You have named Russia´s intervention in US presidential elections last year and the subsequent scandal “Kremlingate” and said it is the biggest US political scandal since Watergate. How do you assess the damage all this has done to US institutions, credibility and political process? Has the Kremlin´s special operation succeeded in turning one part of US population (namely Trump supporters and millions of people in the midwest) against the federal institutions?
Covert action cannot create political conditions, it merely exploits what already exists. Plenty of Americans were skeptical, and perhaps hostile, to federal institutions before 2016. That said, KremlinGate has done considerable damage to American politics and society. It has exacerbated already serious ideological divisions in the United States. It has made our coarse politics much coarser. Most serious is the manner how candidate, now President Trump ritually denounces any criticism of himself and his administration as “FAKE NEWS.” This is frankly a Putinesque tactic which is corrosive of democratic values. A free press is the cornerstone of American democracy, and Trump clearly hates that.
Historian Timothy Snyder said in february that americans have up to a year to save US democracy from autocratic-leaning president Trump´s corrupt influence. Do you agree with his assessment and how are the checks and balances in the US system working to constrain him?
I am not quite as pessimistic as Professor Snyder, although I am not expecting things in my country to improve quickly. Trump’s downfall is coming, thanks to his blatant ties to the Kremlin, which the FBI is investigating, and that process will lead to a large-scale political cleansing in Washington which will be traumatic yet necessary. Trump’s effort to force his will on Congress and the courts is failing already. His popularity with the public is simply insufficient to allow the sort of crackdown on civil society which Trump wants.
Syrian regime, Russia and Iran seem to be pursuing a military victory against the rebels in Syria under the cover of ceasefire and the political processes in Geneva and Astana. The latest development concerns the so called de-escalation zones. Is greater US military involvement in Syria necessary to counterbalance the Damascus-Moscow-Tehran axis and force them to concede anything in the peace negotiations?
Putin has achieved most of his objectives in Syria already. He has preserved his client, the Assad dictatorship, which is a major win for the Kremlin. Although Syria’s terrible war will drag on for years yet, its outcome is already known. I am skeptical that, after six years of dawdling and not knowing what to do about Syria, Washington has any practical good ideas. There is nothing the United States can do, at this point, that will significantly change the course of the Syrian war. I don’t think the White House – particularly with Donald Trump in it – has the stomach to force Putin and his Syrian and Iranian partners to do much of anything. That said, the primary blame for this situation lies with President Obama, whose abandonment of his own “red line” in Syria nearly four years ago de facto outsourced U.S. policy in the region to Moscow. Everything else flows from that needless debacle.
The subversive methods Russia uses to undermine governments in foreign countries have been tried in the Baltic States and elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe for a long time. The fact that Moscow has started to use the same toolbox against the US and big powers in Western Europe speaks something about their audacity and sense of impunity. In a conventional military sense Russia can be deterred, but how can one deter its hybrid warfare?
I’m afraid this is a difficult, and unprecedented, situation the West is in at present. The Kremlin’s playbook of covert political warfare, what I’ve termed Special War, that was employed against my country last year – aggressive espionage combined with propaganda and subversion – is being used on France right now. Germany is next. What’s remarkable is how overt all this ostensibly covert combat actually is. Moscow is still using well-known fronts such as APT 28 (which is really GRU) and its Wikileaks pawn to do its bidding, even though everybody knows who’s really pulling the strings. Putin doesn’t care that we know, which is deeply alarming. NATO needs to accept that Russia has declared war of a kind against the West and we must start pushing back. Militarily NATO can easily deter Russia; regarding political warfare, however, I am much less optimistic right now. The only good news is that the blatant nature of Russia’s clandestine aggression against Western democracy, playing out in real-time for all to see, means increasing numbers of citizens understand what is happening.
There is no end in sight to the stalemate in Ukraine. Is there a danger that Russia´s war against Ukraine will soon turn into a forgotten war that continues to boil while Russia keeps piling new crises on the West as it seems to be doing in the Balkans? Is it realistic to hope that Russia can be forced into concessions over Ukraine at all given that the Kremlin considers it a geopolitical space vital to its identity?
The conflict in Ukraine is stalemated. Putin has no idea what to do. In a military sense, he can keep the war on a low-level boil – intermitting shelling, small-scale attacks to keep Kyiv off balance – but the Kremlin clearly lacks the stomach for a wider war. In hindsight, Putin made a serious error in 2014 when he failed to create a real Novorossiya, in other words connecting “liberated” territory in eastern Ukraine with occupied Crimea. Three years ago, when Ukraine was on its back, militarily speaking, such an operation would have been relatively easy for Moscow. Now, it would be difficult and costly – in political and economic as well as military terms. Occupation of a significant chunk of eastern Ukraine is a bridge to nowhere and the General Staff in Moscow knows it. The Kremlin therefore may eventually be open to some sort of parley, since the only thing Russia gets from its occupation of Donetsk and Luhansk is the ability to make life difficult for Kyiv. As for Crimea, that issue is settled as far as Moscow is concerned, but Russian occupation of eastern Ukraine is a more open matter. My bigger concern is that, with the war in Ukraine stalemated without obvious resolution, Putin will seek to push elsewhere. The Balkans offer the Russians easy provocations – the aborted GRU coup in Montenegro last fall being an example of how ugly the Kremlin wants to play the spy-game – that will distract NATO and cause the West to get bogged down in more messy conflicts. Putin is furious that Montenegro just voted to join the Atlantic Alliance, so we should expect unpleasant Russian pushback in Southeastern Europe. The fragile situation in Macedonia is a ripe target for Moscow, and NATO needs to be ready to tamp down aggressive Kremlin moves there in order to keep the shaky regional peace.