Exclusive Interview: Dr. Steven Bucci

Leksika had the opportunity to sit down with Director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy and National Security at The Heritage Foundation, Dr. Steven Bucci, on 19 June.  Dr. Bucci is also a member of the advisory board for the Network Science Research Center, and is an adjunct professor of leadership at George Mason University as well as an associate professor of terrorism studies and cyber security policy at Long Island University. Previously, Dr. Bucci has served as a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense under Donald Rumsfeld, defense attaché to Sarajevo, and as commander of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Special Forces, among other positions. For a full bio, please visit his page at The Heritage Foundation.

In your opinion, should the West provide Ukraine with lethal weaponry, and to what extent?

I think yes, they should just to level the playing field, at least a little bit. We’re never going to get them to the point where they’re going to go toe-to-toe with the entire Russian army, but I think that providing them the equipment and things that they need to protect themselves from internal bad actors is worthwhile. The Russians won’t like it and they’ll scream bloody murder, but it’s a little hard for them to scream too much considering how much stuff is flowing in from Russia to the dissidents.


Do you feel that there will be, on a larger scale, any political blowback from Russia that will be significant from a Western perspective?

There will definitely be political blowback if we do it, but how significant? That depends on how much we do and how we do it. If we do it low-key, then much less so. If we’re very bombastic about it then there’s a potential, but we aren’t going to start a war over it. Given that I don’t think we’re intending to send them B-1 bombers and M1 tanks, the Russians will stomp their feet and shake their fists but that will be about it.


On a related topic, the Pentagon just delivered a proposal to station troops in the Baltics and President Obama is expected to approve it any day. What is your take on this, and how do you think the Russians are going to react?

The Russians have already started to react; they’re saying that this is a terrible provocation and a return to the Cold War, which is all bombast. When you look at the things the Russians have been doing, not just in Ukraine but the way they’re flying their aircraft now - over other peoples’ airspace, directly over their ships, sending submarines into other peoples’ harbors - they’re really ratcheting things up. At this point, [we're] positioning what really comes down to some pretty minuscule amounts of equipment in these countries; it’s a platoon’s worth of stuff here, a company’s worth of stuff there. it’s not like we’re putting a division into each of the three Baltic countries. It’s a pretty low-end amount that has the benefit of signaling our support for our NATO allies, but also when we do exercises then there’s that much less equipment that we have to move to use. So there’s practical as well as political reasons for doing it. The Russians won’t like it, because the Russians want us to go away and give that area back to them, but we aren’t going to do that and nor should we. So I think there’ll be some foot stomping and some fist shaking but that’s about it.


A major focus for Russia has been the Arctic lately. What is your opinion on their claim, and how do you think they would respond if the international community refutes their claim?

I think that the international community should and needs to refute their claim. There’s a lot of stuff up there, and it’s finally getting closer to things that could be harvested. I understand Russia’s desire to have as much of that as possible and I think they should get some of it, but the fact that Russia thinks they should have the whole thing is on one hand very provocative and, on the other hand, ludicrous. The international community, at least the countries that have an interest in the Arctic, will probably come together and say, “no, we reject that,” and I think the rest of the international community will back them up.


Moving to Russia’s other border, a major concern right now is that the Aral Sea has pretty much dried up, and that the rise of nationalism and water shortages might spark a conflict in the region. Given Russia’s efforts to bring the region back into the fold as part of the ‘Russia-China partnership,’ as well as the host of treaties involved, how do you believe Russia will respond to a conflict?

Water shortage is beginning to become a topic that comes up a lot as a spark for conflict. I don’t see scarcity of anything being something that deserves its own special category. Some people believe we should talk about food scarcity and water scarcity; scarcity generally promotes conflict, it has all through time and will continue to. At this point, it’s the kind of thing you need to tread a little more lightly on because it becomes such a visceral issue that it’s more than just “we want this piece of terrain more than you and we’re going to fight over it.” It’s like, “if we don’t get enough of this stuff, our people are going to suffer. That tends to be a higher motivator for nation-states to potentially go beyond the talking stage, so I would hope that there would be a lot of cooperation on an international scale to help find a way to resolve it without conflict. But that’s not necessarily a guarantee.


Pew Research recently conducted a poll that claimed only 47% of the Democratic Party supports military action in defense of a NATO ally, and many other prominent NATO members only support the same by a slim margin. How do you believe this news was received in Moscow?

I think they’re thrilled. It means that their influence, their posturing, is having an effect that could potentially keep NATO allies from responding should Russia do something, particularly in countries right around the Russian border that are furthest away from the old part of NATO. That’s unfortunate - we have a treaty responsibility, not only the United States but the West in general. If we were not going to back up our treaty responsibilities to them then we shouldn’t have allowed them into the alliance. If you let them in, you tell them “yes, you’ve done all the little things we’ve told you to do, you’ve reached the level we’ve demanded of you,” then they deserve the requisite protection that the alliance gives. Keep in mind with a lot of treaty things, just because the population shifts over time doesn’t mean the treaty shifts, and hopefully national governments recognize that. That’s one of those situations where a national leader has to go to their population and say, “look, I understand, you don’t think this is a great decision right now, but we’ve made a commitment to this nation over a period of time and now that bill has come due and we’re going to stand with them.”


Speaking of leaders that may not agree with defending a NATO ally, a number of political movements that support Russia have been gaining ground in Western Europe lately, most prominently Marine Le Pen and the Front Nationale. If these groups gain power in the upcoming elections, how will the West’s approach be altered, and do you believe Mr. Putin will become emboldened to take more aggressive steps?

We’ve had this happen before. In some cases we’ve staved it off; there were huge communist movements in Western Europe in the beginning of the NATO alliance, and [the nations] were democracies so they didn’t outlaw them and they weathered it. The biggest challenge right now is not in France but in Greece because the Greeks have been having so many problems with the rest of the world, and they have an explicit connection with Russia through Orthodox Christianity. Now that they feel like they’re being treated badly by the West, the Greek government, a socialist-communist coalition, is cozying up to Mr. Putin, I think that the West is going to have to deal with this sooner rather than later. Mr. Putin is a politician with an intelligence background, so he’s going to read the political terrain and make a decision of what is to his advantage and what is not, and this situation is to his advantage.


I’d like to move on to the topic of cyber intelligence, I understand you have a background in this field. In February you wrote an article that expressed hope that CTIIC, the Cyber Threat Integration Center, would become an effective coordinator in the same way that the NCTC proved successful following 9/11, and not just another level of bureaucracy. Have you seen any indications that this is what is happening, or that it will eventually fulfill its intended goals?

Since the announcement that they were going to stand up the center there’s actually been very little news on it, so it’s still in a very nascent stage. Going forward I’m fairly confident that it will do what it’s supposed to do, as long as they keep them out of the operational side and it just becomes a place where the intel of the different centers that are out there funnel in and get analyzed by an inter-agency analytical staff, and then they [the products] can be used by the folks who actually have the charter to do operational things. That will be useful, and that’s kind of what the NCTC has been able to keep themselves as, despite some novels coming out of different things, or people reading more into it than what’s there.  They’re actually far more effective when they stay within their agreement and do what they’re supposed to do, not wandering down rabbit trails doing something they’re not authorized to do. This center will hopefully do the same thing.


At an earlier presentation this week, you asserted that Russian cybercriminals receive protection from the state so long as they do not engage in cybercrime within Russia. Could you elaborate on this for our readers?

It’s fairly common knowledge in the law enforcement and national security communities that there are a great number of Russian or East European cybercriminal organizations who operate out of Russia or other friendly countries. Basically it’s like “as long as you don’t do the crime here, what you do other places is your business.” They’re not terribly cooperative with INTERPOL or with the national police of other countries who are in the process of trying to track down cybercriminals that have committed crimes, say here in the United States. There’s pretty strong evidence of collusion between Russian organized crime. For instance, in the Estonia cyberattack in 2007, the Intelligence Community will tell you “we really can’t trace it back to any government source.” The Russians said it was just patriotic hackers; people who, as individual citizens incensed by the actions taken by the Estonian government, all got together and just did this cyberattack. That’s kind of a stretch, to think that it’s that organized out there, to think that you can get that many people doing it without some direction, without someone saying  “you need this kind of malware, you need to go after this kind of target to be effective.” Interestingly, in Gaza in 2009 or 2010, not the last time the Israelis went in but the time before, just as the Israelis were moving in, which they announced they were going to do so people knew the time, they announced the civil defense network was hit with a very large Distributed Denial of Service attack. It didn’t really do anything, but when it was investigated the digital signature was pretty much identical to the attack on Estonia. Now, unless one assumes there’s just a ton of patriotic hackers in Russia who were just really incensed about the Israelis going in and smacking Hamas for shooting rockets at them, that’s kind of a big coincidence that it would be exactly the same technique and exactly the same types of procedures. It’s probably more [likely] that these guys hired themselves out to support Hamas. There’s strong anecdotal evidence that that’s what’s going on. I don’t know if that would stand up in court, but in the court of public opinion it’s a pretty well accepted fact.


Speaking of Russian collusion with hackers, Kaspersky Labs has been pretty well tied to the Russian FSB. Kaspersky himself was a former Soviet Intelligence Officer, and in one of your articles you claim that a crucial part of securing our networks is in the cyber supply chain security. Could you briefly talk about what this means, as well as comment on whether you think Microsoft, Cisco, and Juniper Systems’ decision to embed his code into their firmware represents a threat?

Kaspersky has managed to hold off most of the criticism of his former connections, and his possible connections still, mostly by the fact that the work he does is actually pretty good, has helped a lot of people, and has been very effective in helping folks who work in security. There has been no evidence that I’ve read about of him colluding with the Russian government other than that he hasn’t really found any faults with Russian systems as systems elsewhere, but it’s hard to beat him up about that because he’s not finding faults in other systems and exploiting them. He’s finding them out and saying “hey, you’ve got a problem here, you need to fix it.” If he’s doing it in collusion with the government, he’s being pretty subtle about it, though the Russians are generally more subtle about their cyber stuff than the Chinese, who are pretty ham-handed. Ham-handed in the sense that they don’t much care who knows, not ham-handed as far as their skills - their skills are very good. That said, the problem with the supply chain security frankly is much more an issue of the fact that we get all of our chips from China. That’s a bigger problem than Kaspersky’s code being in systems. I think those companies in particular are pretty good at vetting code and making sure that the stuff that’s in it is clean. It’s their reputation too. If it were just the Bucci manufacturing company and I said “I can trust this guy,” you wouldn’t be too sure, but Microsoft has the wherewithal to do a pretty good job of vetting the code that they port and put in their larger programs. I’m a little more comfortable with that. Until there’s blatant evidence that Kaspersky is colluding with the government, and he’s still really good at what he does, the benefits may outweigh the dangers there. But most people kind of assume because of his background, because spies never stop being spies. If you have a spy who’s really competent at what he’s doing, which he is, he’s got all sorts of opportunities. He may just be saving up the chance to get a home run and not worry too much about getting a lot of singles, so he may not have tipped his hand or shown himself to be blatantly in that kind of business.


I’d like to switch topics again and talk about Russia’s future. A few days ago, STRATFOR released a prediction that within a decade the Russian central government’s ability to maintain control over the federation would weaken to the point that Russia would, in effect, become a string of semi-autonomous regions. To any degree, do you see this as a possibility, or is the opposite, Mr. Putin’s ambitions of reviving Russia’s role on the international stage, more likely?

Predicting the future is always difficult, but I think that the analysis, which is from a Western standpoint, is wildly optimistic or wildly pessimistic from a Russian standpoint. Russia is a pretty significant country, its got a lot of assets, it has a ton of natural resources that it hasn't exploited yet because we still need different technologies to get to them. That’s going to start happening as time goes on. It’s going to be a matter of whether they can maintain the balance between what they can earn and sell now versus the time to get to that other stuff. Mr. Putin is spending a lot of money right now, and it’s not on ‘defense’ defense, it’s offensive stuff. He does have this dream of, not taking over the world and not reestablishing the Soviet Union, but of basically reestablishing the Russian empire, at least in the near areas to the Russian borders. Would he take some really bizarre chance to make that happen? No, I think he’s a pretty cautious guy; he’s going to incrementally push a little bit, and if he gets a little too much resistance then he’ll push a little elsewhere. He’s a pretty smart, cagey guy, so I don’t think he’s going to make any huge mistakes. Every time he says something, whether it’s critical or conciliatory, he’s calculated all the reasons why it’s better for him to say this than that, and I think we’ll see that. Now, that said, you can guess wrong sometimes, and I don’t think he expected the downturn in oil prices that came up, which hurt them as far as their energy income; their economy is based pretty much on energy, marketing and sales, and if that changes they could take a downturn again. It doesn’t mean Russia is going to go away – they took a huge downturn after the collapse of the Soviet Union sorting out who was going to be doing what, where they didn’t have much money and they managed to come back and do quite well. [Right now] you have a country that’s that big with that many resources, both human and natural - they’ve got a huge military that’s much better today than it was ten years ago, they’ve still got nuclear weapons and much more modern equipment that they can utilize if needed or sell the excess. I wouldn’t count Russia out yet, not by a long-shot.  But you never know when the swings of international economics turn. If we finally get permission to export our natural gas and our other petroleum products from the United States it would put a big ding in Mr. Putin’s income because the target we’re looking at most readily is Western Europe. It’s not to supplant him, it’s to give our allies over there some options so if Mr. Putin tries to use the energy as an influencer or a weapon then they at least have something to fall back on, but that’s going to change his calculus quite a bit.


You touched a little on Putin’s character, that he’ll push in some places increments and if it’s not working he’s going to go elsewhere. How would you characterize Putin, and how can the West effectively engage with him without losing at the negotiating table?

I think that the people who said he has Asperger’s or stuff like that are crazy, he just acts like a Russian. He’s not a gregarious kind of guy, he’s kind of serious. He was an intel operative, they tend to be relatively introverted people; I think he is [introverted], even though intel people can make themselves extroverted if they need to for the mission. So I think he can do that but I think ultimately he’s very introverted, very contemplative, and really smart. He understands human nature; he’s good at reading people, particularly other leaders, and figuring out what he can get away with and what he can’t. I can’t criticize him for that - those are good life skills if you’re going to lead a country. I wish he saw the world in a less adversarial way and was thinking more in terms of cooperative ventures that I think would help his country more than the adversarial ones, but that’s the way he’s chosen to see the world. Some of that’s playing to the domestic audience and Russian nationalism, which is not a criticism because most countries have a nationalistic streak – we all think we’re the good guys – and he’s playing the card of not just Russian nationalism but the Church, family, all these things that for a long time under the communists were denigrated. He’s now pushing on them as a major unifying factor for his people, unfortunately he’s using the West as one of the foils to that – he’s looking at Islam and using that as one of the foils as well – but he’s using our decadent ways to push that very conservative policy stand. That’s all for his domestic folks, to keep them behind him. We tend to criticize him for doing it, but it’s what politicians do. I think he’s a very potentially dangerous adversary because he is skilled and he is willing to take chances. I made a comment between the economic interdependence between Western Europe and Russia using the concept of scratch value. When two cars are coming towards a space and are trying to get into that same space, the car with the lower scratch value usually wins the argument. This guy with the rattier car is more likely to take a chance than that guy with the fancy Cadillac, and right now, as it turned out, Mr. Putin is the guy who’s willing to use that interdependent relationship to his advantage and the Western Europeans go “if we do that, we’re not going to get oil and gas,” so they backed off.  Mr. Putin is a wily competitor.


We’re just about out of time, but I’d like to ask you one more question that I’m sure is something you hold close to heart. Do you believe the Obama administration has successfully engaged with Russia?

No, I think it’s been a disaster. The Russian reset was a complete misreading of Russia. They were assuming the Russians were adversarial towards us towards the end of the Bush administration because Bush was being so mean and confrontational and they were going to reach out their hand and be cooperative buddies, and I think Putin and Lavrov were kind of like, “what? What are you guys talking about?” Then they chastise Mr. Putin and say “he’s using nineteenth-century thinking,” and he says, “yeah? So?” The Russian have a much more realistic view than our administration, which is much more idealistic, and I think their [the Obama administration's] idealism causes them to not be terribly effective with someone who is so clearly a power politics kind of guy like Mr. Putin. 



Photo courtesy of Fox News