MOSCOW—President Vladimir Putin backed a constitutional amendment to reset his term count, a move that could eventually prolong his two-decade grip on power until 2036.
The State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, on Tuesday adopted a proposal that would allow Mr. Putin to run again in 2024, when his second sequential presidential term ends and he is currently required by the constitution to stand down.
Tuesday’s move was the latest step in a carefully choreographed process that began in January and has involved a change of government and Russia’s biggest constitutional overhaul since the end of the Soviet Union.
In a speech to lawmakers, punctuated by frequent applause, Mr. Putin said that he would back the changes if the country’s constitutional court didn’t object. They would be part of a wider package of constitutional amendments to be put to a national plebiscite in April.
“Russia has had enough revolutions,” Mr. Putin said. “The president is the guarantor of the constitution, and to say more simply, the guarantor of the security of our state, its internal stability and internal, evolutionary development.”
The amendment would allow Mr. Putin to serve another two back-to-back six-year presidential terms until 2036, when he would be 83.
With his conditional approval of the amendment, Mr. Putin is giving himself more options for after his term ends, said former government adviser Konstantin Gaaze, a Moscow-based political analyst.
“Putin is convincing himself that he is irreplaceable,” Mr. Gaaze said. “So he re-established himself as a personal guarantor of the elite’s future.”
Mr. Putin, 67, has held power in Russia since 1999, as either president or prime minister, though his popularity has begun to flag in recent months amid U.S. sanctions over Russia’s conflict with Ukraine and low oil and gas prices bruised the economy and living standards for Russians. The coronavirus outbreak and the recent fall in oil prices have presented further challenges for him.
“We see how difficult the situation is in world politics, in the field of security, in the global economy,” Mr. Putin said Tuesday. “The coronavirus also flew to us, and oil prices dance and jump, and with them the national currency and the exchange rate.”
In January, Mr. Putin proposed constitutional changes aimed at redistributing formal powers between the president, prime minister and parliament. Mr. Putin also reshuffled the government, removing longtime ally Dmitry Medvedev as prime minister and putting the former head of the tax service, Mikhail Mishustin, in charge.
The constitutional changes fueled speculation that Mr. Putin was seeking ways to continue to wield political power after 2024.
Mr. Putin, however, has denied that he wants to remain in power, saying he isn’t in favor of the Soviet-era tradition of having leaders who die in office.
A national vote on the constitutional amendments is scheduled for April 22. The changes include proposals to improve social policy and public administration.
While Mr. Putin’s plans to overhaul politics in Russia haven’t been met with a significant rise in public resistance, several thousand people attended a rally in the Russian capital last month, ostensibly to mark the murder of an opposition leader, in what they said was a rebuke to Mr. Putin’s plans to stay in power.
Across the globe, particularly in Africa, some autocratic leaders have changed national constitutions to remain in power indefinitely. In 2018, China abolished a two-term limit on the presidency, effectively allowing President Xi Jinping to remain in power for life.
So far, however, Mr. Putin has followed the letter of the law. In 2008, he stepped down as president and became prime minister while Mr. Medvedev served as president for four years.
“In fact, this isn’t about him [Putin]; this is about us, citizens, and the future of the country,” she said. “What I know for sure is that the very fact of the availability of this opportunity for the incumbent president, considering his huge authority, is a stabilizing factor for our society.”
Mr. Putin rejected the need for early parliamentary elections, another idea being debated at the Duma. Elections are currently scheduled for 2021.
Valentina Matviyenko, the speaker of Russia’s upper house, said that whether Mr. Putin decides to run again in 2024 or not, the election will be competitive and that “nothing is predetermined.”
Opposition leaders appeared unconvinced.
“It’s all clear: There won’t be early elections. Putin will be president for life,” Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition figure, said in a tweet.
Russian president proposes overhaul that could empower him after his term ends, as prime minister steps aside
MOSCOW—Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed sweeping constitutional changes that could set the stage for him to wield political power after his presidency ends, as his longtime ally, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, unexpectedly announced he was stepping down.
Mr. Medvedev’s resignation came after Mr. Putin earlier Wednesday laid out changes to Russia’s constitution that would limit the power of a potential successor if he steps down when his term ends in 2024. Mr. Putin also proposed boosting the role of the State Council, which he already heads.
Critics and supporters of Mr. Putin have speculated that the Russian leader could remain in control after his current term expires and guide policy in a different role, possibly as head of an empowered State Council.
“It’s not clear what role he will play, what will his status be. The only thing which is clear is that he will keep his role as the No. 1 person,” said Aleksei Chesnakov, a political analyst and former Kremlin aide.
Mr. Medvedev will stay on as prime minister until the new government is formed, Mr. Putin said on state television. He said Mr. Medvedev would be offered a newly created post of deputy chairman of Russia’s security council.
Mr. Putin proposed Mikhail Mishustin, a relatively unknown technocrat who has worked as head of Russia’s tax service since 2010, as the next prime minister, according to state news agencies. The Russian state Duma, or lower house of parliament, will consider his candidacy.
Russian stocks on the Moscow Exchange initially fell on the news of Mr. Medvedev’s resignation but quickly regained ground, with the MOEX Russia Index, the main ruble-denominated stocks benchmark, trading flat. The ruble was flat against the dollar.
Analysts said that Mr. Medvedev was likely ousted by Mr. Putin, who saw the biggest street protests against his rule in nearly a decade over the summer as Russians have felt the sting of chronic economic problems and falling living standards. While Mr. Putin has made decisions about defense and foreign policy, Mr. Medvedev has been responsible for domestic and economic policy.
“Medvedev had become quite toxic and unpopular for Russian people,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of R.Politik, a political analysis firm.
She said that as Mr. Putin embarks on a potential transition from the presidency, he will need a figure who he can trust.
“This is an unexpected divorce between Putin and Medvedev,” said Ms. Stanovaya. “Putin is looking for somebody who can help implement his constitutional reform, through which he will want to control his future successor. And it appears Medvedev is not that person.”
Watch author and journalist Masha Gessen’s candid, full interview on Putin and allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election – part of FRONTLINE’s media transparency project for our investigation, “Putin’s Revenge.”
46:38But among his first 10 decrees was a decree reinstating primary military education in46:46high schools, and this was something that was, to me, highly symbolic.46:55When I went to school in the Soviet Union, everybody—all the high school students had47:00to learn elementary military trades.47:06I mean, first of all, we had military games, survival games, from the time—I mean, games.47:12We called them games.47:13They weren’t games.47:14They were training sessions, right?47:16But from the time you’re very little, there are bomb raids, and you learn to recognize47:21chemical burns, and you are drilled on how to respond to chemical burns.47:27The thing is, you know, these classrooms that are—where the walls are covered with posters47:33on how to recognize different kinds of chemical weapons, the effects of different kinds of47:41chemical weapons and how to respond to them.47:45And then in ninth and 10th grade, so in high school, which is just two years, you learn47:54to administer first aid in a military situation and to take apart and clean a Kalashnikov48:03and put it back together again.48:07Anybody my age or older will be able to tell you how long it used to take them to take48:13apart and clean and put back together a Kalashnikov.48:16A good amount of time is around nine or eight seconds.48:24That was eliminated when the Soviet Union fell apart.48:29And we forget now how much the 1990s, even though Russia never really sort of fully entered48:36a post-imperial era, but still, it became a demilitarized country.48:43All of a sudden, there was much less emphasis on how every boy was a future soldier, which48:49is the way I was brought up.48:51You would just see very many fewer people in uniform in the streets.48:57When I was growing up, when I used to go meet my mother at the subway station when she was49:04coming home, I would—to entertain myself, I would count the number of people in uniform49:11coming off the trains as I waited for her.49:14Roughly every 10th person would be wearing a military uniform.49:17All of a sudden, that was no longer the case.49:20And of course children stopped learning how to take apart and put back together a Kalashnikov49:24in school.49:26One of the first things that Putin did, on the day that he became acting president, was49:32set in motion the process of bringing that back.49:36And I was convinced that—go ahead.49:38MICHAEL KIRK – Sorry.49:39MASHA GESSEN – No, I was convinced that he was signaling his intention to remilitarize49:45Russian society, which is exactly what he did.49:47MICHAEL KIRK – What does it do to a society to grow up with that eight-second Kalashnikov49:53rebuild and then have it reintroduced?49:57What’s the signal that that sends to people?50:01MASHA GESSEN – Well, different people receive the same signal differently.50:09It frightened me.50:10I didn’t want to live in a militarized society again, and I thought the militarized Russia50:14would be a dangerous country for the rest of the world.50:20Countries don’t militarize in order to be peaceful.50:26For a lot of people, though, it was a signal that they were going back to something that50:32was familiar and comfortable, both on a private level, which is that you would do the same—their50:39children would be doing the same things that they did as children, right, but much more50:43importantly on a public level, so that they would have a chance to identify with a great50:47country again.50:48He would make Russia great again.50:51For so many people in the 1990s, the instability and discomfort that they experienced became51:00concentrated in this idea of no longer belonging to a great power.51:07So a lot of Putin’s early signals were that he would bring back that wonderful feeling51:17of being part of a great power again.51:19MICHAEL KIRK – In a way, it’s right.51:22He’s merging probably how he felt, having missed glasnost and perestroika, not participating51:27in whatever was great about it, but he comes home, he’s shipwrecked, whatever happens51:35to him, it’s a different world than he probably anticipated finishing his life in.51:41That sort of ethos that he shared with the people was what he decided to employ as his51:51method.51:56In the end of his first year, George W. Bush becomes president of the United States.52:02One of the things we’ve noticed in tracing the arc of this gigantic narrative is how52:09often an American president arrives to a Russian president with hope that all is going to get52:16better, from Gorbachev on; democracy will flower now, and thank God.52:23…52:24MASHA GESSEN – Well, I want to say one more thing about what happened with George W. Bush52:27becoming president in ’99, or in 2000, is that Putin had just become president in a52:34very orderly manner.52:38He was handpicked by the previous president.52:42An election was scheduled.52:43He won it handily.52:46Everything went according to plan in his popularity.52:50His margin of victory was pretty good.52:53It was, I think, 53 percent in his first election.52:57And his popularity was sky-high.52:58Then America goes and has this ridiculous election that isn’t settled for two months53:08or two and a half months, and that just goes to show you how a democracy is such an imperfect53:15system, and probably an outdated and failed system.53:19I’m convinced that that’s the first time that Putin really watched an American presidential53:24election closely.53:25He’d never thought of himself as somebody who existed on that level.53:30Now he’s waiting to see who his counterpart is going to be, and he can’t even know who53:39his counterpart is going to be for two and a half months, because democracy is such a53:42mess.53:43…53:44MICHAEL KIRK – When they meet, the way the stories go, and especially—I’ve just talked53:46to a lot of American diplomats and ambassadors who were there at that first meeting.53:52This is the “I looked in his eyes and saw his soul” meeting.53:57Some people tell the story that here is a KGB guy who’s the president of Russia, who’s54:03studied Bush, knows he’s an evangelical, knows that he has a penchant and a weakness54:07for a religious story, dredges up a religious story out of his own past, the crucifix-in-the-ashes54:14story, and somehow they connect.54:19Tell me what you know about that version of the story.54:23MASHA GESSEN – Actually, I have nothing to add to that version of the story.54:28What I would say is that early on he was a charmer, early on in his term as president.54:34That’s no longer the case.54:37But everyone I’ve talked to [who] had a meeting with him in the first year or two of his becoming54:46acting president and then president came away transformed, at least for the first few minutes.54:51Well, actually, with one exception: one of the journalists who worked on that official54:56biography.54:58But everyone else felt that he sort of, he turned on the recruiter charm, and he was55:06well-briefed, and he always used a little personal anecdote to connect with you on the55:12grounds that he figured would be good for connecting.55:18A few years down the road, he stopped paying attention.55:21He would start mixing people’s names up or the facts of people’s biographies.55:26By the time I met him in 2012, he wasn’t even briefed.55:32He knew almost nothing about me, like he hadn’t bothered.55:37But early on, he was a real recruiter.55:40And I think he certainly worked his charm on George W. Bush, which apparently wasn’t55:46very difficult.55:47MICHAEL KIRK – There’s a lot of hope, of course, that they’ll do all kinds of things.55:54A lot of people have said—we’ll ask them: “What did Putin want from Bush?56:00What did Russia want from Bush?56:02But more importantly, what did Putin want from Bush and America?”56:06What do you think that was?56:07MASHA GESSEN – Well, Putin wanted the return of a bipolar world.56:15That was his agenda from the very beginning.56:17He wanted to be treated with respect.56:19He wanted people back home to see that he was being treated with respect.56:24This was also coming very soon after the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, right, which, for the56:35Russian political establishment and for a lot of Russian people, was a really difficult56:40pill to swallow.56:42…56:43The U.S. and its allies decided to bomb Serbia and Kosovo to resolve the Kosovo crisis without56:50consulting with Russia.56:51And to make matters worse, they started bombing, or the U.S. started bombing when Yevgeny Primakov,57:00the then-prime minister, was in the air, on his way to the United States to meet with57:04Vice President Gore.57:07So they didn’t even make a show of informing Russia before starting bombing, never mind57:13consulting Russia, and that was really insulting for the entire Russian establishment and a57:20lot of Russian people.57:23One of the things that Putin wanted to project was that that kind of thing was never going57:28to happen again.57:30MICHAEL KIRK – Then America pulls out of the ABM [Anti-Ballistic Missile] Treaty, not really57:36consulting.57:37In fact, he begged Bush not to do it.57:41They invade, or we invade Iraq, taking down an authoritarian figure who stands astride57:48a big—somewhat in the sphere of influence of Russia.57:54Russia joins with France and Germany and says: “Please don’t do this.57:57Are you guys going to do this?57:58Are you really going to do this?”58:00And they do it with a certain level of impunity, at least.58:06It seems that the word you used early to describe what he was hoping for, which is respect,58:11was hardly in the air between George W. Bush and the United States of America, and Vladimir58:16Putin and Russia.58:17MASHA GESSEN – And what’s even worse, I think from Putin’s point of view, is the expansion58:22of NATO.58:24It doesn’t ever sort of—in his worldview, it is not a question of these countries asking58:35to be part of NATO.58:36It is merely a question of the United States deciding that NATO should expand to the Russian58:43border.58:44He’s also convinced that the Soviet Union got assurances from the United States that58:52NATO would not be expanded.58:54…58:55The quote that Putin likes to bring up was a quote by the then-NATO commander given during58:59the negotiations about the reunification of Germany.59:05The promise was that there would be no NATO troops stationed on what had been East German59:11territory.59:12That’s the quote.59:13And that was a matter of negotiations.59:16This was, first of all, this was a negotiation with the Soviet Union, and then—and the59:21Soviet Union was pushing for a solution where somehow Germany would be united.59:26But East Germany still wouldn’t be a part of NATO.59:30And the compromise solution was that there would be no troops on what had been East German59:36territory.59:37That has nothing to do with NATO expansion as such, and it also certainly has nothing59:41to do with Russia.59:42I mean, this was being negotiated with the Soviet Union.59:45This was before the demise of the Warsaw Pact.59:50But in 2007, at the security conference in Munich, Putin shocks world leaders by giving59:59a very, very strongly worded speech about how Russia was not going to take it anymore.60:04MICHAEL KIRK – Can you take me there?60:07What has angered him, or what has happened in his world that he can go to Munich and60:12so forcefully declare?60:14It’s not declaring war, but it’s certainly declaring verbal war on, in an unspoken way,60:23the United States of America.60:26MASHA GESSEN – This is the end of his second term, and he has really been transformed.60:32He has already taken over the media in Russia.60:36He’s already canceled gubernatorial elections.60:39He’s canceled elections to the upper house of the Russian parliament.60:44He’s solidified power.60:47He is ruling very much like a dictator.60:50The process of dismantling what democratic mechanisms had existed in Russia was completed60:55in his first term, and this is the end of his second term.60:59Also, Russia has been living for seven years through a period of unprecedented prosperity,61:04because oil prices just keep climbing.61:07Money is just flowing into Russia.61:10Putin has enriched himself.61:12Everyone around him has enriched himself.61:14At the same time, he has emasculated the men who used to be known as the oligarchs.61:20They’ve ceded their political power to him, and a lot of their financial power, in exchange61:25for safety and security of those assets that they’re allowed to keep.61:29He’s really the patriarch of this country.61:34In Russia itself, people perceive him as enjoying the respect of the West, but he doesn’t61:42feel any respect, because the United States has invaded Afghanistan and then Iraq without61:51consulting with Russia, and in fact ignoring Russia’s wishes.61:53The United States has pulled out of the ABM Treaty.61:56And worst of all, NATO has expanded.61:59He’s been saving all of this resentment up because there he is—he feels like he62:07has transformed his country.62:09He’s made it great again, and he still doesn’t get any recognition of that when he meets62:14with world leaders.62:15He is still treated very much like a junior partner by everybody.62:20And so he comes to the security conference in Munich and says, basically: “I don’t62:25have to mince words, do I?62:28I can say what’s on my mind.”62:31And then he just lashes out, and he lists all these resentments, especially the NATO51:56In the end of his first year, George W. Bush becomes president of the United States.52:02One of the things we’ve noticed in tracing the arc of this gigantic narrative is how52:09often an American president arrives to a Russian president with hope that all is going to get52:16better, from Gorbachev on; democracy will flower now, and thank God.52:23…52:24MASHA GESSEN – Well, I want to say one more thing about what happened with George W. Bush52:27becoming president in ’99, or in 2000, is that Putin had just become president in a52:34very orderly manner.52:38He was handpicked by the previous president.52:42An election was scheduled.52:43He won it handily.52:46Everything went according to plan in his popularity.52:50His margin of victory was pretty good.52:53It was, I think, 53 percent in his first election.52:57And his popularity was sky-high.52:58Then America goes and has this ridiculous election that isn’t settled for two months53:08or two and a half months, and that just goes to show you how a democracy is such an imperfect53:15system, and probably an outdated and failed system.53:19I’m convinced that that’s the first time that Putin really watched an American presidential53:24election closely.53:25He’d never thought of himself as somebody who existed on that level.53:30Now he’s waiting to see who his counterpart is going to be, and he can’t even know who53:39his counterpart is going to be for two and a half months, because democracy is such a53:42mess.53:43…53:44MICHAEL KIRK – When they meet, the way the stories go, and especially—I’ve just talked53:46to a lot of American diplomats and ambassadors who were there at that first meeting.53:52This is the “I looked in his eyes and saw his soul” meeting.53:57Some people tell the story that here is a KGB guy who’s the president of Russia, who’s54:03studied Bush, knows he’s an evangelical, knows that he has a penchant and a weakness54:07for a religious story, dredges up a religious story out of his own past, the crucifix-in-the-ashes54:14story, and somehow they connect.54:19Tell me what you know about that version of the story.54:23MASHA GESSEN – Actually, I have nothing to add to that version of the story.54:28What I would say is that early on he was a charmer, early on in his term as president.54:34That’s no longer the case.54:37But everyone I’ve talked to [who] had a meeting with him in the first year or two of his becoming54:46acting president and then president came away transformed, at least for the first few minutes.54:51Well, actually, with one exception: one of the journalists who worked on that official54:56biography.54:58But everyone else felt that he sort of, he turned on the recruiter charm, and he was55:06well-briefed, and he always used a little personal anecdote to connect with you on the55:12grounds that he figured would be good for connecting.55:18A few years down the road, he stopped paying attention.55:21He would start mixing people’s names up or the facts of people’s biographies.55:26By the time I met him in 2012, he wasn’t even briefed.55:32He knew almost nothing about me, like he hadn’t bothered.55:37But early on, he was a real recruiter.55:40And I think he certainly worked his charm on George W. Bush, which apparently wasn’t55:46very difficult.55:47MICHAEL KIRK – There’s a lot of hope, of course, that they’ll do all kinds of things.55:54A lot of people have said—we’ll ask them: “What did Putin want from Bush?56:00What did Russia want from Bush?56:02But more importantly, what did Putin want from Bush and America?”56:06What do you think that was?56:07MASHA GESSEN – Well, Putin wanted the return of a bipolar world.56:15That was his agenda from the very beginning.56:17He wanted to be treated with respect.56:19He wanted people back home to see that he was being treated with respect.56:24This was also coming very soon after the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, right, which, for the56:35Russian political establishment and for a lot of Russian people, was a really difficult56:40pill to swallow.56:42…56:43The U.S. and its allies decided to bomb Serbia and Kosovo to resolve the Kosovo crisis without56:50consulting with Russia.56:51And to make matters worse, they started bombing, or the U.S. started bombing when Yevgeny Primakov,57:00the then-prime minister, was in the air, on his way to the United States to meet with57:04Vice President Gore.57:07So they didn’t even make a show of informing Russia before starting bombing, never mind57:13consulting Russia, and that was really insulting for the entire Russian establishment and a57:20lot of Russian people.57:23One of the things that Putin wanted to project was that that kind of thing was never going57:28to happen again.57:30MICHAEL KIRK – Then America pulls out of the ABM [Anti-Ballistic Missile] Treaty, not really57:36consulting.57:37In fact, he begged Bush not to do it.57:41They invade, or we invade Iraq, taking down an authoritarian figure who stands astride57:48a big—somewhat in the sphere of influence of Russia.57:54Russia joins with France and Germany and says: “Please don’t do this.57:57Are you guys going to do this?57:58Are you really going to do this?”58:00And they do it with a certain level of impunity, at least.58:06It seems that the word you used early to describe what he was hoping for, which is respect,58:11was hardly in the air between George W. Bush and the United States of America, and Vladimir58:16Putin and Russia.58:17MASHA GESSEN – And what’s even worse, I think from Putin’s point of view, is the expansion58:22of NATO.58:24It doesn’t ever sort of—in his worldview, it is not a question of these countries asking58:35to be part of NATO.58:36It is merely a question of the United States deciding that NATO should expand to the Russian58:43border.58:44He’s also convinced that the Soviet Union got assurances from the United States that58:52NATO would not be expanded.58:54…58:55The quote that Putin likes to bring up was a quote by the then-NATO commander given during58:59the negotiations about the reunification of Germany.59:05The promise was that there would be no NATO troops stationed on what had been East German59:11territory.59:12That’s the quote.59:13And that was a matter of negotiations.59:16This was, first of all, this was a negotiation with the Soviet Union, and then—and the59:21Soviet Union was pushing for a solution where somehow Germany would be united.59:26But East Germany still wouldn’t be a part of NATO.59:30And the compromise solution was that there would be no troops on what had been East German59:36territory.59:37That has nothing to do with NATO expansion as such, and it also certainly has nothing59:41to do with Russia.59:42I mean, this was being negotiated with the Soviet Union.59:45This was before the demise of the Warsaw Pact.59:50But in 2007, at the security conference in Munich, Putin shocks world leaders by giving59:59a very, very strongly worded speech about how Russia was not going to take it anymore.60:04MICHAEL KIRK – Can you take me there?60:07What has angered him, or what has happened in his world that he can go to Munich and60:12so forcefully declare?60:14It’s not declaring war, but it’s certainly declaring verbal war on, in an unspoken way,60:23the United States of America.60:26MASHA GESSEN – This is the end of his second term, and he has really been transformed.60:32He has already taken over the media in Russia.60:36He’s already canceled gubernatorial elections.60:39He’s canceled elections to the upper house of the Russian parliament.60:44He’s solidified power.60:47He is ruling very much like a dictator.60:50The process of dismantling what democratic mechanisms had existed in Russia was completed60:55in his first term, and this is the end of his second term.60:59Also, Russia has been living for seven years through a period of unprecedented prosperity,61:04because oil prices just keep climbing.61:07Money is just flowing into Russia.61:10Putin has enriched himself.61:12Everyone around him has enriched himself.61:14At the same time, he has emasculated the men who used to be known as the oligarchs.61:20They’ve ceded their political power to him, and a lot of their financial power, in exchange61:25for safety and security of those assets that they’re allowed to keep.61:29He’s really the patriarch of this country.61:34In Russia itself, people perceive him as enjoying the respect of the West, but he doesn’t61:42feel any respect, because the United States has invaded Afghanistan and then Iraq without61:51consulting with Russia, and in fact ignoring Russia’s wishes.61:53The United States has pulled out of the ABM Treaty.61:56And worst of all, NATO has expanded.61:59He’s been saving all of this resentment up because there he is—he feels like he62:07has transformed his country.62:09He’s made it great again, and he still doesn’t get any recognition of that when he meets62:14with world leaders.62:15He is still treated very much like a junior partner by everybody.62:20And so he comes to the security conference in Munich and says, basically: “I don’t62:25have to mince words, do I?62:28I can say what’s on my mind.”62:31And then he just lashes out, and he lists all these resentments, especially the NATO62:37expansion, referring to a nonexistent agreement, a nonexistent promise that NATO would never62:44expand.62:45It’s a total change of tone that comes as a complete surprise to his Western counterparts.62:51MICHAEL KIRK – Then one of the other things we do is we’re tracking the development62:58of military power, including hybrid power and including cyber and information war and63:06hard power.63:13Things begin to happen.63:14Estonia is two months later.63:17Then Georgia 1, or Georgia 2, Ukraine—all of it begins to happen, and all of it feels63:25like a rehearsal for something, or a perfecting of the military might.63:34Help me understand what he’s doing in terms of military power and where that fits into63:40this sense I’m getting from you, that he’s looking for not only making Russia great again,63:45but making people believe Russia is great again.63:48MASHA GESSEN – So he starts increasing military spending.63:55First it’s not extraordinary.63:56Now it’s quite extraordinary, the amount of money that Russia has been spending on64:01the military.64:03But he’s certainly interested in military reform.64:07A lot of people believe that he has militarized the Russian power establishment.64:11There are some counterarguments against that, but I mean, he loves his generals, and he64:18loves talking about how he’s bringing the military back.64:23He’s also investing money in ways of waging hybrid warfare, and an excuse to test some64:34of that presents itself.64:36Really, it’s just—it’s even hard to call it—it’s a pretext.64:41In the spring of 2007, Estonia moves a monument to64:55a Russian soldier, right?64:58When the Soviet Union occupied Eastern and Central Europe in 1945, it erected monuments65:13to the liberation of those countries, in the centers of every capital of those occupied65:21countries.65:23Now, some countries have chosen to look the other way, like Austria, which still has a65:28giant monument to its liberation by the Soviet soldiers in central Vienna.65:38But for some countries, it was much more problematic.65:40And for Estonia, which had been not only under Soviet occupation for half a century, but65:49really based its post-Soviet identity on the idea of occupation, right, to have that monument65:59in the center of town was really problematic.66:03It also became a focal point for both Estonian nationalists who would deface the monument66:13and [for] pro-Russian gatherings.66:19Estonia has a huge ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking population of non-citizens.66:25So this was—it was a problem in town.66:32They decided to solve this problem by moving the monument to a military cemetery.66:36The monument included 12 graves, so they moved the monument to a military cemetery, and Russia66:45really could have reacted in any number of ways, but Russia reacted with outrage.66:49Now, another thing that Putin had been doing is he had been creating these youth movements66:52sort of semi-vigilante, military in style if not—though not armed, basically para-armies67:07of young people to support the Kremlin.67:11So they are unleashed on the Estonian Embassy in Moscow.67:16The Estonian Embassy is essentially occupied for three days, and these so-called activists67:25demand that the Estonian ambassador go home.67:30The ambassador finally went home officially on vacation, but they said, “OK, our job67:35is done,” and left.67:36But at the same time—and Estonia is the most technologically advanced country in the67:45world.67:47Its entire government is electronic.67:49It’s the first country to offer e-citizenship.67:53Everything is on a chip.67:54You get stopped for a traffic violation or you go see a doctor, you use the same ID card67:59with a chip in it.68:00And all of a sudden, the entire Estonian system of government goes down because of pretty68:08primitive but enormous DDoS attack, [Distributed] Denial of Service attack launched on Estonia.68:18At the time, Russia denies that it’s involved.68:20Two years later, the leader of one of those youth movements says, “Yeah, it was an army68:25of volunteer hackers who unleashed that war.”68:31But it really shows Estonia who’s boss, because Estonia may be the most technologically68:38advanced country in the world, and it may have built a great democracy, but it’s just68:401.2 million people, and you unleash 1.2 million hackers on them, and they can’t stand up to68:49it.68:50MICHAEL KIRK – How much of this and the Orange and Rose Revolution responses by Russia are68:58manifestations of Putin’s temper?69:00MASHA GESSEN – I think it’s both his temper and his perception of the world as essentially69:08hostile.69:09He personally perceives the world as essentially hostile, not just hostile to Russia, but hostile69:18to him, hostile to people he loves, just a really dangerous place.69:27So every time something happens, it’s probably a sign of danger, and the revolutions in both69:35Georgia and Ukraine were signs of danger.69:39In fact, in 2004 Ukraine had an election.69:44The election was very clearly rigged.69:46People started protesting in the streets, and eventually the Supreme Court, the Ukrainian69:51Supreme Court, ruled that—invalidated the results of the election and called for a third69:57runoff election to set things right.70:00Now, there were a couple of things that, for Putin, I think, were indications of danger.70:05One is— there’s an obvious one—which is that an independent judiciary is really dangerous70:11for a leader who relies on the rigged elections.70:14But again, people in the streets is a really frightening sight to Putin.70:21People in the streets can make all sorts of things happen, so instead of sort of watching70:25it and thinking, oh, we don’t have an independent judiciary, so people can come out in the streets70:30and then go right back home, because they can’t set in motion any mechanisms, because70:37he’d long since reversed judicial reform in Russia, which didn’t get very far in70:41the first place, instead he sees people in the streets wreaking havoc.70:46But he’s also convinced that people don’t just come out into the streets.70:51They have to be driven by somebody.70:53There has to be a puppet master.70:55Somebody’s funding them, and it’s probably the United States.71:00That’s actually when he started creating these youth armies.71:07There’s a wonderful Australian scholar named Robert Horvath who calls it “Putin’s preventive71:11counterrevolution.”71:14He launched a counterrevolution in his own country without waiting for a revolution to71:18happen, but he was terrified of a revolution like the one in Ukraine or the one in Georgia.71:24The one in Ukraine is known as the Orange Revolution, and the one in Georgia is known71:27as the Rose Revolution.71:29Nothing like that would ever happen in Russia, because there was already an army of young71:33people in place to basically to fight the protesters in the streets if they should come71:37out into the streets.71:39MICHAEL KIRK – By the time Obama comes in—we’re talking about the reset—[Dmitry] Medvedev71:47is in.71:49Is it an obvious fiction—was it an obvious fiction to you what it was going to be, or71:57is it an irrelevant fiction?71:58He [Putin] is still the most powerful guy in the country no matter what?72:01I know to Obama and Hillary, it seems like they—and we’ve talked to lots of people72:07who are around them—they really had high hopes that it was a true reset moment.72:13MASHA GESSEN – … I think at this point I can probably say it.72:22I was able to observe a little bit of that policymaking, and part of it was this idea,72:30this cynical and I think overconfident idea that if the United States empowered Medvedev,72:38then he would become the actual president.72:43I think that there were certainly intelligent people in the State Department at the time72:48who knew perfectly well that it was a fiction, and the basic understanding in the State Department72:53was that yes, it’s a fiction, but maybe we can make it real.72:58MICHAEL KIRK – So what did you witness?73:01What did you see?73:02What can you talk about?73:07MASHA GESSEN – I witnessed some of those, sort of the policymaking, and the idea—I73:15mean, everybody on the team, on the Russia team, I think in the State Department, did73:21realize that Medvedev was a fiction; he was a placeholder.73:26But there was a hope that sometimes these things take on a life of their own.73:32They really do.73:33I don’t think it’s—it’s not a crazy idea.73:36In fact, Putin was very much that kind of phenomenon as well, right?73:41He was sort of a fake accidental president, and then he was a real one.73:47I think that what they underestimated hugely was just how entrenched the clan system that73:56Putin had put in place was by 2008 when he put Medvedev in that chair as a placeholder.74:08I think that’s best described as a mafia state, which is a term invented by a Hungarian74:15scholar named Bálint Magyar, who actually makes a very strong argument that it’s important74:21to understand that it’s not crony capitalism or a kleptocracy; it’s a mafia state.74:27It’s administered by a patriarch, and power is distributed by the patriarch, just as money74:32is distributed by the patriarch.74:34Putin was still the patriarch.74:35It doesn’t matter what title he had.74:38I think they also didn’t realize, and I didn’t realize this until probably a couple74:42of years into the so-called Medvedev administration, that Medvedev just had absolutely no resources.74:51He had a couple of people working for him, a press secretary and an assistant, and like74:56one other guy.74:58Everything was concentrated around Putin.75:01At the same time, Medvedev had—legally, he had the right to fire Putin.75:07The president can fire the prime minister.75:09MICHAEL KIRK – But he’s not going to do that.75:13MASHA GESSEN – Well, one could hope that he would do that.75:16Then it’s very hard to sort of to discuss a counterfactual.75:21Like if the United States had not gone for the reset, would it have worked any better?75:29I don’t know.75:31I think that the fact that the reset came after the war in Georgia, and the war in Georgia75:43was technically fought under the Medvedev administration, and to sort of come to Russia75:52and say, “We’re willing to write it off, you know, write off the annexation of a third—of75:59a neighboring country,” it’s deeply immoral.76:07It also so happens that it was completely ineffective.76:11So the U.S. sacrificed some of its key foreign policy principles for nothing.76:20MICHAEL KIRK – It seems like it all falls apart, really falls apart starting with the76:29Arab Spring, from [Egypt’s Hosni] Mubarak to [Libya’s Muammar al-]Qaddafi and the76:37vote Medvedev makes.76:42But when do you think it—what was the tipping point in that sort of false presidential moment?76:49What happens?76:51MASHA GESSEN – The false presidential moment?76:53MICHAEL KIRK – Well, it makes Putin reassert himself actually and say, “I’m going back76:57in.”76:58MASHA GESSEN – Oh, I think he was always planning to go back.77:00MICHAEL KIRK – No matter what?77:02MASHA GESSEN – Yeah, I don’t think that he ever considered the possibility of not77:09running for election again.77:11If he did, it was more of a possibility of changing the constitution to make it basically77:17a parliamentary republic.77:18MICHAEL KIRK – And then he’d have it anyway.77:20MASHA GESSEN – And then he’d have all the power legally.77:22There was no way he was going to stay in a legally less powerful position for more than77:30four years.77:32The fact that the first thing that Medvedev did when he came into office was change the77:36constitution to extend the presidency to six years indicates that, from the very beginning,77:42the plan was for Putin to then come back in for six years.77:46Then it was, you know, it was done right away, and it wasn’t being done for Medvedev’s77:52benefit.77:53MICHAEL KIRK – When the people hit the streets in the midst of the announcement that he’s78:01coming back, and Hillary says, the statement she says around the election, the unfairness78:08of the election, and Putin reacts so negatively, negatively enough that, whether it’s a pretext78:16or not, he seems to remember it, a lot of people are saying it’s a motivation for78:20the attack in 2016.78:22How do you read what was happening with the people on the street?78:26Here we are again, people on the street, Putin; it’s becoming a familiar pattern.78:31But how do you read that, Hillary’s statement and the effect it had on Putin?78:37What did that look like from Putin’s perspective?78:39MASHA GESSEN – Well, so from Putin’s perspective, I mean by 2011-2012, he has completely lost78:49the ability to distinguish himself from his regime, his regime from the country—from78:55the state, and the state from the country.78:57When he sees people coming out into the streets to protest him and his regime, he sees them79:05protesting Russia itself.79:07I think that’s a sincere view of the world.79:11He knows what’s best for Russia.79:13They want to destroy Russia.79:15If they want to destroy Russia, then obviously they’re not Russians.79:19So they must be—their puppet master—and he’s always been convinced that there are79:24puppet masters behind any protest—but their puppet master has to be whoever is opposed79:30to Russia.79:31Well, obviously, what’s the only thing that’s powerful enough to oppose Russia and to incite79:42these protests?79:43It has to be the U.S. State Department, because it would be insulting to think that it was79:46anything else, anything less than that.79:50And Hillary is the secretary of state, so obviously it’s her fault, personally.79:56MICHAEL KIRK – Let’s address Sochi, Crimea, Ukraine, all in a kind of moment, if you can.80:06What does Sochi mean?80:09It’s been going on since late November, early December , down in Ukraine.80:12I don’t really need to know the details since I know about [Ukrainian President Viktor]80:17Yanukovych and all the rest.80:19But it’s to Putin this glorious moment.80:22This other thing is happening.80:24He hates it for all the reasons you’ve just articulated, and he’s got a kind of plan,80:28I guess, to go after Crimea and then down into Ukraine, using his new hybrid forces,80:34I suppose.80:35MASHA GESSEN – I think that by 2014, really military buildup has become his number one80:43priority, and there are a few reasons for this.80:46One is that he loves the military.80:49He sees it as Russia’s ultimate greatness.80:51But the other thing is that he has to become a mobilizational leader.80:57The bargain that he had with the population, which is basically exchanging sort of a sense81:08of overwhelming prosperity that he was giving them for unlimited power that they were giving81:14him, that’s not working anymore, because the Russian economy is becoming stagnant.81:20Oil prices haven’t started dropping yet, but because of corruption and because of the overreliance81:27on extractive economy, the economic growth has basically slowed to a crawl by 2013, by81:37the end of 2013.81:41He still has to throw this big party, which he’s been planning for many years.81:45He went to Guatemala City personally to lobby for the Olympics.81:51Not only that, he gave a speech in English, which he’d never done before.81:55I think it was—or was it French?81:58Anyway, it was a language that he doesn’t usually use.82:05So he has been planning for this great moment.82:10And the Olympics—remember, the last Olympics in Russia were the Moscow Olympics in 1980,82:19which were supposed to also be a symbol of greatness, and turned into something entirely82:24different because the United States boycotted the Moscow Olympics over the invasion of Afghanistan.82:31So it’s also partly taking revenge for that humiliation of 1980.82:40All of that is on one pile.82:41And then in the fall of 2013, it turns out that a lot of Western countries aren’t sending82:51their luminaries, the first—I think it was the president of Germany [Joachim Gauck] who82:59said he wasn’t coming, then Belgium, then someone else.83:03Then finally Obama announces his delegation, which doesn’t include an elected official.83:14The highest placed official that it includes is a deputy assistant secretary of state,83:18which is just an insult.83:20And, to add more insult, there are two openly gay former Olympians in the delegation.83:29This is about a year and a half into Putin’s anti-gay campaign, because the way that he83:34ended up dealing with the protesters was by queer-baiting them and by sort of focusing83:40Russia’s ire on the LGBT population.83:44There are no good photo ops in Sochi.83:48It’s basically, instead of a party, it’s a disaster.83:52At the last minute, Putin tried to clean up his act by releasing [Mikhail] Khodorkovsy,83:57the former oligarch, who had been a political prisoner for 10 years; releasing the members84:02of Pussy Riot, who had been in jail for nearly two years; releasing the 30—I think [thirty]84:08two members of Greenpeace who were in a ship that Russia had hijacked in neutral waters,84:15in international waters in September, a ship flying the Dutch flag.84:22So they release all of those people.84:24But it’s too late to save Sochi.84:27That adds more resentment to his feelings around Sochi.84:32Meanwhile, Ukraine, which is not just Russia’s closest neighbor but very much sort of the84:39country that Russia identifies with, and really, really identifies with, right—I mean, Russians84:44of all kinds look at Ukraine to understand their own country, and Putin is no exception.84:50In Ukraine, there have been these protests going on for now several months, and it’s84:56because Ukrainians want a closer association with Western Europe rather than [with] Russia.85:06He interprets those protests as anti-Russian.85:10But they’ve thrown the country into absolute turmoil.85:14Now, so all of that is in place.85:16And his military buildup is in place.85:19I don’t think it’s a matter of having plans for the Crimea in place.85:23It’s a matter of having plans for everything in place.85:27It’s like Chekhov’s gun hanging on the wall, except that they have a plan for invading85:32every country on the wall, right?85:35That’s what a lot of the investment of the military has been, is making plans for how85:39are we going to fight this war and this other war?85:41How are we going to re-annex parts of Finland, and how are we going to re-annex the Baltic85:48states and Moldova and Ukraine?85:51So here is the moment to take Crimea.85:55And it’s clear, from the way that the Crimean operation was carried out, that it was indeed86:00a well-planned operation.86:01It was carried out on the spur of the moment when he saw the opportunity, but the plans86:07for the operation had long since been designed.86:13It was just a matter of implementation.86:16Then there are a lot of people around him who want to go further, who want to go into86:22Ukraine, and he has nothing to lose by going into Ukraine—not that he actually thinks86:27about his losses.86:28He’s a brilliant opportunist and not a planner.86:32Actually, Sochi is a perfect example of how little he plans.86:36Usually, the Olympics aren’t very often held in dictatorships, and dictatorships usually86:43clean up their act a year or two before the Olympics, and then do things like arrest all86:49the political dissidents and reinstate the death penalty like China did the day after86:54the Olympics ends.86:55But not Russia.86:56Russia didn’t clean up its act because Putin is not a planner, right?86:59Putin realized that he had to do something six weeks before the actual Olympics and released87:04everybody, but it was too late.87:05It’s not like he’s looking ahead to what’s going to happen if he invades Ukraine.87:10He invades Ukraine because he can, and because it’s good for mobilization, and it’s worked87:17really well for him.87:19If you look at his popularity curve, it goes up vertically again, just like it did in September-October87:301999, when he promised to hunt down the terrorists.87:33It goes up vertically again, just as the economic expectations curve goes down.87:45You never actually see that in a normal country.87:48You never see a leader whose popularity is up and holding while people’s subjective87:54economic well-being is down, drops down precipitously and holds.88:02Sociologists will tell you that those lines have to meet.88:05In fact, they have to cross in opposite direction.88:08But that doesn’t happen in Russia.88:12And I think the reason it doesn’t happen in Russia is because ultimately, Russia has88:17reverted to this state of mobilization identification with the state.88:24He has delivered what he promised, which is to bring back to people the feeling of identifying88:30with something great.88:31MICHAEL KIRK – And when they’re hammered with sanctions, does that diminish him in some88:41way?88:42Does it diminish him with his people?88:43MASHA GESSEN – Well, did something really interesting with the sanctions.88:51The U.S. and the European Union and Australia and I think a couple other countries introduced88:57sanctions, which were designed to—they were based on a ridiculous premise that comes from89:14a basic misunderstanding of the way that Russia works, that if they squeezed him economically89:22a little bit, his popularity would suffer, people would protest, and then he would have89:33to change his behavior.89:34First of all, Putin had been power, by that point, for 15 years.89:44He had never shown an ability to change course.89:49He had never shown that he reacts to pressure with anything but aggression.89:55But also, there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of how his dialog with his people was working.90:01By this time, he had cracked down in the wake of the protests, so Russia was two years into90:06a full-fledged political crackdown.90:09It’s not like he was worried about feedback, and it’s not like protests were a real option.90:18But they also clearly weren’t looking at how much more popular he had become because90:23of the invasion.90:26So sanctions—I’m not opposed to sanctions.90:29I just think that sanctions should be based on moral considerations and values, not on90:35the idea that they could squeeze him into changing his behavior.90:40But after sanctions went into effect, Putin did something extraordinary, which is he made90:45the sanctions worse.90:47He introduced countersanctions, banned the import of food products from all the countries90:57that had joined the sanctions, with the exception of Switzerland.91:04That actually was a huge blow to the Russian economy, but especially to sort of individual91:11economy, because at the time, nearly all Russian food was imported, partly because it’s an91:19extractive economy.91:20The ruble had been very strong for many years.91:23There was no reason for Russians to make their own food.91:27They were importing it.91:31The saner rationale for those countersanctions was to jumpstart Russian food production,91:38but of course, that’s not how it works, right?91:42Prices went through the roof.91:44People really felt the squeeze.91:46But that actually made the sense of being at war stronger.91:49Even though people suffered, Putin’s popularity didn’t suffer, and it still hasn’t suffered.91:58The reason that he hates the sanctions is not because they put the squeeze on the Russian92:03economy.92:04He is concerned about a different set of sanctions.92:08He’s concerned about personal sanctions against that—that really make things difficult92:15for him and his friends who are banned from entry to this country, who are banned from92:20having assets in this country, and who are essentially banned from doing any business92:25involving U.S. currency, which really hampers their style.92:30MICHAEL KIRK – So let’s take ourselves to the summer of 2016.92:37Why does Vladimir Putin, really in 2015 and in the spring of 2016, initiate, unleash the92:48hounds if that’s what he did, decide to go in to, invade the presidential election92:57in the United States of America in 2016?93:00MASHA GESSEN – A couple of things.93:02One is that Russia has actually made a habit of being a disruptive force in Western elections93:14for a few years now.93:15It didn’t begin with the American presidential election.93:22A better way to ask the question might be, why wouldn’t Russia try to meddle in American93:28elections when it’s made a habit of meddling in democratic elections?93:32Now, the reasons for meddling in elections are obvious, and I would actually begin with93:40psychological reasons rather than strategic reasons.93:43The psychological reason is that Putin is really and truly convinced, and the people93:48around him are really and truly convinced, that democracy is an unsound way of running93:52things.93:54It is messy.93:56It is, as he saw with Bush and Gore, doesn’t run very well, and it also probably isn’t94:06as honest as everybody says, right?94:10In fact, when you ask a Russian official or a Russian patriot about rigged Russian elections,94:21they will always say, “You think your elections are so honest?”94:24That’s a sense of relief.94:27It’s not, you know, this bit of—it’s not hypocritical “What about-ism?”94:30It’s sincere “What about-ism?”94:32They’re really arguments that democratic elections are rigged.94:34Well, if their democratic elections are rigged, why wouldn’t you want a part of the rigging94:40if you have an interest in the outcome?94:42Of course Russia has an interest in the outcome of American elections.94:47It also has an even deeper interest in proving that democracy is as rotten as they say it94:53is.94:55To prove that democracy is as rotten as they say it is, it is good to help it along in95:01becoming more rotten.95:05The other thing is that I think in this country, we’ve come to imagine the Russian system95:11of meddling as a well-oiled machine or a well-commanded army.95:21That’s not what it is at all.95:23There are a lot of technically savvy and not so savvy people who want to get federal grants,95:32and the Kremlin throws a lot of money at organizations that will sell a good pitch of being able95:42to meddle in something or wreak some sort of havoc somewhere, where havoc ought to be95:48wreaked, right?95:50It’s not so much that Putin sends out an army of hackers; it’s that there are groups95:55of hackers who want to take the initiative of doing something really awesome, which is,96:00of course, how we get two different groups hacking the Democratic National Committee96:06at roughly the same time, without apparently being aware of each other.96:09MICHAEL KIRK – Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear.96:12MASHA GESSEN – Right, Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear.96:17The whole thing is self-perpetuating and messy in different sorts of ways.96:23But of course there’s also the element of his personal hatred for Hillary Clinton, and96:27it’s not just hate her.96:28I think it’s like Hillary Clinton was impossible as a U.S. president.96:33To imagine that he would have to deal with her as a senior partner, a woman—I mean,96:38he already has to deal with [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel.96:44The lengths that he has gone to to assert his masculine dominance over Merkel is amazing.96:52He literally sicced dogs on her.96:57He has made indecent jokes in front of her, just to try to discomfort her.97:07He hates dealing with a strong woman, and one as president of the United States would97:13be just awful.97:14I don’t think he ever believed that he was going to be able to help get Trump into office.97:19I think in that sense, the people who prepared his briefs read all the same sources as we97:28do.97:29They were just as convinced that Hillary Clinton was going to win the American election as97:35The New York Times was convinced that she was going to win the American election.97:41MICHAEL KIRK – So in 2008 and other times, it was obviously espionage, and everybody97:48steals everything from everybody.97:49It’s when it’s activated through WikiLeaks and others that it changes into pure politics?97:56MASHA GESSEN – Well, that’s where it gets really—I mean, we don’t know, right?98:05I think that Julian Assange has his own megalomaniacal views of his role in the world.98:16He’s certainly alone against the entire world.98:22Who made the decision to release the products of the leaks at that particular time?98:27I think there’s actually every indication it was Assange.98:31How long had he been sitting on that material?98:33Did he get it on the eve of the leak, or months and months before?98:38We actually don’t know.98:42MICHAEL KIRK – One question in passing.98:49Nobody’s actually reached out and tried to stop Putin along this long narrative we’ve98:55been discussing, that we know of.98:59When Ukraine happens, we don’t fire back cyber stuff or close a bank.99:04…99:05With the lethal arming of Ukrainian rebels or Ukrainian soldiers, one might have said,99:12“Well, we’ve stepped up to him and stood up to him,” but maybe not.99:15And, as you have articulated, it might have pissed him off, and off we go again further99:20and further along.99:21We get here, we know it.99:22[Then-Director of National Intelligence James] Clapper knows it.99:25Eventually the FBI knows it.99:26Certainly Obama knows it.99:28And there were certainly arguments: “We’ve got to push back here.99:31We’ve got to let him know.”99:33From what you know about Putin, and what you’ve been talking about this afternoon, how would99:38Putin have reacted if there would have been pushback?99:41MASHA GESSEN – Again, it’s very hard to argue a counterfactual, and I don’t think99:49that Putin’s reaction should be the consideration.99:53I think we have known for a very, very long time that Putin is dead set on a particular99:59course, and he’s going to pursue it.100:01When he gets very strong pushback, he steps back, and then he comes back again in the100:06exact same direction, doing the exact same thing.100:11The question should not be, what does Putin do?100:14Obviously it’s responsible to consider it, but it’s not terribly complicated to predict100:20what he is going to do.100:21The question should be, what are our values, and what do we do in accordance with our values100:29in this situation?100:30The sanctions, I think, are a very good example, right?100:34The sanctions, as a strategic move, are a failure, and a predictable failure.100:40The sanctions, as an expression of American values, wouldn’t have been a failure if100:45they had been framed and implemented that way, right?100:48It is wrong to do business with a dictator.100:51It is wrong to do business with a head of state or with a state that carries out the100:55first forcible annexation of land in Europe since World War II.101:00In accordance with those considerations, what does the United States do?101:03It probably introduces similar sanctions.101:05Doesn’t do it step by step the way it was done, because it is not gradually more and101:13more wrong to do business with that kind of state.101:15It is instantly wrong to do business with that kind of state.101:18So you introduce sanctions all at once, and perhaps in somewhat different areas, or perhaps101:24not.101:25But you don’t do it step by step, because the step-by-step process was intended to show101:28Putin that we mean business, and he has to stop.101:31Like hell he’s going to stop, right?101:33That’s not the kind of pushback that will make him stop.101:37You know, again, there’s also basic misunderstanding that he thinks that making life worse for101:42his people—I mean, we think that making life worse for Russians is going to make Putin101:47stop.101:48He has been making life worse for Russians for years, and it certainly hasn’t made101:54him stop.101:56MICHAEL KIRK – So what do you think Trump—what do you think Putin thinks of Trump?102:04…102:05MASHA GESSEN – Oh, he very clearly sees Trump as a buffoon.102:10Trump is, in some ways, the expression of everything that Putin disdains.102:14He disdains lack of control.102:18One thing that he also has cultivated as part of his image is his never betraying emotions.102:25That’s not true.102:26He actually betrays emotions quite a lot, but his idea of himself is somebody who has102:33a flat affect and purposefully never shows any emotions and is always calculated in everything102:42he does and says.102:43Also not true, but that’s how he thinks of himself.102:46Trump is the exact opposite of that.102:49I mean, I think that that kind of lack of control over his words and actions and emotions102:58and reactions makes Putin look down on him.103:03And I think, at this point, Putin feels also a little bit betrayed, because along with103:09much of the media establishment, and certainly much of Russian media, he has bought the idea103:14that he elected Trump.103:16He loves that idea.103:17He took a couple of victory laps after the election.103:21And now Trump hasn’t delivered.103:26In a way, Russia is worse off with Trump in office than it was with Obama in office.103:33MICHAEL KIRK – Because?103:34MASHA GESSEN – Sanctions remain in place.103:36There’s no sign that they will ever be removed.103:38Trump is less predictable.103:40Obama was always—you could basically easily predict that he was going to go for the least103:45engagement possible in any given situation.103:48It’s not true of Trump.103:51Trump liked firing 59 Tomahawk missiles at Syria.103:55Trump loved dropping the mother of all bombs in Afghanistan.103:58It looks really good on television.104:00As Trump gets pushed into a corner, what is he going to do to make himself to look good104:07on television again?104:09Putin understands that kind of thinking very, very well.104:14As we speak, things are getting pretty rocky in Syria between Russia and the U.S.104:22I was just in Moscow recently, and Russian television is talking about how Trump hasn’t104:30sort of made good on his promises.104:32Russian television is also spending a lot of time on Syria, on how Russia is waging104:38a heroic war against ISIS and Syria, and American-backed terrorist forces are pushing back.104:48That’s the narrative.104:50America is backing terrorist forces in Syria, and Russia is waging war against them.104:57It’s hard to get Russians mobilized behind the Syrian effort.105:02It hasn’t been nearly as popular as Ukraine.105:05But it’s important to Putin personally.105:08And he will not step back from it.105:10MIKE WISER – So one of the questions is by 2016 election, there’s a lot of talk of Russian105:18botnets, propaganda, influence on social media.105:22How does that happen?105:28Going back to 2011 and 2012, the Russian government, what does Putin see when, at that point, it’s105:34Facebook and social media seem to be driving protests, change and the Arab Spring?105:40Is there a moment where they’re reconsidering tactics, are realizing the power and the danger105:46of social media after 2012?105:49MASHA GESSEN – I wouldn’t overemphasize it.105:53I was just talking recently to Adrian Chen, who did that wonderful story on the Russian105:59troll factory, and he said, “If I had known that the intelligence agencies were going106:04to use my article so prominently in their report, I would have emphasized how incompetent106:10they are.”106:12It’s not all that we imagine it to be.106:18They did catch onto social media.106:19They caught onto social media late, and not every agency has even figured out that social106:27media exists.106:28When the political crackdown began, they didn’t employ social media at all in their investigations.106:35They would go through people’s printed out photographs and handwritten notes to try to106:43figure out context.106:44They never went online to try to figure out how to crack down on people’s actual networks.106:50So it’s—they have a lot of money to throw around.106:54They are interested in increasing their electronic influence around the world.107:00This is true.107:01And there are some companies that are enterprising in sort of absorbing that money and doing107:06stuff for that money, and they have no scruples about what they do.107:10But to imagine it as a concerted effort and as sort of an all-out war on Western democracy107:16through high-tech means gives them a little bit too much credit.107:20MIKE WISER – But does he change his approach even inside Russia after those protests?107:26How does Putin change once he sees all those people in the street?107:29MASHA GESSEN – Oh, well, no, what changed when he saw people in the streets was actually107:34much more conventional.107:36They started arresting people.107:38They changed the laws.107:40They changed the laws to enable them to prosecute anybody for perceived violations of public107:49assembly laws.107:50So it used to be that—I mean, the laws were very restrictive in the first place, right?107:58You had to get a permit to hold a demonstration, and on that permit you had to indicate how108:04many people were coming to the demonstration, and if the number of people who came to the108:07demonstration exceeded the number of people on the permit, then you went to jail for 15108:13days.108:14But that still only hit the organizers of these protests, right?108:18So that’s what happened, for example, after the first protest, the first large protest.108:22People had a permit for 300 people because that’s how many people used to show up,108:27and 10,000 people showed up.108:29So the people whose names were on the permit application went to jail for 15 days for all108:36those people who showed up.108:37What they did, when Putin cracked down, is they changed those laws to be able to prosecute108:43anybody who participated in the protests for violations.108:49That is a basic instrument of state terror.108:54You have to create the mechanism of random prosecutions, because by definition, you can’t109:00apply a law like that uniformly.109:04If 50,000 people come to a protest, you can’t arrest 50,000 people.109:10You can only arrest some of them.109:11You certainly can’t send 50,000 people without reinstating the Gulag.109:15You can’t send 50,000 people to prison colonies, put them through the courts, etc., etc., so109:19you have to pick out a few to make the threat credible to the many.109:23But they can’t be the leaders, right?109:26They have to be ordinary people.109:28So they did that.109:30And they prosecuted—at this point, the number of people who have been prosecuted in connection109:33with the 2012 protests is over 30, and most of them have gone to jail for three or four109:40years.109:41These are just ordinary people, right, going to jail for peaceful protests.109:47They’re picked out at random, and they’re picked out at random times.109:50It can be two years after the protest.109:52They say, “We found videotape of you beating up an officer,” and then that person is109:59picked up.110:00So that’s one thing they did.110:01Another thing they did is the “foreign agents law,” which creates unbearable burdens for110:12functioning of any NGO [nongovernmental organization] that receives foreign funding.110:17Basically they’ve decimated civil society through doing this, and they’ve prosecuted110:22a lot of people from various organizations for failing to register as foreign agents.110:31They’ve paralyzed the work of many organizations, basically, with these prosecutions.110:37Let me just finish.110:41The third thing they did is the anti-gay campaign.110:44The anti-gay campaign is, it’s much more of a sort of standard scapegoating campaign.110:51But queer is a perfect stand-in for everything that Putin perceives the protesters to be.110:56They’re foreign; they’re other; they are something that didn’t exist in the Soviet Union.111:01We’ve only had queers since the Soviet Union collapsed.111:06They’re a stand-in for everything Western and everything imported.111:12And it gets traction with sort of this desire to return to an imaginary past with the traditional111:18values, whatever they were.111:20That’s also unleashed a lot of violence on people who are perceived to be gay.111:26So that channels a lot of the violent impulses in the population.111:31MIKE WISER – So what does Putin want now?111:35He started wanting respect from Bush.111:37But where are we at this point?111:38What’s his approach to the West?111:40MASHA GESSEN – Oh, he still wants the same thing.111:42He still wants a bipolar world.111:45The Syria story is actually a perfect example of how this unfolded.111:49You know, Putin’s happiest moment came in September 2013, when he hijacked Syria.111:55If you recall, Obama said there was a red line, and then he couldn’t get congressional112:02support for intervention in Syria.112:04Then he decided not to do it without congressional support, and he basically was losing face.112:11Putin stepped in and allowed him to save face and said that he was going to negotiate a112:19chemical disarmament with [Bashar al-]Assad.112:22He wrote an op-ed in The New York Times, which the Times published, that was just perfect112:30Soviet use of American rhetoric against the United States, calling out the U.S. for its112:39willingness to violate international law.112:41I mean, this is the man who annexed huge chunks of neighboring countries.112:50So that was—he was on top of the world then.112:54And then, a year later, suddenly he is an international pariah.112:59Nobody comes to his party.113:03He’s under sanctions.113:05I mean, Ukraine, he could have anticipated that there would be a strong reaction.113:09But the anti-gay campaign, he certainly never anticipated that there would be an international113:14outrage over it.113:16So he comes back to the U.S. for the 70th anniversary of the United Nations, Sept. 20,113:212015, with a proposal.113:28He spoke at the General Assembly of the United Nations, and he basically articulated his113:31proposal.113:32His proposal was that a new international coalition, an anti-ISIS coalition modeled113:38after the anti-Hitler coalition should be formed.113:45What he means is, because the Soviet Union was part of the anti-Hitler coalition, the113:51Soviet Union got to be a superpower and got to have Eastern Europe.113:58He wants the same thing.114:01He wants to enter into this coalition with the United States and get to be a superpower114:05again, and also take parts of the world that he wants, which is not necessarily former114:11Soviet territories, but certainly what he’s already taken and some more.114:15Obama didn’t even meet with him.114:19He was completely snubbed.114:24He went back to Moscow humiliated, untended to.114:32Russia started bombing Syria a week later, and has been ever since.114:36The war, Russia’s participation in the war in Syria, is basically an attempt to blackmail114:44the United States into giving Russia its superpower status back.114:49JIM GILMORE – I think you missed the back in September of 2004, Beslan and what it represented,114:57and why it was important to understand about what was going on there.115:11MASHA GESSEN – Beslan was, if you could imagine, an even more shocking terrorist attack than115:17the explosions that killed people in their sleep.115:19That was Beslan, the siege of a school in the south of Russia, where nearly 1,000 people115:29were taken hostage.115:31Then more than 300 people died, most of them children.115:37As we learned, thanks to an independent investigation carried out over the next couple years, the115:46deaths of those children were really the FSB’s doing, the federal troops’ fault.115:55They shelled the school at point-blank range.116:00They fired at it from tanks.116:04A lot of the children who burned alive because of a fire that raged, because the school was116:13shelled at point blank range.116:19I think that they were trying to do everything to maximize the number of casualties, to maximize116:23the shock effect.116:24It’s also possible that they were just so inhumane that they would just do it without116:33even having that goal in mind.116:37But Putin used Beslan as a pretext for canceling gubernatorial elections.116:46He framed it as an antiterrorism measure.116:52It was a cynical move, because clearly his very detailed decree in canceling gubernatorial116:57elections had been prepared before Beslan happened.117:03But at the same time, it also expresses, I think, his basic belief that anything democratic117:10is always messy, and the way to respond to extreme violence and to extreme disorder is117:17to create more dictatorial powers.117:20MICHAEL KIRK – So now my last question, which is, are we at war?117:25Is he at war with us?117:27MASHA GESSEN – He is.117:30Putin has portrayed and the Kremlin-controlled Russian media have portrayed both the wars117:36in Ukraine and the wars here as proxy wars against the United States.117:41Russia does not perceive itself as being at war with Ukraine.117:47It perceives itself as being at war with the United States by proxy of Ukraine.117:53And it certainly doesn’t perceive itself as being at war with ISIS, even though it117:58says that it’s firing at ISIS fighters.118:01It perceives itself as being at war with forces that are backed by the United States in Syria.118:09They’re quite open about it, on television.118:14It would be beneath Russia’s station to go to war with Syria or to go to war with118:19Ukraine.118:20Only the United States is big enough to go to war against, and only the United States118:24is grand enough to mobilize people enough to have the kind of popularity that Putin118:32has come to depend upon. …
Russia recategorizes their problems wiith “Eternal Politics”.
France solved their national problems by invading other countries. (15 min)
Russia displaces all their problems on foreigners. (25:24 min)
Russia is innocent and had a virgin birth, immaculate empire achieved through a series of defensive battles and no internal politics. (30 min)
Ilyin’s Hegelian thought: God created the world as a process of self-liberation but was unable to enfold the world back into “himself” at a higher level (35 min)
God failed because the middle classes are so wedded to material existence and they stopped God because of their civil societies with pluralism (38 min)
Ilyin thought Jesus was a failure and reinterpretted Jesus’s sayings as the opposite. (43 min)
Everything that has happened in history
One must come from beyond history, from beyond rationality, from nowhere
Ilyin defends Mussolini and Hitler and believes that facism is wonderful.
Russia can not be divided. It has no minorities. (47 min)
Ilyin had a German mother, all his influences were German (Freud, Hegel) he wrote his first version in German (57 min)
History is used to provide a myth of innocence (1 hr 00 min)
World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov and billionaire entrepreneur Peter Thiel discuss technology, chess, Russian and American politics as well as human rights and prospects for the world economy.
The youngest world chess champion in history at 22 in 1985, Kasparov remained the top-rated player in the world for 20 years, until his retirement in 2005. He then became a leader of the Russian pro-democracy movement against Vladimir Putin and is currently the chairman of the NY-based Human Rights Foundation. The Kasparov Chess Foundation promotes chess in education around the world with centers in the US, Europe, and Africa with more soon to come. Kasparov speaks and writes frequently on technology, decision-making, and risk. His book, “How Life Imitates Chess,” has been published in more than 20 languages.
(45 min) Warren Buffet, America’s richest man in, does not invest in technology.
A dictator meets an opponent he can’t co-opt, corrupt, calumniate, cow or coerce.
The Russian human-rights lawyer Karinna Moskalenko once explained to me how Vladimir Putin’s machinery of repression works.
- “It isn’t necessary to put all the businessmen in jail,” she said. “It is necessary to jail the richest, the most independent, the most well-connected.
- It isn’t necessary to kill all the journalists. Just kill the most outstanding, the bravest, and the others will get the message.”
Her conclusion: “Nobody is untouchable.”
That was in 2007, when Putin still cultivated an image as a law-abiding, democratically elected leader. But that fiction vanished long ago.
Boris Nemtsov, the leading opposition figure, was murdered in the shadow of the Kremlin in 2015. His successor in that role, Alexei Navalny, has been in and out of prison on various trumped-up charges, as well as the victim of repeated attacks by “unknown chemicals.” Others, like the Putin critic and ex-Parliament member Denis Voronenkov, have been gunned down in broad daylight in foreign cities.
So it’s little less than awe-inspiring to read Andrew Higgins’s profile in The Times of opposition activist Lyubov Sobol.
Sobol, 31, is a Moscow lawyer and Navalny associate who has spent years pursuing a graft investigation of Putin intimate Yevgeny Prigozhin, the oligarch indicted by the U.S. last year for sponsoring the troll factory that interfered in the 2016 U.S. election. Considering that journalists have been killed looking into Prigozhin’s other businesses, Sobol’s doggedness recalls Eliot Ness’s pursuit of Al Capone in “The Untouchables” — except, unlike Ness, she has no knife, no gun, no badge, no law, and no federal government to aid her.
Now she is at the forefront of protests that have rocked Russia this summer after the regime disqualified opposition candidates (including her) from running in Sunday’s municipal elections. Her husband has been poisoned. Assailants have smeared her with black goo. Police dragged her from her office. Only a law forbidding the imprisonment of women with young children has kept her out of jail.
“I am always asked whether I am afraid, and I know that I should say, ‘Yes, I am,’” she tells Higgins. But, she says, “I am a fanatical kind of personality and am not afraid. I have always been a fan of the idea of fairness and, since childhood, have hated to see the strong abuse the weak.”
When regimes like Putin’s realize they cannot co-opt, corrupt, calumniate, cow, or coerce their opponents, what usually comes next is a decision to kill them. The risk that this could happen to Sobol or Navalny is terrifyingly real, not least because Putin has so many underworld friends willing to do his presumptive bidding without asking for explicit orders.
But Putin also needs to beware. Dictatorships fall not only when they have implacable opponents but also exemplary victims: Steve Biko in South Africa, Benigno Aquino in the Philippines, Jerzy Popieluszko in Poland. Through their deaths, they awakened the living to the conviction that it was the regime that should die instead.
Today, Nemtsov continues to haunt the Kremlin. So do Sergei Magnitsky, Natalia Estemirova, Alexander Litvinenko and Anna Politkovskaya, to name just a few of the regime’s murdered adversaries. At some point, a growing list of victims will start to weigh heavily against Putin’s chances of staying in power. The death of a galvanizing opposition figure could be the tipping point.
Especially when the political-survival formula that has worked for Putin so far is coming unstuck. That formula —
- enrich your cronies,
- terrify your foes,
- placate the urban bourgeoisie with a decent standard of living, and
- propagandize everyone else with heavy doses of xenophobic nationalism
— no longer works so well in an era of
- Magnitsky sanctions,
- international ostracism,
- a persistently stagnant economy,
- middling oil prices,
- unpopular pension reforms, and
- dubious foreign adventures.
It works even less well when your domestic foes aren’t so easily terrified. As in Hong Kong, a striking feature of the Russian protests is the extent to which they are youth-driven — a vote of no-confidence in whatever the regime is supposed to offer. One recent survey found that the number of young Russians who “fully trust” Putin fell to 19 percent this year, from 30 percent last year. That’s not a good trend line for a man who aspires to die on his throne.
None of this guarantees that Putin can’t bounce back, not least if Donald Trump gives him the kinds of breaks, like readmission into the G7, he needs. And Robert Mugabe’s death this week at 95 is a reminder that tyrants can endure longer than anyone expects.
Still, for the first time in 20 years, the elements by which Putin falls are coming into place. Core among them is the courage of people like Sobol — a woman who, as Pericles said more than 2,400 years ago, “knows the meaning of what is sweet in life and of what is terrible, and then goes out undeterred to meet what is to come.”Related‘I Am Always Asked if I Am Afraid’: Activist Lawyer Takes On Putin’s RussiaHe Played by the Rules of Putin’s Russia, Until He Didn’t: The Story of a Murder
In March 6, 2018, the grand ballroom at the Sphinx Club in Washington was packed with aerospace-industry executives waiting to hear from Michael D. Griffin. Weeks earlier, Secretary of Defense James Mattis named the 69-year-old Maryland native the Pentagon’s under secretary for research and engineering, a job that comes with an annual budget of more than $17 billion. The dark-suited attendees at the McAleese/Credit Suisse Defense Programs Conference were eager to learn what type of work he would favor.
The audience was already familiar with Griffin, an unabashed defender of American military and political supremacy who has bragged about being labeled an “unreconstructed cold warrior.” With five master’s degrees and a doctorate in aerospace engineering, he was the chief technology officer for President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (popularly known as Star Wars), which was supposed to shield the United States against a potential Russian attack by ballistic missiles looping over the North Pole. Over the course of his career that followed, he wrote a book on space vehicle design, ran a technology incubator funded by the C.I.A., directed NASA for four years and was employed as a senior executive at a handful of aerospace firms.
Griffin was known as a scientific optimist who regularly called for “disruptive innovation” and who prized speed above all. He had repeatedly complained about the Pentagon’s sluggish bureaucracy, which he saw as mired in legacy thinking. “This is a country that produced an atom bomb under the stress of wartime in three years from the day we decided to do it,” he told a congressional panel last year. “This is a country that can do anything we need to do that physics allows. We just need to get on with it.”
In recent decades, Griffin’s predecessors had prioritized broad research into topics such as human-computer interaction, space communication and undersea warfare. But Griffin signaled an important shift, one that would have major financial consequences for the executives in attendance. “I’m sorry for everybody out there who champions some other high priority, some technical thing; it’s not that I disagree with those,” he told the room. “But there has to be a first, and hypersonics is my first.”
Griffin was referring to a revolutionary new type of weapon, one that would have the unprecedented ability to maneuver and then to strike almost any target in the world within a matter of minutes. Capable of traveling at more than 15 times the speed of sound, hypersonic missiles arrive at their targets in a blinding, destructive flash, before any sonic booms or other meaningful warning. So far, there are no surefire defenses. Fast, effective, precise and unstoppable — these are rare but highly desired characteristics on the modern battlefield. And the missiles are being developed not only by the United States but also by China, Russia and other countries.
[To follow the development of hypersonic missiles and other military technology, sign up for the weekly At War newsletter.]
Griffin is now the chief evangelist in Washington for hypersonics, and so far he has run into few political or financial roadblocks. Lawmakers have supported a significant expansion of federal spending to accelerate the delivery of what they call a “game-changing technology,” a buzz phrase often repeated in discussions on hypersonics. America needs to act quickly, says James Inhofe, the Republican senator from Oklahoma who is chairman of the Armed Services Committee, or else the nation might fall behind Russia and China. Democratic leaders in the House and Senate are largely in agreement, though recently they’ve pressed the Pentagon for more information. (The Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island, and House Chairman Adam Smith, the Democratic representative for Washington’s ninth district, told me it might make sense to question the weapons’ global impact or talk with Russia about the risks they create, but the priority in Washington right now is to get our versions built.)
In 2018, Congress expressed its consensus in a law requiring that an American hypersonic weapon be operational by October 2022. This year, the Trump administration’s proposed defense budget included $2.6 billion for hypersonics, and national security industry experts project that the annual budget will reach $5 billion by the middle of the next decade. The immediate aim is to create two deployable systems within three years. Key funding is likely to be approved this summer.
The enthusiasm has spread to military contractors, especially after the Pentagon awarded the largest one, Lockheed Martin, more than $1.4 billion in 2018 to build missile prototypes that can be launched by Air Force fighter jets and B-52 bombers. These programs were just the beginning of what the acting defense secretary, Patrick M. Shanahan, described in December as the Trump administration’s goal of “industrializing” hypersonic missile production. Several months later, he and Griffin created a new Space Development Agency of some 225 people, tasked with putting a network of sensors in low-earth orbit that would track incoming hypersonic missiles and direct American hypersonic attacks. This isn’t the network’s only purpose, but it will have “a war-fighting capability, should it come to that,” Griffin said in March.
Development of hypersonics is moving so quickly, however, that it threatens to outpace any real discussion about the potential perils of such weapons, including how they may disrupt efforts to avoid accidental conflict, especially during crises. There are currently no international agreements on how or when hypersonic missiles can be used, nor are there any plans between any countries to start those discussions. Instead, the rush to possess weapons of incredible speed and maneuverability has pushed the United States into a new arms race with Russia and China — one that could, some experts worry, upend existing norms of deterrence and renew Cold War-era tensions.
Although hypersonic missiles can in theory carry nuclear warheads, those being developed by the United States will only be equipped with small conventional explosives. With a length between just five and 10 feet, weighing about 500 pounds and encased in materials like ceramic and carbon fiber composites or nickel-chromium superalloys, the missiles function like nearly invisible power drills that smash holes in their targets, to catastrophic effect. After their launch — whether from the ground, from airplanes or from submarines — they are pulled by gravity as they descend from a powered ascent, or propelled by highly advanced engines. The missiles’ kinetic energy at the time of impact, at speeds of at least 1,150 miles per hour, makes them powerful enough to penetrate any building material or armored plating with the force of three to four tons of TNT.
They could be aimed, in theory, at Russian nuclear-armed ballistic missiles being carried on trucks or rails. Or the Chinese could use their own versions of these missiles to target American bombers and other aircraft at bases in Japan or Guam. Or the missiles could attack vital land- or sea-based radars anywhere, or military headquarters in Asian ports or near European cities. The weapons could even suddenly pierce the steel decks of one of America’s 11 multibillion-dollar aircraft carriers, instantly stopping flight operations, a vulnerability that might eventually render the floating behemoths obsolete. Hypersonic missiles are also ideal for waging a decapitation strike — assassinating a country’s top military or political officials. “Instant leader-killers,” a former Obama administration White House official, who asked not to be named, said in an interview.
Within the next decade, these new weapons could undertake a task long imagined for nuclear arms: a first strike against another nation’s government or arsenals, interrupting key chains of communication and disabling some of its retaliatory forces, all without the radioactive fallout and special condemnation that might accompany the detonation of nuclear warheads. That’s why a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine report said in 2016 that hypersonics aren’t “simply evolutionary threats” to the United States but could in the hands of enemies “challenge this nation’s tenets of global vigilance, reach and power.”
The arrival of such fast weaponry will dangerously compress the time during which military officials and their political leaders — in any country — can figure out the nature of an attack and make reasoned decisions about the wisdom and scope of defensive steps or retaliation. And the threat that hypersonics pose to retaliatory weapons creates what scholars call “use it or lose it” pressures on countries to strike first during a crisis. Experts say that the missiles could upend the grim psychology of Mutual Assured Destruction, the bedrock military doctrine of the nuclear age that argued globe-altering wars would be deterred if the potential combatants always felt certain of their opponents’ devastating response.
This position worries arms-control experts like Thomas M. Countryman, a career diplomat for 35 years and former assistant secretary of state in the Obama administration. “This is not the first case of a new technology proceeding through research, development and deployment far faster than the policy apparatus can keep up,” says Countryman, who is now chairman of the Arms Control Association. He cites examples of similarly “destabilizing technologies” in the 1960s and 1970s, when billions of dollars in frenzied spending on nuclear and chemical arms was unaccompanied by discussion of how the resulting dangers could be minimized. Countryman wants to see limitations placed on the number of hypersonic missiles that a country can build or on the type of warheads that they can carry. He and others worry that failing to regulate these weapons at the international level could have irreversible consequences.
“It is possible,” the United Nations Office of Disarmament Affairs said in a February report, that “in response [to] the deployment of hypersonic weapons,” nations fearing the destruction of their retaliatory-strike capability might either decide to use nuclear weapons under a wider set of conditions or simply place “nuclear forces on higher alert levels” as a matter of routine. The report lamented that these “ramifications remain largely unexamined and almost wholly undiscussed.”
So why haven’t the potential risks of this revolution attracted more attention? One reason is that for years the big powers have cared mostly about numerical measures of power — who has more warheads, bombers and missiles — and negotiations have focused heavily on those metrics. Only occasionally has their conversation widened to include the issue of strategic stability, a topic that encompasses whether specific weaponry poses risks of inadvertent war.
An aerospace engineer for the military for more than three decades, Daniel Marren runs one of the world’s fastest wind tunnels — and thanks to hypersonics research, his lab is in high demand. But finding it takes some time: When I arrived at the Air Force’s White Oak testing facility, just north of Silver Spring, Md., the private security guards only vaguely gestured toward some World War II-era military research buildings down the road, at the edge of the Food and Drug Administration’s main campus. The low-slung structure that houses Marren’s tunnel looks as if it could pass for an aged elementary school, except that it has a seven-story silver sphere sticking out of its east side, like a World’s Fair exhibit in the spot where an auditorium should be. The tunnel itself, some 40 feet in length and five feet in diameter, looks like a water main; it narrows at one end before emptying into the silver sphere. A column of costly high-tech sensors is grafted onto the piping where a thick window has been cut into its midsection.
Marren seemed both thrilled and harried by the rising tempo at his laboratory in recent months. A jovial 55-year-old who speaks carefully but excitedly about his work, he showed me a red brick structure on the property with some broken windows. It was built, he said, to house the first of nine wind tunnels that have operated at the test site, one that was painstakingly recovered in 1948 from Peenemünde, the coastal German village where Wernher von Braun worked on the V-2 rocket used to kill thousands of Londoners in World War II. American military researchers had a hard time figuring out how to reassemble and operate it, so they recruited some German scientists stateside.
Inside the main room, Marren — dressed in a technologist’s polo shirt — explained that during the tests, the tunnel is first rolled into place on a trolley over steel rails in the floor. Then an enormous electric burner is ignited beneath it, heating the air inside to more than 3,000 degrees, hot enough to melt steel. The air is then punched by pressures 1,000 times greater than normal at one end of the tunnel and sucked at the other end by a vacuum deliberately created in the enormous sphere.
That sends the air roaring down the tunnel at up to 18 times the speed of sound — fast enough to traverse more than 30 football fields in the time it takes to blink. Smack in the middle of the tunnel during a test, attached to a pole capable of changing its angle in fractions of a second, is a scale model of the hypersonics prototype. That is, instead of testing the missiles by flying them through the air outdoors, the tunnel effectively makes the air fly past them at the same incredible pace.
For the tests, the models are coated with a paint that absorbs ultraviolet laser light as it warms, marking the spots on their ceramic skin where frictional heat may threaten the structure of the missile; engineers will then need to tweak the designs either to resist that heat or shunt it elsewhere. The aim, Marren explains, is to see what will happen when the missiles plow through the earth’s dense atmosphere on their way to their targets.
It’s challenging work, replicating the stresses these missiles would endure while whizzing by at 30 times the speed of a civilian airliner, miles above the clouds. Their sleek, synthetic skin expands and deforms and kicks off a plasma like the ionized gas formed by superheated stars, as they smash the air and try to shed all that intense heat. The tests are fleeting, lasting 15 seconds at most, which require the sensors to record their data in thousandths of a nanosecond. That’s the best any such test facility can do, according to Marren, and it partly accounts for the difficulty that defense researchers have had in producing hypersonics, even after about $2 billion-worth of federal investment before this year.
Nonetheless, Marren, who has worked at the tunnel since 1984, is optimistic that researchers will be able to deliver a working missile soon. He and his team are operating at full capacity, with hundreds of test runs scheduled this year to measure the ability of various prototype missiles to withstand the punishing friction and heat of such rapid flight. “We have been prepared for this moment for some time, and it’s great to lean forward,” Marren says. The faster that weapons systems can operate, he adds, the better.
Hypersonics pose a different threat from ballistic missiles, according to those who have studied and worked on them, because they could be maneuvered in ways that confound existing methods of defense and detection. Not to mention, unlike most ballistic missiles, they would arrive in under 15 minutes — less time than anyone in Hawaii or elsewhere would need to meaningfully react.
How fast is that, really? An object moving through the air produces an audible shock wave — a sonic boom — when it reaches about 760 miles per hour. This speed of sound is also called Mach 1, after the Austrian physicist Ernst Mach. When a projectile flies faster than Mach’s number, it travels at supersonic speed — a speed faster than sound. Mach 2 is twice the speed of sound; Mach 3 is three times the speed of sound, and so on. When a projectile reaches a speed faster than Mach 5, it’s said to travel at hypersonic speed.
One of the two main hypersonic prototypes now under development in the United States is meant to fly at speeds between Mach 15 and Mach 20, or more than 11,400 miles per hour. This means that when fired by the U.S. submarines or bombers stationed at Guam, they could in theory hit China’s important inland missile bases, like Delingha, in less than 15 minutes. President Vladimir Putin has likewise claimed that one of Russia’s new hypersonic missiles will travel at Mach 10, while the other will travel at Mach 20. If true, that would mean a Russian aircraft or ship firing one of them near Bermuda could strike the Pentagon, some 800 miles away, in five minutes. China, meanwhile, has flight-tested its own hypersonic missiles at speeds fast enough to reach Guam from the Chinese coastline within minutes.
One concept now being pursued by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency uses a conventional missile launched from air platforms to loft a smaller, hypersonic glider on its journey, even before the missile reaches its apex. The glider then flies unpowered toward its target. The deadly projectile might ricochet downward, nose tilted up, on layers of atmosphere — the mesosphere, then the stratosphere and troposphere — like an oblate stone on water, in smaller and shallower skips, or it might be directed to pass smoothly through these layers. In either instance, the friction of the lower atmosphere would finally slow it enough to allow a steering system to maneuver it precisely toward its target. The weapon, known as Tactical Boost Glide, is scheduled to be dropped from military planes during testing next year.
Under an alternative approach, a hypersonic missile would fly mostly horizontally under the power of a “scramjet,” a highly advanced, fanless engine that uses shock waves created by its speed to compress incoming air in a short funnel and ignite it while passing by (in roughly one two-thousandths of a second, according to some accounts). With its skin heated by friction to as much as 5,400 degrees, its engine walls would be protected from burning up by routing the fuel through them, an idea pioneered by the German designers of the V-2 rocket.
Officials will have trouble even knowing where a strike would land. Although the missiles’ launch would probably be picked up by infrared-sensing satellites in its first few moments of flight, Griffin says they would be roughly 10 to 20 times harder to detect than incoming ballistic missiles as they near their targets. They would zoom along in the defensive void, maneuvering unpredictably, and then, in just a few final seconds of blindingly fast, mile-per-second flight, dive and strike a target such as an aircraft carrier from an altitude of 100,000 feet.
During their flight, the perimeter of their potential landing zone could be about as big as Rhode Island. Officials might sound a general alarm, but they’d be clueless about exactly where the missiles were headed. “We don’t have any defense that could deny the employment of such a weapon against us,” Gen. John E. Hyten, commander of United States Strategic Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March 2018. The Pentagon is just now studying what a hypersonic attack might look like and imagining how a defensive system might be created; it has no architecture for it, and no firm sense of the costs.
Developing these new weapons hasn’t been easy. A 2012 test was terminated when the skin peeled off a hypersonic prototype, and another self-destructed when it lost control. A third hypersonic test vehicle was deliberately destroyed when its boosting missile failed in 2014. Officials at Darpa acknowledge they are still struggling with the composite ceramics they need to protect the missiles’ electronics from intense heating; the Pentagon decided last July to ladle an extra $34.5 million into this effort this year.
The task of conducting realistic flight tests also poses a challenge. The military’s principal land-based site for open-air prototype flights — a 3,200-square-mile site stretching across multiple counties in New Mexico — isn’t big enough to accommodate hypersonic weapons. So fresh testing corridors are being negotiated in Utah that will require a new regional political agreement about the noise of trailing sonic booms. Scientists still aren’t sure how to accumulate all the data they need, given the speed of the flights. The open-air flight tests can cost up to $100 million.
The most recent open-air hypersonic-weapon test was completed by the Army and the Navy in October 2017, using a 36,000-pound missile to launch a glider from a rocky beach on the western shores of Kauai, Hawaii, toward Kwajalein Atoll, 2,300 miles to the southwest. The 9 p.m. flight created a trailing sonic boom over the Pacific, which topped out at an estimated 175 decibels, well above the threshold of causing physical pain. The effort cost $160 million, or 6 percent of the total hypersonics budget proposed for 2020.
In March 2018, Vladimir Putin, in the first of several speeches designed to rekindle American anxieties about a foreign missile threat, boasted that Russia had two operational hypersonic weapons: the Kinzhal, a fast, air-launched missile capable of striking targets up to 1,200 miles away; and the Avangard, designed to be attached to a new Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile before maneuvering toward its targets. Russian media have claimed that nuclear warheads for the weapons are already being produced and that the Sarmat missile itself has been flight-tested roughly 3,000 miles across Siberia. (Russia has also said it is working on a third hypersonic missile system, designed to be launched from submarines.) American experts aren’t buying all of Putin’s claims. “Their test record is more like ours,” said an engineer working on the American program. “It’s had a small number of flight-test successes.” But Pentagon officials are convinced that Moscow’s weapons will soon be a real threat.
Analysts say the Chinese are even further along than the Russians, partly because Beijing has sought to create hypersonic missiles with shorter ranges that don’t have to endure high temperatures as long. Many of their tests have involved a glide vehicle. Last August, a contractor for the Chinese space program claimed that it successfully flight-tested a gliding hypersonic missile for slightly more than six minutes. It supposedly reached a speed exceeding Mach 5 before landing in its target zone. Other Chinese hypersonic missile tests have reached speeds almost twice as fast.
And it’s not just Russia, China and the United States that are interested in fast-flying military power drills. France and India have active hypersonics development programs, and each is working in partnership with Russia, according to a 2017 report by the Rand Corp., a nonpartisan research organization. Australia, Japan and the European Union have either civilian or military hypersonics research underway, the report said, partly because they are still tantalized by the prospect of making super-speedy airplanes large enough to carry passengers across the globe in mere hours. But Japan’s immediate effort is aimed at making a weapon that will be ready for testing by 2025.
This is not the first time the United States or others have ignored risks while rushing toward a new, apparently magical solution to a military threat or shortcoming. During the Cold War, America and Russia competed fiercely to threaten each other’s vital assets with bombers that took hours to cross oceans and with ballistic missiles that could reach their targets in 30 minutes. Ultimately, each side accumulated more than 31,000 warheads (even though the detonations of just 100 weapons would have sparked a severe global famine and stripped away significant protections against ultraviolet radiation). Eventually the fever broke, partly because of the Soviet Union’s dissolution, and the two nations reduced their arsenals through negotiations to about 6,500 nuclear warheads apiece.
Since then, cycles of intense arms racing have restarted whenever one side has felt acutely disadvantaged or spied a potential exit from what the political scientist Robert Jervis once described as the “overwhelming nature” of nuclear destruction, a circumstance that we’ve been involuntarily and resentfully hostage to for the past 70 years.
Trump officials in particular have resisted policies that support Mutual Assured Destruction, the idea that shared risk can lead to stability and peace. John Bolton, the national security adviser, was a key architect in 2002 of America’s withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia, which limited both nations’ ability to try to block ballistic missiles. He asserted that freeing the United States of those restrictions would enhance American security, and if the rest of the world was static, his prediction might have come true. But Russia started its hypersonics program to ensure it could get around any American ballistic missile defenses. “Nobody wanted to listen to us” about the strategic dangers of abandoning the treaty, Putin said last year with an aggressive flourish as he displayed videos and animations of his nation’s hypersonic missiles. “So listen now.”
But not much listening is going on in either country. In January, the Trump administration released an updated missile-defense strategy that explicitly calls for limiting mutual vulnerability by defeating enemy “offensive missiles prior to launch.” The administration also continues to eschew any new limits on its own missiles, arguing that past agreements lulled America into a dangerous post-Cold War “holiday,” as a senior State Department official described it.
The Obama administration’s inaction helped open the door to the 21st-century hypersonic contest America finds itself in today. “We always do these things in isolation, without thinking about what it means for the big powers — for Russia and China — who are batshit paranoid” about a potential quick, pre-emptive American attack, the adviser said, expressing regret about how the issue was handled during Obama’s tenure.
While it might not be too late to change course, history shows that stopping an arms race is much harder than igniting one. And Washington at the moment is still principally focused on “putting a weapon on a target,” as a longtime congressional staff member put it, rather than the reaction this capability inspires in an adversary. Griffin even projects an eventual American victory in this race: In April 2018, he said the best answer to the Chinese and Russian hypersonic programs is “to hold their assets at risk with systems similar to but better than what they have fielded.” Invoking the mantra of military scientists throughout time, Griffin added that the country must “see their hand and raise them one.” The world will soon find out what happens now that the military superpowers have decided to go all in.