Commentary: Placing Terrorism in a Violent Non-State Actor Framework for the Great Power Competition Era

Abstract: Given that the U.S. national security establishment has taken up great power competition (GPC) as its primary concern recently, and terrorism has slipped from the top position, it is time for the security policy community to place terrorism within a new conceptual framework, one that combines terrorists, violent criminals, drug traffickers, insurgents, and others under the heading of violent non-state actors (VNSA). The framework might help order the non-GPC threat landscape for decision makers, facilitate comparative understanding of violent threats to the United States, and drive better-informed prioritization within national security.

In the last several years, the priorities of the U.S. national security establishment have shifted away from terrorism toward addressing great power competition (GPC). Threats from Russia and China deeply shaped both the 2017 National Security Strategy1 a and the 2018 National Defense Strategy,2 and GPC continues to influence major U.S. security decision making.3 The widely acknowledged importance of Russia and China—as well as other state actors—in the national security mix has not been accompanied by a reimagining of sub-state violent threats long dominated by terrorism. Twenty years after the attacks of September 11, 2001, it may be time for policymakers to re-conceptualize how they handle terrorism and other violent substate (non-GPC) concerns by grouping together terrorism and like threats.

The large landscape beyond the GPC fence line that features violent actors beckons for a reorganization that breaks down the somewhat artificial but long-established boundaries separating policy responses to terrorists, transnational criminals, cross border gangs, insurgents, paramilitary forces, militias, warlords, and drug traffickers. A new conceptual framework could bound the seemingly divergent security concerns in this landscape and help rationalize policy making. The violent non-state actor (VNSA) concept, one that has circulated among academics and think-tanks for years but never truly taken hold in the policy realm, could be a useful tool for understanding some of the most dangerous threats the United States faces outside of the GPC construct.4 Its adoption would invigorate moribund strategic thinking around key national security concerns.

As a class, VNSAs challenge the monopolies of force that states try to maintain. VNSAs, of course, test sovereignty in other ways as well. Transnational criminal organizations control illicit markets and govern turf. Terrorists strive to change political and social structures. Insurgencies vie with states for power and woo citizens to their causes. VNSAs kill, maim, or threaten harm in their attempts to control or influence competitors, including other VNSAs as well as states themselves. Of course, VNSAs do not fill the entire non-GPC terrain. The category, for example, excludes pure cyber actors, such as hackers, who are not violent and not linked to foreign governments.

The U.S. government’s framing of violent substate threats largely has been based on their motives. The superpower formally designates its foreign terrorist enemies—violent, ideologically driven foes—via well-established processes that focus whole-of-government efforts on a core set of dangerous actors.5 Other violent transnational enemies bent on earning illicit profits and as a result endangering the lives of Americans have resided somewhere in the background, and several U.S. efforts to catalog and prioritize key players among drug traffickers and organized criminals exist. These, however, do not necessarily focus federal efforts as clearly as terrorist designations.6 b

Several high-profile instances during the Trump administration blurred the lines between terrorism and other national security concerns. Are Mexican drug trafficking organizations terrorists? In late 2019 and early 2020, members of the Trump administration and a few members of Congress very publicly asked this provocative question and briefly considered designating Mexican drug cartels as terrorist organizations.c

In July 2020 and January 2021, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced federal terrorism charges cases involving members of the transnational gang known as Mara Salvatrucha (commonly known as MS-13).7 In the July 2020 case, DOJ indicted an MS-13 leader for conspiring to commit acts of terrorism transcending national boundaries, conspiring to finance terrorism, conspiring to provide material support to terrorists, and conspiring to engage in narco-terrorism—among other charges.8 These investigations were products of a major U.S. initiative to dismantle and destroy MS-13.9

In April 2019, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security expanded its terrorism prevention efforts to cover other forms of targeted violence. It established the Office for Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention.d The office was designed to focus on addressing numerous forms of violence regardless of ideology.10 Practitioners have come to understand that terrorism and other types of targeted violence have much in common as problems, and the same or similar preventive tools can be leveraged against them.

The VNSA framework may help drive re-prioritization discussions by combining disparate threats under one structure. This could make it easier to justify shifting resources between thorny policy challenges such as terrorism and transnational organized crime. Said another way, the VNSA framework would get policymakers to rethink mindsets hardwired after 9/11, mindsets that distinguished terrorism from all other violent national security concerns. It would allow for clearer comparative understanding of what exists outside of GPC issues. It would help explain the dynamics involved when weak states—of strategic importance to the United States—are affected by violent groups or movements and how this might shape GPC in those areas. It would help the intelligence community (IC) to map the ways great powers or other strong states might exploit VNSAs to further their own goals.

This essay intends to be policy relevant, not policy prescriptive. It is designed to generate discussion around broad issues affecting interagency national security concerns. Specifically, it walks readers through the concept of violent non-state actors, suggesting how it may be used to reshape thinking regarding threats that exist outside of the great power competition perspective. It proceeds in four parts. The first section focuses on the rise of organized crime and terrorism as distinct national security issues. The second section lays out the VNSA framework. The third section discusses how this framework could be used. The final section discusses key considerations for the future.

  1. The Rise of Organized Crime and Terrorism as Distinct National Security Issues
    The following discussion focuses on intertwined USG efforts to fight two prominent VNSA threats: international terrorism and transnational organized crime (TOC).e The latter includes drug trafficking; much of the federal government’s focus on TOC since the 1980s has involved addressing drug trafficking, especially in the Western Hemisphere.f In the late 20th century, U.S. policy embraced international organized crime as a national security threat. For a decade and a half after September 11, 2001, however, terrorism eclipsed most other security issues and the U.S. government heavily reworked its intelligence and security structures to address the threat.

From the 1960s through the 1990s, policymakers worked out a shared general view of what eventually came to be known as transnational organized crime.g The federal government refined the basic law enforcement tools that are still used to take down criminal organizations—federal wiretap authority, the use of confidential informants and undercover investigations, federal conspiracy charges, a focused federal counternarcotics effort, and the federal crime of money laundering. The country also promoted to the rest of the world its visions both for policing and how the organized crime threat looked as it pivoted away from the Cold War.11 Organized crime went from being mostly a domestic law enforcement concern to one that was thoroughly globalized and required the resources of the military and intelligence agencies to thwart.12

While organized crime solidified as a national security concern between the 1960s and 2001, the government also took early steps to develop an approach to counterterrorism (CT), particularly confronting international threats. The Department of Justice—specifically the FBI—became the lead agency for investigating acts of terrorism. The Department of State held the primary role abroad. A string of foreign hijackings and hostage situations in the 1980s encouraged the United States to develop long-arm statutes extending American legal jurisdiction to cover terrorists and other criminals who harmed U.S. nationals beyond the country’s boundaries. Rendition of terrorists was developed as a tool to bring such suspects under U.S. control while they were abroad, especially if foreign governments were not willing or able to assist in extradition.13 In the 1980s and 1990s, other fundamental policies and procedures were established, including codifying the State Department’s ability to designate foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs).h FTO designation paved the way for financial sanction and other judicial solutions, such as the possibility of prosecuting individuals for providing material support to the terrorist organizations designated by the Department of State.

The counterterrorism enterprise vastly expanded after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. At home, the FBI quickly shifted focus to terrorism, doubling the number of special agents covering terrorism—adding about 2,000 agents to its national security programs by June 2002, moving resources away from criminal programs such as drug trafficking and organized crime.14 The United States used military resources to aggressively pursue foreign terrorists. The early 2000s saw the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the National Counterterrorism Center, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and expanding efforts to address international terrorism relying on the military and the Central Intelligence Agency.i

  1. The VNSA Framework
    The violent non-state actor (VNSA) framework includes individuals, groups, or movements who use violence to pursue ends that harm U.S. national interests.15 They operate outside the direct control of foreign countries and include terrorists, insurgents, violent gangs, militias, and transnational criminal organizations, among others. Bringing together what have long been seen as distinct and malevolent actors achieves two broad goals. Namely, it suggests that such actors share much more in common than they do not—undoing a generation of security thinking that has siloed these threat actors.j Relatedly, it facilitates the intertwining of policies and programs designed to address each violent national security threat and facilitates comparison. To that end, any number of themes can be used to collectively assess VNSA networks. This sort of analysis may involve key components that shape a group’s operations. Five such components have been selected as examples and are described below. They are motives, structures, digital footprints, ties to state actors, and the pathways individuals take into each category of violent non-state activity.

First, VNSA motives can be captured on a continuum between profit/self-interest and ideological/altruistic drivers. Terrorists, insurgents, and guerrillas often view their actions as serving specific populations in ideologically related conflicts, while drug smugglers or other organized crime networks engage in illegal collective behavior, pursuing self-interest and financial gain in far-flung illicit markets.16 Studies of the crime-terror nexus17 reveal that violent transnational organizations do not necessarily fit into neat camps purely governed either by profit or ideology, with terrorists engaging in crime to raise funds and criminals often directly involved in shaping the political worlds around them by controlling turf, corrupting officials, and communicating threats.18

Second, VNSAs come in a variety of structures. Few organized criminal groups or terrorist organizations exhibit either highly centralized or completely diffuse organizational structures.19 Likewise, VNSAs can engage in a mix of transnational and localized activity. Some VNSAs can simultaneously exhibit transnational and hyper-local dimensions. For example, the Islamic State spread propaganda and inspired and/or directed action far from the turf it controlled—its “caliphate”—in Syria and Iraq. Drug cartels profoundly affect the local economies of countries in regions where production, transit, and retail of illicit drugs occur.20 The violent gang MS-13 has cliques in Central and North America and operates on the streets and in prisons.21

Third, much like the variety that exists in the structure of VNSA organizations, they can vary in their cyber activity. How much digital activity does a VNSA pursue? How critical is the digital environment to the workings of the group or movement? Such questions are especially important in an age in which the digital realm and social media play big roles in how people craft their own identities. Encrypted communications technologies, social media platforms, and dark-web markets selling drugs such as fentanyl represent just three aspects of the digital realm that VNSAs exploit.22 k Digital activity is just one measure of criminal or terrorist innovation. Comparatively tracking how various organizations pursue complex engineering efforts—chemical weapons development, narco-subs, use of encrypted communication networks, sophisticated tunnel construction—helps policymakers understand why and under what organizational conditions such groups innovate.23

Fourth, VNSAs are sometimes enabled by links to state officials. How collaborative are such relationships? VNSAs corrupting public officials to further specific criminal schemes differs from efforts to establish close, lasting ties with government agencies and leaders. The former involves evading enforcement, the latter verges on collaboration between VNSAs and the state.24 Adversarial interaction also shapes both the states involved and VNSAs as they each violently fight one another, define markets, and vie for influence over public servants.25 VNSAs might alter the levels of violence they employ in response to the persistence of law enforcement pressure. States reshape legal regimens to cope with emerging VNSA threats, and some may fail altogether under the pressures of constant conflict and corruption.26

Fifth, just as important as the phenomena that shape group structures are the things that shape the participation of individuals in those groups. Two decades ago, Vincenzo Ruggiero described “imaginary geographies” that offer underworld groups “social elsewheres” in which they can thrive.27 These fringe locations, whether in the brick-and-mortar or digital world, serve as protected zones that sustain individuals and groups acting outside of society’s legal norms. Such geographies have their own rules, languages, behavioral patterns, norms, and enemies and attract particular people.

Systematic comparison of the pathways that people follow into and out of these “elsewheres” that foster terrorism, organized crime, and insurgency, would inform prevention efforts for each of these phenomena. Likewise, it would boost understanding of how individuals might shift from one type of activity to another. With the rise of the Islamic State, attention was devoted to the terrorist group’s recruitment of petty criminals, especially from Europe.l

For 20 years, the counterterrorism community has studied radicalization in great depth. Vast literatures detail how people become terrorists as well as how they quit.28 Arguably, the only (somewhat) settled items in this arena reflect core challenges scholars face such as the lack of primary data, the widely divergent radicalization pathways individuals take complicated by the specific factors constituting their lives (factors often shared by others who do not radicalize), and the highly heterogenous populations that radicalize.29 Additionally, some scholars have discussed the similarities between terrorist radicalization and criminal offending.30

Researchers have devoted decades to uncovering criminogenic factors that lead young offenders to engage in individualized crime and violence or to join youth gangs. Comparatively little research has gone into understanding the career trajectories of those who enter mafia life or organized crime groups.31 Individuals follow diverse paths into organized crime. Many enter when adults, have previous serious run-ins with the law, and have particular skills or social connections that make them attractive to criminal groups.32 Also, an individual’s proximity to such groups as well as particular early life circumstances feature prominently among risk factors.33

  1. Using the VNSA Framework
    A VNSA framework would bring some conceptual cohesion to how the government views non-state threats and provide rich context to the strategic study of GPC issues. The framework facilitates 1) broad thinking, 2) agile policy decision making, and 3) a cohesive understanding of the non-GPC threat landscape that the United States faces.

Cross-cutting analysis of VNSAs and the contexts in which they function promotes big thinking. This is especially relevant for government analysts who tend to specialize in narrow fields. One can devote an entire career to a type of threat actor (such as Sunni extremists), even one specific group or movement (al-Qa`ida). A broader perspective is especially relevant after two decades during which CT-focused Western intelligence services favored tactical intelligence, prioritizing individual threat actors over strategic work.34 As Patrick Bury and Michael Chertoff have noted, “In fact, the focus on tactical CT and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have resulted in the deprioritisation of horizon-scanning strategic intelligence in many Western services and hence a lack of engagement between policymakers and strategic analysts.”35

Bringing together non-state violent actors under a holistic model could help intelligence analysts better support policy decisions by forcing them to confront more complex, comparative questions that lack single answers and range far beyond tactical considerations—the kinds of questions presented by today’s security environment. Bury and Chertoff cite Gregory Treverton’s call to move intelligence work away from a “puzzles-based” approach that looks for missing pieces and tends to reduce issues to solvable, tactical problems. Rather, they suggest that current intelligence analysis should include more of what Treverton describes as an open-ended “mysteries-focused” style of thinking. Such a point of view embraces the idea that open-ended mysteries are not solved. Working on them involves accurately describing context and framing how key factors work together to shape the mystery.36 m Understanding why people join violent groups, determining how violent actors engender support or sympathy among broader populations, assessing what regions of the world will be susceptible to VNSA activity in the future—such complex problems full of mystery are the stuff of a VNSA approach.

Current efforts to fight terrorists and drug cartels still emphasize narrowly tactical approaches. Front and center lie the “decapitation strategies” aimed at removing the leaders of such groups. There is a debate about their degree of success.n More holistic approaches that address the social, economic, technological, and political contexts in which VNSAs operate are far more difficult to implement, requiring greater interagency and inter-governmental cooperation to stymie market forces, whether those markets involve illicit goods/services or ideas/ideologies supporting violence. More simply, it is easier to frame threats in terms of good guy versus bad guy storytelling.

Some of the best analysts, investigators, prosecutors, and strategists are good storytellers,o and the nefarious villain is much more captivating than more important but also more abstract market forces, complex systems, or social undercurrents that shape the villain’s illicit realm.37 The VNSA model, inherently comparative and focused on the milieus in which violent actors operate, moves national security away from the highly critiqued and heavily tactical decapitation approach, and focuses policy on the common forces that shape substate violence.

Many of the same social forces, institutional structures, and operational environments shape all VNSAs, sometimes in different ways. Comparative study of such things would greatly inform how all aspects of state power could be used strategically to hinder non-state actors bent on hurting American citizens and the nation’s interests. In a digitized world with interconnected markets, it might be time to move away from policies that promote targeted removals of specific groups and more seriously consider altering the environs that shape all such groups.p Riffing on a tired image—is it time to stop killing mosquitos and drain the swamp?

From a practical perspective, breaking the existing puzzle-oriented, storytelling-driven, and heavily tactical focus that holds sway over intelligence work on terrorists and other violent national security threats might require bringing together the analytic offices or programs within agencies that separately cover the various forms of non-state violence. This could mean co-locating counterterrorism and counter TOC workforces or prioritizing more cross-program analysis under current structures. Such options would encourage more of a strategic perspective among disparate but related programs.

Part of any big picture analysis of VNSAs involves understanding how they interact with GPC concerns. The national security establishment may be especially interested in prioritizing VNSAs that have ties to foreign governments, particularly Russia or China. Such a calculation might rate a group as a higher security threat if it was somehow tied to GPC concerns regardless of whether it is a terrorist, criminal, or insurgent organization. At the very least, this kind of focus would direct more effort toward understanding the intersection of GPC and VNSA activity. For example, a nuanced understanding of how criminal organizations are involved in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a huge infrastructure project designed to foster linkages between East Asia, Africa, and Europe, is likely more important to U.S. policymakers than just thwarting individual criminal groups profiting from the initiative.38 Understanding more precisely how the Kremlin draws on organized crime groups for subcontracting violence, cyber skills, and laundering money, among other things, presumably would be more useful than whack-a-mole efforts to combat the Russian mafia.39

The VNSA framework encourages agile policy development, making it easier to pivot from one violent non-state threat to another as security concerns ebb and flow.q This may be especially useful in contexts that prominently feature a variety of VNSAs. In Afghanistan, prior to the Taliban takeover in August 2021, for example, “most counternarcotics measures [had] been ineffective or outright counterproductive economically, politically, and with respect to counterinsurgency and stabilization efforts.”40 In such a context, a VNSA perspective may have pushed U.S. decision makers to devote more resources to understanding the interrelationships among drug traffickers, insurgents, terrorists, and the needs of the general population. The framework challenges terrorism’s ascendency and exclusivity (i.e., that it is the most important and a wholly distinct substate problem that the United States faces).

Adopting the VNSA framework could help advance discussions about reprioritization of resources already well underway in national security circles. Policymaking could more quickly respond to emerging violent transnational threats if items such as counterterrorism and counternarcotics were not seen as distinct programs and separate budgetary pots. Such change would not be easy and would likely require a significant reconfiguration of the National Intelligence Program and Military Intelligence Program budgets.41

It might be possible, under a VNSA framework, for the policy world to more easily shift U.S. responses to threats, shape its intelligence collection, and reconfigure its resourcing to meet emerging substate concerns. A shift to a VNSA perspective would facilitate strategic analysis across subcategories of violent threat actors. In terms of prioritization, U.S. intelligence and federal law enforcement agencies might consider breaking down the existing segmentation that separates the ways that agencies perceive the threat of terrorists and transnational criminal organizations. Instead of prioritizing foreign terrorist organizations and drug trafficking organizations in isolation from one another, it might be time to create a consolidated and ranked list of VNSAs.

The VNSA concept brings cohesion to the non-GPC threat landscape the United States confronts. The country’s watchlisting, screening, and vetting enterprise offers a good example. It is largely intended to secure U.S. borders, keeping those who would harm American interests from entering.42 As recently refined, the enterprise focuses on six seemingly distinct threat categories: terrorists, transnational criminals, foreign intelligence actors, foreign military members, weapons proliferators, and cyber threat actors.43

The distinctions among the six categories diminish once one sorts them in terms of GPC and VNSAs. The first two (terrorists and transnational criminals) are clearly VNSAs. The next two (foreign intelligence actors and foreign military members) clearly involve state actors especially relevant to GPC concerns. Weapons proliferators most often are state affiliated but might not be, and cyber actors are neither violent nor directly linked to states in many instances. By viewing these threat actor categories from such an angle, the balance between GPC and VNSAs in border security concerns is striking.

As already suggested, the VNSA concept also helps policy discussions move beyond stark “either-or” arguments that result from highly “siloed” current views of violent threat. One such argument describes violent offenders as either focused on profit (transnational criminal organizations) or ideology (terrorists). Along these lines, debate about whether or not Mexican drug cartels merit designation as foreign terrorist organizations by the USG has episodically animated policymakers. Thinking of both terrorists and organized crime groups as violent non-state actors could begin to shift policymakers away from what have been dead-end debates about reclassifying mostly non-ideological violent criminals as ideological actors. It may also move discussions beyond developing a simplistic understanding of the “crime-terror nexus.”

Also as discussed above, the VNSA concept helps policymakers develop a better-informed understanding of the ways in which great power competition plays out in the real world. Collectively, VNSAs significantly affect the environments in which great powers grapple with one another. For instance, legitimate and illegitimate markets interact in interesting ways as the United States copes with synthetic drug addiction and China, a primary exporter of precursor chemicals involved in the production of methamphetamine and fentanyl, favors revenue growth in its biopharmaceutical sector over drug control.44

  1. Key Considerations for the Future
    U.S. efforts to adopt the VNSA framework would have to address significant conceptual challenges. Also, while the framework could reshape how the U.S. government allocates finite security dollars and other resources, it requires a champion in the executive branch, such as the National Security Council (NSC).

Among the conceptual challenges, as the above commentary suggests, drawing the lines between VNSAs and GPC issues may be tough. Some VNSAs may be coopted by great powers or be involved in destabilizing regions of importance to powerful nations. As already discussed, the VNSA framework could help the U.S. government understand when and why such changes occur. Yet, maintaining analytic integrity—what’s VNSA versus what’s GPC—will be important.

Additionally, an array of serious, non-violent, and non-GPC security concerns exist. These range from cyber crime and non-violent fraud schemes to climate change and pandemics. Such issues, while not driven by states or non-state actors bent on physically hurting people, still can overlap with GPC and VNSA problem sets. Malicious, digitally driven foreign influence campaigns by Russia to disrupt U.S. elections are prime examples.45 Such activity may influence terrorists such as violent white supremacists. Pandemics shape the markets that transnational criminals drive and affect the ideological ferment of terrorist movements. While lockdowns initially disrupted criminal profiteering, many transnational criminal organizations have adapted to COVID-19 realities—some diversifying activities, even prospering.46

A core conceptual challenge revolves around the position of terrorism in the hierarchy of security worries. In other words, while GPC has displaced it, does terrorism still require special and separate treatment as an issue beyond other VNSAs? Some experts have stridently argued that it does not, largely because of its infrequency. (In other words, terrorism has a very low base rate when compared to other criminality.47) Sir Alex Younger, former chief of the United Kingdom’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), has suggested that terrorism’s capacity to undermine the social fabric of a country distinguishes it as a threat.48 Albert Bandura in 2004 posed four overarching reasons why we fear terrorism, despite its infrequency. The terrorist violence is unpredictable. Their actions are grave, killing and injuring people. Also, their actions seem uncontrollable. Finally, the growing centralization of our world and its interdependence make us fear that terrorists can easily disrupt life for many with a single act. They can harm economies, disrupt travel, take down telecommunications, and poison food supplies.49 Whatever security experts decide about the relative place of terrorism among security concerns, 20 years after the al-Qa`ida attacks on 9/11, discussion should not end with simple acknowledgment that other issues, such as GPC, currently surpass it. A much more thorough conversation should be had about terrorism’s relation to other violent non-state threats.

The VNSA idea has the potential to alter how the U.S. government thinks of resource allocation among law enforcement, military, and intelligence programs devoted to halting violent non-state threat actors.r Now that terrorism is not the preeminent security concern it once was, it might be time to ask how much the United States should spend to counter terrorism versus violent drug traffickers, for example. Systematic comparison of the two would better inform any such conversations. The VNSA concept could also reshape related budget conversations in the executive branch by establishing a way for policymakers to get a clearer sense of how much the U.S. government spends on GPC programs versus violent non-state threats as a whole. Additionally, the VNSA model could promote comparative discussion related to intelligence collection priorities within the IC. In other words, it would bring together threat actors such as terrorists, drug traffickers, and other organized crime groups under one concept and may facilitate their relative ranking within the National Intelligence Priorities Framework.s

For the VNSA idea to take root, key agencies involved in national security and public safety will have to buy into the idea. The NSC could drive such a realignment in its role to “advise and assist the President in integrating all aspects of national security policy.”50 The council and its subordinate committees serve as the primary tool the president uses to coordinate security-related change in executive departments and agencies and to formulate national security policy and strategic planning. The NSC could use the VNSA framework to organize interagency policy discussions. It could push relevant departments and agencies to adopt the VNSA concept and start breaking down longstanding barriers between programs tackling different sorts of violent transnational groups. Other parts of the government could take up the VNSA concept as well. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence could structure the relevant elements in its annual congressional worldwide threat testimony based on the concept, or key congressional committees could use it to shape hearings and legislation.

In the end, without some sort of catastrophic failure such as 9/11 to motivate change, no single clear path exists for how the U.S. government might consider and potentially adopt the framework.51 What is certain is that, in the short term, it would need a patron to broach it in the U.S. government. Change may follow.

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