The Washington Post is out with a story about the American right’s ties to Russia and the article centers on the tale of accused Russian Mob boss and Russian Duma member Alexander Torshin and his red-headed friend, Maria Butina, which I’ve written about here.
In that post, I wrote that David Keene — opinion editor of The Washington Times editorial page and past NRA president — was a useful idiot who allowed a suspected Russian mobster to get close to the president.
Torshin is a member of the Russian Duma and, simultaneously, (while the Post story doesn’t mention it), he was accused by Spanish police of being a ranking member of the Moscow-based Taganskaya crime syndicate. He was slated to meet with President Trump at the National Prayer Breakfast until a White House national security aide noticed Torshin’s name and flagged him as a figure who had “baggage.”
The Post adds an important new detail: How Torshin met Keene.
At least one connection came about thanks to a conservative Nashville lawyer named G. Kline Preston IV, who had done business in Russia for years.
Preston said that in 2011 he introduced then-NRA President David Keene to a Russian senator, Alexander Torshin, a member of Putin’s party who later became a top official at the Russian central bank. Keene had been a stalwart on the right, a past chairman of the American Conservative Union who was NRA’s president from 2011 to 2013.
I never realized that Vladimir Putin had such open and effusive admirers in the United States like George Kline Preston.
Preston, born in 1966, is an expert on Russian law who displays a white porcelain bust of Putin in his office, according to the Post.
He believes that we have it backwards: Putin is the good guy in this story. He has told friends for years not to believe reports that Putin murdered journalists or political opponents. Here he is effusively praising Putin to his friend Torshin on Twitter.
Translation: “@torshin_ru Tomorrow is Presidents’ Day in the USA. I want to say that you are fortunate to have President Vladimir Putin.”
Preston’s relationship with Torshin goes back to at least 2009 when Preston briefed Russian legislators on the implementation of immunity agreements in Russia:
Mr. Torshin asked me to briefly describe the concept of a “deal with the investigation,” or, more precisely, the “plea bargaining”, as we used to call this term in the West. (source: archived web page of prestonkline.com)
Preston was an international observer during the 2011 Russian duma elections that led to mass street protests about election fraud. Preston said he concluded the Russian election system was “impressive” and “very well-organized,” but the Western view was overwhelmingly negative. The reason why, he said, lay in the fact the West does not like Vladimir Putin. Asked why, he speculated that “maybe because he’s a strong leader, maybe he’s done a pretty effective job:”
Interestingly, this video was posted to YouTube (and possibly made by) Johan Backman, a controversial Finnish academic. Backman is a Putin cheerleader and Kremlin propagandist (which is detailed in this lengthy expose). Preston was apparently didn’t know or didn’t mind that he was being used for propaganda purposes.
In 2012, Preston returned the favor and invited Torshin to be an election observer in Nashville. Both men appear in the picture below (Preston on the left, and Torshin in the middle). Torshin’s tweet below reads: “Standing in line at the polling place. As an ordinary American. 6:45 a.m.”
In contrast to his experience observing voting Russia, Preston said he saw violations of U.S. law during the presidential election: pro-Obama signs posted too close to a polling place.
Preston earned his bachelors degree in Russian language and literature at the University of Tennessee in 1989, the same year he studied in Leningrad via an Indiana University program at Leningrad State. He and earned his law degree at Nashville School of Law in 1994. For a time, Preston was involved in trading Russian/Ukrainian securities and importing Kievskaya Rus ultra premium vodka.
Preston’s law practice appears heavily focused on Russia. A version of his website archived in 2011 appears in both English and Cyrillic. On his office web page of is what appears to be a double-headed eagle, the symbol on the coat of arms of the Russian Federation.
A portion of the Preston’s practice involved assisting Americans in adopting children born in the Ukraine and the former Soviet Union. (Putin in 2012 signed into law a ban on adoptions of Russian children by Americans.) Preston also represented Bering Strait, a classically-trained Russian bluegrass and Russian scholar Mikhail Anikin, who claimed that author Dan Brown stole his idea for the “Da Vinci Code.”
On his Twitter feed, @gittinpaid, Preston often retweets Russian propaganda from RT, Pravda and other news outlets:
I’m not sure what happened to G. Kline Preston, but it’s hard to look at him and see a man who has turned himself, quite happily it seems, into another of Putin’s useful idiots.
In his excellent testimony March 30 before the Senate intelligence committee, Thomas Rid, a professor in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, explains how Russia has perfected the art of exploiting unwitting agents.
Unwitting agents are fools who are doing the bidding of another person or country without realizing it. Another term for them is “useful idiot,” a phrase supposedly used by Lenin to describe liberals and Social Democrats who helped advance the Communist cause outside the Soviet Union.
Rid said three different types of unwitting agents stand out from the chaos of the 2016 election:
Unwitting agent #1: Wikileaks.
The US intelligence community concluded with a high degree of confidence that Russia’s foreign military intelligence service, the GRU, was the source for the reams of stolen Clinton campaign emails published by Wikileaks.
Wikileaks has repeatedly denied that Russia was the source for the leaked DNC emails, which shows why an unwitting agent is so useful.
Wikileaks clings to the moral high ground because it believes it acted in the name of justice or goodness, not in the name of a Russian intelligence agency.
So when Wikileaks insists that the emails were leaked to them by an insider, it does so with considerable conviction that has taken others such as the influential Fox commentator Sean Hannity.
Unwitting Agent #2: Twitter
Twitter was hugely influential among opinion leaders in the 2016 election, foremost among them the Twitterer-in-chief, Donald Trump. But it’s very hard to tell what on Twitter is real and what is fake.
A recent study by computer scientists at Indiana University and USC tried to tackle the question of how many Twitter accounts are bots. These are automated and semi-automated software applications that mimic human behavior and can be used to drive grassroots political support, spread rumors, or bully opponents.
The researchers conclude that as many as 15 percent of all Twitter accounts are bots, and given the increasing sophistication of bots, this may be a conservative estimate. Twitter claims it has 313 million “active” monthly users. If the study is correct, 47 million Twitter users are not human.
Twitter for its part could easily inform the public how many of its accounts are bots, whether influential accounts during the 2016 election were human or not, or how many Twitter trends began overseas.
But it is not in the company’s interest to do so. The inflated numbers make it appear that Twitter has active users than its published numbers claim it has. Pulling back the curtain on bots would depress Twitter’s value as a publicly-traded company.
Unwitting Agent #3: Journalists
The Soviet Union excelled at planting stories. Operation INFEKTION planted the devastatingly rumor that AIDS had been created by US scientists seeking new and potent biological weapons that still echoes around the globe.
But planting these stories was hard work, as this CIA history shows. It took time to craft believable forgeries and build relationships with newspapers. A CIA study estimated that the Soviets spent $3 billion annually influencing world perceptions through its “active measures” campaigns.
That was then. Now, Rid says, it’s much easier:
Cold War disinformation was artisanal; today it is outsourced at least in part — outsourced to the victim itself. American journalists would dig deep into large dumps, sifting gems, mining news, boosting ops.
The hours and reams of newsprint that reporters devoted to hacked emails — with little thought to the who, what or why of their appearance — made American journalism an unwitting agent of Russian intelligence.
Unwitting Agent #4: Donald Trump
Trump is not part of Rid’s testimony, but I felt the need to add him. Donald Trump is the biggest unwitting agent of them all.
In an op-ed in The New York Times, former acting CIA Director Michael Morrell summed it up this way:
President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia was a career intelligence officer, trained to identify vulnerabilities in an individual and to exploit them. That is exactly what he did early in the primaries. Mr. Putin played upon Mr. Trump’s vulnerabilities by complimenting him. He responded just as Mr. Putin had calculated.
Mr. Putin is a great leader, Mr. Trump says, ignoring that he has killed and jailed journalists and political opponents, has invaded two of his neighbors and is driving his economy to ruin. Mr. Trump has also taken policy positions consistent with Russian, not American, interests — endorsing Russian espionage against the United States, supporting Russia’s annexation of Crimea and giving a green light to a possible Russian invasion of the Baltic States.
In the intelligence business, we would say that Mr. Putin had recruited Mr. Trump as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation.
Have you heard the rumor that Donald Trump is mentally ill? Did you hear that President Obama wiretapped Trump Tower? With the help of British intelligence? Or that a child-sex ring connected to Democrats was being run out of a Washington, D.C. pizza restaurant?
American society is being bombarded by rumors. Fake news websites push stories like the aforementioned “Pizzagate.” Russian has an army of Twitter trolls who blast out all sorts of wild rumors. Even Donald Trump’s own tweets deluge us with confusing and contradictory information.
It seems awful hard to know what’s true and what’s not these days. Where is the antidote for the epidemic of fake news? Many of us may feel like we can’t even trust our own judgment. And maybe, that’s the point.
The post-truth era, as it’s been called, might feel very familiar to American spies operating behind enemy lines in World War II. Back then, U.S. operatives were coming up with creative ways to damage morale and divide the leadership of Nazi Germany. One of their best weapons was the use of carefully crafted, well-timed rumors.
Rumors were a specialty of the Morale Operations Branch of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the predecessor of today’s CIA. One of the most famous of the OSS’ rumor campaigns was “Where Is Hitler?” The OSS would broadcast a fake report that Hitler was supposed to appear at an upcoming rally. When Hitler inevitably failed to show, the OSS would float rumors that Hitler was ill or suffering from a mental breakdown. These rumors spread so widely that they became the subject of articles in American newspapers, including The New York Times.
Creating a loss of confidence in leaders was just one was just one the tricks dreamed up by the OSS Morale Operations branch. Others are spelled out in a now declassified field manual, which is a guide on how to use rumors, forgeries, blackmail and bribery to destabilize a country. What the OSS called “subversive rumors” could be used to cause enemy populations to distrust their own news sources, create division among racial, political and religious lines, to create confusion and dismay with a welter of contradictory reports, and to tip the balance when public opinion was in a precarious state, among other things.
Viewed in this light, fake news seems less a nuisance and more like something that would trouble our intelligence community. And indeed, they do appear concerned. The U.S. intelligence community recently concluded that Russia mounted an “influence campaign” during the 2016 presidential election that blended covert intelligence operations with overt efforts by Russian Government agencies, state-funded media, third-party intermediaries, and paid social media users or “trolls.” Russia influence campaign sought to undermine faith in U.S. democracy and denigrate Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
In essence, Russia has created a modern version of the OSS Morale Operations branch. Social media gives the modern operative powers the likes of which his or her OSS forerunner could only have dreamed. Whereas the OSS had to send operatives into enemy territory to plant rumors, the modern influence campaign can without leaving home harness the power of social media sites. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are machines for the rapid transmission of rumors.
While the technology behind rumor campaigns has evolved, the nature of rumor itself hasn’t changed much in the 74 years since the OSS wrote its field manual. The OSS defined a rumor as “an unauthenticated, unofficial story or report, represented and transmitted as fact.” This distinguishes it from propaganda, which stamps its authorship on its message. Anybody can start a rumor. Crafting a good one is an art form.
The old OSS characteristics of what makes a good rumor still hold true: A good rumor still must be simple, consisting of a single idea. It must be plausible. It is tied to some known facts, yet is impossible to completely verify. It frequently appears as an “inside” story. The best rumors to spread are existing ones. “In many cases, the most effective rumor policy will be to spread further rumors that have arisen spontaneously in enemy territory,” the field manual advises.
A good rumor must also be vivid. Rumors with “strong emotional content” are extremely effective. (Case in point: the unforgettable, unverifiable story of Trump cavorting in a Moscow hotel room with prostitutes.) A suggestive rumor was well adapted to spreading fear and doubt, by doling out limited but tantalizing bits of information that allow the audience to formulate conclusions (“FBI Director James Comey made an unexpected trip to the White House.”)
Robert Knapp, who developed the section of the OSS’ Field Manual on rumors and wrote academic papers on the subject, likened a rumor to a torpedo. “Once launched, it travels of its own power,” he wrote. Knapp had an insight into what gave rumors their power: They expressed and gratified the emotional needs of the community, just as daydreams and fantasies expressed the needs of the individual. Rumors gave sense and direction to fears, resentments or hopes. ”No rumor will travel far unless there is already a disposition among those who hear it to lend it credence,” he wrote in a 1944 paper.
Among the many coincidences involving Russia and Donald Trump, one that goes unnoticed is their mutual grasp of the power of rumor. Trump used rumors to stunning effect in his campaign, beginning with the suggestion that President Obama was born in Kenya. This rumor tapped into deeply-held beliefs about President Obama that many people were not comfortable expressing publicly. Outright racism is unacceptable to most Americans. However, many found the disguised racism of a rumor about the African-American president’s birthplace more palatable. There is frequently a racist undertone to many of Trump’s rumors: Muslims celebrating Sept. 11 in New Jersey, illegal immigrants voting, terrorist incidents that didn’t happen, and so on.
Rumors may also help explain Trump’s appeal. In a recent interview, Time magazine’s Michael Scherer pressed Trump on his use of rumors. “What am I going to tell you? I tend to be right,” the president told him. “I’m an instinctual person, I happen to be a person that knows how life works.” In other words, Trump’s rumors feel true to him, even if they can’t be verified. Trump’s words also feel true to his supporters, almost like an article of faith. He is making a connection on a deep emotional level that, once established, is difficult to break.
However, Trump’s predilection for rumors over facts is dangerous, for it leaves him wide open to manipulation. Unwittingly or not, Trump has spread rumors that originated in Russia. The story spread by the White House that President Obama used British intelligence to spy on Trump and his associates started as a story on RT, the Kremlin-backed propaganda outlet. On the campaign trail, Trump quoted a report that appeared to originate on Sputnik, another Kremlin-backed media outlet. At a March 30 Senate intelligence committee hearing, Clint Watts, a former FBI agent and an expert on Russian disinformation, explained in striking terms the problem with having a rumor-monger for a president:
Rumors do work on the campaign trail, but they are toxic to the presidency. Credibility is one of the president’s strongest assets, never more so than in moments of crisis. Trump seems not to understand that, as president, he is the authority, and the White House is the place where rumors end, not where they begin. If President Trump truly wants to make America great again, he must stop spreading rumors.
If Trump won’t quash rumors, others must do it for him. Many news organizations are now regularly refuting the president’s rumors. This effort harkens back to World War II, when rumors were an even bigger problem then they are now. Robert Knapp, the OSS’ rumor expert, founded a “rumor clinic” in Boston that collected rumors and sought to put and end to them. A column first published in the Boston Herald in 1943 quoted the rumor in italics followed by the word FACT. Rumor clinics opened in many cities, but quickly faded following a clash with the Roosevelt administration’s Office of War Information. Government bureaucrats wanted to smother rumors with facts, rather than call attention to them by singling them out for disproof. (For more on this click here.)
Knapp proposed that rumors could serve as an “index of morale.” They may be a better gauge of the true state of public opinion than any poll or survey. Rumors allow expression of the deeply held beliefs and fears that won’t be repeated to a stranger. A look at the rumors prevalent in American society show we are a deeply divided along racial, political, and religious lines. Many Americans have little or no confidence in our elected leaders. We distrust our own news sources.
In sum, American morale has been deeply wounded. We are much weaker than we think we are.
Note: This piece has been updated.
It anyone surprised that the allegation that President Obama used Britain’s GCHQ intelligence agency to eavesdrop on Donald Trump was first broadcast on RT, the Kremlin’s international propaganda outlet?
This allegation has gone in a few days from being a crackpot theory on social media to an international dispute. Britain was furious when White House spokesman Sean Spicer cited the GHCQ story as part of his defense of Trump’s claim that he was “wire tapped” by President Obama. The GHCQ, Britain’s version of the National Security Agency, issued a rare denial.
That this GHCQ allegation was first given life by RT shows the influence of the Kremlin-backed network, which has found a sympathetic ear in the White House. According to the U.S. intelligence community that Trump so openly distrusts, RT has the goal of undermining its viewers’ trust in US democratic procedures.
On March 5, the day after Trump tweeted that “Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower,” RT broadcast an interview with Larry C. Johnson, once an analyst with the CIA.
In the clip, linked above, Johnson said “very good friends” had told him that information gathered by GHCQ on Donald Trump was illegally disseminated within the US government in an effort to destroy his candidacy. Obama, Johnson said, “gave the green light” to distribute the information from GHCQ in an improper way.
On his blog, Johnson goes into more detail about his sourcing. (Update: Johnson’s blog was taken off line shortly after this piece was published).
No one involved with the Trump campaign reached out to me and asked me to get involved with this. I spoke three months ago with a source that, if the source’s name was revealed, would be known and recognized as a reliable source of information. Based on that contact I reached out to friends in the intel community and asked them about the possibility that a back channel was used to get the Brits to collect on Trump associates. My sources said, “absolutely.” I later confirmed this via a cut out with a person who is a Senior Intelligence Service executive in the CIA.
Assuming that’s true, why would Johnson, a former CIA analyst, would go on a Russian propaganda network that presents anti-American views? CNN’s Brian Stelter put that question to Johnson on his show, Reliable Sources.
STELTER: Why is it appropriate for any American to appear on a Kremlin propaganda network?
JOHNSON: Well, it’s not a Kremlin propaganda network. … What I found the difference with Russia Today is they don’t do pre-interviews. I’ve done pre-interviews with your people. I’ve done pre-interviews in the past when I appeared on other networks.
Just two days ago, I did a pre-interview with BBC. They were going to have me on air. But once they heard what I had to say, they came back and said, oh, no, we don’t need to use you now. So, I’m —
Johnson’s point is that RT doesn’t censor its guests. Stelter’s point, which he presses later in the interview, is that anyone can go on RT and say whatever they want without bothering about details like sourcing and verification.
Johnson theories about GHCQ are likely to prove false: officials in Britain and Washington have called it ridiculous. For RT’s purposes it doesn’t matter whether Johnson is telling the truth, only that his information serves its broader goals.
RT’s GHCQ story is the textbook definition of disinformation:
false information deliberately and often covertly spread (as by the planting of rumors) in order to influence public opinion or obscure the truth.
So back on March 5, while former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper was knocking down Trump’s claims on Meet the Press, RT was quickly building a counter-narrative that besmirched the United States with Johnson’s help.
An outfit like Meet the Press needs a big audience to deliver ad dollars; since it strives to be objective, it has to present credible sources. That means it has guests like Clapper who as insiders know whether Obama really “wire tapped” Trump or not. If Meet the Press had people like Larry Johnson or RT’s Illuminati correspondent sitting around talking about what their friends supposedly told them, the audience would find something better to do and the ad dollars would dry up pretty quickly.
RT, on the other hand, is funded by the Russian government. It doesn’t need a big audience. So it can quickly disseminate poorly sourced, unverified information that drives home the message that Russia is not the bad guy and America isn’t so great, anyway.
Johnson sought to minimize his role in the GHCQ affair by telling Stelter that nobody watched RT.
STELTER: You’re saying Russia today is not that influential?
JOHNSON: I’m telling you that’s the truth. I mean, who watches it? The fact that I spoke about it two weeks ago and it didn’t even surface — it wasn’t even a blip anywhere in the U.S. news media. And so, I guarantee, if people like yourself who were very informed, very up to speed on things, don’t pick up on something like that, you expect a coal miner in Pennsylvania, an auto worker in Michigan, that they’re going to be on top of Russia Today?
But information warfare, as Johnson surely knows, doesn’t need a big audience to work.
It has just to plant a false idea that contradicts the conventional narrative. Johnson made a big fuss about how it took so long for his story to spread, but that’s how rumors work. And that’s what makes them so effective. They are spread person-to-person by social media and word-of-mouth until they reach a critical mass. If you wanted to drive a wedge between allies, there’s no way to do it better. It’s cheap, bloodless, and stunningly effective.
Johnson’s unsupported allegation was rebroadcast on right-wing Internet on blogs and websites until March 14 when it jumped into mainstream media. Fox contributor Andrew Napolitano repeated the allegation on the talk show “Outnumbered” and then repeated it again on Fox News. Johnson told The New York Times he was one of Napolitano’s sources.
On Friday, Trump refused to back down from the allegation, telling reporters, “All we did was quote a very talented legal mind.”
Did the president realize he was also quoting Johnson via Russian media?
Johnson, who is almost always referred to as a former CIA analyst, worked for the spy agency in the 1980s. After four years in the State Department’s Office of Counterterrorism, Johnson left government service in 1993.
Since then, he gotten embroiled in controversy such as his claim that Republican operatives possessed a tape of Michelle Obama railing against “whitey.” (Johnson claims he was manipulated by Clinton confidant Sidney Blumenthal.) Or that Bush White House advisor Karl Rove had been indicted.
Johnson has been a member of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS), a group of intelligence professionals formed in 2003 to protest the use of faulty intelligence that was used as a grounds for the invasion of Iraq.
VIPS and Johnson have been critical of the US intelligence community’s findings that Russia hacked the U.S. election. On Dec. 15, Johnson co-signed a VIPS letter that stated the hacking allegations “have no basis in fact” and suggested an “inside leak,” not hacking, was behind the release of DNC emails. Not surprisingly, RT publicized the letter.
It’s worth noting here that Ray McGovern, a former CIA analyst and founding member of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity attended the now infamous 2015 RT 10th anniversary dinner in Moscow, where he sat at the same head table with President Vladimir Putin and former Gen. Michael Flynn. (link) It seems McGovern makes an annual pilgrimage to Moscow where we find him pontificating in RT’s studios.
Napolitano for his part has also peddled Kremlin disinformation before. On May 6, 2016, he reported that “there’s a debate going on in the Kremlin between the Foreign Ministry and the Intelligence Services about whether or not they should release the twenty thousand of Mrs. Clinton’s emails that they have hacked into and received and stored.” (archived link)
Now, mind you, this was days before hacked emails from the Clinton campaign began appearing on the Internet.
It appears that the source of the story emanated from a mythical figure, a journalist named Sorcha Faal. Sorcha Faal is widely believed to be a pseudonym for David Booth. Booth hosts a wild-eyed conspiracy theory website called Whatdoesitmean.com. Usually websites like this and the more popular and crazier Infowars.com are easily dismissed as tinfoil hat crowds who see government conspiracy everywhere. Yet in this case “Sorcha Faal” appears to be so well wired into the Kremlin that “her” work at this website was often copied by mainstream Russian information propaganda like Russia Insider’s Svobodnaya Pressa (“ Free Press”). This site pushes wild conspiracy theories such as the proposition that the US trains and directs ISIS, and writes op-eds about the dangers of European multiculturalism. It is a core component of the Russian propaganda system, and such news organs as Ren TV (a large, private, pro-Putin Russian television channel) and Sputnik News (a multinational propaganda organ of the Russian government)
We might as well learn the Russian word for this, folks.
Here it is: All the publicly-available evidence that suggests collusion between Trump, his campaign, and Russia.
It stretches over three years and comprises the contacts, meetings, tweets and revelations involving Christopher Steele, Michael Flynn, Jeff Sessions, Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, Sergei Kislyak, and others.
I’ve been working on this timeline for weeks and will continue to update it as more information becomes available.
If you know of something that should be in here but isn’t drop me an email.
The link below is an embedded Google sheet with sources hyperlinked. If anyone has a better idea how to display this in a form that is more easily accessible please let me know. I am not very handy with Google scripts.
The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin by Steven Lee Myers
Russia, as a country, punches far above its weight.
Its economy — kleptocracy, really — is smaller than that Italy, Korea or Brazil. And it is mired in a recession, dragged down by rampant corruption, and the imposition of sanctions by the European Union and the United States. And yet, rather than focus inward, reassess or attempt to rebuild, Russia focuses outward at its many perceived enemies — foremost among them the United States.
As everyone but President Trump acknowledges, Russia launched an audacious campaign to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. According to U.S. intelligence, that campaign was ordered by none other than Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin. And it succeeded beautifully. Russia managed to undermine faith American democracy, denigrate Hillary Clinton and diminish her chances of winning, all for virtually no cost at all.
And now we learn that Russia, to help its preferred candidate, Donald Trump, provided assistance that may have been even more direct. Top Trump campaign aides were in constant and repeated contact with Russian intelligence officials. A leaked dossier compiled by a former British spy suggests that Moscow has scandalous and compromising material on Trump (kompromat) that make him susceptible to blackmail. Trump’s own behavior — his blasé attitude about Russia’s meddling, his nonstop praise for Putin — lend credence to these allegations.
Trump denies all. “It’s all fake news,” Trump cried in his press conference Feb. 16. But worries are mounting in Congress and in the US intelligence community, and the president knows it.
The concern of this website and many others that Trump is not acting in the best interests of America when he says he wants to strike some kind of grand bargain with Russia, as he has signaled he intends to do. “I would love to be able to get along with Russia,” Trump said in his Feb. 16 news conference. “Now, you’ve had a lot of presidents that haven’t taken that tack. Look where we are now. Look where we are now.”
So let’s take a look at where we are now and how we got here. What drove Putin to meddle in the U.S. election? Why does Putin hate Hillary Clinton so much that he would hack a US election? Is this the action of a rational man?
In The Last Tsar, an excellent political biography of Putin by Steven Lee Myers, a veteran Moscow correspondent for The New York Times, we get an answer of sorts: Russia sees itself as a nation under siege from the West. After a quarter-century of relative openness since the collapse of the Soviet Union, since 2014, most Russians have once again to come to view the outside world as “an enemy at the gates, to be feared and resisted.”
Russia’s bellicose foreign policy is a reflection of the autocratic Putin himself, who has been fighting his whole life. As a youth growing up in a rough section of Leningrad (today’s St. Petersburg), he became (and remains) an accomplished judo practitioner. He brawled in the streets. “I was a real thug,” he once said, and he was unable to back down from a challenge, even when he knew better or should have. While attending a prestigious KGB academy, Putin got into a fight with some hooligans on the Metro. He returned with a broken arm, and his KGB career suffered for it. Putin never got a glamorous foreign posting in the United States or Western Europe, serving instead in dreary East Germany.
It’s easy to see the Russia-United States relationship as just another fight Putin won’t back down from, but things weren’t always this bad between the two former Cold War adversaries. It was a different Putin who was the first foreign leader to telephone Bush after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and offer any assistance. Bush invited Putin to spend three days at his ranch in Crawford. The U.S. president famously said he looked Putin in the eye and got a sense of his soul. He liked what he saw: a man deeply committed to his country.
The 2003 invasion of Iraq was a turning point. For Putin, the Iraq war revealed the true intentions of the United States: it wanted to impose “freedom” on the rest of the world, with force if necessary. By the end of his presidency, Bush realized he had misjudged the man. “Vladimir,” Bush told him, “you’re cold-blooded.”
It sure seems that way. His critics have been silenced with blackmail, arrests, beatings and murder. And not just bullet-in-the-head-drop-the-gun-at-the-scene assassinations, but grotesque, baroque murders that seem to almost gleefully make a public example of the victim’s suffering. Poisoning seems to Russia’s signature style.
Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian secret service operative who became a outspoken Putin, was famously poisoned in 2006 with radioactive Polonium 210, shortly after he had publicly accused Putin of being a pedophile shortly before his death.
Litvinenko’s interest was piqued by a photo of Putin kissing a boy’s stomach and a long-rumored videotape of Putin himself in a sexual tryst, Myers notes. (Litvinenko wrote that the tape showed Putin having sex with young boys.) If Putin didn’t order the murder of Litvinenko and many others, he, at the very least, “created a climate that made political murder grimly ordinary,” Myers writes.
Putin formally broke with the United States in 2007 in a speech at the Conference on Security Policy in Munich, Germany. He said the world was being plunged into “an abyss of permanent conflicts” because of one nation’s “almost uncontained hyper use of force — military force.” And in case anybody didn’t get the message, Putin went on to call out the United States by name:
“We are seeing a greater and greater disdain for the basic principles of international law. And independent legal norms are, as a matter of fact, coming increasingly closer to one state’s legal system. One state and, of course, first and foremost the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way. This is visible in the economic, political, cultural and educational policies it imposes on other nations. Well, who likes this? Who is happy about this?
Putin gave up the presidency in 2008 to his long-time factotum Dmitry Medvedev, and took the post of prime minister. It was during the Medvedev era that the United States attempted to “reset” relations with Russia. The United States saw in Medvedev, a liberal reformer, an opportunity to build bridges.
At his Feb. 16 press conference, Trump brushed off this effort as a joke. “Hillary Clinton did a reset, remember? With the stupid plastic button that made us all look like a bunch of jerks. Here, take a look. He looked at her like, what the hell is she doing with that cheap plastic button?” Trump said.
But it wasn’t a joke. There was progress. Russia allowed U.S. forces to pass through Russian airspace on their way to Afghanistan and President Obama dropped plans to build a missile shield over Eastern Europe. In March 2010, the United States and Russia agreed to reduce their nuclear arsenals, which President Trump reportedly denounced as a bad deal during his phone conversation with Putin on January 28.
In 2011, the United States began pushing for a military intervention in Libya. Medvedev, at Secretary Clinton’s urging, agreed not to use Russia’s veto on the U.N. Security Council to thwart an intervention. Putin was furious. “The resolution is defective and flawed. It allows everything,” he said. “It resembles medieval calls for crusades.”
It was in 2012, when Putin returned to the presidency, that things really went downhill for the United States and Russia. He and Medvedev switched jobs in what became known as the rokirovka, the Russian word for castling in chess, where the castle and king exchange places to protect the king.
Mikhail Khodorkovsy, the former head of the Yukos oil company who had been thrown in jail and watched his company seized by the government, wrote in an open letter that Putin was dragging Russia down with him.
“[Putin] is incapable of tearing himself away from the already unliftable ‘oar’ of the monstrous ‘galley’ he himself has built. A galley that apathetically sails right over people’s destinies. A galley over which, more and more, the citizens of Russia seem to see a black pirate flag flying.”
Many Russians were furious over the rokirovka, which they saw as a cynical political manipulation. Thousands took the streets, chanting “Putin is a thief.” That the protests were peaceful made them even more terrifying to the Kremlin, Myers writes. Putin refused to see that protesters wanted a Russia without Putin; instead he blamed Secretary Clinton in language lifted out of the Cold War. “She set the tone for some actors in our country and gave them a signal,” Mr. Putin continued. “They heard the signal and with the support of the U.S. State Department began active work.” Putin cracked down hard on the opposition, and ramped up anti-American voices on state media. Any critic of Putin now risked being tarred as a US agent.
Things went from bad to worse later that year, when President Obama signed into law the Magnitsky Act, named for an auditor who was beaten to death in a Russian prison after investigating Russian tax officials. The law was intended to punish those responsible for Magnitsky’s death. The Russian Duma responded by, among other things, banning the adoption of Russian children by Americans, essentially punishing their own children out of spite.
Many in the US intelligence community saw it as no coincidence that Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency whistleblower, found refuge in Russia. Many in US intelligence are convinced that Snowden all along was a Russian spy. Putin called his arrival in the summer of 2013 a “Christmas present,” and he uses Snowden to mock and belittle the CIA.
In 2014, right after the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russian forces invaded Ukraine and swiftly annexed Crimea. As Myers observes, the man who had once decried the United States’ “uncontained hyper use of force” now seemed to be saying, “Well, if you can do it, why can’t we?” The United States and the European Union responded by imposing ruinous economic sanctions on Russia. In response, Snowden was quickly granted him asylum, yet another act of Russian nose-thumbing.
And so, today, US-Russia relations have returned to their familiar Cold War roots, just as they were in Putin’s days as a young man in the KGB. Putin sees the influence of the United States everywhere — in Ukraine, in Georgia, in the Arab Spring, to name a few — and Russia sees NATO as an existential threat, just as it did in Soviet days. It’s siege mentality: enemies are closing in; we must fight back. And Russia has chosen to fight back, not with the awesome strength of the nuclear arsenal it possess, but in the more covert “active measures” it employed in Soviet days. Russia has cleverly exploited modern technology to use what are really old tricks of propaganda, subterfuge and funding of foreign pressure groups.
Domestically, Russia is a mess. The ruble has crashed. The price of oil, which accounts for nearly 70 percent of Russia’s exports, has fallen, which Putin blames on a conspiracy between Saudi Arabia and the United States. Russia plunged into an economic crisis. Despite all this, Putin remains enormously popular. His dark, paranoid vision of the world, thanks to his effective control of Russia media, has become his country’s vision of the outside world.
“When a Russian feels any foreign pressure, he will never give up his leader,” said Russia’s first deputy prime minister Igor Shuvalov. “Never. We will survive any hardship in the country — eat less food, use less electricity.”
Wrapping themselves in the flag may not be enough to keep Russians warm during this Cold War, however.
Unless Donald Trump has his way.