Capitol Hill, discussions continue about the shape and scope of proposed relief packages, but significant gaps remain between the parties. Given that we’re now in September, the clock has started to tick on whether an agreement can also be made to keep the government open come September 30th.
Heading into the election, there are also concerns about how election night — or perhaps even election week — might unfold as the votes are counted. In The Hill CSPC President & CEO Glenn Nye and Senior Fellow James Kitfield lay out why fair elections are so important.
In the Diplomatic Courier, Joshua Huminski reviewed Nina Schick’s latest work on “Deep Fakes” as well as covering Michael Kanaan’s analysis of the geopolitical implications of artificial intelligence.
Joshua also wrote in The Hill that it’s time to end our feckless approach against Russia and to push back with firmer policies and actions — overt and covert.
In this week’s roundup, Dan looks across the Pacific to look at the leadership and legacy of retiring Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Joshua covers the latest from Russia and the nerve agent poisoning of opposition leader Alexi Nalvany. Ethan dives into the way forward for U.S. Navy planning and lessons from history, while Maria looks at how U.S. relations with Europe might change in a Biden administration. As always, we wrap with news you may have missed.
Farewell Prime Minister Abe
On August 28, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ended speculation about his health and political future by announcing his resignation due to worsening health. Having become Japan’s longest serving prime minister in 2019, he leaves a legacy of invigorating Japan, highlighting a unique vision for Japan’s identity, raising its profile on the global stage, and positioning it for the challenges ahead.
In many ways, Abe served as the Prime Minister of a Japan at a crossroads. His policies aimed to reinvigorate a Japanese economy that had long sat in the doldrums, in need of stimulus and reform. At the same time, he sought to shake up old orthodoxies and show that Japan could be capable of wielding both hard and soft power.
“Abenomics,” as it was known, was a combination of stimulus measures, along with significant monetary easing by the Bank of Japan. In many ways the Japanese central bank has served as a model for central banks around the world as they have utilized purchases of assets like stocks and bonds to stabilize markets, while also introducing yield curve control to manage long-term interest rates. Challenges remain, however, in terms of much needed reforms including cutting red tape and tackling Japan’s public debt — which stands at nearly 240% of GDP.
As the premier of the world’s third largest economy — but one on an island nation and home to world-class multinational corporations — Abe understood that Japan’s economic future depends on globalization. As the world turned isolationist and populist, Abe stood as a consistent voice for continued economic integration and cooperation among the world’s leading economies and democracies.
In many ways that was on display during G-7 summits at a time when western democracies seemed to be splintering — particularly with President Trump abdicating U.S. multilateral leadership in favor of bilateral dealmaking. As adept as Abe was at keeping the G-7 together with a recalcitrant Trump and the threats of Russia and China looming, it was his understanding of the need to build a close and personal bilateral relationship with President Trump.
For Japan, this was key to keep the United States engaged in the region, as the challenge from China grew, yet President Trump was skeptical of allies he saw as freeloaders. There were certainly stresses, especially as President Trump moved to build a friendship — to little result — with Kim Jong Un with concerns from the Japanese side — with citizens kidnapped by Pyongyang and North Korean ballistic missiles overflying Japanese airspace. As CSIS scholar Michael Green points out, Abe took past U.S. approaches to the Indo-Pacific, repackaged them as Japan’s approach, and used that to provide a strategic framework for the United States, Japan, Australia, and India (the Quad) to further security and defense cooperation. Green argues that as the Trump strategy towards the region was a blank slate, Abe provided the pathway to continuity in the U.S. approach to the region.
Abe’s legacy will not only be defined by his impact on the bilateral relationship between the White House and Kantei, but also his own vision for Japan’s role in the world. For the world’s third largest economy, Abe long felt that Japan punched below its weight on the global stage. In terms of soft power, this meant going beyond Japan’s outsized role in pop culture to emphasize some of the traditional aspects of Japanese culture and its unique history. The transition to the Reiwa period with the transfer of power on the Chrysanthemum Throne served to put a clear transition point in history. The Tokyo Olympics, sadly delayed due to the pandemic, were to showcase Japan.
Finally, it will be the shift in Japan’s military posture that will prove to reshape the geostrategic environment of the Indo-Pacific as well as how the United States can plan for our alliance with Japan to deter conflict — and prevail should deterrence fail. While Abe was unsuccessful in his attempts to change the constitutional measures regarding the Japanese military, he did push to change how a Japanese Prime Minister could use his military authority. As Green points out, Abe ensured that the Prime Minister’s judgement to what extent Japan’s military can engage in forward self-defense — i.e. interpret what is necessary to ensure Japan’s national survival — can allow for a more integrated approach operating alongside U.S. forces.
Beyond the military aspects however, this also was reflected in the adoption of national security laws and other reforms to allow Japan to work closer with the United States and other allies regarding intelligence sharing, defense procurement, and a deepening of cooperation. This would also include a greater focus on Geotech issues, as competition with China would not be limited to solely the military domains. In this sense, he served as a bulwark against a trend that could have seen Japan, and other countries in East Asia, creeping to a form of Finlandization by Beijing.
Shinzo Abe’s legacy will go far beyond simply being the longest tenured Japanese Prime Minister. With the United States moving towards an election and the leadership transition underway in Tokyo, one can expect continuity on the Japanese side. In many ways, that reflects the stability that Abe created. At the same time, whoever prevails in November and sits in the Oval Office in 2021 can build upon the strengths of the U.S.-Japan partnership that Shinzo Abe helped to craft.
Navalny Poisoned by Novichok, Receives Treatment in Berlin
Joshua C Huminski
According to the German government, tests show that the nerve agent Novichok was used to poison Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition figure. Novichok was the poison used against Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, in Salisbury in 2018. The Novichok nerve agent series is uniquely Russian, developed between the late 70s and early 90s.
Shortly after the previous Friday News Analysis went to print, Navalny was flown to Germany to receive treatment for the alleged poisoning. Doctors in Berlin determined that he was poisoned with a cholinesterase inhibitor, a substance found in nerve toxins, but also pesticides, Alzheimer’s treatments, and other compounds, but later confirmed it was Novichok. While he is currently in a medically induced coma and on a ventilator, he is expected to survive, but the long-term effects of the poisoning remain to be seen.
At first glance, the list of potential attackers is fairly long, starting with Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, and extending well beyond the Kremlin to many oligarchs and minor kleptocrats. Most recently, he found himself in Siberia touting a “smart voting” plan, urging voters to tactically vote against Putin’s United Russia party in the upcoming regional elections.
While Navalny was a perennial gadfly to the Russian kleptocratic class, having exposed alleged corruption and malfeasance throughout the Russian state to include the oligarchs, Novichok’s uniqueness and rarity increasingly points to a government connection. Novichok is not within the reach of local politicians, business figures, or regional security officials. It will be interesting to see which Novichok was used — if it was the same as the Skripal poisoning, the connection with Russian military intelligence, the GRU, will certainly be strengthened. If it is, however, of a different flavor, that suggests there are other stockpiles in the wild.
Moscow, for its part, announced an investigation into the poisoning, gathering evidence, and reviewing camera footage of his movements before the flight from Tomsk. The investigation followed a comments from Putin to Italy’s prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, in which he said he wanted a “thorough and objective investigation into all the circumstances…to do with Mr Navalny’s hospitalization”. Unsurprisingly, Putin pushed back suspicions that the Kremlin was involved. He “stressed that hasty and unfounded accusations” the Kremlin was behind it were “unacceptable”.
Putin, who is loath utter Navalny’s name, may have ordered the attack or he may have merely said “who will rid me of this meddlesome priest” prompting those around him to act. Moreover, given the prominence of Navalny, it is unlikely that a move was made against him without Putin’s tacit approval. Equally, some around him may have thought removing Navalny would benefit or please Putin (to their benefit), or an oligarch may have sought to settle a personal score (using connections and wealth to do so) with Navalny and now Putin will need to deal with the consequences. It is indeed a frightening thought that the use of Novichok is happening without Putin’s permission.
Whatever the real origin of the plot against Navalny, the end result is the same in that it feeds the narrative of Russia settling scores and that to get on the wrong side of Moscow is to ensure one must closely watch their tea.
The Next Generation of Russian Disinformation Campaigns
Joshua C. Huminski
Russia’s Internet Research Agency is at it again in advance of the 2020 election. Facebook announced this week that it had taken down 13 fake accounts and at least two pages that had recruited American journalists to author pieces critical of presidential candidate Joe Biden and his vice president running mate, Kamal Harris.
This network differs from previous efforts in several ways. Graphika, a research firm, analyzed the pages noting that “the network created used AI generated profile pictures and maintained a presence across Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn in an apparent attempt to appear more convincing; this is the first time we have observed known IRA-linked accounts use AI-generated avatars.”
This network, which was taken down in its early stages, continued an IRA practice of using real, but unwitting authors to publish real pieces in line with their overall objectives. Previously, the IRA sought to avoid writing their own content, first copying content from other pages and, later, using Ghanaian activists to write unique content.
This network also sought to leverage smaller, more convincingly authentic accounts as opposed to larger numbers of less curated accounts. The accounts directed users to a new website “PeaceData” that billed itself as a “global news organization” that sought to “shed light on the global issues and raise awareness about corruption, environmental crisis, abuse of power, armed conflicts, activism, and human rights.” The PeaceData account had fake “editors” that sought to present itself as a legitimate outlet across social media platforms. According to Facebook, at least 200 journalists were recruited by the Russian operatives to write for PeaceData, without knowing that the ultimate client was in fact, Moscow.
According to Ben Nimmo, the head of investigations at Graphika (and whom CSPC recently hosted), “It was very much a strongly left-leaning constituency they were aiming at. It looks like that was audience-building, but there were indeed pieces that said Biden and Harris are much too far to the right.”
It is to be welcomed that Facebook and Twitter acted swiftly to take down this network, but interesting to note that they only became aware of the campaign after a tip from the FBI.
And a side of Traditional Russian Espionage
Joshua C. Huminski
The end of the summer months brought with it two cases of military officers spying for Moscow — one in America and one in France.
In the case of the latter, Florence Parly, France’s minister of defence, announced that a lieutenant colonel seconded to NATO was arrested on suspicion of spying for Russia. According to Parly, “I can confirm that a senior officer is facing a judicial procedure.” She added, “We’ve taken all the necessary measures. Now the justice system must do its work under normal rules of confidentiality…It’s up to them to say what he is guilty of and if he is guilty.” The unnamed officer, stationed in Italy, is accused of passing on material to Russia’s military intelligence, the GRU. The officer was arrested by France’s domestic security service on 21 August, and is currently held at Santé prison.
The former case is of particularly interest, as the individual in question — Peter Rafael Dzibinski Debbins — served as a member of the U.S. Army Special Forces, or Green Berets.
The case against Debbins is absolutely fascinating and demonstrates the long-term investment Russian military intelligence is willing to make in potential assets. Debbins was approached while studying abroad in Chelyabinsk, Russia (where he met his wife, whose father was a Russian air force colonel) at age 19, while in a college ROTC program at the University of Minnesota. He was first tasked with getting the names of four local nuns — ostensibly to test both his skill and willingness to act on their orders. This began a 15-year relationship with Russian intelligence, during which he adopted the code name “lkar Lesnikov”.
Debbins, at one point, wanted to leave the military, but the GRU encouraged him to stay, pushing him to also apply to join the Green Berets. While in the Special Forces he provided details of his unit’s activities and personnel, including details that could be used to compromise or recruit fellow servicemembers, as well as information on counterintelligence personnel and activities, according to the indictment. His security clearance was suspended for violations while in Azerbaijan, and in 2005 received an honorable discharge. Despite the security violation he was later able to get a top-secret clearance in 2010 through the Defense Intelligence Agency. He later left government service, against the wishes of his Russian handlers. The indictment does not mention any contact after 2011.
In a statement, Debbins said “I had a messianic vision for myself in Russia, that I was going to free them from their oppressive government, so I was flattered when they reached out to me.” He described himself as a “son of Russia” and told his handlers he wanted to “serve Russia”. At one point during his periodic meetings with his handlers he said he was “angry and bitter” about his time in the military and that the United States needed to be “cut down in size”.
The compensation Debbins received for his treason was remarkably small and included $1,000, some cognac, and a Russian military uniform. He declined the GRU’s offers of Russian prostitutes. Debbins in this case, was more of a true believer or ideological and ego spy along the MICE spectrum — money, ideology, compromise, or ego. He had a vision of being useful to Russia and was obviously flattered that they would reach out to him, a 19-year-old.
History Cautions against Maritime Modularity
After months of waiting, small nuggets of information about the U.S. Navy’s modernization strategy for competition with the Chinese Communist Party’s Pacific aggression have finally begun to emerge. This space has previously covered how the Marine Corps is dissolving its heavy armor and traditional artillery identity in favor of a return to amphibious shock troops, but the question remaining was the transport- how would the USN accomplish delivering the roughnecks? In short, the small tidbits of data gleaned from press releases this month amounts to a swarming fleet of small ships, “if it floats, it fights”. The thrust of this statement would appear to have the USN departing from the Mahanian 20th Century big ships doctrine, and transitioning to a modular, multi-role fleet of “Light Amphibious Warship”, or LAWs. History teaches us that expecting a massive strategic asset like a naval vessel to perform a hybridized role may not be the right answer.
Sea Dragon Rising
Let’s first investigate how the USN arrived at this conclusion. After repeated war games aimed at predicting the force capabilities of the PLA Navy in the outbreak of hostilities, USMC Maj. Gen. Tracy King (Director of the Expeditionary Warfare Center) highlighted the present vulnerability and risk of the PLA Navy’s modernization. In fact, a suspicious use of this author’s words from earlier this summer were applied in summary of the wargame findings: “the most destabilizing event in the 21st century is going to be when China can achieve conventional parity at a time and place of its choosing”.
The overarching narrative here at the CSPC and our research into the Great Powers Competition paradigm is that the next conflict will indeed be far more complex, against competent (and in some cases, superior) rivals across all domains. Adversaries like Russia and China have traditionally lagged far behind in conventional military power on account of our technological supremacy, the U.S. held the advantage despite vastly superior numbers of military members by the Dragon and Bear states. In a lesson learned from observing U.S. operations in Afghanistan, the PLA has expertly pushed a defensive bubble around its territorial claims to keep that technological superiority at a geographic ‘arms length’, rendering the U.S. advantage moot.
Further conclusions from the war games exhibited a push to institute a broader array of unmanned vessels, distance offensive weapons to counter the PLA’s prolific Anti-Access/Area-denial (A2AD) methodology, and smaller vessels that make for much more difficult targets by PLA weapons to acquire and engage. But the key point here is the expectation that the department of the Navy is considering implementing a new vessel construct with a do-it-all capability: engaging hostile fleets or static defenses with long range weapons, unloading Marine berserkers on an island while simultaneously deploying jump-jet F-35B’s and rotary wing support from its landing deck- and production yielding enough of these vessels to balloon the inventory to meet the lofty 335-ship goal set forth in the 2018 NDAA.
The Battle of Jutland
Here at the Center, we are all diehard fans of Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast. The shows multi-episode series on World War One, “Blueprint for Armageddon”, is an absolute masterpiece. Episode IV highlights one of the pivotal sequences of the war, and a largely formative event in naval doctrine to open the 20th century and modern warfare. Of course, I refer to the only major naval engagement of the great war- the Battle of Jutland. As many history buffs will recall, one of the many factors that led to the outbreak of WWI lay in the complex arms control mechanisms championed by Germany, which directly impacted naval technological development at the onset of the century.
As a means of circumventing treatise restrictions, the British Navy developed a hybrid vessel that transcended developmental limitations on the titan battleships and mobile cruisers. The result: a Battlecruiser, heavily armed, slightly faster, and designed by way of sacrificing defensive armor for slightly bigger guns. The gamble in deploying the battlecruiser as part of a strike group or fleet against an enemy fleet was that the battlecruiser could chase down the smaller, faster destroyers or frigates and with bigger guns, strike those from a distance (#lethality). As it enjoyed the additional speed thanks to its lighter weight on account of less armor, it was thought to be capable of outrunning a threat from the bigger battleships while offsetting the engagement distance with its own inventory of improved weapons (#modularity).
As Carlin tells in his detailed and haunting narrative, the Royal Navy’s Battlecruisers were simply cleaned from the surface of the water by the German Navy’s superior targeting systems and still-larger guns on the battleships. For important context, the Battle of Jutland was an exercise in experimentation — such fleets had hardly been deployed in any real capacity, and certainly never before with the weight of global conflict riding on the shoulders of its commanders. But in this sequence, the Royal Navy gambled on a modular vessel with good ol’ “think outside the box”/innovative mentalities, and paid a terrible price in lives.
Jack of all trades and master of none
Modularity has often been, and continues to be, a buzzword that gets high-ranking DoD folk…buzzing. The idea of multi-role’ism is what brought the beleaguered F-35 to life. And while the F-35 should ultimately yield a truly competent 5th-gen fighter jet capable of veritable mission shift, the pain of getting to that point still necessitated the USAF purchase of 4.5-gen F-15EX’s to bridge capability gaps, as one example of the F-35 shortcomings.
In layman’s terms, being ok at a lot of things means one cannot be truly great at any one thing. Speaking of buzzwords, MG King further went on to describe these LAWs as a Swiss-army knife capable of actualizing the littoral warfighting function under the Marine Corps Commandant’s vision and restructuring, with increased “lethality” being absolutely necessary for these new vessels.
While these craft offer the realization of a faster, leaner and adaptive amphibious fighting force that the Marine Corps aims to become, turning them into death-blossom frigates with the extra capabilities mentioned above just turned them into comparatively lucrative targets, akin to the aircraft carrier. The comparison between the British Royal Navy’s Battlecruisers of 1910 and modern light amphibious warships is understandably something of a leap. Thanks to regularly revolutionary technological leaps, the vessels of today fight in a much more complicated dynamic than the pitched battles seen in the conflicts of the last century. But the point remains — efforts to hybridize the inventory and then make a strategy out of these vessels is not a solution, it is a string of buzzwords.
We can rest easy that there is likely more to come of this purported shift in naval inventory, and it does not center around LAWs. Rather, it emphasizes their use in augmenting the true strategic sledgehammer of the U.S. Navy- the carrier strike group. In the words of Rear Admiral Paul Schlise (Director of Surface Warfare): “The carrier strike group remains the premier fighting unit of the Navy, and that force structure is gonna be around for a while”.
Hopefully the somber, exhaustively detailed podcasters of 100 years hence will make a favorable contrast between the LAWs employment in GPC versus the disastrous Battlecruisers of Jutland.
Biden’s European Restoration: Narrowing the transatlantic Trump-gap?
Maria Hatzisavvas Damsgaard
While Europe has had its fair share of elections in the first three quarters of 2020, the attention has now been reverted to the heating US elections. With Biden still ahead of the president in current polling averages, a prospective Biden presidency seems increasingly tangible for many Europeans. Yet as the relationship between the US and Europe is at a 21st century low, questions arise on what is in store for US-Europe relations post-election. Could a Biden presidency restore US credibility in the relationship with Europe, or will the transatlantic bond be ever reminiscent of America’s new leadership role in the world?
While not true for recent Brexiter Boris Johnson, the conclusion of a Trump presidency would induce a sigh of relief in both Paris and Berlin. The two EU heavyweights have been rope-a-doping president Trump’s sowing of division in alliances, threatening of trade wars, and stabs to dismantle the common European project as the first president in modern history. It is no wonder that in European diplomatic circles, the relationship between the US and Europe is said to be at its lowest point since the Cold War.
Enter Joe Biden. While the former VP is running as a Democratic restorationist, Europeans are simply not convinced that he will govern like one. Last week, German minister of defense Kramp-Karrenbauer said that regardless of a Biden win “… there are certain basic axes that will certainly not shift,”, leading the minister to conclude that Europe cannot rely on the US for security in the same way that it used to. This echoed Chancellor Merkel’s January statement on the cooling EU-US ties being a shift that “…has structural causes.”. The Chancellor acknowledged that the US’ focus on Europe is declining and that “… that will be the case under any president.” While there is likewise no doubt which presidential candidate Macron would rather see sitting in the Oval Office, the president has followed diplomatic protocol by merely stating that the world needs the US as a global leader.
Throughout the Trump presidency, disagreements between the US and European countries have shifted from mere policy divergence to instead centering around the very ideas surrounding transatlantic unity. Since president Trump took office, the NATO alliance has become conditional to military spending, most recently barred by the US cutting back its deployment of 12,000 troops in Germany. Yet, as European leaders are increasingly acknowledging, the current US attitude towards Europe has come to mean and represent something much greater than Trump. The US nationalist isolationist demeanor towards Europe is not necessarily a Trumpist aberration to the bipartisan foreign policy consensus that existed prior to Trump. Europeans may therefore be tempted to believe that not even a Democratic administration would lead the US to return to its former role of global hegemon and European compadre.
This increasingly persuading fact became putative during the Democratic National Convention, which bore no signs of a real foreign policy break. Rather, Biden’s foreign policy plan was presented as a restoration effort. Nevertheless, just between you and me: Europeans do not view Joe Biden as a foreign policy Trump antidote. Biden rather comes across as a candidate with a grand ideological world-view that does not transcend the rudimentary “let’s-work-together” and “diplomacy-is-good” standard. And in order to restore European trust, a grand plan is needed. If we tried to thought invoke an overarching Biden ideology (that is not #NoMalarkey), it would be based on his catch-phrase: “America cannot lead by the example of its power, but by the power of its example”. Whether the phrase is mere idle campaign rhetoric or a sincere attempt to display some sort of grand vision terminology only time will tell. Yet this walk-the-talk proposition, sprinkled with the Biden heuristics so dependent on his own ad-hoc foreign policy track-record, might exactly be the approach towards Europe from 2021 and onwards.
The question on whether US-Europe ties could ever be restored is an interesting one. Not only because it is a question filled with intent and an underlying assumption that US-Europe relations were great pre-Trump. But the question also assumes that things could ever go back to the way they were. Could you ever get the toothpaste perfectly back into the tube? Unless you are a magician, and I would assign no such title to any presidential candidate, the answer is a strong and sound: No. Whether or not Biden would need to redo a European apology tour in order to narrow the transatlantic Trump-gap, one thing is for certain: Europeans are not convinced that the mere presence of Joe Biden in the Oval Office would induce a return to the normative expectation that the US should be a global leader and close European ally. And while most of Europe does not believe in the possibility of completely closing the transatlantic Trump-gap, European leaders will be holding their breaths hoping that it could at least be narrowed.
News You May Have Missed
In filings related to the criminal complaint, it was reported that a Russia ransomware gang attempted to approach an employee of Tesla corporation to see if he would place ransomware on the electric vehicle manufacturer’s network in exchange for a cut of the ill-gotten spoils. Instead of joining the caper, the employee reported it to the company and FBI agents arrested Egor Igorevich Kriuchkov at the Reno airport. While believed to be criminal in nature, the story is an excellent reminder of how human factors — be it criminality or (counter)intelligence — are a key part of cybersecurity.
While there has been much fanfare about how the Trump administration would focus on buying and hiring American firms in government procurement and other contracting, there has been little progress to meet the administration’s own benchmarks on buying American, with procurement of foreign products totaling $7.8 billion in FY19, compared to $6 billion in the final FY16 of the Obama administration. Analysts suggest that the lack of progress is due to a failure to follow through on initiatives and pronouncements by the administration, as well as the impact the administration’s tariffs have had on American manufacturers.
Career Department of Justice official Brad Wiegmann, 54, responsible for legal oversight of federal counterterrorism and counterintelligence activities, was told in mid August that he would be replaced by a political appointee, 36-year-old Kellen Dwyer, a U.S. attorney best known for inadvertantly revealing charges secretly filed against Julian Assange. While Wiegmann has 23 years of experience as a public servant, Dwyer’s previous work, from 2018–2019 was with the Leonine Forum, an organization dedicated to “reintroducing the tenants of [the Catholic Church] into the political, policy, legal, business, and cultural activities of society.”
The views of authors are their own and not that of CSPC.