Interview with Director of Special Investigations at Free Russia Foundation
Michael Weiss spoke about a wide-ranging review of organized efforts by the Kremlin and its insiders to use freedoms found in Western societies against them
You’ve done a great job, complying such a huge report that is very important and is about the tactics the Kremlin uses organizing its attacks on democratic communities. Now, the report consists of two chapters, two parts. Part one: the Kremlin’s attack on the rule of law in the West, and part two: Active Measures — Russian manipulation on Western policy. Again, the work is huge. How long did it take you to come up with the report? Where did you obtain the information?
Much of the stuff has already been in open source and has been publicly reported for years. That was really a job of synthesizing, as much as possible, into these two different sections. I think the report took for four to five months. I edited the second section on Active Measures, also contributed two chapters, one on the Skripal assassination, and the other on Vagner group, Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mercenaries which now are actually expanded into political technology and lobbying all through Africa and Middle East, and not just killing people anymore. Now they try to run campaigns on behalf of dodgy figures looking to takeover countries. But the real kind of thesis behind this, I brought the introduction to the report, I wanted things I wanted to emphasize… The Kremlin would not be successful in waging this influence operation, in exporting corruption to the West, if the West itself wasn’t so hospitable to these kinds of tactics.
Why do Western countries in your opinion fail? To stand against the actions of the Kremlin?
I think a lot of this has to do unfortunately with money. You know, it sounds strange to say this, because the Cold War was this protracted twilight conflict between two superpowers, but in a sense fighting the Cold War, prosecuting the Cold War from the Western side is a bit easier because you had an ideology. A coherent set of beliefs in Marxism and Leninism which could be intelligible for anybody. But now you don’t really have an ideology in Putinism. You ask three people what is Putinism, you get five different answers — depending on time of day it is, and what the target audience is. Is it a far right, is it a far left, is it a sort of near liberal centrist world order… But the one thing it has at its disposal, quite a lot of it in fact is money. And nobody really wants to wage a war against money. It doesn’t matter how ill-gotten or blood-soaked it may be. This is what I think to be a fundamental problem. And Putin has been very savvy, in picking upon the western hypocrisy and saying “Look, you’re taking on my dirty roubles, I’m able to succour to you and make you my accomplices in running a sort of cleptocratic regime. How dare you lecture me on human rights abuses, the erosion of liberal democracy and the lack of rule of law?”. So he’s been very adroit, and I think, praying upon these vulnerabilities in (their own) societies. And our recommendation really is we have to get our house in order, in order to create any kind of deterring capability against the Kremlin.
Ok, I have your quote here. It goes: “It has become a cliché to describe Vladimir Putin as a brilliant tactician but a lousy strategist. Sure, he can wage a plausibly deniable invasion of a neighboring European country, but when it comes to undermining the pro-Western tilt of that country, or immunizing Russia from international censure and sanctions over that invasion, he’s decidedly less skillful.” Could you tell a bit more about Putin’s weaknesses? Does he have any?
Sure. It’s not that he is so brilliant. It’s that I think sometimes we are just that stupid.
Yeah, or really not fit for purpose… Not actually I say ‘stupid’, I should say ‘unwilling’ to meet the challenge on its own terms. I actually think, you know, this cliche question that I opened with… There is a strategy here. And he does have one crucial insightAnd that is, as I said, without the West’s connivance in his own scheme, that scheme’s broadly being. Look. We just celebrated the 30th anniversary of collapse of the Berlin Wall. The dream of 1989 was (in other circle) the end of history, that liberal democracy is now inevitable. All countries, whether they emerge from the ashes of ashes, of Stalinism, they were going to embrace this model, there was no alternative.
Putin early on in his presidency created an alternative. A market economy, embedded with a kind of mafia state structure. Not a democracy, but has a kind of window dressings of democracy. “Managed democracy”, with the term of art that was invented for his presidency. This is authoritatianism with a kind of hybridized way of doing business. That alternative is now a kind of sweeping the glow. You know, China has its own version of this, but even closer to home, in Europe, in native EU country, such as Hungary, Poland to some extent, this sort of state capture of the institutions meant to prevent democracies from falling backward into dictatorship. authoritarianism, God forbid totalitarianism, they’re stately being eroded. And he’s presented this alternative to the world, and the world said in affect – “give us more!”. Or maybe this is not such a bad thing, compared to United States. This is not, of course, to apologize it, you excuse, I mean we still fight the good fight, we must! But I think he has managed to address what has been a fundamental weakness in feeling on our part, which is that we like to dress up our cynicism as pragmatism. Oh you know, Russia… We just have to deal with them as a transactional power, they are a minor nuisance… Well, a minor nuisance that wages an anschluss, and invades, and annexes European soil for the first time since World War II. A nuisance that conducts chemical and nerve agent warfare, in major metropolitan cities of Europe. A nuisance that indeed arguably might have decided US presidential election — by waging the boldest influence campaign in Russian intelligence service’s history.
Why, I mean meddling in the elections, and not only in United States. There have been reports about Russian meddling into German elections, Ukrainian elections. and so on and so forth, the fact that Russia has already occupied a part of Georgia, and then illegal annexed Crimea. Illegally occupied parts of the East of Ukraine. What’s next? What’s Putin’s long-term plan?
I think the expansionist program seems to be proceeding a pace now in Middle East and Africa. And again, it’s not a conventional form of power projection. In some cases — yes, you have the Russian military deployed, but you’re seeing these, sort of, cutouts, these plausibly deniable parastate apparatuses, for lack of a better term, particularly the Prigozhin network. They are everywhere, Lybia, Central African Republic, Mozambique, Madagascar. And the thig is, I suppose it’s a very Russian way of interfering in Southern states. They don’t just work with one fraction on the ground, they work with everybody. And they don’t actually necessarily want to rise up or to take over, they want to create a kind of equilibrium. So they work….
And they are controlling everybody…
Exactly, and Lybia is a perfect case in point, I mean their backing General Haftar, the warlord who strangely enough was a CIA asset, back in the day when Muammar Qaddafi still drew breath. But they are alsobacking Saif al Islam Qaddafi, the son of Muammar Qaddafi, and waging war between the two of them. It’s a strange way of doing business, but again, there’s a method of a madness here. Don’t allow any one actor or one fraction to become so powerful, and they don’t need to rely on Russia any longer.
Exactly. So can’t induct your report, what’s the main aim, instead of showing the world what the Kremlin is actually doing, not that people don’t know about it, but still… What’s the aim that you are putting this report together?
I think a lot of people had come across some of this case studies in anecdotes, but to see it all in one place together kind of comprehensive view of the matter. And by the way, you know the offership in this report is varied. and varied for a reason. We have experts on Russian media and disinformation, we have an expert on Russia’s embrace of far-right political parties throughout Europe. I mean we have oil and gas experts. So it’s kind of a compendium of different silos of knowledge, relating to Russian interference and influence operations. But all in one convenientpublication. Again, the purpose of it — really to send a signal to ourselves, that if we don’t clean up our own act and force, anti money laundering protocols and statutes, have transparency, legislation. when it comes to ultimate legal beneficiary ownerships of the offshore companies, an so on and so forth. These are the things that I think the low-hanging fruit that we can address before… turning on attention to Russia. It’s all well and good to say we need sanction, to denounce at the UN security council, but again, this will be a hostile gesture, rather hollow gestures, they don’t actually alter the Kremlin’s misbehaviour. The one thing that we do is a kind of immunize ourselves against the exportation of corruption.
Could you give a brief analysis of the situation in between Russia and Ukraine and the hybrid war that’s been going on the East of the country for five years now? And Ukraine is trying to resolve the issue, our government is trying to resolve the problem. Are we doing the right thing?
Yes, the difficulty is to define what your goals are. Can Crimea be forceably retaken from Russia? Not now, and probably not near future. The danger, of course, is the demographic shift that is now taking place. You can have an entire generation of people growing up in (quote and quote) ‘Russian Federation territory’, really under occupation. But we’ll never know life over the net, they do not understand what Ukrainian means. The situation in Donbass, I mean Ukrainian President run on a platform just a kind of ‘ending the war’ — right creating some kind of peaceful modus vivendi. I think actually the best thing Ukraine can do — and it’s doing it to some degree — is acting as if this is a country that is not defined by its victimhood, you know, in terms of being that platform for Russian hostility and Russian aggression. In other words, Ukraine can be in a way of… we spoke about alternative models, Ukraine can be the alternative Russia, in many respects.
Are we sacrificing too much?
We have sacrificed quite a lot, 13 thousand dead in this war which hasn’t even been declared. But I’ve been to Kyiv four or five times since 2014. And the alteration mood in just kind of a day-to-day existence in Kyiv means the city transformed. This is the city that easy could be next Berlin or Paris of Eastern Europe. And it’s already on its way. I don’t like the word ‘normalization’, if we don’t use it in a positive sense, but just to give you my own experience and observations. The last time I was here a month ago for YES Conference, and I couldn’t believe I was at the YES conference, because theme of this whole affair was happiness. It was a very kind of “foo-foo, weird, kind of vibe.” Not what you’d expect from Ukraine, where its peninsula has been taken by force, the East of the country, the industrial hub is occupied by qoute-and-qoute ‘separatists’, but really Russian military personnel. No, this is a country that said “you know what, we want to get on with our life, and address all of the problems that we were meant to address after 1991″. Fully democratizing mode of government, instituting the rule of law, ridding ourselves of this cancer of corruption. And you have a charismatic hugely popular President, who has the best of the television shows I’ve ever seen… And you know, I’m not saying it’ s going to happen, I’ve lived long enough and I’ve seen too much recent history to be overly optimistic, but the potential is absolutely there. And it’s heartening to see Ukrainians kind of say “all right, enough. You know, we are at war, yes we have to address these things .But there are the other things we need to do too, we don’t want to be defined in relation to Russia.” That’s the most pathetic thing that can happen to a country.