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From Interference Abroad To Repression At Home: Examining Vladimir Putin's Power Plays

President of Russia and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces Vladimir Putin makes a speech in Red Square during a Victory Day military parade marking the 75th anniversary of the victory in World War II, on June 24, 2020 in Moscow, Russia.(Sergey Guneev/Host Photo Agency via Getty Images )
President of Russia and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces Vladimir Putin makes a speech in Red Square during a Victory Day military parade marking the 75th anniversary of the victory in World War II, on June 24, 2020 in Moscow, Russia.(Sergey Guneev/Host Photo Agency via Getty Images )

A bipartisan report from the Senate Committee on Intelligence reveals new details about Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election. The report provides the most detailed account yet of President Trump’s relationships in Russia. Plus, the most prominent opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin has allegedly been poisoned. We’ll talk to experts about Putin’s grip on power.


Masha Gessen, staff writer at The New Yorker. Author of 11 books, including “Surviving Autocracy” and “The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia.” (@mashagessen)

Mark Mazzetti, Washington D.C. investigative correspondent for The New York Times. Won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for reporting on Donald Trump’s advisers and their connections to Russia. (@MarkMazzettiNYT)

Interview Highlights

On what’s new in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report

Mark Mazzetti: “I didn’t expect necessarily to learn a whole lot new in this, but I was wrong… the difference between this report and the Mueller report is that it’s a different type of document. The Mueller investigation was a legal inquiry determined to amass evidence, ultimately with the aim of making a decision of should they prosecute people or not. So, as you remember, a lot of the language is very tortured: There were a lot of double negatives, it was kind of hard to follow. This is written with a greater level of certainty because there wasn’t that burden that the intelligence community had. They didn’t have to say there is enough evidence to lead to criminal charges. They were just saying the Russian campaign was sweeping, and the members of the Trump campaign in some cases were winning partners, even if there was not a full blown conspiracy.”

On the role of former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort in the alleged collusion

Mark Mazzetti: “[The report] goes into extreme detail about Paul Manafort, the former campaign chairman of the Trump campaign. And what was known, of course, was he had been deeply tied to Ukrainian oligarchs who were pro-Russian. He was, in fact, in debt to them. He had worked for them over the years. What this report shows is how much those oligarchs were tied into Russian intelligence and how much Manafort, because he was compromised financially by these individuals in a way, was giving insight, in effect, to the Russian government about what the Trump campaign was up to. So this report creates much more direct ties between Manafort and members of Russian intelligence, named officers of Russian intelligence.”

On why the Trump 2016 campaign was ripe for Russian infiltration

Mark Mazzetti: “It does not neatly draw together all these points and connect all these dots into, you know, this is Vladimir Putin’s very well-orchestrated campaign, directed by individual acts and carried out in a coherent and thought-out way. The report still is, I guess, frustrating, but that’s reality. It’s about, you know, how does this individual decide to do that? How do these things tie together? It’s clear that the committee doesn’t know. And Masha, I’m sure, can talk about this as well, but this may just be the nature of what was going on. It was not a centrally-organized campaign by Putin, but it was maybe, you know, blessed, and people set off to go make their own individual inroads into the Trump campaign. And let me just finally say that the Intelligence Committee makes it clear that the Trump campaign was ripe for this kind of penetration, that you had all of these figures who were either friends of Donald Trump, businessmen and women with ties to Russia over the years, to Ukraine over the years, and very few had actual government experience. And so all of these people, for lack of a better term, were easy marks for the Russians.”

On what the report doesn’t say

Mark Mazzetti: “Even after all this, there is still never the firm conclusion you come away with, where the Trump campaign and the Russian government, in effect, sat down, got together and said, let’s help each other, let us help you, and Donald Trump was firmly accepting of that. It’s still a little bit impressionistic of exactly how these contacts played out, and therefore frustrating. Perhaps those conclusions will never be drawn.”

On what motivated the Russian agents involved with the 2016 Trump campaign

Masha Gessen: “I read it as a description of a whole bunch of grifters, all of them with their own nebulous agenda, all of them trying to get something done. I mean, for example, my reading of the famous Trump Tower meeting with Natalia Veselnitskaya I think… this report emphasizes her business skills and connections to the Russian government. They’re not detailed, but from my own reporting, from what I know about her connections to the Russian government, they’re not significant. She was not working on behalf of the Russian government. What I think she was doing was trying to establish some sort of footing for both her client and then possibly something that she could then trade with the prosecutor’s office in Russia or something that could curry more favor. If you imagine this rather as a web of con men, a web of grifters, a web of people all of whom are selling something that they don’t necessarily have in order to get something that they can barter for more, that’s how I would make sense of it.”

On America’s increasing resemblance to a post-Soviet state

Masha Gessen: “One of the things about it is you could believe nothing, and you could expect nothing to work as it was intended to. In the early ‘90s if I had one day where things just went like they were supposed to — if institutions worked and the car didn’t break down — it was a banner day. And I think the way the Trump administration has responded to the coronavirus pandemic, it has just brought back the trauma of living in a state where nothing worlds…

“I think the culture of ‘reporting upstairs,’ that’s an important thing for understanding how post-Soviet states worked, or even how Soviet states worked. Where none of it was about what actually happened; all of it was about keeping your place or advancing up the party ladder, and in order to do that you had to give a cheerful report to your superiors…

“That’s exactly the culture that Trump has managed to foster in three and a half years, which is kind of mind-boggling.”

On the suspected poisoning of Putin critic Alexey Navalny, and how it fits a pattern

Masha Gessen: “Poisoning was always the preferred method, because poison is difficult to diagnose. There’s never a smoking gun, literally. It’s a government that doesn’t care much about actual deniability, but this kind of rhetorical, propagandistic deniability, that’s important… A lot of Russian opposition figures were poisoned and never had foreign medics give it a definitive diagnosis. And I think that’s why poisoning is so convenient…

“Ultimately, Putin seems to believe that a dead opponent is better than a living opponent. As much as that may be a highly risky strategy, it’s a consistent strategy.”

On how Vladimir Putin tries to intimidate and silence his critics at home

Masha Gessen: “This is very much the way that Putin wields power, and it’s become fairly familiar to Americans now through the person of Donald Trump: It’s a kind of bullying. Everybody can see that Navalny was poisoned; we would assume he was poisoned on behalf of the government or by the government, because he is the government’s opponent. And yet Putin will continue to say he didn’t do it. I mean, he is the kid on the playground who took your lunchbox, and is holding it in his hand and you’re saying ‘give it back’ and he’s saying ‘I didn’t take it.’ And what he’s showing with that is he’s showing his ability to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants to . And he has the power to do that, and no one else has the power to call him out.”

From The Reading List

The New York Times: “A Republican-led Senate panel details the 2016 Trump campaign’s Russian ties.” — “A report released Tuesday by a Republican-controlled Senate panel that spent three years investigating Russia’s 2016 election interference laid out an extensive web of contacts between Trump campaign advisers and Russian government officials and other Russians, including some with ties to the country’s intelligence services.”

The New Yorker: The Suspected Poisoning of Alexey Navalny, Putin’s Most Prominent Adversary” — “Alexey Navalny, the anti-corruption blogger who for years has been Vladimir Putin’s only formidable opponent — which is to say, his only adversary who has remained in Russia, stayed active, and maintained prominence despite repeated attacks from the authorities — has been hospitalized in an intensive-care unit in the Siberian city of Omsk. He is in a coma. He fell ill aboard a plane, which then made an emergency landing. His assistant and press secretary, Kira Yarmysh, suspects Navalny has been poisoned.”

The New York Times: Trump and Miss Moscow: Report Examines Possible Compromises in Russia Trips” — “Two decades before he ran for president, Donald J. Trump traveled to Russia, where he scouted properties, was wined and dined and, of greatest significance to Senate intelligence investigators, met a woman who was a former Miss Moscow.”

The Washington Post: As it turns out, there really was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia” — “The investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III ended anticlimactically. Although Mueller’s report detailed evidence of Russian interference and the Trump team’s welcome receipt of help from Moscow, there was insufficient evidence on the so-called ‘collusion’ — that is conspiracy — to rise to the level of criminality. However, thanks to the misleading spin from Attorney General William P. Barr, the extent of the cooperation — collusion, in laymen’s terms — was obscured.”

The New Yorker: Why America Feels Like A Post-Soviet State” — “I’ve been plagued by a nauseating sense of recognition lately. Story after story of the pandemic response in the United States reminds me of the country that I spent most of my professional life writing about: the Soviet Union and also the Russian state that was born after its collapse but which couldn’t shake many of its traits.”

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