LONDON—When the ancient Chinese general and strategist Sun Tzu crafted his masterpiece, The Art of War, one principle rose above the rest. “The supreme art of war,” he wrote, “is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”
It’s a point General David Petraeus emphasizes in his foreword to an upcoming edition of The Art of War. It immediately came to mind as I thought about Russia’s aggressiveness under Russian President Vladimir Putin – a man who has caused far more havoc for the United States than the wars he has started would suggest. But though Putin’s strategy has followed the principles of The Art of War to a tee, the true inspiration for his geopolitical maneuvers may come instead from something with similar principles: the Japanese martial art of judo.
Reputed to be a fifth-degree black belt in judo – to go along with an 8th degree black belt in karate – the Russian President’s obsession with the sport may explain how he’s parried, choked, and outmaneuvered the United States over the past decade. In Donald Trump, Putin has his easiest target for his geopolitical judo than ever before, what one journalist calls “the patsy in the White House.” On Saturday, Trump emerged from a meeting with Putin to tell reporters that “he said he didn’t meddle” in the 2016 election and that Putin “did not do what they are saying he did” – rejecting the conclusion of the U.S. intelligence community.
As Peter Conradi wrote in his recent book, “Who Lost Russia?”, Putin is the strong leader of a weak nation, and Trump is the weak leader of a strong nation. Countering Russian aggression means the U.S. Congress will have to step up where Trump cannot. Holding Moscow accountable for its destructive role in the 2016 election, as well as its ongoing efforts to undermine American democracy, will depend on turning Putin’s judo against himself.
Established in Japan 135 years ago as a marriage of jujitsu, wrestling and “mental discipline,” judo — founded on achieving maximum gains with minimum effort by turning your opponent’s strength into weakness — has seemingly become the guiding philosophy of Putin’s offensive against the U.S. For instance, we’ve long prided our prudence and restraint in using our enormous power against other nuclear states. Putin has turned that against us with limited Russian military actions — in Georgia and Ukraine — that he knows we won’t counter militarily. The same goes for our strong tradition of democracy and free speech, which Putin has turned against us, as well, with successful efforts to spread fake news and undermine our faith in our institutions. It’s no wonder Putin has managed to fluster the U.S. from a decidedly weak position — judo has always been the sport in which Putin has excelled.
Truth is, these moves have been a long time coming. Since first ascending to the Russian presidency in 2000, Putin has turned Russian weakness and the post-Cold War ascension of the West into his political strength, spinning an increasingly distorted narrative for his people rooted in glorification of his leadership and a love for Russia. At the same time, Putin has exploited supposed U.S. strengths to weaken our geopolitical position. It started a decade ago at the 2007 Munich Conference on Security Policy, where Putin launched a verbal assault on perceived U.S. overreach and intervention in the internal affairs of other states, effectively turning what had been a central appeal of then-President George W. Bush’s foreign policy – his push to spread freedom in the Middle East – into a liability. After four years in the shadows behind Russia’s nominal President, Dmitri Medvedev, Putin returned in 2012 to stir up even more public hatred of Washington, accusing the West of driving global instability, while easing the passage of new laws that further restricted liberties in Russia.
Every year since, Putin has only gotten more aggressive, correctly calculating – in 2014 that seizing eastern Ukraine, in 2015 that intervening in Syria’s civil war, and in 2016 that interfering in the U.S. election – would net maximum tactical gains for Russia with minimal effort.
How has the U.S. responded to this growing pattern of geopolitical judo? With confusion and division. Last month, we saw a prime example: U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley declared that “when a country can interfere in another country’s elections, that is warfare.” But two days later, President Trump sought to deflect and de-legitimize reports that Russia had secretly purchased Facebook ads to influence the 2016 campaign. “Keep hearing about ‘tiny’ amount of money spent on Facebook ads, Trump tweeted, “What about the billions of dollars of Fake News on CNN, ABC, NBC & CBS?” On issue after issue, no matter how much evidence is presented that Russia interfered and continues to interfere with America’s democracy, Trump dismisses it as a “witch-hunt,” and a “hoax.” He is incapable of seeing beyond himself to the effect this is having on America’s democracy.
It’s little wonder that America’s former top spy, the retired director of national intelligence, James Clapper, said recently that “the Russians have succeeded beyond their wildest expectations” – adding that the strong evidence that Trump colluded with Moscow will continue to hang as “a cloud not only over the president, but the office of the presidency, the administration, the government and the country” until the investigation is completed.
But hidden in this troubled situation is a strategic opportunity.
First, if Trump insists on playing good cop with Russia, Congress should play bad cop. The strength of our system – which Putin has treated as a weakness – is that it allows multiple views to compete for primacy and multiple institutions to influence foreign policy. This Separation of Powers allows Congress to pursue a hawkish, concerted strategy of countering Russian power — even as our President pursues good relations with Russia. If Putin retaliates too forcefully against congressional measures, he risks compromising the benefits of having Trump as a pawn. By turning this strength against Russia, then, we can for the first time aggressively counter Russia — while minimizing the risks of retaliation and escalation.
Second, we should use this same approach in service of a strategy that takes advantage of Putin’s greatest strength at home: his image as a strongman who is restoring wounded Russian pride by taking on the United States. Nothing would be more costly to Putin than looking weak and feckless. Here’s how: we expand defense sales to our European and Asian allies, increase our English-language broadcasting, including Voice of America, and step up economic aid in key areas Russia considers within its sphere of interest — such as Central Asia — forcing Putin to use more economic resources in these areas or look weak at home. Congress could also add real bite to our Russian sanctions putting Putin in a more precarious economic position at home by targeting key sectors such as energy, technology, and banking. At the same time, admit the mistakes the West has made, including moving NATO to the Russian border, to show the Russian people that the U.S. is very eager to support a strong and free Russia — and it is only Putin’s needless aggression that is forcing us to respond in kind with measures that weaken and isolate Russia.
Third, and finally, we need a 21st century doctrine to govern the nontraditional tools — in the media, online, and through espionage — Russia has already deployed against us to great effect. Recognizing the power of these tools to achieve maximum gain with minimum effort is Putin’s ultimate judo move, and we have to be able to compete on the same playing field. We should start by actively competing for the narrative in both Russia and the United States including the release of financial documents and other information that would embarrass Putin, raising the costs to Russia of a cyber war. Above all, we must develop and openly declare our responses to specific types of Russian attacks. If Russia hacks U.S. economic infrastructure, for example, we could do the same to Russia.
When Jigoro Kano developed judo, the story goes, he needed to demonstrate the power of his new martial art. So Kano, a “frail little Japanese man,” sought out a burly Russian seaman, undefeated in multiple fights, who’d gained a reputation for his massive strength. Kano instantly pinned the Russian down. Then, allowing his opponent to pin Kano down, Kano quickly escaped while evading repeated attacks. At just the right moment, Kano threw the enormous Russian to the ground.
The United States is still the strongest nation on Earth. But strength alone is not enough to carry the day against an adversary who specializes in turning our strengths into weaknesses. Only when we recognize the game Putin is playing will we be able to fight back in kind – and out-judo the judo master.