Last weekend, in an unprecedented move, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced he will deploy nuclear weapons to Belarus, Russia’s closest ally.
Moscow’s move is likely designed to hold more European targets at risk of a nuclear strike amid the conflict in Ukraine, which has entered its second year. A day later, Putin’s ally and Russia’s Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev warned that Russia has “modern unique weapons capable of destroying any adversary, including the United States.” The next day, Russia, which placed its nuclear forces on a heightened alert at the beginning of its invasion of Ukraine, fired several nuclear-capable, anti-ship missiles in the Sea of Japan during a simulated attack.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., which has been fighting a proxy war with Russia over Ukraine, the media are already pushing voters to concern themselves with the presidential election that is still a year and a half away. Between the two expected front-runners for the GOP nomination, former President Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (who has yet to announce if he will run for president), one has an extensive track record on Russia, while the other can’t offer those same assurances.
Having spent my intelligence career studying Russian war-fighting doctrine and Putin’s mindset, I am confident Trump is the one U.S. leader Putin fears. He has already established a reputation with Putin that he is not to be messed with and won’t shy away from a “mano-a-mano” battle with the Kremlin’s assassin.
Despite the false narrative spread by the U.S. spy agencies and media, Trump was no friend of Putin’s. The 45th president is the only U.S. commander-in-chief during whose presidency Putin didn’t invade any country. Here are five reasons why the cold-blooded “former” KGB operative feared the brash real-estate mogul from New York.
First, in December 2019, President Trump stood up the first entirely new armed service since 1947, the U.S. Space Force. It was a direct counter to Russia’s space warfare doctrine. Trump understood that the Russians, who formed their space force in 2001, view U.S. reliance on space as an Achilles heel, a strategic vulnerability. Every aspect of U.S. warfighting doctrine is reliant on satellites — missile warning, navigation, reconnaissance, targeting, command-and-control, and precision strike efforts. Putin gave Russia’s space troops the mission to “blind and deafen” U.S. forces by attacking our satellites in wartime.
The 2023 Annual Threat Assessment by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence confirmed Russia is training its space forces and fielding “new antisatellite weapons to disrupt and degrade” U.S. space assets, including the GPS. These weapons include kinetic-kill missiles, ground-based lasers, electronic warfare systems, directed energy weapons, and on-orbit fractional bombardment systems capable of launching a weaponized conventional or nuclear payload. The U.S. Space Force, with its 16,000 active-duty and civilian personnel, has the mission of both protecting U.S. satellites from attacks and also targeting adversaries’ space and counterspace assets with offensive operations.
When Trump characterized space as “the world’s newest warfighting domain,” Putin understood that the fiery New Yorker wasn’t intimidated by Russian space warfare and would not hesitate to authorize a strike on Russian satellites, a decision that could extend the battlefield into the space domain.
Second, in September 2018, Trump authorized offensive cyber operations against U.S. adversaries, and the U.S. military ramped up cyber intrusions into Russia’s power grid. This change in U.S. cyber posture didn’t go unnoticed by Russia, which had been hacking U.S. systems since the late 1990s.
Russia has hacked every major U.S. federal agency, including the U.S. electrical grid and nuclear facilities. But fearing escalation, U.S. presidents — except Donald Trump — abstained from attacking Russian networks. Trump’s move, which untied the hands of U.S. cyber warriors, signaled to Putin that he must think twice before sanctioning crippling cyberattacks on U.S. networks, which Russian doctrine calls for in wartime.
Third, a year prior, in 2017, Trump signed into law the U.S. government’s ban on Kaspersky Lab, a Moscow-based anti-virus software firm owned by a former Soviet KGB intelligence officer-turned-cybersecurity expert Eugene Kaspersky. The U.S. bureaucracy, in its infinite wisdom, had this software installed on both civilian and military networks, exposing federal agencies to Russian cyber espionage. Moscow highly likely could manipulate the software designed by the Russian cybersecurity company Kaspersky to cause harm. Trump mandated the removal of the Russian software within 90 days of issuing the order.
It is unclear if all of the agencies were in compliance with Trump’s order when Biden came to power. Last March, the U.S. government, in classified briefings, was privately warning American companies about potential Russian cyber intrusions into U.S. critical infrastructure such as water, telecoms, and energy. What is clear is that Putin knows he cannot trick Trump into giving him keys to the American kingdom.
Fourth, in 2018, Trump authorized a missile strike on Syria in which approximately 300 Russian fighters from the Wagner Group, Russia’s private mercenary company now fighting in Ukraine, were killed. Russian and U.S. forces have been on opposite sides of Syria, and the U.S. airstrike targeted forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom Putin supports. That there were Russians among them did not cause Trump to hesitate. There was no direct retaliation by the Russians to Trump’s action in Syria.
Fifth, and most importantly, Trump’s nuclear doctrine took direct aim at Putin’s “escalate-to-de-escalate” atomic strategy. Trump’s Pentagon, in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, exposed Putin’s plan to detonate a low-yield tactical nuclear warhead in the theater of combat operations, such as it may decide to do in Ukraine, to deter the U.S. from intervening. As part of the modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, Trump ordered the development of a low-yield nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile, a weapon that had been part of the U.S. arsenal until it was retired by the Obama administration.
Trump’s move blunted Russia’s “first-use” nuclear policy, demonstrating to Putin that his plan to launch a limited nuclear war in Europe was no longer a guarantee that would prevent U.S. forces from flowing into the theater. Biden canceled Trump’s program that served as a counter to Russian nuclear doctrine. Putin, who has successfully intimidated Biden with nuclear threats, could not be certain Trump wouldn’t try to face off with the Russian KGB assassin to prove whose nuclear button is bigger and more powerful.
We will find out soon enough whether Americans want more of Trump. We already know Putin does not.