Questions addressed to U.S. journalist and author Michael Weiss on the side of a conference organised by Free Russia House / Дом Свободной России. By Sébastien Gobert
What did you learn while researching for this report?
The one thing that stands out about Kremlin influence operations and acts of aggression that target American or European countries is that in most cases where these endeavors would succeed it is because Westerners would furnish actors and institutions for Russia to pursue its goals. In the report we look at the abuse of Interpol that is used to arrest opponents abroad. We look at the Magnitsky and the Prevezon cases most particular.
In the latter case, what interested me as a reporter was the number of public officials not only in the U.S.A but also in the U.K. who were essentially seconded by a Russian family to launder Prevezon’s reputation and to work either out in public or in the shadows to undo what is probably one of the most well-documented tax evasion scheme and act of conspiracy ever perpetrated in Russia. In other words, to undo the narrative that contributed to the passage of the Magnitski act. In researching this we found that a former US attorney general, a former UK attorney general were both working on the side of a Russian oligarch along with several white-shoe law firms and PR companies. And then there was the strange case of the Russian defense counsel, Natalya Veselnitskaya. As we all know, the same Natalya Veselnitskaya was instrumental in trying to convince members of the Trump campaign that the Magnitsky Act was a fraud and that Russian sanctions were bad. So we see sometimes the same people appearing in different cases and it helps putting different pieces of the puzzle together. To do this, she and her confederates not only arranged a meeting at the Trump tower in the summer of 2016 but they also established fake NGOs. One of those was designed to sell the idea of lifting the infamous Russian adoption ban in exchange for America’s cancelling of Russian sanctions. It is a very clever influence campaign presented in the language of human rights, democracy, improve bilateral relations.
This kind of practices comes westwards to the US. It has been all over Europe for a long while, in Germany, in France, etc. One of the cases we looked at was that elderly neo-nazi who set up a paramilitary training camp in 2015 in Budapest. The caper is that operatives of the GRU all working under diplomatic cover in the embassy in Budapest were going to this training camp to supervise some guerrilla training. They were using paintball guns in a sort of tactical infantry exercises. So you had Russian spies overseeing a neo-nazi fifth column on Hungarian soil. All in broad daylight, all with the watchful eyes of the Hungarian counter-intelligence services. And the only reason it all came to and end is that the police eventually raided one of the compounds of this neo-nazi organization and one of the Hungarian officers was shot and killed. One of the few remaining independent media outlets in Hungary basically painted the picture that Viktor Orban knew this was taking place and just chose not to do anything about it – either not to irritate Moscow or for more sinister reasons, we don’t know.
My frustration as a journalist who has ran alarm bells about Putin’s Russia even before the annexation of Crimea, even before the 2016 US election, is that America goes to these pits of fear and fury that make people talk about what we need to do with Russia and what we need to do about sanctions, about deterrence containment, about even reviving NATO… But Putin has a way of waiting out the clock and weighing down Western resolve. He kind of sits back and lets Western leaders doing the work for him. So for example Emmanuel Macron just said in in an interview to The Economist that NATO is “brain dead” and that what we really need is rapprochement with the Kremlin… We can’t pretend that Crimea happened yesterday, it’s been going on for five years, we need to normalize relations… That sort of things. It is a very successful strategy. Putin knows that there is no real will on the part of pretty much any of the Western countries to overly confront Russia or to treat it as a major geopolitical whole. This is not a a Republican or Democrat problem by the way. Under Barack Obama, the idea was that Russia is a regional nuisance, a power that must be engaged with transactionally but isn’t something that poses a long-term strategic threat to the United States. Europe under that president was seen as a has-been phenomenon of the 20th century, something that did not show good returns on investment after the promises made in 1989. The idea was to pivot to Asia and to redirect America’s efforts onto Iran and China. Under the current president, whether by accident or by design, Russia seems to be getting its way on a weekly basis, the latest example being the impeachment scandal. Forget about Joe Biden and his son: the American public is led to believe that maybe it was Ukraine that interfered in the 2016. Maybe it was Ukraine that hacked the DNC emails. I don’t really know where these conspiracy theories get started but I know who the ultimate beneficiary of them is, and it’s M. Putin.
So again, I’m at a loss. I’m very tired of hearing Americans “what are we going to do about Russia?” Americans really have to deal with what we are going to do about ourselves, our own society, our own electorate. The only real solution is not about taking down Twitterbox or putting out dodgy adds paid for in roubles on Facebook. It’s about creating a media-literate and media-skeptical electorate that understands what fake news is when it sees it and that does not fall for hoaxes, conspiracy theories and nonsense. Unfortunately I do not see the trend moving to a very positive direction, not just in the US but throughout Europe. Alternatives such as illiberal democracy turn out to be increasingly attractive to voters. I don’t see any real capability to reverse this trend, be it intellectual or physical, until the West sort of rehabilitates itself.
You mentioned Macron’s statement in The Economist. What do you think he is trying to achieve and what can he get as a result?
I have some theories. It may be connected to the French involvement in Libya and French looking for cooperation with Khakifa Haftar’s faction that enjoys Russian support. I guess he is also trying to navigate a very difficult electorate that has bigger fish to fry than waging a kind of Cold War 2.0 against Moscow. I am very critical of Western leaders but these are people who don’t want to be ousted from power at the polls. So they have to answer to the political vicissitudes in their countries.
When it comes to what he said about NATO being in a state of a brain death, well he is not wrong. If not brain dead, NATO has been playing below its capacities for quite some time. It is largely a function of the fact that its raison d’être has nothing to do with what it has been doing in the past 20 years. To fight a war on terror is not what NATO was created to do. The U.S. Syria withdrawal did demonstrate a critical lack of coordination within the Alliance. My question is whether America can go back to its position before the Trump presidency or did it do irreparable harm? Perhaps Macron and others are thinking that these are the dark days of a declining empire. and we just have to adjust to the fact that we are on our own.
Why would we assume that these comments play in the interests of Putin? What Macron had in mind was perhaps pushing for a more European-centered security and defense system…?
Sure, although I keep hearing that for years and such a security system never seems to realize itself. Look, the fact that the president of France makes such a comment in a publication such as The Economist is perceived by many as an initiative that plays in the interests of Russia. It is perceived as such by the very Russian media and the Russian state institutions. MFA Zakharova was positively gleeful about it and stressing that Russia had been saying for many years that NATO was obsolete. But then again, I can understand that someone like Macron is frustrated in dealing with someone like Donald Trump. In his passive-aggressive way he was probably sending a message to Washington.
Macron is now trying to revive peace efforts along with Merkel and Zelenskyy. What do you think they may get as a result from Putin?
I honestly don’t know what Europeans and Ukrainians together may expect from a renewal of peace negotiations. A lot depends on what Zelenskyy is willing to take. I can tell you that much: I don’t trust Russia as an honest peace broker as we see that Russia tends to renege on the things it signed up to. It is safer to focus on what can be achieved: make Ukraine a country from the post-Soviet space that cleaned up its act, a transparent, non-corrupt, modern country.
On a different level, how do you compare the Russian interference and plays for influence with Chinese, Iranian, Qatari, Saudi, etc. Is it less or more efficient?
Russia is definitely not the only one doing that kind of things. It seems to me that it is the bold kid in the class that really started it and encouraged others to follow suit. Recently Microsoft has detected breaches in one political campaign for the 2020 election and they first blamed Iran. But later they identified Russian and Chinese interference too. So yes, everyone is getting in on the act. It makes it harder to fight too. In fact it was the Saudis who recruited people from Facebook to compromise the accounts of dissidents and people who were critical of the Saudi kingdom. That’s quite an adaptation. Maybe the Russians tried to do it but they were not successful.
I ask this question because it seems quite trendy to see Russia at every corner. Meanwhile other players advance. To place the sole focus on Russia may lead to observers not seeing China coming, although it is obvious that this is the country with a much more destabilizing potential than Russia.
I think everyone sees them coming. Obama’s pivot towards Asia was about that. It was delayed by the Crimea and Donbass aggressions but it is clear that policymakers already identified the challenges connected to China. And if we blame Trump for admiring Putin or at least having a soft spot for him, then we have to look at Michael Bloomberg who publicly believes that the Chinese president is not a dictator. It is possible to see the same kind of corruption in different candidates. To fight against one aggressive player does not mean one should forget the others. Again, the best reaction to these challenges is above all in the coherence and solidity of Western institutions and democratic systems.