It took a chemical weapons attack in Syria by Putin’s ally (“Animal Assad,” in Trumpian twitter-speak) and gruesome pictures of dead children to prompt the criticism. But the belated rebuke of Putin was short and cryptic enough that it seemed to underscore the strange mystery of why Trump, while allowing his government to pursue an increasingly confrontational series of policies aimed at countering Russia, has never publicly disavowed his oft-stated admiration for the strongman leader who ordered his spies to intervene in the U.S. election on Trump’s behalf.
Tweet or no tweet, as Trump now contemplates a retaliatory strike on Putin’s Syrian partner, it’s more clear than ever that Russia remains the signal foreign policy dilemma of the Trump presidency — the issue on which the president has split, repeatedly, with top advisers like his now-booted secretary of state and national security adviser. Just a few days ago, Trump spoke once again, if a bit plaintively, about his desire to get along with Putin even as his administration was putting out a tough new round of sanctions hitting Putin’s inner circle. And of course there’s the matter of that Russian election intervention — and the still ongoing investigations of whether Trump or his campaign team knew about it.
I talked Russia, Russia, Russia for this week’s Global Politico with the journalist Julia Ioffe, a Russia-born reporter who is one of the few to have covered both Putin’s Moscow and Trump’s Washington. We covered everything from why she thinks Russia is just as much Arrested Development as it is The Americans, to what Washington consistently gets wrong about it, to why Putin has been so successful at playing four straight American presidents.
“I’m very scared,” Ioffe tells me of the brewing confrontation between the two blustery leaders. “The reason I’m scared is because… in the Cold War there were kind of protocols and rules developed and lines of communication, and there were just — the way things were done. … Now … you have two guys, Trump and Putin, who are both painted into a corner, strategically, both at home and geopolitically, who are very prideful. Both very kind of emotional knee-jerk decision makers, to an extent. And I worry that they’re both going to start clawing their way out of their respective corners and that that’s going to lead to a lot of collateral damage.”
In a confrontation, she argues, Putin may well prove a smarter actor on the world stage than the American president who had started out hoping to be friends. “You know, this isn’t his first rodeo, and this is not his first U.S. president, whereas Trump is still kind of getting his sea legs,” Ioffe says. “And this is kind of the built-in advantage of an autocratic system, where Putin already knows how to do all this, and he’s kind of a better tactician, and kind of a better strategist. And I worry that in this showdown Putin’s going to outmaneuver Trump and the U.S.”
You can read our full discussion below, or listen to it here.
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Susan Glasser: Hi, it’s Susan Glasser, and welcome back to The Global Politico. I’m really delighted that our guest this week is my friend and someone who knows Russia much better than I do, Julie Ioffe. She is an author — she’s writing a book she can tell us about, about Russia. She’s a contributor to The Atlantic, and she is one of the smartest Russia hands in Washington today. Julia, thank you for finally being on The Global Politico.
Julia Ioffe: Thank you for having me. That was quite a fulsome introduction.
Glasser: Excellent. Fulsome is what I was aiming for.
Ioffe: You’re making me blush.
Glasser: But I have to say, first of all, I need to make a little announcement of my own, because it will help to explain what this episode of The Global Politico is about.
So, this will be not our last, but our second-to-last episode of The Global Politico, at least with me as host. It may go on a bit of a hiatus, but I’m going to make a little bit of a career change, and work full-time at The New Yorker as a staff writer. I’ll be contributing to their New Yorker Radio Hour. But The Global Politico in its current iteration, sadly, will only have this episode and the next episode. And I thought, given that, that we really ought to devote the full conversation today to Russia. It’s been an ongoing theme ever since we launched The Global Politico. We launched The Global Politico within days of Donald Trump’s inauguration last year, in 2017, and the idea was really to help make sense of this disrupted world, and what kind of a foreign policy was Donald Trump going to have. We all knew that it would be different than what came before, and every week it’s been sort of variations on a theme of just how different has it been.
And yet, throughout that, the consistency with which we have talked about Russia — not only, of course, because I was a former correspondent in Moscow — but because it has been a theme in many ways, both of the politics of the Trump administration, with the Russiagate investigation still underway, but also because it has remained the most perplexing foreign policy question. Donald Trump to this day has never personally moved beyond his public admiration for Vladimir Putin, his praise for him, and yet his administration has talked tough, has really undertaken a policy toward Russia that isn’t all that different from what a Democratic or a Republican administration might do, faced with the same set of facts.
So the conundrum of trying to understand what the heck is going on with Russia has remained this enduring obsession. So we’ve had many great episodes about Russia. We’ll talk about some of those today, some of the highlights, and Julia and I will try to make sense of it.
So how do you square that circle? You were born in Russia. You emigrated here. You then returned after you graduated from college as a working journalist to Moscow.
Ioffe: To work for you at Foreign Policy.
Glasser: And then you came back here to Washington. So, we are kind of unusual in that we both have covered both Washington and Moscow. That’s not true of all that many people. What do you make of Washington’s Russia obsession these days?
Ioffe: Well, personally, I find it deeply frustrating. It’s one of those cases where what are we talking about when we talk about Russia? And usually, the answer is not Russia, but we’re talking about ourselves in the same way that when Russians obsess about America; they’re not really obsessing about America, they’re obsessing about themselves but refracted through this external lens.
And it’s funny to see this country described as this kind of Bondian nexus of evil where everything is super-organized, Putin is this master strategist who just has everything planned out from A to Z, and is able to follow through piece by piece on his strategy or on his agenda, and that everything is just — I mean, it’s basically the Soviet Union mixed with The Americans mixed with some James Bond.
And I don’t know about you—you spent a lot of time there, too — I don’t recognize that Russia, you know. The Russia I know is a lot more like Arrested Development, mixed with some James Bond stuff, right? It’s a lot of things. And I think I sometimes overcompensate in the other direction, where I’m like, you guys are just not that good. They’re not that competent.
When you’re in Russia, what you hear about is, did Putin do this for external consumption or internal consumption? Julia Ioffe
Glasser: Well, this is a great starting point, actually, for our first segment of our conversation today, which is about the Russia as it actually is, and what do we really think about Vladimir Putin now that he has just gotten another six-year term? He’s already been in power for 18 years. He’s already, in fact, become the longest-serving Russian leader since Josef Stalin.
Mikhail Khodorkovsky: Here, in the West, the impression that people have is that Putin runs the whole country. This is not so, at all.
Angela Stent: I was in Russia a few months ago talking to Russians, both those who I would say are more supportive of the government and those who aren’t. And all of them, to a man and woman, said, “We can’t understand why you Americans are so obsessed with what Russia may or may not have done.” They said, “You’ve now made us into this colossus, as if we kind of control what’s happening in the United States. You’re really attributing to our leadership, to the Kremlin, to Putin, whatever, much greater power than we think they have.”… So there’s a real puzzlement there about the extent to which now Russia has been made into this kind of boogeyman in the United States, as if they really have the power to destroy our democracy.
Glasser: So I picked out a few of our interviews over the last year on The Global Politico that really go to this question of, are we really talking about Russia as it actually exists today? And it was Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former Russian wealthiest man — he was then imprisoned by Vladimir Putin—now a dissident who lives in London. He called it this “myth of the great and horrible Putin.”
Ioffe: Which is so interesting because he lost a decade of his life to this horrible Vladimir Putin. Vladimir Putin was, in fact, very horrible to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and Vladimir Putin is horrible in a lot of ways, but here if you read the discussion or you listen to the discussion about Russia, you’re not hearing about those ways. And, again, I think as you and I have talked about a lot, it’s a lot about how we imagine our adversary as Americans; and for somebody to be able to come in and mess with our elections, or to stymie us in geopolitics and take over our traditional kind of — I hate to use this term — spheres of influence, they have to be a really mighty enemy, right?
They have to be really, really good. Otherwise are we not very good if we’re stymied by some kind of tin-pot dictator, banana republic, where things are kind of held together with shoelaces and gum?
Glasser: Well, one of the things that you pointed out already that I think really drives a lot of this is that Americans tend to forget that while it’s an authoritarian political system, it’s still a political system, and Vladimir Putin is often responding to his internal need to maintain himself and his government and his regime in power, and there’s another clip from Khodorkovsky where he made that point, where he said, Look, this is Vladimir Putin’s campaign platform, America-bashing. When he’s fighting in Syria; when he’s fighting in Ukraine — he’s fighting against the big bad West. It’s a war between Russia and the West; it’s not a war between Russians and Ukrainians.
Ioffe: Yes, I think that’s a very key thing to understand. When you’re in Russia, what you hear about is, did Putin do this for external consumption or internal consumption? And a lot of I think what we don’t understand is that a lot of times the song is not about us. A lot of times it’s done for an internal audience, to shore up his domestic support. I mean, I think it’s really telling that much of the Russian news today is not really about what’s happening in Russia, not about a stagnant economy, not about corruption, not about rotten infrastructure. It’s about the West, or about Russia’s exploits abroad.
And it’s about this bait-and-switch of — you know, Putin’s original contract with the Russian people was, you guys get wealthy or you become better off; I’ll help you do that, but you in return, you stay out of politics, and you leave that to me.
Glasser: I called that his Make Russia Great Again strategy.
Ioffe: Right. And then, when he returned to power in 2012, widely seen as an illegitimate return to power for his third term as president, he took on a more ideological, more revanchist kind of approach, and it became about, the economy’s not doing great, but that’s okay, because we’re an empire again; we’re great again. We are challenging the West; we are not dancing to their tune. We are not being humiliated by them and told what to do.
And it’s amazing how much it really resonates with Russians, how much it’s important to them, the same way it’s important to Americans to live in a great power.
President Vladimir Putin meets with the media at his campaign headquarters in Moscow | Sergei Chirikov/AFP via Getty Images
Glasser: Well, and it’s interesting because that was a theme of Vladimir Putin from the very beginning. So, I was there in Moscow for the first four years, basically, of Putin’s presidency, when he certainly didn’t have the international capabilities that he has now to basically intervene in the war in Syria, to intervene and to create a civil war on the ground in Ukraine. Back in the early 2000s, Russia really was much more of a basket case. In fact, people were still debating over, could they repay the Soviet debt in time. People were still debating over what kind of identity Putin would bring to the office of the president.
Well, again, it was an identity crisis, basically. We weren’t sure what had happened in the first 10 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but we were pretty sure we didn’t like it. And Putin came in and he played off of those feelings of insecurity and instability on the part of the Russian people. He said things are going to be stable again. But the thing that I remember so vividly that’s relevant to today’s conversation was that at the beginning Putin really was about restoring the Russian state internally, rebuilding power in the Kremlin. He used to call it the vertical of vlast — basically, the vertical of power. And looking internally, consolidating authority; eliminating the democracy that had taken hold, if tenuously, in the first 10 years.
Ioffe: Getting the oligarchs under control.
Glasser: Absolutely. Bring oligarchs under control; bring the media under control. So that was the story of the four-year period when I was there. I think what we missed, or that Putin wasn’t yet ready for, was this much more internationally aggressive leader that we have today. He’s now taken over Crimea — that was the first armed annexation of territory since the end of World War II.
So, my question to you is, going forward, do you believe that now that Putin has another six-year term under his belt, is he going to be more aggressive again, internationally? Is he going to aggressively seek to revise international borders, to challenge the United States and the West elsewhere?
Ioffe: I think the answer, unfortunately, is yes. I remember in 2012-2013 when the Russian economy started its kind of long decline, Russians who were very smart watching what was happening and very in tune with what has happening politically were saying, as Russia gets poorer internally, it’s going to become more aggressive externally.
And I think that has very much been borne out since 2014 and the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of eastern Ukraine. Then you have Syria; you have the meddling in elections all over Europe and in the U.S., most recently being the Catalan independence movement. So, there’s no referendum issue too small for Putin to get his hands in and try to kind of chip away at the transatlantic alliance, or order.
I think Syria and the Middle East are going to be a very interesting area to watch. Russia is now heading up the peace talks in Syria, bringing both the Turks and the Iranians to the table. America is not in those conversations at all anymore. We used to be helping to run the Geneva talks; now they’ve been moved to Astana in Central Asia, in a former Soviet republic.
Russia talks to all sides. In the Middle East, it’s seen now — instead of the U.S., it’s seen as the kind of reliable ally.
Glasser: And by the way, just this week, I should point out, you have this incredible visual image of Donald Trump saying on the one hand, “I want to get out of Syria immediately, as soon as possible,” never mind what his advisers said or what the American policy has been. The same day, you have this incredible visual of Vladimir Putin convening regional leaders. To me, that was almost the visual representation of the post-American world order.
Ioffe: Absolutely. And it’s also kind of an embodiment of what Vladimir Putin wants to be and how he wants to be seen, both domestically and abroad. He wants to be seen as the great diplomat and peacemaker, and also aggressor. So, somebody who is really good with all the tools in that toolbox, that he can go to war if necessary and push back, but he is primarily the only adult in the room.
He’s not going to start crazy, stupid wars like the Americans did in Iraq, which is constantly brought up by the Russians, when they admonished the Americans. He can convene all sides and be seen as an honest broker who actually follows through.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad during a meeting in Sochi on November 20, 2017 | Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP via Getty Images
Glasser: So, I think this notion of Vladimir Putin exactly as he wants to be seen is a great pivot to how he is seen in the United States today, and this Russiagate investigation. Because we’re talking about Russia right now, but an awful lot of what passes for Russia conversation in Washington today, in American politics, is really not about Russia; it’s about Russiagate, or whatever you want to call it. It’s about the Russian intervention in the 2016 U.S. elections, the ongoing investigations of it by the Senate Intelligence Committee and, in particular, by the special counsel, Robert Mueller.
Victoria Nuland: “It was the hacking…So, that’s when the hairs really went up on the back of our necks. …
Michael Morell: “It’s a failure of imagination that’s not dissimilar to the failure of imagination that we had for 9/11. Right? …
This, of course, from the very beginning of this Global Politico podcast has been a subject of ongoing and recurring conversations, both because it radically affects how Vladimir Putin is seen in the United States — how does he want to be seen? Why did he intervene in our elections? Did he get what he wanted with Donald Trump? And then again, the seriousness of this investigation. We’ve learned an awful lot in the course of the last year.
When we started out at The Global Politico, we would have been astonished to know a lot of the information that has subsequently come out about contacts between the Trump campaign and various Russian envoys, emissaries, spies, and the like. We would be amazed to have learned, for example, about that summer 2016 Trump Tower meeting in which Russians were openly promising dirt on Hillary Clinton to President Trump’s own son and his top campaign officials.
So, let’s talk Russiagate for a few minutes, and also what the Obama and Trump administrations did and didn’t do about that. When I had Victoria Nuland on this show, she talked about the “Spidey sense” of the Russia experts inside the U.S. government, and how the hairs on the back of their necks were standing up when they started to realize in 2016 that Russia was running the same play inside the United States that it had run in many Eastern European countries already, intervening in their politics, and yet we didn’t seem to recognize it.
Ioffe: So, I think — again, this goes back to the idea of who is a worthy adversary to the U.S. I think the level of disbelief was also driven in fact by — well, we’re not Germany and we’re not France and we’re certainly not Hungary — this can’t happen here. And, in fact, it did. And as we’re realizing also, with all the disclosures about Cambridge Analytica and the role that Facebook played, and earlier, the revelations about the role that Twitter played, and just the role of political advertising — we’re realizing that in some ways the Russians played the role of terrorists. They used our system, our own tools, against us. They were able to manipulate these openings on these platforms into pretty deft weapons.
Glasser: You know, I mean, I’m glad you brought that up, because I’ve been so struck by that. At the height of the Cold War, imagine that you told KGB agent Vladimir Putin or any of his bosses, “America itself is going to invent a tool by which you can have direct access to basically every single American — certainly, every single American you’d like to reach. It’s basically going to be so cheap as to be free. And we will even sell you and help guide you to have the most effective use of this tool, and you will be able to —
Ioffe: And planting you—
Not only that, but we’re going to tell you exactly what these Americans like; what they think about; who their friends are; and what kind of messages would most appeal to them. And American society will be so divided and fraught at the time that it’ll be a total cakewalk to divide them further and to fan kind of the flames of division. Which is kind of how —
Robert Mueller | Alex Wong/Getty Images
Glasser: It would have been a KGB officer’s dream.
Ioffe: I mean, I’ve spoken to former NSA head Michael Hayden about this, and he said, “You know, the best covert operations they don’t create facts or divisions on the ground. They exacerbate the ones that are already there.” And in some ways, 2016 was perfect. It was this kind of perfect storm, and the Russians just were able to push it in just the right direction.
I think what we still don’t know — to me, this is the most interesting question, and also the question that probably is completely unanswerable, is what impact did it have on the election? Did people stay home and not vote because they were Bernie supporters, and they were disgusted by what came out in the DNC hack? Did people come out and vote more for Trump because they saw these ads saying that Hillary was going to let in all these Muslims? Right? Or all these illegal immigrants.
It’s so hard to gauge, right, because everybody’s decision to vote is so multifaceted and multifactorial. And that’s, I think, part of the brilliance of this operation. And also because it was an operation that was, as one former Obama official said, was like throwing spaghetti at the wall. They were trying all kinds of different things, and I think this is what we also — just going back to what we don’t understand about the Russians — we think of it as because the way we Americans would do it, we would have a clear hierarchy, a clear plan; there would be, kind of everybody would be unified in their mission and their idea of what everybody’s doing.
But in fact, in Russia, one hand didn’t know what the other hand was doing, and there was a lot of turf battles going on. As we now know from some terrific reporting from Russian reporters — what’s left of them — and the fact that actually the Russians’ strength was in their disorganization, in their flexibility, in their high appetite for risk, and the fact that they were willing to try crazy things and pivot as the situation merited. That that was actually their strength.
Glasser: Right, well, combined with the still unknown questions of how much help they received in targeting and distributing this information, either by the Trump campaign or those associated with it. And that, of course, is what still remains up in the air, and your point —
Ioffe: But also, the other thing is that that’s also hard to determine, right? Even if they did have help from the Trump organization, and it seems that the Trump organization was happy to take help from anybody. The question is, was that the deciding factor? Or, because of the internet, in addition to, like if you went back to 1983 and talked to KGB agent Vladimir Putin, and you’re like, on top of this tool they’re going to call Facebook, they’re also going to invent this thing called the internet, and they’re going to put all their political information on line. You don’t even need spies in Russia; they can just sit in Moscow—
Glasser: Or St. Petersburg, with the Internet Research Agency.
Ioffe: Right. And read the New York Times and POLITICO and The Cook Political Report and watch all these TV channels through the internet. You don’t even have to go there and flip sources, you know — all this information about what districts to target, about what states are up in air, what issues are driving the conversation and are really pitting Americans against each other. It’s just going to be — you’re just going to have this little screen, and it’s going to be at your fingertips, literally.
U.S. President Donald Trump meets Russian President Vladimir Putin at the opening of the G20 summit on July 7, 2017 in Hamburg, Germany | Steffen Kugler/BPA via Getty Images
Glasser: No, that’s exactly right. But we’re still talking about the narrow question of the 2016 election and were votes swayed, and in some ways it’s very unknowable. There’s two other elements of this we haven’t really talked about.
Number one, which is how much will it directly reach the level of criminal activity? How much will it directly reach the level —
Ioffe: And it already has, as we’ve seen.
Glasser: Exactly. So, Mueller has already issued criminal indictments; there have already been guilty pleas in the case. But it still hasn’t fundamentally yet answered the question of to what extent U.S. persons, and specifically those associated with the Trump campaign, including the president himself — did they know about this, and were they involved in it? So, that’s where we all sense there is a potential political explosion coming down the road.
And then there’s this question of: And so what? What is the United States supposed to do about this? And did the Obama administration handle it correctly? Was it proactive and aggressive enough in responding to it? And then of course, what’s happened since then? You and I are talking on a day when there are a whole wave of new sanctions that have been finally released that target Putin’s inner circle in response to this, but for God’s sakes, we’re talking about this is the spring of 2018, and this intervention occurred starting in late 2014, according to Bob Mueller.
Ioffe: And, as some people have pointed out, by the time these sanctions came out, mostly against oligarchs, they have had plenty of time to restructure their assets in a way where they’ll be minimally affected by the sanctions.
Still, I think it’s quite a strong signal, and I think the kind of underexplored and under-noticed area that I think a lot of this will come down to is the money aspect. You know, it’s a truism in journalism, and it’s truer than ever — follow the money. And there was a story you and I talked about that came out last month on a weekend, pretty unnoticed, the Reuters investigation that rich Russians bought about $100 million of Trump property in south Florida alone. And this has been kind of bandied about on political talk shows here, about whether or not basically Donald Trump was essentially a laundromat for dirty Russian money because he didn’t ask too many questions, and needed the money because American banks wouldn’t lend to him.
But, given how — and this was one of the first ways that contemporary Russians took advantage of the American political system is, they make their money at home and then get it out of the country into the West, using all the things we invented almost for them. You know, LLCs, American law firms buying their property for them that are then protected by attorney-client privilege. You know, LLCs that buy LLCs that buy LLCs that buy some property in Trump Tower.
Glasser: Right. So you could never track it back.
Ioffe: And if you don’t have — I’ve been joking with some journalist friends that if I had a superpower I’d want subpoena power, because otherwise it’s really impossible to follow the money these days, and I think that’s one of the avenues that is going to become more kind of fleshed out and filled in as the Mueller investigation continues, I hope, because I think there’s going to be a lot there.
So, one of the things since we’ve been talking about Russia and the Russiagate investigation on The Global Politico — one of the interesting things is that the politics surrounding it, on both right and left, have gotten scrambled, and you have this element of what I would call Muller-denialism that exists on the left as well as the right, people saying basically Russiagate is a distraction; it’s not that serious; we shouldn’t care about it; we should really focus either on the actual threats from Russia or on the problems of President Trump from the point of view of the left don’t have to do with Russia; they have to do with what Trump is doing in the United States.
Where do you come down on that debate, because it’s a pretty fierce one already?
Ioffe: Yes, and it has been from the moment it kind of broke. You know, I’m kind of of two minds about it. I think that the debate around it has gotten so politicized and if you’re in one camp you have to say and believe the following things, and if you’re in the other you have to say and believe another set of facts, or beliefs.
And I think the problem lies in the fact that it has become about Trump, and Trump and Republicans feel this, and so they push back. They feel, maybe correctly, that this is Democrats kind of wanting a do-over, or at the very least, undermining Trump’s legitimacy. And unfortunately, yes, it is about Trump, because it was an election in which he won in a really strange way. He lost the popular vote by a massive amount of votes and then squeaked through in these areas that were completely unexpected — you know, they were the blue Democratic wall in the upper Midwest.
So, it is about Trump, but I think the media and Democrats have — and I hate to lump them together—but, I think they have kind of failed to make the debate not about Trump, but about national security, about the integrity of our elections, about the fact that they’ll do this to anybody, they’ll do this to Republicans, too, if they find that they’re being too hawkish on Russia, or if they want to just stir up more chaos.
I remember watching the Roy Moore election in Alabama, and I just thought, this is so perfect, right? All of America is watching this race in Alabama, while Russia’s just cleaning up in the Middle East, at very low cost, very low cost. Like, all of our fears of intervention in Syria, Russia has shown that you can do quite effectively with very few men on the ground and very little money, actually. So, and meddling in the Catalan independence movement.
Glasser: Right. Still a distraction.
Ioffe: Right. We just become — because we’re prone to it the same way the Russians are prone to it — we’re a big country with imperial ambitions and this kind of imperialness in our DNA the way that Russians are, and it’s very easy for us to turn inward and become obsessed with our own internal struggles, and not notice that the Russian thief is out back cleaning out your chicken coop. I don’t know where that analogy came from, but there it is.
Glasser: Well, all right. So, let’s talk about Trump. It is about Trump. And I think that’s sort of our third and final aspect of our conversation today, because you can’t really talk about Russia and Trump without talking about what is inside his mind.
First though, we’re going to have a quick break, and we’ll be right back with more of my conversation with Julia Ioffe right after a word from our sponsor.
Glasser: Welcome back to The Global Politico. As promised, Julia and I are going to talk Trump, because you can’t talk about Russia and the United States today without talking about Donald Trump.
Bob Corker: “so he looks at Russia, looks at Putin. He looks at the relationship that we have. I do think there is a degree of admiration for a strongman. I’m sorry.”
Anne Applebaum: “it puts us in an odd position, where it’s almost as if the Cold War is back, except only one side is fighting it.”
And what is with his admiration for Vladimir Putin? It was at the very beginning of The Global Politico, we had Bob Corker on the show, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And this was before he publicly broke with Trump. At the time he was still talking with Trump a lot and he was desperately trying to get inside his mind and figure out what’s going on.
And we talked with Corker, and he had talked with Trump about Putin. And Corker said, “You know, I have to say — I’m sorry to say it — I do think that it’s a degree of admiration for a strongman,” and that that is part of Trump’s enduring admiration for Vladimir Putin. But, my goodness, that was back in January, February, of 2017. Here we are in April of 2018. Flash forward. Donald Trump has never to this day said something publicly critical of Vladimir Putin.
Ioffe: As someone pointed out to me the other day, he is literally meaner to Meryl Streep than he is to Vladimir Putin, which is really quite something. And, on one hand I think Corker is absolutely right. I think he has an abiding fascination with and admiration for strongmen. He has been similarly kind to President Xi of China, Duterte of the Philippines, Erdogan of Turkey; he thinks that that’s a good way to run a country, you know. He has attempted kind of a much paler version of what these guys do, of undermining the independent press. When SNL was mean to him in the very beginning of his administration, he publicly called into question NBC’s broadcasting license. Very similar to those guys.
China’s President Xi Jinping (R) and U.S. President Donald Trump attend a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on November 9, 2017 | Nicolas Asfouri/AFP via Getty Images
That said, Erdogan, Xi, and Duterte did not intervene in the 2016 election with the overt goal of helping him win — right? So, it becomes even more problematic that he won’t say anything about Russia, especially because Russia continues to do crazy things.
Glasser: Well, there’s also this striking — call it a bifurcation, a split screen situation that’s developed, where it’s been one of the most revealing aspects of the gap between Donald Trump and Donald Trump’s administration when it comes to foreign policy. And so you have this relatively hawkish foreign policy on Russia that’s more or less supported by Democrats and Republicans. And you have the spectacle of the national security advisor, H.R. McMaster, before he was unceremoniously dumped by Trump. His last words out the door this week were a warning that the United States had failed to, in his view, adequately respond to the Russian provocations.
Ioffe: Or Rex Tillerson. I mean, this to me was just —
Recipient of the Order of Friendship from Vladimir Putin himself, who with his own hands pinned that thing on Tillerson’s lapel, that medal on Tillerson’s lapel. And that he — the last thing he does — it turns out that it’s the last thing he does, is he says — basically, he calls out Russia for the poisoning of this former Russian spy in the U.K., and then is unceremoniously dumped by President Trump the next day. And I’m just getting goosebumps thinking about it all over again, because it’s just …
If you’re a Russiagate skeptic, which I definitely was at the beginning, it’s like there’s increasingly less room for skepticism, because how do you explain that? It just—even the optics of it are so bad, that he’s pushed out everybody who’s hawkish on Russia. Or that he does these things — again, you and I have talked about this a lot, about this split between the Trump administration, which says, do not congratulate when you talk to Putin.
Glasser: These are the famous talking points that were leaked to the Washington Post and probably sped up the firing of H.R. McMaster, probably.
Ioffe: This was the call that Trump made to Putin after his — quote/unquote—election on March 18th, where he squeaked by with a nail-biting 77 percent of the vote, and it, again, came after the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter with a military-grade nerve agent. And the note said that the talking point said, “DO NOT CONGRATULATE” in capital letters. What does Trump do? He congratulates Putin.
Glasser: Not only that, but he invites him to the White House for a meeting.
Ioffe: Well, then we find this out from the Russians.
Glasser: Right. And it’s always —
Ioffe: We keep finding out — the Russians are — so, this is what I was getting to. Then Trump congratulates him. The talking points say, please scold him for the poisoning. He doesn’t scold him. In fact, he invites him to a White House visit—not just a visit. And the Russians are very ably playing off of this split. You know, he’s basically given them a big opening to walk right into, and they’re very ably playing the administration off the president that heads it to their own advantage, because the Russians, like the Chinese, love protocol.
All of these state visits are very important to them; the optics are very important to them, especially for Vladimir Putin, who wants to make Russia great again, who wants Russia to be seen as a peer to the U. S., and not as a junior partner in the relationship that is to be punished for things. What better image is there for him, after all of these diplomatic expulsions, after all of these sanctions, after — again — a poisoning on U.K. territory with a crazy nerve agent — that he gets a photo op with the president of the U.S., in the White House that the president of the U.S. invited him to? But there is nothing more legitimizing than that, for the Russians. They’re getting exactly what they want out of it.
Glasser: Even if the meeting never occurs, the timing of the leak, coming from the Russians, was very clearly weaponizing information that Trump himself had handed them. Why did they do it?
Ioffe: It’s not the first time they’ve done it.
Glasser: And they did it to make it clear to people like us who are paying attention that Donald Trump is not on the same page with the tough policies coming out of his administration, number one.
Trump and Putin met at the G20 Summit in July, 2017 | Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images
Number two, that Donald Trump continues almost to this day to be privately acting in a very conciliatory fashion towards Vladimir Putin, and in fact, even seeking his approval. And Trump followed it up, by the way, rather than being ashamed or trying to hide this, what did Trump do? I think it’s very notable that he spoke out publicly later and basically not only he confirmed it by saying, “Well, yeah, shouldn’t we get along with Russia?” which is what he’s been saying ever since the campaign.
Ioffe: That’s right.
Glasser: He’s never changed his rhetoric. If you actually look at what Trump himself is saying.
Ioffe: It’s one of the very few things on which he’s been absolutely consistent. Last summer, when Congress passed — this completely broken Congress passed with a veto-proof majority a mandate for new Russia sanctions, and Trump made several public statements about it saying he doesn’t like this bill; he doesn’t want to do sanctions against Russia.
The Russian political media made so much hay of it! I mean, all Russian politicians up and down the power vertical, all of Russian TV, was crowing about how the president of the U.S. wants to be friends, but the deep state is hamstringing him, and is just pointlessly against Russia, just irrationally against Russia.
Glasser: Well, this leads to the bigger-frame question. If we agree, as it seems that we do, that Trump has never wavered in either his admiration for Putin or desire somehow to reset relations, even though politically that’s become very unrealistic, where does that leave the two countries? There’s been this long debate that actually predates Donald Trump, but has certainly flared up anew since the election, over whether or not we are in a state of essentially a new Cold War with Russia. And everybody has a point of view on it.
I’ve written a long piece about it. My basic takeaway is that the terminology isn’t all that helpful because the first Cold War was plenty bad, and it existed in a totally different both media and information and military context, where there could be clear dividing lines between Russia and the West in a way that the current world is no longer so neat.
Ioffe: And there were kind of rules and protocols of what you do, especially by the latter phase of the Cold War.
Glasser: Well, that’s right. But even if you don’t like the terminology, as I know — clearly, the situation between the two countries is as hostile, if not more so, than at any period since the late Cold War. Arguably, during the tenure of Mikhail Gorbachev, we were on much better terms as a country during the, say, the George H.W. Bush administration, even during the second Reagan administration. On much better terms with the Soviet Union than we are with Russia today.
So, how do you view that? I mean, how scared should we be by this level of hostility?
Ioffe: Personally, I’m very scared. And the one question I’ll add to the outstanding questions is Donald Trump’s motivations. You know, for this consistently laudatory rhetoric toward Russia and Putin, and I think we still don’t know the answer to that. But about the —
Glasser: Why are you very scared?
Ioffe: The reason I’m scared is because, like I said, I think in the Cold War there were kind of protocols and rules developed and lines of communication, and there were just—the way things were done. On the Soviet side and on the Russian side. Now, you have kind of flimsier systems in place. There are fewer rules. And you have two guys, Trump and Putin, who are both painted into a corner, strategically, both at home and geopolitically, who are very prideful. Both very kind of emotional knee-jerk decision makers, to an extent.
And I worry that they’re both going to start clawing their way out of their respective corners and that that’s going to lead to a lot of collateral damage. I also worry that Putin — you know, this isn’t his first rodeo, and this is not his first U.S. president, whereas Trump is still kind of getting his sea legs.
And this is kind of the built-in advantage of an autocratic system, where Putin already knows how to do all this, and he’s kind of a better tactician, and kind of a better strategist. And I worry that in this showdown Putin’s going to outmaneuver Trump and the U.S.
“We have to understand that Russia is going to continue throwing sand in the gears, or weightier objects, and that they’re going to be a force that is constantly going to push back — often just to push back” — Julia Ioffe
Glasser: Well, you know, it’s interesting. Before he was thrown out, H. R. McMasters authored a new National Security Strategy for the United States. And it’s actually very similar to the new national defense strategy penned by Jim Mattis, the Secretary of Defense. And they lump Russia together with China and basically say the age of counterterrorism, post-9/11 obsession is over, and we have to return and renew a focus as a country on the challenges that count from great powers Russia and China, that we’re in a new era of competition with Russia and China.
And arguably, that’s an era that began before Donald Trump; it’s likely to continue after Trump has left office, whenever that is. And so what I’m struck by is that Americans — even if you put aside this question of Donald Trump — they’re not really prepared for that kind of a confrontation, and right now, of course, you don’t really have a president who is leading or shaping that. Barack Obama didn’t buy into that either, by the way. Many of his advisers did, but Barack Obama demeaned and belittled Russia and basically dismissed them as insignificant in the sweep of history, a finished and doomed former superpower. Maybe that’s a bit of the problem.
Right. So, the issue is, do we really buy and accept this notion that, rather than America as the one superpower going forward, we have entered the post-American age, the age when we will struggle — not that we won’t be a power, but that when we will struggle and compete with other powers like China and Russia for dominance?
Ioffe: Well, this has been a thing that Vladimir Putin has been remarkably consistent about, and in 2007, when he spoke at the Munich Security Conference, he said that basically the liberal order that was established in 1991 at the end of the Cold War is over, and we don’t agree to it, and we want to rediscuss and renegotiate the terms of surrender.
Glasser: Yes, so now we’re relitigating.
Ioffe: Yes, no more unipolar world, where America calls all the shots with no friction, because we’ve seen — I mean, this was happening in 2007, again, four years after the invasion of Iraq and six years after the invasion of Afghanistan. And one of which — the invasion of Iraq — Putin was firmly against, and at that point he had been kind of proven right. Things had spiraled out of control in Iraq. And he said, you know, that’s it. No more—you guys can’t just go around doing whatever you want, especially you can’t call the shots on who gets to rule which country.
And I think that’s what Syria’s about; it’s kind of drawing a line and saying, “America cannot say so-and-so must go. It’s just not within their power. And we have something to say about that, too, and we will push back in a very real way.”
Glasser: So, welcome to the future…
Ioffe: He’s achieved it, yes.
Glasser: We will compete with Russia and China for influence, authority, power and advantage, whether military or economic.
Ioffe: I mean, and I think it’s helpful to — getting back to your very first question about the often ignorant way in which Russia is discussed in Washington — I think it’s not just about pride of intellect and expertise; it’s about accurately diagnosing the problem and knowing what it is you’re dealing with, right? You don’t want to treat a broken leg with chemotherapy.
And I think we have to understand that Russia is going to continue throwing sand in the gears, or weightier objects, and that they’re going to be a force that is constantly going to push back — often just to push back.
Glasser: And that’s because it really brings us right back to the modern version of Kremlinology, which is, what’s inside the head of Vladimir Putin, what’s inside the head of Donald Trump at this key moment in time. And I’ll leave the final word, actually, to another friend of ours, Anne Applebaum, in a conversation that she and I had a few months ago on The Global Politico. She said, Well, we actually have a clearer sense at this point in time of what Russia’s intentions are than we do of what Washington and what Donald Trump is going to do about it. “Imagine if we were fighting the Cold War all over again, except only one side was fighting it.” And I think that’s an important question to leave us with.
Glasser: My guest this week on The Global Politico is Julia Ioffe, as well as all of you listeners who have been wonderful and kind and smart and really offered a lot of great insights and feedback over the course of the last year, as we have taken The Global Politico on the road. We’ve always returned to Russia, and Russiagate over and over and over again, which is why we have this final Russia, Russia, Russia episode of The Global Politico.
So, thank you, Julia, for being our guest, and thank you to all of you listeners.
Ioffe: Thank you, Susan.
Susan B. Glasser is POLITICO’s chief international affairs columnist. Her new podcast, The Global Politico, comes out Mondays. Subscribe here. Follow her on Twitter @sbg1.
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