Fear and loathing in Aspen

Sergei Savostyanov via AP
·6 min read

ASPEN, Colo. — Some of the world’s top national security officials — from spy chiefs to ambassadors to defense ministers — gathered here this week to offer prognoses and prescriptions for an array of existing and potential global challenges.

The topics covered ranged from cybersecurity to food insecurity to Russia’s war against Ukraine. As is common with such events, optimism was in shorter supply than doom and gloom.

Here are some key takeaways from this year’s Aspen Security Forum:

Fears that the West will fracture on Ukraine

High gas and food prices, not to mention the possibility of a long war, are sure to wear down the support in certain corners for Ukraine as it defends itself against Russia, some speakers warned.

Already, some Republicans have come out against the large aid packages for Ukraine, and Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.) predicted that share of the GOP — the “Trumpist base” — is likely to grow, especially “as long as we have this inflation crisis in the West.”

Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Marcin Przydacz sounded a similarly dour note, saying that “war fatigue” is on the rise, including in Central European states.

“People may think that to keep the stability and peace in the world would cost them only a penny or just a cent — without any expenses,” he said. “So there is a lot to do in order to encourage people, our societies, to support this policy.”

For now, the United States is intensifying its military support for Ukraine amid appeals from its leaders, including first lady Olena Zelenska. U.S. officials announced this week that the U.S. would, among other things, send more High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems to the Ukrainians.

Get ready — just in case — for a showdown over Taiwan

China’s ambassador to the United States, Qin Gang, accused Washington of “hollowing out and blurring up” its longstanding “One China” policy by sending more officials and weapons to Taiwan.

But the ambassador also said Beijing “will try our best for peaceful reunification, because we believe that best serve the interests of people on both sides.”

Of course, the big question is when this “reunification” will take place. On that, CIA Director William Burns said “the risks of that become higher … the further into this decade that you get.” Burns added that it’s not so much a question of whether Chinese leader Xi Jinping wants to make a move, but how and when.

British spy boss Richard Moore, who leads the MI6 agency, said he didn’t think a Beijing military strike on Taiwan is inevitable, but “it’s important that we prepare accordingly.”

In any case, Western resolve in Ukraine, combined with Russian errors, should be ringing alarm bells for Xi as he mulls what could transpire in a Taiwan takeover, Moore and others noted.

For example, Chinese leaders should wonder “if all those things that my military is telling me about how great they are, might not be as true as they would like them to be,” said Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall.

One lesson Xi has probably learned from Russia’s experience in Ukraine, Burns said, is that you have to use “overwhelming force.”

Something’s got to give on Iran

Alarm is growing in the Middle East and beyond over Iran’s nuclear advances, especially now that the international negotiations to restore the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran appear dead.

Multiple Aspen speakers hinted that military action is a growing possibility.

Benny Gantz, Israel’s defense minister, said the country was building out a military capability to confront Iran, but that it would prefer not to “jump to a war.” “Should we be able to conduct military operation to prevent it if needed? The answer is yes. Are we building the ability? Yes. Should we use it as the last case? Yes,” Gantz said.

His concerns were echoed by a senior Bahraini official, Abdulla Al Khalifa, who would not rule out joining Israel — with which it now has diplomatic relations — in a preemptive military campaign against Iran. “I believe addressing the issue now when there is an opportunity is much better than addressing it later when it’s too late,” Al Khalifa said.

MI6’s Moore, meanwhile, said although Tehran may drag out the nuclear talks, he didn’t think it was serious about restoring the 2015 agreement. “I don’t think the supreme leader of Iran wants to cut a deal,” he said.

Russia’s limited use of cyberattacks in Ukraine

U.S. officials are still struggling to determine why Russia has held back on unleashing the full extent of its cyber capabilities against Ukraine and its allies, even as Moscow hasn’t entirely thrown cyber by the wayside.

Anne Neuberger, the White House deputy national security adviser for cyber and emerging technology, noted that “one of the possibilities” could be that Russia was not fully prepared to use its cyber arsenal. Neuberger said other options could be that Putin was deterred after Biden warned him of negative consequences. It’s also possible Ukraine’s effort to strengthen its critical infrastructure paid off, she said.

“We don’t quite know … but certainly something we’re watching very closely,” Neuberger told the Aspen crowd.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Mark Warner (D-Va.) said he believed the world had not yet seen Russia’s “full cyber power,” and he warned that Sweden and Finland’s entry into NATO could be tempting targets for future Russian cyberattacks.

Microsoft President Brad Smith noted that while Russia may have held back, it has certainly used cyber as part of its strategy. Microsoft has seen Russia employ “destructive cyberattacks,” espionage efforts and disinformation, Smith said. Microsoft released a report last month detailing such Russian operations.

“There is sort of a view that Russia hasn’t taken many steps in Ukraine in terms of cyber,” said Matthew Olsen, assistant attorney general for national security at the Justice Department. “That is a myth, and we are effectively seeing a hot cyber war in Ukraine carried out by the Russians.”

No ‘get well’ card for Putin

The rumors that the Russian president has some illness or another have been constant. At Aspen this week, not one but two intelligence chiefs dismissed them.

“As far as we can tell, he’s entirely too healthy,” Burns said. His British counterpart, Moore, responded with less verve but the same certainty: “There’s no evidence that Putin is suffering from serious ill health.”

Will that end the speculation? Probably not. But Putin himself dampened some of it this week by making a quick trip to Iran, a rare foray for a man who’s largely stayed isolated amid the Covid-19 crisis.

Toosi and Ward reported from Aspen. Miller reported from Washington.