Ep. 39: What comes after Putin? Assessing the future of US-Russian relations
This week we take a look at Russia and the future of the U.S.-Russian relationship.
This week we’re going to take a look at Russia and the future of the U.S.-Russian relationship, in three chapters:
- After Putin (at the 1:30 mark);
- Before Putin (17:14);
- Now what (28:16).
It’s an investigation that will take us to a battle against the Mongols 639 years ago — ahead to Putin’s “zoo” of scary long-range weapons unveiled last year, and all the way forward to the challenges that come well after the Department of Justice’s Trump-Russia probe here in 2019.
Our guests this week include Michael Carpenter, Senior Director of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement in Washington; Mark Galeotti, Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London; Pavel Podvig, a physicist trained at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology; and Tom Karako, director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Our music is by Terry Devine-King, Barrie Gledden, Richard Lacy, David Kelly, Helen Jane Long, Philip Guyler, Tim Garland and Sam Wedgwood — via AudioNetwork.com.
Related reading: "We Need to Talk About Putin," a 2019 book by Mark Galeotti; "Kulikovo, 1380: A Battle Almost Lost in Myth," a recent essay also by Mark Galeotti; and "Self-assured destruction: The climate impacts of nuclear war," a report from Alan Robock of Rutgers and Owen Brian Toon of the University of Colorado-Boulder.
Below is a transcription of this week's episode:
Chapter one: After Putin
So what does come after Putin — a man who has variously been in charge of Russia as either President or Vice for the duration of the 21st century? What in the world could come after that? I called up Professor Mark Galeotti of the Royal United Services Institute in London. He's been researching Russian history and security issues since the late 1980s.
Galeotti: “I think after Putin Russia will probably begin to become a little bit more boring. Which will again probably be quite good for Russians in the sense of I think really Putin should be seen historically as in some ways a transitional figure. He’s a bit of a last gasp of Homo Sovieticus, the sort of Russian who was socialized and raised in Soviet times. And the kind of Russian who also had to deal with that kind of seismic psychological shock almost literally overnight — your country moving from being one of the two great global superpowers to being a sort of ramshackle post-imperial remnant that’s in absolute sort of swirling crisis. Basically he was in East Germany as a KGB agent and saw East Germany fall apart; came back to Russia and saw the Soviet system collapse. And also was pretty much out of a job. So for all these reasons, this was obviously a traumatic time for him — not that we need shed too many tears because he’s done alright since.”
We asked Michael Carpenter the same question, too: What comes after Putin? Carpenter is a well-traveled man. Mike is now the Senior Director of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement in Washington. He previously served in the Pentagon as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense with responsibility for Russia, Ukraine, Eurasia, the Balkans, and Conventional Arms Control. And he was on the National Security Council as Director for Russia.
Carpenter: “Well the succession plan is very much in the forefront of the thoughts of the Moscow elite, as you can imagine. They’ve been thinking about this for almost ever since Putin was elected, if you will, selected as president in 2000. And one of the scenarios that’s being talked about now, because of course, Putin is up against his two-term limit in 2024, and so how is he gonna circumvent that? And one of the scenarios that’s being floated is that if Russia undertakes an anschluss, an annexation of Belarus and creates this union state of Russia and Belarus, which exists on paper but not in practice, that as president of this new union state, Putin could serve another two terms after 2024. So a lot of people are really worried. In Minsk, they’re exceptionally worried… I was in Belarus in November and had a meeting with [President of Belarus Alexander] Lukashenko. And my sense is that he’s very worried. Look, he’s a dictator; he’s not exactly a nice guy. He has imprisoned political prisoners in the past. He has harassed the media, harassed civil society. He’s not a good guy. But what he’s worried about right now is precisely that Russia is gonna try to take away every semblance of sovereignty that he has held onto for these last two decades that he’s been in power. And so he is trying to slowly, gradually take some of the key institutions in Belarus — it’s called the BKGB, the Belarusian KGB still, they still use that term — as well as the security apparatus.”
Watson: “Somebody needs to talk to Frank Luntz for some branding.”
Carpenter: “Yeah, he’s not a great brander. Or a public diplomacy strategist. But he’s trying to these institutions and put in place people who are more loyal to him or at least those parts of the nomenclatura there who are more pro-Belarusian sovereignty and less sort of subservient to Russia. And that’s a real thing that’s happening. And it’s happening concurrently as Russia phases out its economic subsidies to Belarus, which is actually a big deal, because Belarus has relied on these subsidies to have pretty much constant economic growth over the last two decades. And so this is creating a real confluence of events now that it’s gonna get interesting, where Putin and Lukashenko are no longer on the same page. And there could be some sort of Ukraine-like, Donbass-like scenario in Belarus. I’m not predicting it, but it’s certainly a possibility.”
So that’s Belarus, long-time ally of Russia. What else are Europeans thinking these days? My colleague Patrick Tucker has traveled in and out of Europe the past few months. And he joined our discussion with Michael Carpenter.
Patrick Tucker: “You go around the world, you go a lot of times to Eastern Europe and you talk to a lot of people. And I’m very curious about their perception of where we are. Because from what I observe, it seems like the U.S. government in its response, there’s this strange bifurcation — at the beginning of the administration you had Pence, you had a lot of, certainly Mattis, going around to Eastern Europe and basically doing a reassurance tour, it seemed like. And there’s been effort to, it seems, reassure particularly allies that are in Baltics that U.S. resolve is there, NATO remains a firm commitment. And at the same time you have this behavior from the West Wing, and there seems to be a competition. And I’m curious when you go and you talk to people in other militaries in other parts of the world, allies that are very close to this border, that are very close to Vladimir Putin and even active measures — how do they perceive us now? Do they perceive a somewhat divided government where there are people that they can still rely on, that there’s still a thrust? Or do they, what do they see?
Carpenter: “They’ve gotten past that. So there’s been a pendulum. In the beginning, I think a lot of our allies were appalled by some of the statements that Trump had made on the campaign trail about NATO being obsolete, about his respect for Vladimir Putin and all the rest of it. And then when the administration started to be formed, there were concerns about some of the people that were being appointed. But I think by and large, our allies bought into this narrative that there were adults in the room that were checking Trump’s worst impulses, whether they be Jim Mattis or Rex Tillerson or others, and that they were sort of traditional Republican foreign policy leaders who would implement the types of policies that they wanted to see, particularly with regards to defense. I think since that sort of narrative was in place maybe a year ago, we have now shifted back to, ‘Oh my god, Trump in fact is able to veto the views of these more seasoned officials and say things that undermine everything that the Republican party had stood for in terms of foreign policy for the last 30, 40 years, if not longer. And so I think there is now growing alarm. You’re right, when Mike Pence did his tour of Georgia, Montenegro and Estonia, and he said all these wonderful things about Article Five, people were reassured for a time up until when Trump started to threaten them that he wouldn’t implement Article Five unless they paid up for their supposed dues to the alliance, even though there are no dues in NATO, it’s the voluntary contributions that matter. So the pendulum has swung back and now with Mattis’s departure, the departure of mid-level officials like Wes Mitchell and the European bureau, Robert Karem, the assistant secretary for international security affairs at the Pentagon, I think our allies are understanding that these are people who are jumping the ship because they see the ship headed in a very disturbing direction. And so that makes our allies more concerned. And so everybody that I talk to is actually pretty darned frightened of what’s to come in the next 12 months, let alone two years.”
Tucker: “Do they talk about the Mueller investigation? There’s a tendency to treat it as local courtroom drama but it’s also a thing of international importance. Is that something in Europe? Do they talk about the possibility at some point being impeached for accepting illegal help from the Kremlin?”
Carpenter: “They do. They do. In fact, if you talk privately with every single European ambassador here in Washington, they will tell you that they’re watching this extremely closely. That they are constantly shocked by the type of information that’s coming from the Mueller inquiry. And so far, of course, only small tidbits have come out surrounding particular indictments and the charges that have been filed around those indictments and the full story is mostly hidden from view. But foreign ambassadors are watching this like hawks. They are appalled that this is happening in the United States. And they’re worried. They’re worried if Mueller comes up with indictments that touch on the president, they’re worried about what that means for stability of U.S. policy making, for what it means for the security of their countries, but they’re also worried about what this says about the United States and Russian influence here.”
And some of the hallmarks of Russian influence are disruption, disunity, doubt and uncertainty — and pretty much anything to drive a wedge between the U.S. and its partners in the NATO alliance.
One of the hallmarks of the Donald Trump’s presidency is what many have taken to calling a transactional way of conducting its diplomacy with other countries. You give us this, we’ll give you that. In the case of NATO even before Trump took office in 2017, Trump’s messaging has been: You NATO guys need to spend more money on defense and your military than you have been — the official guideline is to spend at least 2 percent of each country’s GDP — or else (1) Trump could order the U.S. to leave NATO, or (2) Trump’s America just simply won’t invoke collective defense if a NATO ally is attacked, presumably in all these hypotheticals the attack against NATO would come from Russia.
Here’s his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo talking to Fox News’s Martha MacCallum about just this sort of scenario in late January:
MacCallum: “But there are some people who ask the question about Article 5. If Montenegro is attacked, should young men and women from the United States fight to defend Montenegro? What’s the answer to that?”
Pompeo: “... Every country needs to make sure it’s contributing enough to make sure that their country is secure, and when they do, America will be with them to support their efforts.”
MacCallum: “So yes, American soldiers would go to defend Montenegro, if needed?”
Pompeo: “I’m not going to get into hypotheticals about what might happen or how a certain scenario might unfold, but make no mistake about it: America has always been there when there were important American and global interests at stake.”
This is an ambiguity about America’s friends and allies that’s never really existed since the founding of NATO in 1949. But Trump is a disruptor. He’s also that independently wealthy American businessman. A transactional man unlike any president before him. A man who questions the system. And this all carries enormous risk, at least by Michael Carpenter’s way of thinking.
Carpenter: “Well I think it’s actually worse than transactional. I think it’s a concerted effort by the president to undermine Article Five. I think he’s doing it knowing that that is what Putin wants to hear. And I think it’s appalling. And I think it is one of the most destructive things that he’s done as president. And the fact that Mike Pompeo is aiding and abetting this behavior is despicable. Look, when we talk about a potential security threat to an ally, and Montenegro is an ally, a NATO ally of the United States, the answer is simple: Article Five is sacrosanct, it’s rock solid. We’ll come to the defense of our allies. Full stop. That’s it. I mean this is not ignorance. This is a calculated attempt by this administration to undermine the credibility of Article Five because they know that it’ll play well in the Kremlin. Putin understands very well and his generals do as well that NATO is conventionally superior to Russia. He understands that the defensive capabilities that we’ve put in place in the Baltic states as far as equipement but also the multinational battalions that are there, the U.S. presence in Poland, all of this is a very credible deterrent. The part that now is being undermined is not the military hardware on the ground, it’s the resolve of the United States. Because to be credible NATO has to have both political resolve and military hardware and capabilities in place. And so Trump has cleverly understood that if he can undermine the resolve piece of this, it doesn’t matter sort of forces we’ve got arrayed in eastern Europe. He can undo the cohesiveness of the alliance just with rhetoric. And it’s incredibly damaging. It is music certainly to Putin’s ears. And it’s gonna have to be fixed by the next administration, and it’s gonna have to be fixed early — in the first days or weeks — whoever succeeds this administration, if in fact we have a change of administrations in 2020, is gonna have to come out very strong on the importance of Article Five and how the U.S. is willing to back it up in the first days of office to fix this problem.”
There is of course only so much we can know about what comes after Putin. But before we leave the subject, I want to turn back to my discussion with Professor Galeotti for a moment.
Watson: “Do you foresee a time when Russian leadership will pursue anything substantively different from opportunistic counter-positioning to the West?”
Galeotti: “Yes, I think so. Because it’s interesting if you look at the majority of the Russian elite, they obviously have to loudly proclaim their loyalty to Putin and his campaign against the West. But that’s not really what they signed up for. Look, they are basically pragmatic kleptocrats. They just want to be able to steal from Russia in peace, and then go and keep that money safely in the West and stash their families and mistresses in the West and come on holiday in the south of France and so forth. In some ways you know it’s actually over time Putin has become more extreme, more nationalist and more really sort of concerned with building his place in history. And in a way, he’s dragged them along with him. But you can tell just by talking to a lot of people in Moscow that there’s many people who are just basically waiting for Putin to go knowing it’s not necessarily going to be tomorrow, but it’s gonna happen. And then there’ll be an opportunity to basically reorient politics not to become overnight a Western democracy; but certainly not to basically be defined precisely by a challenge to the West.”
Because Russia has so much more to offer than simply being a thorn in the side of Western countries like the U.S., Britain, France and Germany — or an invasion threat to the former Soviet republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia in the Baltics. It’s truly impossible to ignore Russia and the way its officials do business around the world.
One way to perhaps better understand it is to go back to a battle more than 600 years ago.
And that brings us to chapter two: Before Putin.
Watson: “So I wanna crank back the clock here, because one of the things I do enjoy talking about is history. I like learning about it because I’m a silly amnesiatic American here. So I’m wondering about this 1380 battle of —”
Watson: “There we go. Thank you. Why is it that you’re even thinking about this thing 639 years later?”Galeotti: “Well one is again that I’m a historian and I thought this was a particularly good story. But it’s interesting because it plays to a couple of features. First of all, Putin himself — you know he’s not trying to recreate the Soviet Union. He’s not trying to recreate the Russian empire. He’s trying to create something new. But to do that, he’s basically bringing together a sort of a whole new take on Russian history. That basically cherrypicks the bits he likes. And essentially creates the narrative that every time Russia has been divided, it’s been weak and it’s been vulnerable to outside forces. And what Russia needs is to be unified and strong, which obviously is his kind of rationale for why he wants to be an authoritarian ruler. You know he regards himself as being in that tradition. But at the same time, we see a really strong process of mythmaking where military victories are turned into great iconic moments in order to try and justify current policy. Now the obvious one is victory in Europe during the Second World War. Or as the Russians call it, the ‘Great Patriotic War’ that was a genuine triumph, but nonetheless it’s clearly being mobilized to back Putin and his views. But it’s not just that; it goes all the way back and this is a really interesting — this battle of Kulikovo in 1380 is fascinating because it was a victory by mainly Russian forces against mainly Mongol forces at a time when Russians were still controlled by the Mongols. And it’s been turned, even at the time, the Muscovite prince who led the Russian forces — Dmitriy Donskoi — you know actively turn this into a story of Russian statehood. When in fact the princes of Moscow had been the number one collaborators with the Mongols up to that point. So I think you know the whole story basically ever since 1380, the story of this battle has been retold and retold, redefined, reshaped to meet the political needs of the moment. And therefore I think it says something about the Russian relationship with their history and how governments like Putin’s try to use military success to basically tell Russians why they should be obedient today… And particularly though it’s at a time when in a way if you haven’t got anything else, you can play the patriot card. You see in his first years, Putin’s basic legitimating narrative to Russians was, ‘Look, you stay out of politics and your life will get better.’ And certainly through the 2000s that’s what happened. And for ordinary Russians, they lived better than Russians have ever lived before in any time. But now times are harder. And this is when exactly you find regimes tend to be sort of polishing off the ‘enemies abroad and that’s why we all need to pull together and that’s why life is hard’ card. And that also applies slightly to China.”
One thing we haven’t even brought up yet in all this talk of the U.S.-Russia relationship is nuclear weapons.
That situation, in a nutshell: Russia has 6,850 nuclear warheads. The US has 6,450. (SIPRI) Even a small nuclear war could send us all into another Little Ice Age. There's a great study from Rutgers on this. We'll link to it in the show notes.
By the way: NATO was established four months before the Soviets tested their first nuclear weapon in 1949. The alliance was formed in April; the first Soviet test happened in August.
So I wanted to get a little perspective, best I could anyway, from the Russian side during some of the years before the Soviet Union collapsed on Christmas Day in 1991. And so to do that, I called up Pavel Podvig, a physicist trained at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology during the latter years of the Cold War. Nowadays, Pavel works on nuclear matters out of an office in Brussels.
Podvig: “The thing is that I grew up in the Soviet Union. And by the time the Soviet Union collapsed I was at university — I was born in ‘64, so — and I always tell my American colleagues and colleagues in the West in general that, look, on many levels, the Cold War was easier for us on the Soviet side. Partly because again the public we didn’t really know much about it. But you get a sense that basically there is nothing there. We should not really be afraid of the United States. And as I understand from the American side, it looked very differently. Basically because you are looking at this kind of a closed society, you don’t know what these people are up to. You don’t know what the leadership is up to. And what this is all about. It’s more or less like the way we look at North Korea, for example. It wasn’t like that in the Soviet Union. Although we did have these kind of civil defense I think classes and there were jokes around nuclear things.”
And what was the joke?
Podvig: “Jokes are very difficult to translate, but well I could try. There is one there’s a kind of a question and answer exam, What is a soldier supposed to do if he is caught up in the field and there is a nuclear explosion? And the answer is you stand still and you hold your Kalashnikov gun in front of you. So the question is why in front of you? And the answer is well so the melted metal would not damage your boots, which are government property.”
Granted, I didn’t call up Dr. Podvig to build up my stockpile of nuclear jokes. I called him up because he lived through a very tense period in arms negotiations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the 1980s. It was a time of rapidly advancing technologies — the U.S. had just acquired GPS-guided missiles the decade before, the so-called second offset in weapons technology behind nuclear weapons. And the U.S. and the Soviets were backing out of a nuclear arms control agreement from the late 70s called SALT 2, or the second Strategic Arms Limitation Talks.
Some analysts today have pointed out a few parallels between those heady days of the 1980s arms control talks — an era of nuclear anxiety that gave us the 1983 made for TV film “The Day After” — and the world of today, a world in which the White House formally withdraws from a nuclear weapons agreement, the so-called INF treaty, or Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty.
Here’s Podvig again.
“There wasn’t this feeling in the society at large, but I remember... ‘85/’86 as a fairly tense time. Especially ‘85 when, if we go back to this kind of SALT II story, (a) it’s never been enforced, so but there was the kind of political commitment not to violate it, and in ‘85 the Reagan administration actually after some deliberation they announced that they are no longer bound by the treaty. That was done in ‘85. And in one of the memoirs of a foreign ministry official he describes it as people were running around the foreign ministry saying oh boy everything is kind of going to hell, everything is kind of collapsing. That was the time when the there was no real prospects of talks and there were no talks at the time. My theory of what happened at the time was that basically there was definitely this confrontation but in the end, you could say that the Soviet Union blinked and they sort of looked at that and they realized that well this game is getting just way too dangerous and we should really find ways of kind of winding it down. And my understanding was there was no such feeling on the U.S. side. I mean the Americans were just basically yes it is dangerous; we want to make it even more dangerous because we sort of this is how we win… Eventually the Soviet Union kind of yielded because again the Soviet Union at the time — Gorbachev and people around him in particular — they wanted to get out of this confrontation. And this is how the INF treaty came about. Because they wanted to have something tangible. And the INF treaty just kind of fit the bill.”
Oh, and the craziest nuclear weapon system Pavel’s come across in his days as a physicist? I voted for Russia’s ICBM that fires from a railroad car, a program that’s reportedly under development some 800 kms north of Moscow.
Podvig: “If I remember correctly there is a helicopter-delivered ballistic missile. It’s there and people were thinking about it. Well but then we have this whole — as I call it — the Putin Zoo that he unveiled a year ago now. With all this crazy kind of underwater drones and nuclear powered cruise missiles and things like that. So I mean sometimes people do get carried away.”
So what’s going on with Putin’s zoo of crazy missiles with enormous range — and the U.S. exiting the INF treaty as a result? Here’s Tom Karako, director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Karako: “Really what this is about is kind of demand signal for conventional missile-based strike. And the Russians felt enough interest in this capability that they were willing to tear up a treaty or at least try and maneuver us into terminating it. But what this is about is just the — the larger context here is the demand signal for lots of long-range precision-strike missile-based capability. And I’m not talking about nuclear. Like the Kalibers Russia was throwing into Syria from far away — this is about sort of the next phase of the precision strike revolution. And there’s just a lot of tactical utility for this stuff. And you look at China that’s not constrained by the treaty, they’ve got what 90 percent of their missilery of INF range. They’re not gonna give that up anytime soon.”
Chapter three: Now what
Right between the U.S. and Russia — spinning the globe one way, of course — is Europe. I wanted to know what Europe is thinking here in 2019, the year the U.S. formally withdrew from the INF treaty. What in the world could we have done to our European allies, I wondered. What are they thinking? What are European officials going to do now?
And the answer is a reminder of the delicacy and nuance in all of this very serious business. Here’s Professor Galeotti again speaking to us by phone from London.
“Well I mean I think, look, here’s the problem. Apart from anything else, when we talk about European officials, there is the individual European states, and then there is the European Union. The European Union essentially is, I would suggest, very very weak on Russia — really would rather pretend that there isn’t a serious challenge after all. And when you look at European states, there’s massive variation between one — if you look at the Estonians and Poles, for example, who are very very tough on Russia and almost believe that the only real debate is are the Russians gonna be invading next Wednesday or the week after? And other countries for whom Russia is, yeah, a bit of a problem; but it’s not as serious as all kinds of other issues such as you know migrants or what’s going on in north Africa and such like. But broadly speaking, I think in this time the issue is this: Western policymakers in Europe are I think still behind the curve. They’re still very much looking at two different issues. One of them is a concern about direct Russian military operations, which are frankly very very unlikely. We have to prepare for them just in case, but very unlikely. And the second one is they are seduced into thinking that disinformation and cyber attacks are basically the only real information operations, the only real non-kinetic operations that we need to be worrying about — when they’re not.”
Watson: “You think it drowns out the discussion about other more important things?”
Galeotti: “Yeah, absolutely. Let me be blunt: I’m much more worried about corruption in Europe than I am about disinformation. Because pretty much by definition disinformation targets the outsiders, the people who feel marginalized and unhappy with the status quo. Corruption targets the powerful, the people who can be really useful. And we know this. We know that there’s so much shadowy, dark money coming from Russia, sloshing through European and — let’s be blunt — North American financial systems and such like. A certain amount of that, you know most of that is just simply corrupt officials making sure that their money is safely where they want it. But a certain amount of that is being used strategically for various purposes. That’s the kind — and there’s many others, but that’s the kind of really tricky issue that no one wants to talk about. And the last one I’ll mention is counterintelligence. We’ve got this two percent of GDP NATO target to be spent on defense. And frankly most European countries are not doing that anyway.”
In fact, 6 are and 22 are not. In the two % club: Greece, the United Kingdom, Estonia, Poland and Romania and the U.S.
Galeotti: “But still at least there is a notion of what is an acceptable benchmark. I did some initial number-crunching about the proportions of GDP being spent on counterintelligence, security and the intelligence services in European NATO. And literally there are orders of magnitude difference between countries that spend you know quite reasonable amounts and countries that are actually spending ridiculously little. And the thing is in an alliance system, actually one weak link imperils everyone. For example, we recently saw a case of a senior Belgian figure being arrested, charged with being a Russian spy. Well you know Belgium is one of these countries that spends very very little on counterintelligence. And therefore you know is it any surprise that Brussels, the center of the European Union, is almost literally crawling with Russians and Chinese and other spies.”
Podvig: “My take on all these things is like what’s ‘security’?”
Pavel Podvig again.
“Of course Russia has kind of given people some reason to think about it when it invaded Georgia and then Crimea and Ukraine — so I understand my Europeans would have concerns about Russian behavior, and they should have concerns about Russian behavior. But my feeling is that the kind of discussion that is going on now is going in kind of a wrong direction in a way because you see all these things about EU army or whether Europe should go and ask France to provide a nuclear umbrella, or ideas like that. Or what kind of weapons Europe should or should not deploy, and I think this is the kind of competition that Europe will not be able to win. Russia will find ways to behave kind of badly, many more ways than Europe could possibly think of. And that’s exactly what worries me. Because I don’t think that this is in anybody’s interest to see the kind of Europeans trying to you know boost their military spending and confront Russia militarily. My take is that Europe has kind of in a way civilizational power, sort of soft power if you will, this kind of law and order structure that it should impose or try to impose on its neighbors, Russia included because I don’t think Russia is a kind of lost cause in that regard. … But I do believe that engaging Russia in meaningful way would actually bring better results. And this is where Europe is actually stronger than Russia. And as I said unfortunately I see that we are kind of drifting toward more confrontational stance on both sides.”
Looking ahead to next year then: How would a 2020 American presidential candidate be vigilant when it comes to Russia?
Here’s Michael Carpenter again.
“So let me perhaps talk about this in terms of categories of responses, and we can get specific about what some of the actual specific responses in each of those categories looks like. But generally speaking we have to deter and contain the Putin regime, which is the world’s pre-eminent revisionist power at this point in time. No other country in the world wants to undo the international order and the rules of the game the way Russia does. Russia’s willing to break the glass and go in and change the way we do business — whether it be its invasion of Ukraine, or what it’s doing in Syria or elsewhere, its interference in our democracy. So what do we need to do? Well a couple things. One is what we’re already doing, which is strengthening our alliances. And this is where the Trump administration’s actions have been one step forward and maybe two steps back. We’ve done a lot to increase our defense and deterrence capabilities in Europe; but we’ve also done a lot — and this president has done a lot — to undermine the coherence of the Article Five guarantee and also frankly the political coherence of the alliance as such. And so that’s hugely problematic. But that’s I think the first place that I would invest resources is in shoring up NATO and ensuring that it’s able to deter Russia within the countries of the alliance. The next thing that we have to do is we have to impose costs on Russia. And they have to real costs, significant costs when Russia violates international norms, whether it’s interfering in the democratic elections of a European ally or whether it’s here in the United States; interfering in Ukraine militarily, in Georgia, as they did in 2008. We have to impose costs for these sorts of actions. And frankly the sanctions that we’ve put in place so far have been very thin gruel. We have not imposed the sort of costs that we imposed on Iran in the period from say 2012 to 2015 when Iran’s GDP decreased by nine percent annually and we wiped out half of their oil production, froze over $100 billion of their assets in the West. With Russia we have done nothing comparable to that. And we have the tools there at our disposal; they’re actually very easy to execute. This administration hasn’t wanted to do that. To be perfectly honest, the last administration did not wanna go into some of these tougher sanctions either. So, for example, we don’t have any real blocking sanctions — in other words, full prohibitions on transactions for Russian banks. If we did that we would have an immediate effect on Putin’s calculus and that would be significant leverage in negotiations on Ukraine, Syria or elsewhere. A third basket of response to what Russia’s doing is to plug our own holes in the dyke, to deal with our own vulnerabilities to Russian influence. And this is, I’m referring to American vulnerabilities, but also to the vulnerabilities of our allies. So we have a very non-transparent campaign finance system, we have pretty good anti-money laundering regulations that apply to banks, and absolutely nothing that applies to the real estate market or to limited liability companies, or shell companies, if you like, that take in foreign moneys and potentially can put those into the political campaign system. There are easy fixes to that: disclosure of beneficial ownership, for example, of limited liability companies requiring greater scrutiny of real estate transactions conducted by limited liability companies with foreign beneficial owners, all to these are things that can be solved with fairly simple legislative vehicles with new laws that would reduce our influence not just to Russian foreign corrupt practices, but also those of Saudi Arabia, China, Iran and other countries. So that’s a third basket of things that we need to do. And I think that you know one very important sort of fourth category is strategic communication with Russia. We have tried to engage the Russians in the strategic stability dialogue, it’s largely failed. There were a couple meetings; the Russians did not send very serious people into these meetings. And we sort of abandoned them. And I think that’s a huge mistake. I think we have to communicate to the Kremlin directly what sort of strategic importance we attach to, for example, their online disinformation campaigns, their hacking attempts of electoral infrastructure in U.S. states. And be very clear with them if this continues there will be consequences and spell out what those will be. Because if we’re not communicating with the Russians and there’s no indications that Trump is really done so, then they think they can get away with more than perhaps they can. And then you set up a situation where potentially we escalate into a crisis. And that would be very dangerous with a nuclear-armed power like Russia. So we have to be very clear about what we consider to be destabilizing from a strategic perspective and communicate that to the Russians.”
Speaking of communication: What are some of the most common and hopefully most useful misconceptions about Russia many in West have today?
Here’s Professor Galeotti.
“Well I’ll give you three. One is I think we don’t really appreciate the extent to which the Russians like it or not actually are scared of us. Secondly, we have a tendency to assume Putin has a grand plan and he’s following it through. And thirdly we have a tendency to blame the Russians for many things that they’re not actually responsible for and in the process actually empower Putin. So if I could just quickly run through those. We are worried about the Russians and depending on where we are, we might be worried about a direct invasion or else we’re worried about cyber attacks or the Russians cutting off our energy supply grid or whatever. We shouldn’t forget the extent to which the Russians are actually really quite scared of us. The Kremlin believes, for example, that the CIA was behind the revolution that took place in Ukraine and elsewhere. They genuinely believe — I’m amazed smart, well-informed Russians I talk to, you know people within the national security community genuinely seem to believe that the CIA has this capacity to topple regimes and not have it leak to the Washington Post within two weeks. We should realize the extent to which while we’re wary of them, they’re very wary of us. Second point: Putin does not have a grand plan. Putin is an opportunist who in a way allows lots of different actors and agencies within his state to try all sorts of stuff knowing that most of them will not really have any kind of impact. The point is it’s for the one in five or the one in ten or whatever of these various operations that might be successful. But the main thing is you might say he does not though have more than just a general sense of where he wants to be. He wants to see the West either neutralized or convinced that it’s best to make a deal with Russia rather than challenging it. But quite how to get there, he doesn’t know. So we shouldn’t be constantly thinking, ‘What is Putin’s grand plan here?’ And the third point is, look, the Russians have in a way become the grand scapegoats. Whenever anything goes wrong — you know the Brexit vote, the rise of populism, even football hooliganism — someone will be thinking, ‘How was Putin behind this?’ And on one level, this is just classic harmless scapegoating. But it’s not harmless because actually what this does is it empowers Putin. Given that this is a political strategic challenge more than a directly military one, while we maintain our military defense posture, what we mustn’t do is in effect surrender to his political narrative. He wants us to be scared of him. He wants us to think that he is this brooding grand master who can decide the results of elections and such like. Because that essentially makes us feel that we need to make some kind of a deal with him. So in some ways I think we should also be cutting Putin down to size. Be realizing that Russia is a country that obviously yes does pose a challenge to us. But nonetheless it’s a country with an economy which is smaller than that of Texas. It is a country with very little soft power. It is a country which is still essentially coping with a near-collapse in the 1990s. It is not a peer state except in certain very limited military terms.”
And yet Russia and America’s and even Britain’s militaries are all openly operating inside Syria at the start of 2019. And what about Ukraine — and that peninsula called Crimea that Russia illegally seized almost exactly four years ago?
Here’s Carpenter one last time.
“I think what he’s learned from his own foreign interventions or wars in Georgia and Ukraine is that military force is not enough to suborn these countries. And in fact if anything particularly in Ukraine they have made the population far more anti-Russian, far more nationally conscious than they ever were before. And that’s trouble from a long-term perspective for Putin. So that’s why he’s now sort of laying off the military tactics and using the subversive measures — dark money, corruption, cyber to try to squeeze Ukraine. And I think he calculates that’s gonna be far more effective going forward than military force. What’s interesting about Crimea is that it plays in — there was this crazy peace plan floated by this hitherto unknown member of parliament from Ukraine named Andrey Artemenko who proposed this peace plan that he had concocted with some other folks back in Ukraine to essentially lease — Ukraine to lease Crimea to Russia, it was basically a fig leaf for the United States to lift sanctions on Russia. And he passed it to Michael Cohen who in turn passed it to Michael Flynn. And when word got around that the administration was considering it, right after inauguration day, that the administration was considering lifting sanctions on Russia, Congress balked. And then they eventually passed the CAATSA law (or, Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act), which forbade the president from doing that without notifying Congress first. But there was certainly a move afoot to do some sort of play involving recognition of Crimea in return for sanctions relief. And I think we’ll find out more when Mueller comes out with his final report.”
That’s it for us this week. Thanks for listening. And if you like what you heard, consider sharing it with a friend. We’re on Spotify now, and pretty much everywhere else you’d find a podcast these days.
Special thanks goes to Pavel Podvig, Mark Galeotti and Michael Carpenter. And thanks as well to Tom Karako, Marcus Weisgerber and Patrick Tucker.
Our music was by Terry Devine-King, Barrie Gledden, Richard Lacy, David Kelly, Helen Jane Long, Philip Guyler, Tim Garland and Sam Wedgwood.
And you heard clips from CBC, al-Jazeera, Fox News, France24, the White House and Russian state media.
Cheers, and until next time.
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