I went home with a waitress
The way I always do
How was I to know
She was with the Russians, too?
— Warren Zevon, “Lawyers, Guns, and Money”
During one of the 2012 presidential debates, incumbent president Barak Obama shanked his opponent Mitt Romney with a well-prepared and well-deployed line:
“Gov. Romney, I’m glad that you recognize that al-Qaida is a threat, because a few months ago when you were asked what’s the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia, not al-Qaida. You said Russia … the 1980s, they’re now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”
Ziiiing! What a dope, that Romney; still stuck in the Cold War.
As well-crafted, pre-loaded debate zingers often do, President Obama’s distorted his opponents’ actual position and statements. Romney’s comments on Russia responded to a hot-mic conversation between Obama and Russia’s presidential chairwarmer Dmitry Medvedev, letting Vladimir Putin’s
bitch successor/predecessor know that after his re-election Obama would have “more flexibility” regarding missile sites in Eastern Europe.
“This is without question our No. 1 geopolitical foe. They fight for every cause for the world’s worst actors. The idea that he has more flexibility in mind for Russia is very, very troubling indeed… I’m saying in terms of a geopolitical opponent, (Russia is) the nation that lines up with the world’s worst actors. Of course the greatest threat that the world faces is a nuclear Iran, and a nuclear North Korea is already troubling enough. But when these terrible actors pursue their course in the world and we go to the United Nations looking for ways to stop them … who is it that always stands up with the world’s worst actors? It’s always Russia, typically with China alongside. And so in terms of a geopolitical foe, a nation that’s on the Security Council that has the heft of the Security Council, and is of course is a massive nuclear power, Russia is the geopolitical foe.”
Turns out that Romney was far more accurate in his assessment than Obama’s sly dismissal would have us believe. (President Obama had a penchant for dismissing threats that were actually quite significant. Remember, he once referred to ISIS as “the JV team.” Oops).
With a successful takeover in Crimea, an ongoing (and brutal) campaign to hold the Eastern Ukraine in its sphere of influence, a major role in the conflict and an outlandishly successful disruption campaign in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Russia is a player.
And being a player may be what matters most to Vladimir Putin.
We’re paying close attention to Russia here at RIR, for several reasons. The first being that Russia is simply fascinating. “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” said Winston Churchill, with his customary flare for nailing it with a perfect rhetorical flourish. So it is, today as much as ever.
A study of Russia is a case study in the unraveling of Empire, and — while Russia is VERY different from the U.S. — there may be some relevant experience to be gleaned from the way the Russian case has played out.
The most pressing reason for plumbing the Russian Mysteries is that Russia is and will likely continue to be a significant disruptive force in an unraveling world order. But partisan furor and media hyperventilation over investigations into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government tend to distort our understanding of Russia’s motives and actions.
As I noted in an op-ed in The Nugget Newspaper:
Experienced Kremlin-watchers believe that Putin wasn’t so much focused on a certain outcome in the presidential election as he was on sowing chaos, undermining Americans’ confidence in our institutions, and bloodying the nose of Hillary Clinton.
The operation succeeded beyond all possible expectations — and the ongoing fallout is a gift to the Russians that will keep on giving, way past the holiday season. Which makes Vladimir Putin the sole winner of the 2016 election.
The response to the op-ed was… interesting… reflecting a strong desire among people who want a certain outcome from the “Russia investigation” to have their desires validated. That reaction in itself is revealing of the deep fissures and profound anger that dominate the American political landscape.
The Russian interference in Campaign 2016 did not create those divisions in American politics and society; it exploited those that already exist and are getting deeper, wider and more fundamental. Our own unraveling makes us vulnerable to hostile influence operations, which in turn accelerates the unraveling.
It’s a form of asymmetric warfare. As Russian-born journalist Julia Ioffe notes:
Over the past year, Russian hackers have become the stuff of legend in the United States. According to U.S. intelligence assessments and media investigations, they were responsible for breaching the servers of the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. They spread the information they filched through friendly outlets such as WikiLeaks, to devastating effect. With President Vladimir Putin’s blessing, they probed the voting infrastructure of various U.S. states. They quietly bought divisive ads and organized political events on Facebook, acting as the bellows in America’s raging culture wars.
There’s a significant danger of misreading what’s really going on here.
We’ve taken to thinking of Putin as a strong leader and a kind of manipulative genius, playing chess while feckless, naïve or flat stupid American presidents are playing checkers.
Asymmetric warfare is by a definition a means for the weak to attack the strong. And Russia is weak. Its economy is stagnant; it’s a demographic basket case, with a life-expectancy for men at 64 and going down, mostly due to wretched alcohol abuse; and though it has upgraded its weapons systems and retains a nuclear arsenal, its military capabilities remain a shadow of the days of the Soviet Union, and cannot approach those of the U.S.
But most Russians don’t recognize the Russia portrayed in this story: powerful, organized, and led by an omniscient, omnipotent leader who is able to both formulate and execute a complex and highly detailed plot.
Gleb Pavlovsky, a political consultant who helped Putin win his first presidential campaign, in 2000, and served as a Kremlin adviser until 2011, simply laughed when I asked him about Putin’s role in Donald Trump’s election. “We did an amazing job in the first decade of Putin’s rule of creating the illusion that Putin controls everything in Russia,” he said. “Now it’s just funny” how much Americans attribute to him.
A businessman who is high up in Putin’s United Russia party said over an espresso at a Moscow café: “You’re telling me that everything in Russia works as poorly as it does, except our hackers? Rosneft”—the state-owned oil giant—“doesn’t work well. Our health-care system doesn’t work well. Our education system doesn’t work well. And here, all of a sudden, are our hackers, and they’re amazing?”
The best analysis I’ve seen leads to the assessment that Russian hackers and social media bots were probing and pressing with fairly common types of attacks and trolling with “fake news” and inflammatory rhetoric that Americans are all too susceptible to. The campaign was not especially strategic — Putin was lashing out — and the operation was something on the order of “let’s throw bucketfuls of shit at the wall and see what sticks.”
None of that is to blow off the seriousness of the interference or to say that Russia isn’t dangerous; a weak, unstable country hyperconscious of its diminished stature in the world might well be far more dangerous than a powerful and self-secure nation. And what is truly remarkable — appalling, really — is that the U.S. body politic is so vulnerable to what was really not all that sophisticated an op.
Both Putin and his country are aging, declining—but the insecurities of decline present their own risks to America. The United States intelligence community is unanimous in its assessment not only that Russians interfered in the U.S. election but that, in the words of former FBI Director James Comey, “they will be back.” It is a stunning escalation of hostilities for a troubled country whose elites still have only a tenuous grasp of American politics. And it is classically Putin, and classically Russian: using daring aggression to mask weakness, to avenge deep resentments, and, at all costs, to survive.
If you’ve got some workout or drive time and want to take a deep dive into the psychology of Vladimir Putin and Russia’s influence operations in the 2016, PBS’s Frontline has provided a remarkable resource — raw interviews collected for the excellent 2017 documentary Putin’s Revenge.
The Putin Files is comprised of hours and hours of in-depth interviews with journalists (Ioffe is featured and her interview runs nearly 2 hours); Russian opposition figures; a former Putin advisor; U.S. diplomats and intelligence officials. There is, necessarily, some redundancy, as they are covering a lot of the same ground, but each interview is well worth the time. Here are links to just a few of two-dozen interviews.
The Putin Files: Julia Ioffe
The Putin Files: Gleb Pavlovsky
The Putin Files: James Clapper
The Putin Files: John Brennan
The Putin Files: Vladimir Kara-Murza — This twice-poisoned opposition figure offers particular insight into what Putin wants (or hopes for) from a Trump Presidency — overturning or at least non-implementation of the Magnitsky Act, which allows for specifically sanctioning individuals and threatens Putin’s inner circle and thus his power base. If a quid-pro-quo was on offer between the Trump campaign and Russia (which has not been established), it would certainly revive around the Magnitsky Act.