When U.S. Intelligence first released its report on Russian interference last January, it offered a new “historical memory” to explain the cause-and-effect logic of the 2016 election, especially with regard to widespread distrust of political process that has fueled populist movements on both the left and the right, and left major fault lines in both parties.
Rather than taking these developments at face value – as a referendum on neoconservative and Third Way party leadership, for example – the report suggests that we can best explain them by looking beyond American borders, to geopolitical rivals that have long aimed to “undermine faith in US democratic process.”
To assess this position and put recent findings of the Russia probe in perspective, I spoke with Mark Galeotti, coordinator of the Centre of European Security at the Institute of International Relations in Prague. Mr. Galeotti has spent much of his career studying post-Soviet Russia and the Kremlin’s information wars in the West and is author of numerous books on the subject.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Peter Gaffney (PG): When we talked last April, you told me that the cyber and information warfare allegedly used by Russia to influence the 2016 election is “simply how nations interact.” Would you also say that the rivalry between Russia and the West only seems to be intensifying because it has received so much public attention lately?
Mark Galeotti (MG): I think there has been a sharpening of the rivalry between Russia and the West since Putin returned to the Kremlin in 2012. He is increasingly determined to “make Russia great again,” with the view that the West, above all the United States, is trying to constrain and hold Russia down.
Essentially, what Putin wants is another Yalta Conference. He wants to draw a line and say, “Everything on that side is yours, everything on this side is ours,” and he clearly means for countries like Georgia and Ukraine to be on his side of the line. Putin’s goals haven’t changed. It’s just that early on he was more open to meaningful dialogue with the West and more inclined to pursue a pragmatic approach with the idea that the West would respond in kind.
But this is not only about Putin. There is also the collapse of regimes in North Africa and the Middle East, for example, and a problematic swing in American politics towards a more isolationist mode, starting with the Obama administration and continuing with Trump. And there is also a generalized crisis of legitimacy in the West that has played to Russia’s advantage.