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.
PG: I’m interested in your thoughts on this last development, especially since you were one of the first to push back against implications that Russian meddling was a key factor in the surprise outcomes of 2016 – Brexit and Trump – and to put forward the idea instead that centrist political parties across the West are facing a crisis of their own making.
MG: To be clear, the question has never been whether the Russians made certain efforts to undermine the Clinton campaign. The question is how much these efforts and the whole case with the Russians helps explain Trump’s victory and the larger trend it represents.
PG: What do you think of recent findings by the Russia probe?
MG: What has come to light since we last talked, from Donald Jr.’s meeting with Natalia Veselnitskaya on down, is the phenomenal stupidity not only of Trump but of his entire organization. If you’re going to get involved in this kind of thing, you don’t send emails saying “Sounds great!”
Now, Veselnitskaya is not a big player. And her involvement with the campaign should be seen as no more than standard Russian business practice, which is to “big yourself up,” hinting that you have much more access than you really have. If she had actually been able to get movement from Trump on the Magnitsky Act, well, that’s something she could then offer the Kremlin.
And this is what we’re really talking about. Individual political entrepreneurs trying to get in the door. If they fail, no big deal. But if they succeed, then maybe they’ll get the blessing of the Kremlin. It’s in the same mode that someone like Felix Sater might write, “I will get all of Putin’s team to buy in on this,” and so on.
Whatever else one might say about the Russians, their intelligence tradecraft is pretty good. They may not be able to produce a good car. They may not be able to diversify their economy. But they make good spies. And what we’re seeing now is not good spies.
PG: Couldn’t it just be the case that the Russian game was brought low by the incompetence of their American counterparts?
MG: Look, even if there was a naked desperation on the part of the Trump campaign to have the Russians gift-wrap the election for them, that doesn’t mean the Russians could or did. It just isn’t clear that the dealings we’re talking about had any impact.
What has become clear instead is the extent to which Trump and the whole Trump organization is essentially just a corrupt pyramid scheme. This is a man who has needed investment throughout his career and was never discriminating about where it came from.
Now you have people saying, “Trump did business with this person, who is connected to the Kazakh president, who is linked to Putin,” and so on. Look, anyone can play those games of five-degrees-of.
Trump isn’t some kind of Siberian candidate loyal to the Russians. Quite the opposite. He is totally undiscriminating about where his money comes from. What has come to light so far in the Russia probe is par for the course in the world of dubious financing.
PG: If what the Russia probe reveals is a lack of discrimination in the way politics is financed, how does this help understand the bigger trend: the crisis of political legitimacy in America?
MG: We worry about the influence of foreign money because it makes a more compelling story. But let’s be honest, the problem of political financing has primarily to do with what happens in the domestic context.
Starting on Election Day, every U.S. senator needs to raise x amount of money per week to finance their reelection campaign. [The figure in 2016 was $29,000 per week, or $9 million over a 6-year term.] Where do you think that kind of money comes from? Sure, you can try crowd-sourcing your campaign like Bernie Sanders, but that’s not going to work for everyone.
This kind of pay-to-play culture can also be found in the American parapolitical establishment, the think tanks. With an organization like RAND, for example, it may quite literally be the case that someone comes along and says, “I want you to argue this case for us and here’s a big chunk of money.”
With other organizations, it’s baked into the process, as it were. A think tank might take a position in favor of opening national parks for shale gas, for example, with the idea that “we were going to argue this case anyway, but we’d be happy to take your contributions.”
In contrast to the European model, American political process is driven by private financing.
PG: With something like the Trade Promotion Authority bill, it’s easy to see the connection between this pay-to-play culture in Washington and populist electoral victories in the Rust Belt. How does the Russia story enter the picture?
MG: The Russia narrative was never the kind of thing that was going to convince the Pennsylvania mine worker he made a mistake voting for Trump. It’s not meant for that audience.
The Russia narrative is meant to give the existing elite an excuse for not listening to the Pennsylvania mine worker, a pretext for ignoring the results of the 2016 election by putting forward the idea that Trump’s voters were essentially duped. For the elite, the Russia story is political comfort food.
The story has also been driven by journalists who believe this is their big chance to win a Pulitzer. To say that Trump is a businessman who sold apartments to questionable Kazakhs is not the stuff of good copy. You need something more exciting, and the possibility of a Trump-Russia collusion is just that.
Given what we’ve seen so far, however, the case against Trump really just boils down to the banality of evil. It would be so much more exciting if this were a Bond movie, rather than what it is: a gathering of auditors.
PG: What role do you think the Democratic Party has played in promoting this story?
MG: From the point of view of the Democrats, which is essentially a technocratic party that stands for the status quo, how do you catch the voters’ imagination? Well, if you can’t make yourself interesting in a good way, you have to make the other side interesting in all the wrong ways. In that respect, to be able to plausibly connect Trump to both the KKK and Putin is something of a windfall.
But is it true? Well, in many ways, Trump does represent all the worst instincts of what is still quite a good country. But at the end of the day, Trump has no allegiance to anyone but Trump.
PG: How do you think this all will end?
MG: It will be interesting to see what Robert Mueller comes up with. He’s definitely casting his net widely. I still don’t think there is a smoking gun to be found, so it’s likely to be a question of how much of a story can be made with the little that’s there, and how far people are willing to believe it.
It also matters how far Republicans get hurt in the midterms, and at what point they decide Trump is a danger to their own political organization. Trump himself is actively breaking up the coalition, going after Mitch McConnell and so forth. I just don’t think he’s sufficiently clued up to realize the implications of his actions.
I’d like to feel all this will implode before the next round of elections.
PG: Implode in what direction?
MG: It could be anything. It could be that Trump just gets fed up and flounces off. Or else he’ll get indicted. Maybe he’ll just fade from view, though I suppose he’ll always be off tweeting somewhere at 3 a.m.
PG: Any danger that wagging the dog in this case – that the demand for “political comfort food,” as you say – will end in disaster?
MG: No, I don’t think so. I’m not very happy about the proliferation of military figures in the Trump administration, but at least they understand the cost of war.
The Russians similarly make great play of their unpredictability. But for them, it’s an art. It has nothing to do with the improvisations of Trump, who comes up with foreign policy overnight based on something he saw on Fox news. The Russians are actually quite risk averse.
Between those two factors, I remain fashionably optimistic.
[Featured Image by Alex Wong/Getty Images]