Putin Backs Proposal Paving Way for New Presidential Term

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 globeparticularly 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.

On Tuesday, Valentina Tereshkova, a lawmaker and the first woman to have flown in space, proposed to scrap presidential term limits to allow Mr. Putin to run for re-election.

“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.

Putin Pushes Constitutional Change in Russia; Medvedev Resigns

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.

“Under these conditions, I believe it would be right for the government of the Russian Federation in its current state to resign,” Mr. Medvedev said, sitting next to Mr. Putin.

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.”

 

The Putin Files: Masha Gessen

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.”

 

46:38
But among his first 10 decrees was a decree reinstating primary military education in
46:46
high schools, and this was something that was, to me, highly symbolic.
46:55
When I went to school in the Soviet Union, everybody—all the high school students had
47:00
to learn elementary military trades.
47:06
I mean, first of all, we had military games, survival games, from the time—I mean, games.
47:12
We called them games.
47:13
They weren’t games.
47:14
They were training sessions, right?
47:16
But from the time you’re very little, there are bomb raids, and you learn to recognize
47:21
chemical burns, and you are drilled on how to respond to chemical burns.
47:27
The thing is, you know, these classrooms that are—where the walls are covered with posters
47:33
on how to recognize different kinds of chemical weapons, the effects of different kinds of
47:41
chemical weapons and how to respond to them.
47:45
And then in ninth and 10th grade, so in high school, which is just two years, you learn
47:54
to administer first aid in a military situation and to take apart and clean a Kalashnikov
48:03
and put it back together again.
48:07
Anybody my age or older will be able to tell you how long it used to take them to take
48:13
apart and clean and put back together a Kalashnikov.
48:16
A good amount of time is around nine or eight seconds.
48:24
That was eliminated when the Soviet Union fell apart.
48:29
And we forget now how much the 1990s, even though Russia never really sort of fully entered
48:36
a post-imperial era, but still, it became a demilitarized country.
48:43
All of a sudden, there was much less emphasis on how every boy was a future soldier, which
48:49
is the way I was brought up.
48:51
You would just see very many fewer people in uniform in the streets.
48:57
When I was growing up, when I used to go meet my mother at the subway station when she was
49:04
coming home, I would—to entertain myself, I would count the number of people in uniform
49:11
coming off the trains as I waited for her.
49:14
Roughly every 10th person would be wearing a military uniform.
49:17
All of a sudden, that was no longer the case.
49:20
And of course children stopped learning how to take apart and put back together a Kalashnikov
49:24
in school.
49:26
One of the first things that Putin did, on the day that he became acting president, was
49:32
set in motion the process of bringing that back.
49:36
And I was convinced that—go ahead.
49:38
MICHAEL KIRK – Sorry.
49:39
MASHA GESSEN – No, I was convinced that he was signaling his intention to remilitarize
49:45
Russian society, which is exactly what he did.
49:47
MICHAEL KIRK – What does it do to a society to grow up with that eight-second Kalashnikov
49:53
rebuild and then have it reintroduced?
49:57
What’s the signal that that sends to people?
50:01
MASHA GESSEN – Well, different people receive the same signal differently.
50:09
It frightened me.
50:10
I didn’t want to live in a militarized society again, and I thought the militarized Russia
50:14
would be a dangerous country for the rest of the world.
50:20
Countries don’t militarize in order to be peaceful.
50:26
For a lot of people, though, it was a signal that they were going back to something that
50:32
was familiar and comfortable, both on a private level, which is that you would do the same—their
50:39
children would be doing the same things that they did as children, right, but much more
50:43
importantly on a public level, so that they would have a chance to identify with a great
50:47
country again.
50:48
He would make Russia great again.
50:51
For so many people in the 1990s, the instability and discomfort that they experienced became
51:00
concentrated in this idea of no longer belonging to a great power.
51:07
So a lot of Putin’s early signals were that he would bring back that wonderful feeling
51:17
of being part of a great power again.
51:19
MICHAEL KIRK – In a way, it’s right.
51:22
He’s merging probably how he felt, having missed glasnost and perestroika, not participating
51:27
in whatever was great about it, but he comes home, he’s shipwrecked, whatever happens
51:35
to him, it’s a different world than he probably anticipated finishing his life in.
51:41
That sort of ethos that he shared with the people was what he decided to employ as his
51:51
method.
51:56
In the end of his first year, George W. Bush becomes president of the United States.
52:02
One of the things we’ve noticed in tracing the arc of this gigantic narrative is how
52:09
often an American president arrives to a Russian president with hope that all is going to get
52:16
better, from Gorbachev on; democracy will flower now, and thank God.
52:23
52:24
MASHA GESSEN – Well, I want to say one more thing about what happened with George W. Bush
52:27
becoming president in ’99, or in 2000, is that Putin had just become president in a
52:34
very orderly manner.
52:38
He was handpicked by the previous president.
52:42
An election was scheduled.
52:43
He won it handily.
52:46
Everything went according to plan in his popularity.
52:50
His margin of victory was pretty good.
52:53
It was, I think, 53 percent in his first election.
52:57
And his popularity was sky-high.
52:58
Then America goes and has this ridiculous election that isn’t settled for two months
53:08
or two and a half months, and that just goes to show you how a democracy is such an imperfect
53:15
system, and probably an outdated and failed system.
53:19
I’m convinced that that’s the first time that Putin really watched an American presidential
53:24
election closely.
53:25
He’d never thought of himself as somebody who existed on that level.
53:30
Now he’s waiting to see who his counterpart is going to be, and he can’t even know who
53:39
his counterpart is going to be for two and a half months, because democracy is such a
53:42
mess.
53:43
53:44
MICHAEL KIRK – When they meet, the way the stories go, and especially—I’ve just talked
53:46
to a lot of American diplomats and ambassadors who were there at that first meeting.
53:52
This is the “I looked in his eyes and saw his soul” meeting.
53:57
Some people tell the story that here is a KGB guy who’s the president of Russia, who’s
54:03
studied Bush, knows he’s an evangelical, knows that he has a penchant and a weakness
54:07
for a religious story, dredges up a religious story out of his own past, the crucifix-in-the-ashes
54:14
story, and somehow they connect.
54:19
Tell me what you know about that version of the story.
54:23
MASHA GESSEN – Actually, I have nothing to add to that version of the story.
54:28
What I would say is that early on he was a charmer, early on in his term as president.
54:34
That’s no longer the case.
54:37
But everyone I’ve talked to [who] had a meeting with him in the first year or two of his becoming
54:46
acting president and then president came away transformed, at least for the first few minutes.
54:51
Well, actually, with one exception: one of the journalists who worked on that official
54:56
biography.
54:58
But everyone else felt that he sort of, he turned on the recruiter charm, and he was
55:06
well-briefed, and he always used a little personal anecdote to connect with you on the
55:12
grounds that he figured would be good for connecting.
55:18
A few years down the road, he stopped paying attention.
55:21
He would start mixing people’s names up or the facts of people’s biographies.
55:26
By the time I met him in 2012, he wasn’t even briefed.
55:32
He knew almost nothing about me, like he hadn’t bothered.
55:37
But early on, he was a real recruiter.
55:40
And I think he certainly worked his charm on George W. Bush, which apparently wasn’t
55:46
very difficult.
55:47
MICHAEL KIRK – There’s a lot of hope, of course, that they’ll do all kinds of things.
55:54
A lot of people have said—we’ll ask them: “What did Putin want from Bush?
56:00
What did Russia want from Bush?
56:02
But more importantly, what did Putin want from Bush and America?”
56:06
What do you think that was?
56:07
MASHA GESSEN – Well, Putin wanted the return of a bipolar world.
56:15
That was his agenda from the very beginning.
56:17
He wanted to be treated with respect.
56:19
He wanted people back home to see that he was being treated with respect.
56:24
This was also coming very soon after the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, right, which, for the
56:35
Russian political establishment and for a lot of Russian people, was a really difficult
56:40
pill to swallow.
56:42
56:43
The U.S. and its allies decided to bomb Serbia and Kosovo to resolve the Kosovo crisis without
56:50
consulting with Russia.
56:51
And to make matters worse, they started bombing, or the U.S. started bombing when Yevgeny Primakov,
57:00
the then-prime minister, was in the air, on his way to the United States to meet with
57:04
Vice President Gore.
57:07
So they didn’t even make a show of informing Russia before starting bombing, never mind
57:13
consulting Russia, and that was really insulting for the entire Russian establishment and a
57:20
lot of Russian people.
57:23
One of the things that Putin wanted to project was that that kind of thing was never going
57:28
to happen again.
57:30
MICHAEL KIRK – Then America pulls out of the ABM [Anti-Ballistic Missile] Treaty, not really
57:36
consulting.
57:37
In fact, he begged Bush not to do it.
57:41
They invade, or we invade Iraq, taking down an authoritarian figure who stands astride
57:48
a big—somewhat in the sphere of influence of Russia.
57:54
Russia joins with France and Germany and says: “Please don’t do this.
57:57
Are you guys going to do this?
57:58
Are you really going to do this?”
58:00
And they do it with a certain level of impunity, at least.
58:06
It seems that the word you used early to describe what he was hoping for, which is respect,
58:11
was hardly in the air between George W. Bush and the United States of America, and Vladimir
58:16
Putin and Russia.
58:17
MASHA GESSEN – And what’s even worse, I think from Putin’s point of view, is the expansion
58:22
of NATO.
58:24
It doesn’t ever sort of—in his worldview, it is not a question of these countries asking
58:35
to be part of NATO.
58:36
It is merely a question of the United States deciding that NATO should expand to the Russian
58:43
border.
58:44
He’s also convinced that the Soviet Union got assurances from the United States that
58:52
NATO would not be expanded.
58:54
58:55
The quote that Putin likes to bring up was a quote by the then-NATO commander given during
58:59
the negotiations about the reunification of Germany.
59:05
The promise was that there would be no NATO troops stationed on what had been East German
59:11
territory.
59:12
That’s the quote.
59:13
And that was a matter of negotiations.
59:16
This was, first of all, this was a negotiation with the Soviet Union, and then—and the
59:21
Soviet Union was pushing for a solution where somehow Germany would be united.
59:26
But East Germany still wouldn’t be a part of NATO.
59:30
And the compromise solution was that there would be no troops on what had been East German
59:36
territory.
59:37
That has nothing to do with NATO expansion as such, and it also certainly has nothing
59:41
to do with Russia.
59:42
I mean, this was being negotiated with the Soviet Union.
59:45
This was before the demise of the Warsaw Pact.
59:50
But in 2007, at the security conference in Munich, Putin shocks world leaders by giving
59:59
a very, very strongly worded speech about how Russia was not going to take it anymore.
60:04
MICHAEL KIRK – Can you take me there?
60:07
What has angered him, or what has happened in his world that he can go to Munich and
60:12
so forcefully declare?
60:14
It’s not declaring war, but it’s certainly declaring verbal war on, in an unspoken way,
60:23
the United States of America.
60:26
MASHA GESSEN – This is the end of his second term, and he has really been transformed.
60:32
He has already taken over the media in Russia.
60:36
He’s already canceled gubernatorial elections.
60:39
He’s canceled elections to the upper house of the Russian parliament.
60:44
He’s solidified power.
60:47
He is ruling very much like a dictator.
60:50
The process of dismantling what democratic mechanisms had existed in Russia was completed
60:55
in his first term, and this is the end of his second term.
60:59
Also, Russia has been living for seven years through a period of unprecedented prosperity,
61:04
because oil prices just keep climbing.
61:07
Money is just flowing into Russia.
61:10
Putin has enriched himself.
61:12
Everyone around him has enriched himself.
61:14
At the same time, he has emasculated the men who used to be known as the oligarchs.
61:20
They’ve ceded their political power to him, and a lot of their financial power, in exchange
61:25
for safety and security of those assets that they’re allowed to keep.
61:29
He’s really the patriarch of this country.
61:34
In Russia itself, people perceive him as enjoying the respect of the West, but he doesn’t
61:42
feel any respect, because the United States has invaded Afghanistan and then Iraq without
61:51
consulting with Russia, and in fact ignoring Russia’s wishes.
61:53
The United States has pulled out of the ABM Treaty.
61:56
And worst of all, NATO has expanded.
61:59
He’s been saving all of this resentment up because there he is—he feels like he
62:07
has transformed his country.
62:09
He’s made it great again, and he still doesn’t get any recognition of that when he meets
62:14
with world leaders.
62:15
He is still treated very much like a junior partner by everybody.
62:20
And so he comes to the security conference in Munich and says, basically: “I don’t
62:25
have to mince words, do I?
62:28
I can say what’s on my mind.”
62:31
And then he just lashes out, and he lists all these resentments, especially the NATO
51:56
In the end of his first year, George W. Bush becomes president of the United States.
52:02
One of the things we’ve noticed in tracing the arc of this gigantic narrative is how
52:09
often an American president arrives to a Russian president with hope that all is going to get
52:16
better, from Gorbachev on; democracy will flower now, and thank God.
52:23
52:24
MASHA GESSEN – Well, I want to say one more thing about what happened with George W. Bush
52:27
becoming president in ’99, or in 2000, is that Putin had just become president in a
52:34
very orderly manner.
52:38
He was handpicked by the previous president.
52:42
An election was scheduled.
52:43
He won it handily.
52:46
Everything went according to plan in his popularity.
52:50
His margin of victory was pretty good.
52:53
It was, I think, 53 percent in his first election.
52:57
And his popularity was sky-high.
52:58
Then America goes and has this ridiculous election that isn’t settled for two months
53:08
or two and a half months, and that just goes to show you how a democracy is such an imperfect
53:15
system, and probably an outdated and failed system.
53:19
I’m convinced that that’s the first time that Putin really watched an American presidential
53:24
election closely.
53:25
He’d never thought of himself as somebody who existed on that level.
53:30
Now he’s waiting to see who his counterpart is going to be, and he can’t even know who
53:39
his counterpart is going to be for two and a half months, because democracy is such a
53:42
mess.
53:43
53:44
MICHAEL KIRK – When they meet, the way the stories go, and especially—I’ve just talked
53:46
to a lot of American diplomats and ambassadors who were there at that first meeting.
53:52
This is the “I looked in his eyes and saw his soul” meeting.
53:57
Some people tell the story that here is a KGB guy who’s the president of Russia, who’s
54:03
studied Bush, knows he’s an evangelical, knows that he has a penchant and a weakness
54:07
for a religious story, dredges up a religious story out of his own past, the crucifix-in-the-ashes
54:14
story, and somehow they connect.
54:19
Tell me what you know about that version of the story.
54:23
MASHA GESSEN – Actually, I have nothing to add to that version of the story.
54:28
What I would say is that early on he was a charmer, early on in his term as president.
54:34
That’s no longer the case.
54:37
But everyone I’ve talked to [who] had a meeting with him in the first year or two of his becoming
54:46
acting president and then president came away transformed, at least for the first few minutes.
54:51
Well, actually, with one exception: one of the journalists who worked on that official
54:56
biography.
54:58
But everyone else felt that he sort of, he turned on the recruiter charm, and he was
55:06
well-briefed, and he always used a little personal anecdote to connect with you on the
55:12
grounds that he figured would be good for connecting.
55:18
A few years down the road, he stopped paying attention.
55:21
He would start mixing people’s names up or the facts of people’s biographies.
55:26
By the time I met him in 2012, he wasn’t even briefed.
55:32
He knew almost nothing about me, like he hadn’t bothered.
55:37
But early on, he was a real recruiter.
55:40
And I think he certainly worked his charm on George W. Bush, which apparently wasn’t
55:46
very difficult.
55:47
MICHAEL KIRK – There’s a lot of hope, of course, that they’ll do all kinds of things.
55:54
A lot of people have said—we’ll ask them: “What did Putin want from Bush?
56:00
What did Russia want from Bush?
56:02
But more importantly, what did Putin want from Bush and America?”
56:06
What do you think that was?
56:07
MASHA GESSEN – Well, Putin wanted the return of a bipolar world.
56:15
That was his agenda from the very beginning.
56:17
He wanted to be treated with respect.
56:19
He wanted people back home to see that he was being treated with respect.
56:24
This was also coming very soon after the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, right, which, for the
56:35
Russian political establishment and for a lot of Russian people, was a really difficult
56:40
pill to swallow.
56:42
56:43
The U.S. and its allies decided to bomb Serbia and Kosovo to resolve the Kosovo crisis without
56:50
consulting with Russia.
56:51
And to make matters worse, they started bombing, or the U.S. started bombing when Yevgeny Primakov,
57:00
the then-prime minister, was in the air, on his way to the United States to meet with
57:04
Vice President Gore.
57:07
So they didn’t even make a show of informing Russia before starting bombing, never mind
57:13
consulting Russia, and that was really insulting for the entire Russian establishment and a
57:20
lot of Russian people.
57:23
One of the things that Putin wanted to project was that that kind of thing was never going
57:28
to happen again.
57:30
MICHAEL KIRK – Then America pulls out of the ABM [Anti-Ballistic Missile] Treaty, not really
57:36
consulting.
57:37
In fact, he begged Bush not to do it.
57:41
They invade, or we invade Iraq, taking down an authoritarian figure who stands astride
57:48
a big—somewhat in the sphere of influence of Russia.
57:54
Russia joins with France and Germany and says: “Please don’t do this.
57:57
Are you guys going to do this?
57:58
Are you really going to do this?”
58:00
And they do it with a certain level of impunity, at least.
58:06
It seems that the word you used early to describe what he was hoping for, which is respect,
58:11
was hardly in the air between George W. Bush and the United States of America, and Vladimir
58:16
Putin and Russia.
58:17
MASHA GESSEN – And what’s even worse, I think from Putin’s point of view, is the expansion
58:22
of NATO.
58:24
It doesn’t ever sort of—in his worldview, it is not a question of these countries asking
58:35
to be part of NATO.
58:36
It is merely a question of the United States deciding that NATO should expand to the Russian
58:43
border.
58:44
He’s also convinced that the Soviet Union got assurances from the United States that
58:52
NATO would not be expanded.
58:54
58:55
The quote that Putin likes to bring up was a quote by the then-NATO commander given during
58:59
the negotiations about the reunification of Germany.
59:05
The promise was that there would be no NATO troops stationed on what had been East German
59:11
territory.
59:12
That’s the quote.
59:13
And that was a matter of negotiations.
59:16
This was, first of all, this was a negotiation with the Soviet Union, and then—and the
59:21
Soviet Union was pushing for a solution where somehow Germany would be united.
59:26
But East Germany still wouldn’t be a part of NATO.
59:30
And the compromise solution was that there would be no troops on what had been East German
59:36
territory.
59:37
That has nothing to do with NATO expansion as such, and it also certainly has nothing
59:41
to do with Russia.
59:42
I mean, this was being negotiated with the Soviet Union.
59:45
This was before the demise of the Warsaw Pact.
59:50
But in 2007, at the security conference in Munich, Putin shocks world leaders by giving
59:59
a very, very strongly worded speech about how Russia was not going to take it anymore.
60:04
MICHAEL KIRK – Can you take me there?
60:07
What has angered him, or what has happened in his world that he can go to Munich and
60:12
so forcefully declare?
60:14
It’s not declaring war, but it’s certainly declaring verbal war on, in an unspoken way,
60:23
the United States of America.
60:26
MASHA GESSEN – This is the end of his second term, and he has really been transformed.
60:32
He has already taken over the media in Russia.
60:36
He’s already canceled gubernatorial elections.
60:39
He’s canceled elections to the upper house of the Russian parliament.
60:44
He’s solidified power.
60:47
He is ruling very much like a dictator.
60:50
The process of dismantling what democratic mechanisms had existed in Russia was completed
60:55
in his first term, and this is the end of his second term.
60:59
Also, Russia has been living for seven years through a period of unprecedented prosperity,
61:04
because oil prices just keep climbing.
61:07
Money is just flowing into Russia.
61:10
Putin has enriched himself.
61:12
Everyone around him has enriched himself.
61:14
At the same time, he has emasculated the men who used to be known as the oligarchs.
61:20
They’ve ceded their political power to him, and a lot of their financial power, in exchange
61:25
for safety and security of those assets that they’re allowed to keep.
61:29
He’s really the patriarch of this country.
61:34
In Russia itself, people perceive him as enjoying the respect of the West, but he doesn’t
61:42
feel any respect, because the United States has invaded Afghanistan and then Iraq without
61:51
consulting with Russia, and in fact ignoring Russia’s wishes.
61:53
The United States has pulled out of the ABM Treaty.
61:56
And worst of all, NATO has expanded.
61:59
He’s been saving all of this resentment up because there he is—he feels like he
62:07
has transformed his country.
62:09
He’s made it great again, and he still doesn’t get any recognition of that when he meets
62:14
with world leaders.
62:15
He is still treated very much like a junior partner by everybody.
62:20
And so he comes to the security conference in Munich and says, basically: “I don’t
62:25
have to mince words, do I?
62:28
I can say what’s on my mind.”
62:31
And then he just lashes out, and he lists all these resentments, especially the NATO
62:37
expansion, referring to a nonexistent agreement, a nonexistent promise that NATO would never
62:44
expand.
62:45
It’s a total change of tone that comes as a complete surprise to his Western counterparts.
62:51
MICHAEL KIRK – Then one of the other things we do is we’re tracking the development
62:58
of military power, including hybrid power and including cyber and information war and
63:06
hard power.
63:13
Things begin to happen.
63:14
Estonia is two months later.
63:17
Then Georgia 1, or Georgia 2, Ukraine—all of it begins to happen, and all of it feels
63:25
like a rehearsal for something, or a perfecting of the military might.
63:34
Help me understand what he’s doing in terms of military power and where that fits into
63:40
this sense I’m getting from you, that he’s looking for not only making Russia great again,
63:45
but making people believe Russia is great again.
63:48
MASHA GESSEN – So he starts increasing military spending.
63:55
First it’s not extraordinary.
63:56
Now it’s quite extraordinary, the amount of money that Russia has been spending on
64:01
the military.
64:03
But he’s certainly interested in military reform.
64:07
A lot of people believe that he has militarized the Russian power establishment.
64:11
There are some counterarguments against that, but I mean, he loves his generals, and he
64:18
loves talking about how he’s bringing the military back.
64:23
He’s also investing money in ways of waging hybrid warfare, and an excuse to test some
64:34
of that presents itself.
64:36
Really, it’s just—it’s even hard to call it—it’s a pretext.
64:41
In the spring of 2007, Estonia moves a monument to
64:55
a Russian soldier, right?
64:58
When the Soviet Union occupied Eastern and Central Europe in 1945, it erected monuments
65:13
to the liberation of those countries, in the centers of every capital of those occupied
65:21
countries.
65:23
Now, some countries have chosen to look the other way, like Austria, which still has a
65:28
giant monument to its liberation by the Soviet soldiers in central Vienna.
65:38
But for some countries, it was much more problematic.
65:40
And for Estonia, which had been not only under Soviet occupation for half a century, but
65:49
really based its post-Soviet identity on the idea of occupation, right, to have that monument
65:59
in the center of town was really problematic.
66:03
It also became a focal point for both Estonian nationalists who would deface the monument
66:13
and [for] pro-Russian gatherings.
66:19
Estonia has a huge ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking population of non-citizens.
66:25
So this was—it was a problem in town.
66:32
They decided to solve this problem by moving the monument to a military cemetery.
66:36
The monument included 12 graves, so they moved the monument to a military cemetery, and Russia
66:45
really could have reacted in any number of ways, but Russia reacted with outrage.
66:49
Now, another thing that Putin had been doing is he had been creating these youth movements
66:52
sort of semi-vigilante, military in style if not—though not armed, basically para-armies
67:07
of young people to support the Kremlin.
67:11
So they are unleashed on the Estonian Embassy in Moscow.
67:16
The Estonian Embassy is essentially occupied for three days, and these so-called activists
67:25
demand that the Estonian ambassador go home.
67:30
The ambassador finally went home officially on vacation, but they said, “OK, our job
67:35
is done,” and left.
67:36
But at the same time—and Estonia is the most technologically advanced country in the
67:45
world.
67:47
Its entire government is electronic.
67:49
It’s the first country to offer e-citizenship.
67:53
Everything is on a chip.
67:54
You get stopped for a traffic violation or you go see a doctor, you use the same ID card
67:59
with a chip in it.
68:00
And all of a sudden, the entire Estonian system of government goes down because of pretty
68:08
primitive but enormous DDoS attack, [Distributed] Denial of Service attack launched on Estonia.
68:18
At the time, Russia denies that it’s involved.
68:20
Two years later, the leader of one of those youth movements says, “Yeah, it was an army
68:25
of volunteer hackers who unleashed that war.”
68:31
But it really shows Estonia who’s boss, because Estonia may be the most technologically
68:38
advanced country in the world, and it may have built a great democracy, but it’s just
68:40
1.2 million people, and you unleash 1.2 million hackers on them, and they can’t stand up to
68:49
it.
68:50
MICHAEL KIRK – How much of this and the Orange and Rose Revolution responses by Russia are
68:58
manifestations of Putin’s temper?
69:00
MASHA GESSEN – I think it’s both his temper and his perception of the world as essentially
69:08
hostile.
69:09
He personally perceives the world as essentially hostile, not just hostile to Russia, but hostile
69:18
to him, hostile to people he loves, just a really dangerous place.
69:27
So every time something happens, it’s probably a sign of danger, and the revolutions in both
69:35
Georgia and Ukraine were signs of danger.
69:39
In fact, in 2004 Ukraine had an election.
69:44
The election was very clearly rigged.
69:46
People started protesting in the streets, and eventually the Supreme Court, the Ukrainian
69:51
Supreme Court, ruled that—invalidated the results of the election and called for a third
69:57
runoff election to set things right.
70:00
Now, there were a couple of things that, for Putin, I think, were indications of danger.
70:05
One is— there’s an obvious one—which is that an independent judiciary is really dangerous
70:11
for a leader who relies on the rigged elections.
70:14
But again, people in the streets is a really frightening sight to Putin.
70:21
People in the streets can make all sorts of things happen, so instead of sort of watching
70:25
it and thinking, oh, we don’t have an independent judiciary, so people can come out in the streets
70:30
and then go right back home, because they can’t set in motion any mechanisms, because
70:37
he’d long since reversed judicial reform in Russia, which didn’t get very far in
70:41
the first place, instead he sees people in the streets wreaking havoc.
70:46
But he’s also convinced that people don’t just come out into the streets.
70:51
They have to be driven by somebody.
70:53
There has to be a puppet master.
70:55
Somebody’s funding them, and it’s probably the United States.
71:00
That’s actually when he started creating these youth armies.
71:07
There’s a wonderful Australian scholar named Robert Horvath who calls it “Putin’s preventive
71:11
counterrevolution.”
71:14
He launched a counterrevolution in his own country without waiting for a revolution to
71:18
happen, but he was terrified of a revolution like the one in Ukraine or the one in Georgia.
71:24
The one in Ukraine is known as the Orange Revolution, and the one in Georgia is known
71:27
as the Rose Revolution.
71:29
Nothing like that would ever happen in Russia, because there was already an army of young
71:33
people in place to basically to fight the protesters in the streets if they should come
71:37
out into the streets.
71:39
MICHAEL KIRK – By the time Obama comes in—we’re talking about the reset—[Dmitry] Medvedev
71:47
is in.
71:49
Is it an obvious fiction—was it an obvious fiction to you what it was going to be, or
71:57
is it an irrelevant fiction?
71:58
He [Putin] is still the most powerful guy in the country no matter what?
72:01
I know to Obama and Hillary, it seems like they—and we’ve talked to lots of people
72:07
who are around them—they really had high hopes that it was a true reset moment.
72:13
MASHA GESSEN – … I think at this point I can probably say it.
72:22
I was able to observe a little bit of that policymaking, and part of it was this idea,
72:30
this cynical and I think overconfident idea that if the United States empowered Medvedev,
72:38
then he would become the actual president.
72:43
I think that there were certainly intelligent people in the State Department at the time
72:48
who knew perfectly well that it was a fiction, and the basic understanding in the State Department
72:53
was that yes, it’s a fiction, but maybe we can make it real.
72:58
MICHAEL KIRK – So what did you witness?
73:01
What did you see?
73:02
What can you talk about?
73:07
MASHA GESSEN – I witnessed some of those, sort of the policymaking, and the idea—I
73:15
mean, everybody on the team, on the Russia team, I think in the State Department, did
73:21
realize that Medvedev was a fiction; he was a placeholder.
73:26
But there was a hope that sometimes these things take on a life of their own.
73:32
They really do.
73:33
I don’t think it’s—it’s not a crazy idea.
73:36
In fact, Putin was very much that kind of phenomenon as well, right?
73:41
He was sort of a fake accidental president, and then he was a real one.
73:47
I think that what they underestimated hugely was just how entrenched the clan system that
73:56
Putin had put in place was by 2008 when he put Medvedev in that chair as a placeholder.
74:08
I think that’s best described as a mafia state, which is a term invented by a Hungarian
74:15
scholar named Bálint Magyar, who actually makes a very strong argument that it’s important
74:21
to understand that it’s not crony capitalism or a kleptocracy; it’s a mafia state.
74:27
It’s administered by a patriarch, and power is distributed by the patriarch, just as money
74:32
is distributed by the patriarch.
74:34
Putin was still the patriarch.
74:35
It doesn’t matter what title he had.
74:38
I think they also didn’t realize, and I didn’t realize this until probably a couple
74:42
of years into the so-called Medvedev administration, that Medvedev just had absolutely no resources.
74:51
He had a couple of people working for him, a press secretary and an assistant, and like
74:56
one other guy.
74:58
Everything was concentrated around Putin.
75:01
At the same time, Medvedev had—legally, he had the right to fire Putin.
75:07
The president can fire the prime minister.
75:09
MICHAEL KIRK – But he’s not going to do that.
75:13
MASHA GESSEN – Well, one could hope that he would do that.
75:16
Then it’s very hard to sort of to discuss a counterfactual.
75:21
Like if the United States had not gone for the reset, would it have worked any better?
75:29
I don’t know.
75:31
I think that the fact that the reset came after the war in Georgia, and the war in Georgia
75:43
was technically fought under the Medvedev administration, and to sort of come to Russia
75:52
and say, “We’re willing to write it off, you know, write off the annexation of a third—of
75:59
a neighboring country,” it’s deeply immoral.
76:07
It also so happens that it was completely ineffective.
76:11
So the U.S. sacrificed some of its key foreign policy principles for nothing.
76:20
MICHAEL KIRK – It seems like it all falls apart, really falls apart starting with the
76:29
Arab Spring, from [Egypt’s Hosni] Mubarak to [Libya’s Muammar al-]Qaddafi and the
76:37
vote Medvedev makes.
76:42
But when do you think it—what was the tipping point in that sort of false presidential moment?
76:49
What happens?
76:51
MASHA GESSEN – The false presidential moment?
76:53
MICHAEL KIRK – Well, it makes Putin reassert himself actually and say, “I’m going back
76:57
in.”
76:58
MASHA GESSEN – Oh, I think he was always planning to go back.
77:00
MICHAEL KIRK – No matter what?
77:02
MASHA GESSEN – Yeah, I don’t think that he ever considered the possibility of not
77:09
running for election again.
77:11
If he did, it was more of a possibility of changing the constitution to make it basically
77:17
a parliamentary republic.
77:18
MICHAEL KIRK – And then he’d have it anyway.
77:20
MASHA GESSEN – And then he’d have all the power legally.
77:22
There was no way he was going to stay in a legally less powerful position for more than
77:30
four years.
77:32
The fact that the first thing that Medvedev did when he came into office was change the
77:36
constitution to extend the presidency to six years indicates that, from the very beginning,
77:42
the plan was for Putin to then come back in for six years.
77:46
Then it was, you know, it was done right away, and it wasn’t being done for Medvedev’s
77:52
benefit.
77:53
MICHAEL KIRK – When the people hit the streets in the midst of the announcement that he’s
78:01
coming back, and Hillary says, the statement she says around the election, the unfairness
78:08
of the election, and Putin reacts so negatively, negatively enough that, whether it’s a pretext
78:16
or not, he seems to remember it, a lot of people are saying it’s a motivation for
78:20
the attack in 2016.
78:22
How do you read what was happening with the people on the street?
78:26
Here we are again, people on the street, Putin; it’s becoming a familiar pattern.
78:31
But how do you read that, Hillary’s statement and the effect it had on Putin?
78:37
What did that look like from Putin’s perspective?
78:39
MASHA GESSEN – Well, so from Putin’s perspective, I mean by 2011-2012, he has completely lost
78:49
the ability to distinguish himself from his regime, his regime from the country—from
78:55
the state, and the state from the country.
78:57
When he sees people coming out into the streets to protest him and his regime, he sees them
79:05
protesting Russia itself.
79:07
I think that’s a sincere view of the world.
79:11
He knows what’s best for Russia.
79:13
They want to destroy Russia.
79:15
If they want to destroy Russia, then obviously they’re not Russians.
79:19
So they must be—their puppet master—and he’s always been convinced that there are
79:24
puppet masters behind any protest—but their puppet master has to be whoever is opposed
79:30
to Russia.
79:31
Well, obviously, what’s the only thing that’s powerful enough to oppose Russia and to incite
79:42
these protests?
79:43
It has to be the U.S. State Department, because it would be insulting to think that it was
79:46
anything else, anything less than that.
79:50
And Hillary is the secretary of state, so obviously it’s her fault, personally.
79:56
MICHAEL KIRK – Let’s address Sochi, Crimea, Ukraine, all in a kind of moment, if you can.
80:06
What does Sochi mean?
80:09
It’s been going on since late November, early December [2014], down in Ukraine.
80:12
I don’t really need to know the details since I know about [Ukrainian President Viktor]
80:17
Yanukovych and all the rest.
80:19
But it’s to Putin this glorious moment.
80:22
This other thing is happening.
80:24
He hates it for all the reasons you’ve just articulated, and he’s got a kind of plan,
80:28
I guess, to go after Crimea and then down into Ukraine, using his new hybrid forces,
80:34
I suppose.
80:35
MASHA GESSEN – I think that by 2014, really military buildup has become his number one
80:43
priority, and there are a few reasons for this.
80:46
One is that he loves the military.
80:49
He sees it as Russia’s ultimate greatness.
80:51
But the other thing is that he has to become a mobilizational leader.
80:57
The bargain that he had with the population, which is basically exchanging sort of a sense
81:08
of overwhelming prosperity that he was giving them for unlimited power that they were giving
81:14
him, that’s not working anymore, because the Russian economy is becoming stagnant.
81:20
Oil prices haven’t started dropping yet, but because of corruption and because of the overreliance
81:27
on extractive economy, the economic growth has basically slowed to a crawl by 2013, by
81:37
the end of 2013.
81:41
He still has to throw this big party, which he’s been planning for many years.
81:45
He went to Guatemala City personally to lobby for the Olympics.
81:51
Not only that, he gave a speech in English, which he’d never done before.
81:55
I think it was—or was it French?
81:58
Anyway, it was a language that he doesn’t usually use.
82:05
So he has been planning for this great moment.
82:10
And the Olympics—remember, the last Olympics in Russia were the Moscow Olympics in 1980,
82:19
which were supposed to also be a symbol of greatness, and turned into something entirely
82:24
different because the United States boycotted the Moscow Olympics over the invasion of Afghanistan.
82:31
So it’s also partly taking revenge for that humiliation of 1980.
82:40
All of that is on one pile.
82:41
And then in the fall of 2013, it turns out that a lot of Western countries aren’t sending
82:51
their luminaries, the first—I think it was the president of Germany [Joachim Gauck] who
82:59
said he wasn’t coming, then Belgium, then someone else.
83:03
Then finally Obama announces his delegation, which doesn’t include an elected official.
83:14
The highest placed official that it includes is a deputy assistant secretary of state,
83:18
which is just an insult.
83:20
And, to add more insult, there are two openly gay former Olympians in the delegation.
83:29
This is about a year and a half into Putin’s anti-gay campaign, because the way that he
83:34
ended up dealing with the protesters was by queer-baiting them and by sort of focusing
83:40
Russia’s ire on the LGBT population.
83:44
There are no good photo ops in Sochi.
83:48
It’s basically, instead of a party, it’s a disaster.
83:52
At the last minute, Putin tried to clean up his act by releasing [Mikhail] Khodorkovsy,
83:57
the former oligarch, who had been a political prisoner for 10 years; releasing the members
84:02
of Pussy Riot, who had been in jail for nearly two years; releasing the 30—I think [thirty]
84:08
two members of Greenpeace who were in a ship that Russia had hijacked in neutral waters,
84:15
in international waters in September, a ship flying the Dutch flag.
84:22
So they release all of those people.
84:24
But it’s too late to save Sochi.
84:27
That adds more resentment to his feelings around Sochi.
84:32
Meanwhile, Ukraine, which is not just Russia’s closest neighbor but very much sort of the
84:39
country that Russia identifies with, and really, really identifies with, right—I mean, Russians
84:44
of all kinds look at Ukraine to understand their own country, and Putin is no exception.
84:50
In Ukraine, there have been these protests going on for now several months, and it’s
84:56
because Ukrainians want a closer association with Western Europe rather than [with] Russia.
85:06
He interprets those protests as anti-Russian.
85:10
But they’ve thrown the country into absolute turmoil.
85:14
Now, so all of that is in place.
85:16
And his military buildup is in place.
85:19
I don’t think it’s a matter of having plans for the Crimea in place.
85:23
It’s a matter of having plans for everything in place.
85:27
It’s like Chekhov’s gun hanging on the wall, except that they have a plan for invading
85:32
every country on the wall, right?
85:35
That’s what a lot of the investment of the military has been, is making plans for how
85:39
are we going to fight this war and this other war?
85:41
How are we going to re-annex parts of Finland, and how are we going to re-annex the Baltic
85:48
states and Moldova and Ukraine?
85:51
So here is the moment to take Crimea.
85:55
And it’s clear, from the way that the Crimean operation was carried out, that it was indeed
86:00
a well-planned operation.
86:01
It was carried out on the spur of the moment when he saw the opportunity, but the plans
86:07
for the operation had long since been designed.
86:13
It was just a matter of implementation.
86:16
Then there are a lot of people around him who want to go further, who want to go into
86:22
Ukraine, and he has nothing to lose by going into Ukraine—not that he actually thinks
86:27
about his losses.
86:28
He’s a brilliant opportunist and not a planner.
86:32
Actually, Sochi is a perfect example of how little he plans.
86:36
Usually, the Olympics aren’t very often held in dictatorships, and dictatorships usually
86:43
clean up their act a year or two before the Olympics, and then do things like arrest all
86:49
the political dissidents and reinstate the death penalty like China did the day after
86:54
the Olympics ends.
86:55
But not Russia.
86:56
Russia didn’t clean up its act because Putin is not a planner, right?
86:59
Putin realized that he had to do something six weeks before the actual Olympics and released
87:04
everybody, but it was too late.
87:05
It’s not like he’s looking ahead to what’s going to happen if he invades Ukraine.
87:10
He invades Ukraine because he can, and because it’s good for mobilization, and it’s worked
87:17
really well for him.
87:19
If you look at his popularity curve, it goes up vertically again, just like it did in September-October
87:30
1999, when he promised to hunt down the terrorists.
87:33
It goes up vertically again, just as the economic expectations curve goes down.
87:45
You never actually see that in a normal country.
87:48
You never see a leader whose popularity is up and holding while people’s subjective
87:54
economic well-being is down, drops down precipitously and holds.
88:02
Sociologists will tell you that those lines have to meet.
88:05
In fact, they have to cross in opposite direction.
88:08
But that doesn’t happen in Russia.
88:12
And I think the reason it doesn’t happen in Russia is because ultimately, Russia has
88:17
reverted to this state of mobilization identification with the state.
88:24
He has delivered what he promised, which is to bring back to people the feeling of identifying
88:30
with something great.
88:31
MICHAEL KIRK – And when they’re hammered with sanctions, does that diminish him in some
88:41
way?
88:42
Does it diminish him with his people?
88:43
MASHA GESSEN – Well, did something really interesting with the sanctions.
88:51
The U.S. and the European Union and Australia and I think a couple other countries introduced
88:57
sanctions, which were designed to—they were based on a ridiculous premise that comes from
89:14
a basic misunderstanding of the way that Russia works, that if they squeezed him economically
89:22
a little bit, his popularity would suffer, people would protest, and then he would have
89:33
to change his behavior.
89:34
First of all, Putin had been power, by that point, for 15 years.
89:44
He had never shown an ability to change course.
89:49
He had never shown that he reacts to pressure with anything but aggression.
89:55
But also, there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of how his dialog with his people was working.
90:01
By this time, he had cracked down in the wake of the protests, so Russia was two years into
90:06
a full-fledged political crackdown.
90:09
It’s not like he was worried about feedback, and it’s not like protests were a real option.
90:18
But they also clearly weren’t looking at how much more popular he had become because
90:23
of the invasion.
90:26
So sanctions—I’m not opposed to sanctions.
90:29
I just think that sanctions should be based on moral considerations and values, not on
90:35
the idea that they could squeeze him into changing his behavior.
90:40
But after sanctions went into effect, Putin did something extraordinary, which is he made
90:45
the sanctions worse.
90:47
He introduced countersanctions, banned the import of food products from all the countries
90:57
that had joined the sanctions, with the exception of Switzerland.
91:04
That actually was a huge blow to the Russian economy, but especially to sort of individual
91:11
economy, because at the time, nearly all Russian food was imported, partly because it’s an
91:19
extractive economy.
91:20
The ruble had been very strong for many years.
91:23
There was no reason for Russians to make their own food.
91:27
They were importing it.
91:31
The saner rationale for those countersanctions was to jumpstart Russian food production,
91:38
but of course, that’s not how it works, right?
91:42
Prices went through the roof.
91:44
People really felt the squeeze.
91:46
But that actually made the sense of being at war stronger.
91:49
Even though people suffered, Putin’s popularity didn’t suffer, and it still hasn’t suffered.
91:58
The reason that he hates the sanctions is not because they put the squeeze on the Russian
92:03
economy.
92:04
He is concerned about a different set of sanctions.
92:08
He’s concerned about personal sanctions against that—that really make things difficult
92:15
for him and his friends who are banned from entry to this country, who are banned from
92:20
having assets in this country, and who are essentially banned from doing any business
92:25
involving U.S. currency, which really hampers their style.
92:30
MICHAEL KIRK – So let’s take ourselves to the summer of 2016.
92:37
Why does Vladimir Putin, really in 2015 and in the spring of 2016, initiate, unleash the
92:48
hounds if that’s what he did, decide to go in to, invade the presidential election
92:57
in the United States of America in 2016?
93:00
MASHA GESSEN – A couple of things.
93:02
One is that Russia has actually made a habit of being a disruptive force in Western elections
93:14
for a few years now.
93:15
It didn’t begin with the American presidential election.
93:22
A better way to ask the question might be, why wouldn’t Russia try to meddle in American
93:28
elections when it’s made a habit of meddling in democratic elections?
93:32
Now, the reasons for meddling in elections are obvious, and I would actually begin with
93:40
psychological reasons rather than strategic reasons.
93:43
The psychological reason is that Putin is really and truly convinced, and the people
93:48
around him are really and truly convinced, that democracy is an unsound way of running
93:52
things.
93:54
It is messy.
93:56
It is, as he saw with Bush and Gore, doesn’t run very well, and it also probably isn’t
94:06
as honest as everybody says, right?
94:10
In fact, when you ask a Russian official or a Russian patriot about rigged Russian elections,
94:21
they will always say, “You think your elections are so honest?”
94:24
That’s a sense of relief.
94:27
It’s not, you know, this bit of—it’s not hypocritical “What about-ism?”
94:30
It’s sincere “What about-ism?”
94:32
They’re really arguments that democratic elections are rigged.
94:34
Well, if their democratic elections are rigged, why wouldn’t you want a part of the rigging
94:40
if you have an interest in the outcome?
94:42
Of course Russia has an interest in the outcome of American elections.
94:47
It also has an even deeper interest in proving that democracy is as rotten as they say it
94:53
is.
94:55
To prove that democracy is as rotten as they say it is, it is good to help it along in
95:01
becoming more rotten.
95:05
The other thing is that I think in this country, we’ve come to imagine the Russian system
95:11
of meddling as a well-oiled machine or a well-commanded army.
95:21
That’s not what it is at all.
95:23
There are a lot of technically savvy and not so savvy people who want to get federal grants,
95:32
and the Kremlin throws a lot of money at organizations that will sell a good pitch of being able
95:42
to meddle in something or wreak some sort of havoc somewhere, where havoc ought to be
95:48
wreaked, right?
95:50
It’s not so much that Putin sends out an army of hackers; it’s that there are groups
95:55
of hackers who want to take the initiative of doing something really awesome, which is,
96:00
of course, how we get two different groups hacking the Democratic National Committee
96:06
at roughly the same time, without apparently being aware of each other.
96:09
MICHAEL KIRK – Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear.
96:12
MASHA GESSEN – Right, Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear.
96:17
The whole thing is self-perpetuating and messy in different sorts of ways.
96:23
But of course there’s also the element of his personal hatred for Hillary Clinton, and
96:27
it’s not just hate her.
96:28
I think it’s like Hillary Clinton was impossible as a U.S. president.
96:33
To imagine that he would have to deal with her as a senior partner, a woman—I mean,
96:38
he already has to deal with [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel.
96:44
The lengths that he has gone to to assert his masculine dominance over Merkel is amazing.
96:52
He literally sicced dogs on her.
96:57
He has made indecent jokes in front of her, just to try to discomfort her.
97:07
He hates dealing with a strong woman, and one as president of the United States would
97:13
be just awful.
97:14
I don’t think he ever believed that he was going to be able to help get Trump into office.
97:19
I think in that sense, the people who prepared his briefs read all the same sources as we
97:28
do.
97:29
They were just as convinced that Hillary Clinton was going to win the American election as
97:35
The New York Times was convinced that she was going to win the American election.
97:41
MICHAEL KIRK – So in 2008 and other times, it was obviously espionage, and everybody
97:48
steals everything from everybody.
97:49
It’s when it’s activated through WikiLeaks and others that it changes into pure politics?
97:56
MASHA GESSEN – Well, that’s where it gets really—I mean, we don’t know, right?
98:05
I think that Julian Assange has his own megalomaniacal views of his role in the world.
98:16
He’s certainly alone against the entire world.
98:22
Who made the decision to release the products of the leaks at that particular time?
98:27
I think there’s actually every indication it was Assange.
98:31
How long had he been sitting on that material?
98:33
Did he get it on the eve of the leak, or months and months before?
98:38
We actually don’t know.
98:42
MICHAEL KIRK – One question in passing.
98:49
Nobody’s actually reached out and tried to stop Putin along this long narrative we’ve
98:55
been discussing, that we know of.
98:59
When Ukraine happens, we don’t fire back cyber stuff or close a bank.
99:04
99:05
With 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.
99:15
And, as you have articulated, it might have pissed him off, and off we go again further
99:20
and further along.
99:21
We get here, we know it.
99:22
[Then-Director of National Intelligence James] Clapper knows it.
99:25
Eventually the FBI knows it.
99:26
Certainly Obama knows it.
99:28
And there were certainly arguments: “We’ve got to push back here.
99:31
We’ve got to let him know.”
99:33
From what you know about Putin, and what you’ve been talking about this afternoon, how would
99:38
Putin have reacted if there would have been pushback?
99:41
MASHA GESSEN – Again, it’s very hard to argue a counterfactual, and I don’t think
99:49
that Putin’s reaction should be the consideration.
99:53
I think we have known for a very, very long time that Putin is dead set on a particular
99:59
course, and he’s going to pursue it.
100:01
When he gets very strong pushback, he steps back, and then he comes back again in the
100:06
exact same direction, doing the exact same thing.
100:11
The question should not be, what does Putin do?
100:14
Obviously it’s responsible to consider it, but it’s not terribly complicated to predict
100:20
what he is going to do.
100:21
The question should be, what are our values, and what do we do in accordance with our values
100:29
in this situation?
100:30
The sanctions, I think, are a very good example, right?
100:34
The sanctions, as a strategic move, are a failure, and a predictable failure.
100:40
The sanctions, as an expression of American values, wouldn’t have been a failure if
100:45
they had been framed and implemented that way, right?
100:48
It is wrong to do business with a dictator.
100:51
It is wrong to do business with a head of state or with a state that carries out the
100:55
first forcible annexation of land in Europe since World War II.
101:00
In accordance with those considerations, what does the United States do?
101:03
It probably introduces similar sanctions.
101:05
Doesn’t do it step by step the way it was done, because it is not gradually more and
101:13
more wrong to do business with that kind of state.
101:15
It is instantly wrong to do business with that kind of state.
101:18
So you introduce sanctions all at once, and perhaps in somewhat different areas, or perhaps
101:24
not.
101:25
But you don’t do it step by step, because the step-by-step process was intended to show
101:28
Putin that we mean business, and he has to stop.
101:31
Like hell he’s going to stop, right?
101:33
That’s not the kind of pushback that will make him stop.
101:37
You know, again, there’s also basic misunderstanding that he thinks that making life worse for
101:42
his people—I mean, we think that making life worse for Russians is going to make Putin
101:47
stop.
101:48
He has been making life worse for Russians for years, and it certainly hasn’t made
101:54
him stop.
101:56
MICHAEL KIRK – So what do you think Trump—what do you think Putin thinks of Trump?
102:04
102:05
MASHA GESSEN – Oh, he very clearly sees Trump as a buffoon.
102:10
Trump is, in some ways, the expression of everything that Putin disdains.
102:14
He disdains lack of control.
102:18
One thing that he also has cultivated as part of his image is his never betraying emotions.
102:25
That’s not true.
102:26
He actually betrays emotions quite a lot, but his idea of himself is somebody who has
102:33
a flat affect and purposefully never shows any emotions and is always calculated in everything
102:42
he does and says.
102:43
Also not true, but that’s how he thinks of himself.
102:46
Trump is the exact opposite of that.
102:49
I mean, I think that that kind of lack of control over his words and actions and emotions
102:58
and reactions makes Putin look down on him.
103:03
And I think, at this point, Putin feels also a little bit betrayed, because along with
103:09
much of the media establishment, and certainly much of Russian media, he has bought the idea
103:14
that he elected Trump.
103:16
He loves that idea.
103:17
He took a couple of victory laps after the election.
103:21
And now Trump hasn’t delivered.
103:26
In a way, Russia is worse off with Trump in office than it was with Obama in office.
103:33
MICHAEL KIRK – Because?
103:34
MASHA GESSEN – Sanctions remain in place.
103:36
There’s no sign that they will ever be removed.
103:38
Trump is less predictable.
103:40
Obama was always—you could basically easily predict that he was going to go for the least
103:45
engagement possible in any given situation.
103:48
It’s not true of Trump.
103:51
Trump liked firing 59 Tomahawk missiles at Syria.
103:55
Trump loved dropping the mother of all bombs in Afghanistan.
103:58
It looks really good on television.
104:00
As Trump gets pushed into a corner, what is he going to do to make himself to look good
104:07
on television again?
104:09
Putin understands that kind of thinking very, very well.
104:14
As we speak, things are getting pretty rocky in Syria between Russia and the U.S.
104:22
I was just in Moscow recently, and Russian television is talking about how Trump hasn’t
104:30
sort of made good on his promises.
104:32
Russian television is also spending a lot of time on Syria, on how Russia is waging
104:38
a heroic war against ISIS and Syria, and American-backed terrorist forces are pushing back.
104:48
That’s the narrative.
104:50
America is backing terrorist forces in Syria, and Russia is waging war against them.
104:57
It’s hard to get Russians mobilized behind the Syrian effort.
105:02
It hasn’t been nearly as popular as Ukraine.
105:05
But it’s important to Putin personally.
105:08
And he will not step back from it.
105:10
MIKE WISER – So one of the questions is by 2016 election, there’s a lot of talk of Russian
105:18
botnets, propaganda, influence on social media.
105:22
How does that happen?
105:28
Going back to 2011 and 2012, the Russian government, what does Putin see when, at that point, it’s
105:34
Facebook and social media seem to be driving protests, change and the Arab Spring?
105:40
Is there a moment where they’re reconsidering tactics, are realizing the power and the danger
105:46
of social media after 2012?
105:49
MASHA GESSEN – I wouldn’t overemphasize it.
105:53
I was just talking recently to Adrian Chen, who did that wonderful story on the Russian
105:59
troll factory, and he said, “If I had known that the intelligence agencies were going
106:04
to use my article so prominently in their report, I would have emphasized how incompetent
106:10
they are.”
106:12
It’s not all that we imagine it to be.
106:18
They did catch onto social media.
106:19
They caught onto social media late, and not every agency has even figured out that social
106:27
media exists.
106:28
When the political crackdown began, they didn’t employ social media at all in their investigations.
106:35
They would go through people’s printed out photographs and handwritten notes to try to
106:43
figure out context.
106:44
They never went online to try to figure out how to crack down on people’s actual networks.
106:50
So it’s—they have a lot of money to throw around.
106:54
They are interested in increasing their electronic influence around the world.
107:00
This is true.
107:01
And there are some companies that are enterprising in sort of absorbing that money and doing
107:06
stuff for that money, and they have no scruples about what they do.
107:10
But to imagine it as a concerted effort and as sort of an all-out war on Western democracy
107:16
through high-tech means gives them a little bit too much credit.
107:20
MIKE WISER – But does he change his approach even inside Russia after those protests?
107:26
How does Putin change once he sees all those people in the street?
107:29
MASHA GESSEN – Oh, well, no, what changed when he saw people in the streets was actually
107:34
much more conventional.
107:36
They started arresting people.
107:38
They changed the laws.
107:40
They changed the laws to enable them to prosecute anybody for perceived violations of public
107:49
assembly laws.
107:50
So it used to be that—I mean, the laws were very restrictive in the first place, right?
107:58
You had to get a permit to hold a demonstration, and on that permit you had to indicate how
108:04
many people were coming to the demonstration, and if the number of people who came to the
108:07
demonstration exceeded the number of people on the permit, then you went to jail for 15
108:13
days.
108:14
But that still only hit the organizers of these protests, right?
108:18
So that’s what happened, for example, after the first protest, the first large protest.
108:22
People had a permit for 300 people because that’s how many people used to show up,
108:27
and 10,000 people showed up.
108:29
So the people whose names were on the permit application went to jail for 15 days for all
108:36
those people who showed up.
108:37
What they did, when Putin cracked down, is they changed those laws to be able to prosecute
108:43
anybody who participated in the protests for violations.
108:49
That is a basic instrument of state terror.
108:54
You have to create the mechanism of random prosecutions, because by definition, you can’t
109:00
apply a law like that uniformly.
109:04
If 50,000 people come to a protest, you can’t arrest 50,000 people.
109:10
You can only arrest some of them.
109:11
You certainly can’t send 50,000 people without reinstating the Gulag.
109:15
You can’t send 50,000 people to prison colonies, put them through the courts, etc., etc., so
109:19
you have to pick out a few to make the threat credible to the many.
109:23
But they can’t be the leaders, right?
109:26
They have to be ordinary people.
109:28
So they did that.
109:30
And they prosecuted—at this point, the number of people who have been prosecuted in connection
109:33
with the 2012 protests is over 30, and most of them have gone to jail for three or four
109:40
years.
109:41
These are just ordinary people, right, going to jail for peaceful protests.
109:47
They’re picked out at random, and they’re picked out at random times.
109:50
It can be two years after the protest.
109:52
They say, “We found videotape of you beating up an officer,” and then that person is
109:59
picked up.
110:00
So that’s one thing they did.
110:01
Another thing they did is the “foreign agents law,” which creates unbearable burdens for
110:12
functioning of any NGO [nongovernmental organization] that receives foreign funding.
110:17
Basically they’ve decimated civil society through doing this, and they’ve prosecuted
110:22
a lot of people from various organizations for failing to register as foreign agents.
110:31
They’ve paralyzed the work of many organizations, basically, with these prosecutions.
110:37
Let me just finish.
110:41
The third thing they did is the anti-gay campaign.
110:44
The anti-gay campaign is, it’s much more of a sort of standard scapegoating campaign.
110:51
But queer is a perfect stand-in for everything that Putin perceives the protesters to be.
110:56
They’re foreign; they’re other; they are something that didn’t exist in the Soviet Union.
111:01
We’ve only had queers since the Soviet Union collapsed.
111:06
They’re a stand-in for everything Western and everything imported.
111:12
And it gets traction with sort of this desire to return to an imaginary past with the traditional
111:18
values, whatever they were.
111:20
That’s also unleashed a lot of violence on people who are perceived to be gay.
111:26
So that channels a lot of the violent impulses in the population.
111:31
MIKE WISER – So what does Putin want now?
111:35
He started wanting respect from Bush.
111:37
But where are we at this point?
111:38
What’s his approach to the West?
111:40
MASHA GESSEN – Oh, he still wants the same thing.
111:42
He still wants a bipolar world.
111:45
The Syria story is actually a perfect example of how this unfolded.
111:49
You know, Putin’s happiest moment came in September 2013, when he hijacked Syria.
111:55
If you recall, Obama said there was a red line, and then he couldn’t get congressional
112:02
support for intervention in Syria.
112:04
Then he decided not to do it without congressional support, and he basically was losing face.
112:11
Putin stepped in and allowed him to save face and said that he was going to negotiate a
112:19
chemical disarmament with [Bashar al-]Assad.
112:22
He wrote an op-ed in The New York Times, which the Times published, that was just perfect
112:30
Soviet use of American rhetoric against the United States, calling out the U.S. for its
112:39
willingness to violate international law.
112:41
I mean, this is the man who annexed huge chunks of neighboring countries.
112:50
So that was—he was on top of the world then.
112:54
And then, a year later, suddenly he is an international pariah.
112:59
Nobody comes to his party.
113:03
He’s under sanctions.
113:05
I mean, Ukraine, he could have anticipated that there would be a strong reaction.
113:09
But the anti-gay campaign, he certainly never anticipated that there would be an international
113:14
outrage over it.
113:16
So he comes back to the U.S. for the 70th anniversary of the United Nations, Sept. 20,
113:21
2015, with a proposal.
113:28
He spoke at the General Assembly of the United Nations, and he basically articulated his
113:31
proposal.
113:32
His proposal was that a new international coalition, an anti-ISIS coalition modeled
113:38
after the anti-Hitler coalition should be formed.
113:45
What he means is, because the Soviet Union was part of the anti-Hitler coalition, the
113:51
Soviet Union got to be a superpower and got to have Eastern Europe.
113:58
He wants the same thing.
114:01
He wants to enter into this coalition with the United States and get to be a superpower
114:05
again, and also take parts of the world that he wants, which is not necessarily former
114:11
Soviet territories, but certainly what he’s already taken and some more.
114:15
Obama didn’t even meet with him.
114:19
He was completely snubbed.
114:24
He went back to Moscow humiliated, untended to.
114:32
Russia started bombing Syria a week later, and has been ever since.
114:36
The war, Russia’s participation in the war in Syria, is basically an attempt to blackmail
114:44
the United States into giving Russia its superpower status back.
114:49
JIM GILMORE – I think you missed the back in September of 2004, Beslan and what it represented,
114:57
and why it was important to understand about what was going on there.
115:11
MASHA GESSEN – Beslan was, if you could imagine, an even more shocking terrorist attack than
115:17
the explosions that killed people in their sleep.
115:19
That was Beslan, the siege of a school in the south of Russia, where nearly 1,000 people
115:29
were taken hostage.
115:31
Then more than 300 people died, most of them children.
115:37
As we learned, thanks to an independent investigation carried out over the next couple years, the
115:46
deaths of those children were really the FSB’s doing, the federal troops’ fault.
115:55
They shelled the school at point-blank range.
116:00
They fired at it from tanks.
116:04
A lot of the children who burned alive because of a fire that raged, because the school was
116:13
shelled at point blank range.
116:19
I think that they were trying to do everything to maximize the number of casualties, to maximize
116:23
the shock effect.
116:24
It’s also possible that they were just so inhumane that they would just do it without
116:33
even having that goal in mind.
116:37
But Putin used Beslan as a pretext for canceling gubernatorial elections.
116:46
He framed it as an antiterrorism measure.
116:52
It was a cynical move, because clearly his very detailed decree in canceling gubernatorial
116:57
elections had been prepared before Beslan happened.
117:03
But at the same time, it also expresses, I think, his basic belief that anything democratic
117:10
is always messy, and the way to respond to extreme violence and to extreme disorder is
117:17
to create more dictatorial powers.
117:20
MICHAEL KIRK – So now my last question, which is, are we at war?
117:25
Is he at war with us?
117:27
MASHA GESSEN – He is.
117:30
Putin has portrayed and the Kremlin-controlled Russian media have portrayed both the wars
117:36
in Ukraine and the wars here as proxy wars against the United States.
117:41
Russia does not perceive itself as being at war with Ukraine.
117:47
It perceives itself as being at war with the United States by proxy of Ukraine.
117:53
And it certainly doesn’t perceive itself as being at war with ISIS, even though it
117:58
says that it’s firing at ISIS fighters.
118:01
It perceives itself as being at war with forces that are backed by the United States in Syria.
118:09
They’re quite open about it, on television.
118:14
It would be beneath Russia’s station to go to war with Syria or to go to war with
118:19
Ukraine.
118:20
Only the United States is big enough to go to war against, and only the United States
118:24
is grand enough to mobilize people enough to have the kind of popularity that Putin
118:32
has come to depend upon. …

Timothy Snyder: The Ancient is the Modern

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)

 

 

 

Into the night with Garry Kasparov and Peter Thiel

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.

Garry Kasparov

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.

Peter Thiel

 

(45 min)  Warren Buffet, America’s richest man in, does not invest in technology.

 

How Vladimir Putin Falls

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 Russia

He Played by the Rules of Putin’s Russia, Until He Didn’t: The Story of a Murder

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Hypersonic Missiles Are Unstoppable. And They’re Starting a New Global Arms Race.

The new weapons — which could travel at more than 15 times the speed of sound with terrifying accuracy — threaten to change the nature of warfare.

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 Mexicoisn’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.

[Putin Warns That Russia Is Developing ‘Invincible’ Hypersonic Missiles]

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.