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"Russian Roulette" & Influence, with Olga Oliker & Jeff Mankoff

August 22, 2018

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. July 16, 2018. CREDIT: Kremlin.ru (CC)

DEVIN STEWART: Hi, I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City, and today I'm speaking with Olga Oliker and Jeff Mankoff, both from the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC.

Olga and Jeff, welcome to Carnegie Council.

JEFF MANKOFF: Thanks.

OLGA OLIKER: Thanks.

DEVIN STEWART: First, I know that you want to promote your own podcast. We're on a podcast, and we want to talk about your podcast. What is it, and what is it about?

OLGA OLIKER: Thanks. Yes, our podcast is called Russian Roulette. It's not just Russia, and we don't shoot anybody.

JEFF MANKOFF: We haven't yet.

DEVIN STEWART: Not yet, okay.

OLGA OLIKER: Not yet. We also don't give out money, but we do talk about everything from politics to weapons to music to food to do with Russia and its neighbors.

DEVIN STEWART: Oh, wow.

OLGA OLIKER: So Russia, Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, etc.

JEFF MANKOFF: We're actually called the Russia and Eurasia Program, and I was lobbying to call the podcast Russian and Eurasian Roulette, but that seemed to be a little bit much.

DEVIN STEWART: That's a mouthful.

JEFF MANKOFF: It is, yes. So it's just Russian Roulette, but we talk about things all over the former Soviet Union.

DEVIN STEWART: And you both host it?

OLGA OLIKER: We do both host it.

DEVIN STEWART: So the guests, who are they? Are they experts, authors?

JEFF MANKOFF: It's a range of people.

OLGA OLIKER: Experts, writers, restaurant owners, wine specialists.

DEVIN STEWART: Sounds fun.

JEFF MANKOFF: It's Washington, so we tend to have a pretty high percentage of policy analyst types, but we also get, yes, restaurant owners and journalists, authors of creative fiction, yes.

OLGA OLIKER: Novelists, publishers.

JEFF MANKOFF: That's what we mean by Russian Roulette. You can spin the wheel and see what you get.

DEVIN STEWART: That's great. How long has that been around?

JEFF MANKOFF: A little over a year.

OLGA OLIKER: Two years.

DEVIN STEWART: Two years?

OLGA OLIKER: It's one of the most fun parts of my job, absolutely. I don't know if that's how you feel about this podcast.

DEVIN STEWART: I love it.

OLGA OLIKER: It's like I get to do a quick deep dive into something I don't have time to personally research, but I bring in somebody who knows all about it, and I ask them all the questions.

DEVIN STEWART: I was based at CSIS maybe an epoch ago or something like that. How does it work in terms of putting it into your projects? How do you support your podcast?

JEFF MANKOFF: Good question.

OLGA OLIKER: We have general funding that supports our own research from various donors.

DEVIN STEWART: So, general support for the Center?

OLGA OLIKER: We have some general support funds. Most of what the podcast does comes out of that. We have a Carnegie Corporation of New York grant, which supports a lot of our Russia work.

The other thing we do is we leverage all of our grants in the sense that if we've got somebody coming in to give a talk or to be part of a meeting and they have interesting things to say about something, we bring them in and do a podcast segment with them.

But a lot of it is basically general support in the sense that we don't have a budget to fly people in specifically for the podcast, so we tend to leverage people who are already in town or who are visiting from another region.

JEFF MANKOFF: The biggest expense really is the time of the people who are involved in making and producing the podcast, and that tends to come out of the general support that pays their salaries for the other things that they do, too.

OLGA OLIKER: We welcome additional funding.

JEFF MANKOFF: Yes.

DEVIN STEWART: Us, too, by the way, if anybody's listening.

JEFF MANKOFF: If anyone feels like supporting current affairs podcasting, please contact us.

OLGA OLIKER: I have all sorts of ways to expand it, and if you're, for instance, an alcohol retailer who is interested in us expanding our food and wine discussions, let's talk.

JEFF MANKOFF: Or even if you're not. We are very open-minded in terms of who we'll work with.

OLGA OLIKER: We just want to maintain editorial control.

DEVIN STEWART: Yes, of course.

I have a theory that might be wrong, but I still kind of am holding onto this theory. I feel like in my observation each area of studies has its own culture. Maybe that's true or not. My desk used to be right next to the Russia program at CSIS, and I really enjoyed hanging out with your predecessors.

OLGA OLIKER: Who are all wonderful people.

DEVIN STEWART: They're all great.

JEFF MANKOFF: I was going to ask, were there bottles of vodka prominently displayed?

DEVIN STEWART: Not that I saw, unfortunately.

OLGA OLIKER: We don't have bottles. We have MTA Georgian beer bottles prominently displayed, but that's just my office.

JEFF MANKOFF: I have a couple of bottles of vodka in my office. Of course, they've been sitting there for years because I haven't actually gotten around to drinking them, but that's another story.

DEVIN STEWART: I guess my question is, is there a common motif of Russia people? You're talking to culture people, food people, literature people, and politics I assume as well. Is there something that ties them all together as Russia people? Is it a sense of humor?

JEFF MANKOFF: I always tell people, like students who are interested in going into the field, that one of the most important qualities to have is a sense of humor because there's so much that's absurd in a very literal sense about studying this part of the world. But I would say that's not something that necessarily everybody who operates in the Russian-Eurasian space has necessarily.

OLGA OLIKER: I'd also say folks who do Middle Eastern studies also tend to have a fairly dark sense of humor.

Look, there is a tendency, there's a little history I think that does tend to unite. There are very few people who study Russia and its neighbors who aren't fascinated by the history of that part of the world. That might be true of other regions as well, but it's hard to jump into post-Soviet area studies without at least a grounding in Soviet studies, and once you start going down that road you're looking at Russian empire and you're looking at—

JEFF MANKOFF: You go back to Kievan Rus' and the migration of the Varangians, and the next thing you know you're at the cooling of the Earth.

DEVIN STEWART: Let's get to some of the current events here.

OLGA OLIKER: In case you don't want to go back to the cooling of the Earth.

DEVIN STEWART: We'll take an elevator back up to the crust.

President Trump said he would make it so we're getting along well with Russia. Is he succeeding? How would you describe the current state of U.S.-Russia relations, and where are we heading?

JEFF MANKOFF: If the question is "are we succeeding," I think the answer is no. Explaining why the answer is no could take a lot of time. I'll try to do it briefly. I think there are reasons that have to do with the nature of the U.S.-Russia relationship, and I think there are reasons that have to do with the state of American domestic politics.

On the first, on some of the basic questions of global order, the United States and Russia are in different places. The United States has portrayed itself since the end of the Cold War as being largely a status quo power—of course, it's active in ways that have sought to change and extend that status quo, but basically a set of institutions and relationships with the United States at the center. It's based on a particular set of ideas about how the world is supposed to work.

Russia has always been a little bit uncomfortable with that notion, and in the last decade and even more in the last five to six years has taken a more assertive stance toward challenging some of those assumptions and institutions. We see this most prominently in trans-Atlantic relations, where the U.S. model of relying on multilateral institutions such as NATO and the European Union and extending those institutions closer to Russia has been a source of longstanding tension between the two countries. Of course, Trump has his own views of these institutions, which we can get into, but I think that the basis of U.S. policy is still there.

There's also an American domestic issue here, which is the questions about Russia's role in American domestic politics, and specifically with regard to the 2016 election. In part there's a partisan divide on this issue, but it goes beyond that because you have a number of Republicans in Congress and elsewhere who also have questions about the nature of the ties between the Trump administration and Russia.

So, even when the administration has tried to take steps that seem to be more accommodating of Russia or that are designed to improve the relationship, there has been this profound mistrust on the part of a lot of American observers, including those in Congress, that has led to a kind of correction in the other direction. So every step that Trump takes toward Russia is met by a corresponding step, on the part of even certain elements of the Executive Branch, to ramp up the pressure on Russia because of the concern that Trump is somehow implicated or suborned or somehow playing for the other team.

OLGA OLIKER: One thing I would add to that is—you want to throw in the Russian perspective on all of this, right?—that the Russians I don't think expected Donald Trump to become president. When Donald Trump became president, they expected him to be what they think of as a normal Republican, and strangely Russians believe that Republicans are better for U.S.-Russian relations than Democrats. This is not a hypothesis borne out by history, but it is a hypothesis that seems to survive data in Russia pretty effectively.

DEVIN STEWART: That's in Japan, too. That's interesting.

OLGA OLIKER: They were convinced of this. They're getting instead something that's very erratic.

So Russians believe that the reason relations aren't improving is entirely because of the domestic issues, that they have nothing to do with the fundamental disagreements between the United States and Russia. Both the United States and Russia think they're status quo powers; they just disagree fundamentally on what the status quo is.

In Russia there is this theory that we could all just get along. We've got a Republican president. Congress is keeping him from making up with us, which really implies backing away from all the things the United States does to constrain Russian power, and Congress is doing that because the Democrats lost the election and sour grapes, and that's all this is. If this would just go away, everything would be fine.

DEVIN STEWART: Today's conversation is part of an ongoing series that we're doing here at Carnegie called "Information Warfare" podcast series, and it's also part of a project the three of us are collaborating on and trying to understand influence operations all around the world. What have you learned so far looking at Russia's influence operations in the United States?

It clearly gets a lot of news. Some people believe that Russia might have created the result of the election and given it to Trump. What is Russia doing, and what is its goal? How much influence is it actually having? Is the panic about Russia's interference with our election valid?

OLGA OLIKER: My working hypothesis based on the time I've spent studying Russia and conversations with Russians who almost certainly had nothing to do with the interference campaign is that Russia has been and is trying all sorts of policies to influence the United States, Russia, and Russians. There is this belief that Vladimir Putin runs everything in Russia. Say what you will about Vladimir Putin, he's a single human being who probably sleeps at least two or three hours a night, so he can't do all the things.

I think what has developed in Russia, though, is a sense where people think they know what the policy is, and there is a certain amount of freelancing in various parts of the Russian government where you're trying to deliver results that the Kremlin is going to like.

I look at a lot of the information campaigns and various other aspects of this—Democratic National Committee (DNC) hacks by two different intelligence agencies at once—as less a top-down thing and more a bottom-up: People try things, they seem to be working; at some point, they have to get top-level approval. The approval probably comes on down, especially if you're having some effects or think that you might.

But it's people trying things, and some of them are directly tied to the government, and some of them are less directly tied to the government, like this Butina thing, the young woman who apparently was trying to infiltrate the National Rifle Association (NRA) with some success.

DEVIN STEWART: Success in what sense?

OLGA OLIKER: She certainly seems to have infiltrated the NRA.

DEVIN STEWART: In what sense, though? What actually came of that?

OLGA OLIKER: She got a whole lot of people to pay attention to her.

So, this is the question: What were the Russians trying to do? I would argue that insofar as there was a Kremlin-level goal here it was to send Hillary Clinton, at least initially, who was going to be president of the United States everybody thought, a message, and that message stems from Vladimir Putin's and people around him, their very strong belief that the protests in Russia in 2011-12 that greeted his second term were funded and supported by the State Department, were an effort by the U.S. government and by the State Department, at the time run by Hillary Clinton, to undermine him personally and to undermine his rule. He wanted just to send a signal of: "You hurt me, I hurt you. Maybe none of us hurt anybody else."

I suspect that was really what was behind all of this. Of course, that's not the results they got.

Then you come to the question of how happy are they with the results they've got. Is it good enough?

DEVIN STEWART: What's your answer? Are they happy or not?

OLGA OLIKER: I think the jury's out. I think they're still happier than they're unhappy, but the presidency of Donald Trump is as confusing to Russia as it is to most other countries in the world in that they had a foreign policy that was geared to an expectation of gradual U.S. hegemonic decline, where the United States would do less and less on the world scene, be less and less effective, Russia would have opportunities to go into some of these spaces, but Russia could continue to develop a foreign policy that's based on standing up to the United States in some areas and standing with the United States in others.

With the United States absenting itself or behaving in a chaotic way in lots of places, Russia is forced to develop clear foreign policy positions that have nothing to do with the United States, which is not something it's used to doing.

JEFF MANKOFF: I would just say that in having these conversations in Washington there is a degree of American exceptionalism and ahistoricism that it's probably worth unpacking because as much as we focus the conversation on Russian interference in the 2016 American election I think it's worth keeping in mind that these kinds of influence campaigns have been taking place in other countries and other contexts with Russian participation for quite a while and that really there's a pedigree for these sorts of things that goes way back into the past, certainly into the Soviet period.

If you look at some of the influence campaigns that the Soviet government, the Communist International (Comintern), and the Communist Party were undertaking in the 1940s, there are clear parallels. Obviously, the technology is different, and so the speed of dissemination of messages and the ability to reach a broader audience is much greater today than it was at the time, but in terms of some of the techniques of infiltrating institutions, using messages that exacerbate fissures within target societies, sowing confusion, these are old tried-and-true tactics that the Soviet government was doing and that the Russian government, which has, especially in the intelligence and security sector, a very strong Soviet pedigree, has taken up.

I think that in Russia there is a strong sense of this continuity, the belief that there is still a strategic confrontation with the United States, that the Cold War may have ended, but that strategic competition has not, and that some of the tools and techniques that were developed for fighting the Cold War are still appropriate in the contemporary context.

What happened in the United States, though, is I think that we forgot about all of that. We forgot what it was like to be in a great-power rivalry kind of situation because the United States hasn't really had to deal with that since the Cold War ended close to three decades ago, which is why we've been taken so by surprise by some of the things that we've seen the Russians doing.

OLGA OLIKER: None of which actually answers the question of whether or not it's working. You can hear that narrative and you can say, "Well, so the Soviets, the Russians have been doing this for all this years, and suddenly it's working," or you can take the story that they've been doing this all this time and suddenly the effects they're trying to obtain are happening on their own, that there are weaknesses and fissures in American politics that happen to be there, and Russian disinformation campaigns that are trying to widen them may or may not be widening them, but those things exist.

I think part of the issue with what Jeff described as the American side of this is that we are uncomfortable in the United States with believing that our problem is us, so if we can point to an outside adversary that's causing all of this, that's certainly more appealing than saying the problem is us.

DEVIN STEWART: Interesting. Let's maybe conclude by talking about perception because that's part of our theme here with Information Warfare.

We were talking earlier over lunch about how Putin and Trump are seen in their domestic audiences. When they're seen to be meeting, American audiences said: "Oh, god. How can you meet with this person? You look so weak, Trump. You're groveling to a dictator," or something like that.

My understanding, and you were talking about earlier that Putin also got some pushback among some domestic audiences in Russia.

OLGA OLIKER: I wouldn't call it pushback, but I think there was a perception that by meeting with Trump that the Russians are trying to make a deal, they're trying to get out there. They passed over all the papers which the United States refused to sign onto. They're the ones who are coming forward with suggestions. That's a supplicant position.

DEVIN STEWART: Supplicant, right.

OLGA OLIKER: Most Russians would also say that Vladimir Putin looked really good standing next to Donald Trump. He made sense, he was coherent. One Russian professional friend said to me that he wasn't sure what to be more horrified by, Donald Trump's performance, or the U.S. response to it.

DEVIN STEWART: Interesting.

JEFF MANKOFF: I would add two things. One is that on the one hand the Russians clearly went into this meeting in search of a deal, but this was also about status. This is a response to an American policy that has been in place at the very least since the outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine of seeking to isolate Russia, to put it in its box through not holding these kinds of meetings, but cutting off channels of communication, through imposing sanctions.

Russian activity in large parts of the world, certainly beginning with Syria or at least including Syria, is predicated on the idea that: "You're not going to solve these problems without us. You need to have us at the table. Whether we can solve them or not is another question, but there's no solution that doesn't include us."

OLGA OLIKER: "And we'll bomb our way to that table if we have to."

JEFF MANKOFF: Yes. So, by getting the meeting with Trump I think this helps support this Kremlin notion that the United States has to take us seriously. They have to give us this meeting at the highest level because otherwise they're not going to get done the things that they want to get done.

OLGA OLIKER: And for that reason I think the view in Moscow, at least initially until they started seeing all the press reporting from the States, was that the summit was successful. The meeting happened. Okay, maybe he didn't get any agreements.

If you watched Vladimir Putin when he starts talking, he's basically going down the list of the things that they hoped to get out of it, even if they didn't get them. You know, "I'm going to keep repeating my talking points."

DEVIN STEWART: Right.

OLGA OLIKER: I think he was hoping to get something similar from Donald Trump, but then you've got a certain consistency of views. The fact that he didn't get it from Donald Trump—unfortunate, but he still got to stand there and say these things, and both presidents were there, so it's a sign that things are better, and Donald Trump started off by saying that relations are better, so yay. That's good.

But all the blowback in the United States sends a completely different message.

JEFF MANKOFF: This is part of the problem. I think there's a way to read the outcome of the summit as it was too successful for the Russians and that Putin came off looking so much more competent and effective than Trump that the reaction here in the United States was to actually lead everybody who's not Donald Trump to try to get tougher with the Russians to push back. So any hope of accomplishing these concrete deliverables on the back of the summit has almost been brushed aside by this building narrative on the part of a lot of American observers that Trump somehow needs to be contained when it comes to dealing with Russia, or that you can't trust this particular administration to deal on the up-and-up with Moscow.

OLGA OLIKER: I'm not if it's so much that Putin looked so good as that Donald Trump—

JEFF MANKOFF: Trump looked so bad.

OLGA OLIKER: —stood there attacking Democrats and the U.S. political system while standing next to the Russian president.

JEFF MANKOFF: Which I don't think the Russians per se have a problem with. I think what they have a problem with is the fact that that spurred the antibodies in the American political system to react against this interaction.

OLGA OLIKER: This was my friend's statement about Trump's performance and then the American response to it.

DEVIN STEWART:  Nick Gvosdev, our senior fellow here, has made a similar point on our podcast channel, actually, at Carnegie Council.

I guess concluding remarks, given that those antibodies have been triggered and yet maybe Trump has some different objectives, where are we headed? Also, there's a lot of anxiety about Russia meddling with future American elections. There's probably some meddling going on in some capacity one way or another. [Editor's note: This podcast was recorded before the news broke that Microsoft Corporation had detected attempted Russian hacking on American think-tank websites.]

OLGA OLIKER: And one of those people at least is probably Russian.

DEVIN STEWART: Any predictions for where we're headed?

JEFF MANKOFF: I was going to say that's Olga being facetious, but I think there is an important point here that there's a Russia angle to all this, but it's not only or maybe not even primarily a Russia problem. Election security is something that needs to be taken seriously for its own sake—

OLGA OLIKER: Exactly.

JEFF MANKOFF: —regardless of what the Russians are up to because there are plenty of other hostile actors, state and non-state, that would be interested in doing the same thing. If it takes the revelations about what happened in 2016 to get American and state-level institutions to take election security seriously, then that may be a positive development.

OLGA OLIKER: But I think we're in for a spiral until the spiral stops.

JEFF MANKOFF: Things are going to get worse before they get worse.

OLGA OLIKER: Right.

DEVIN STEWART: That sounds very Russian.

OLGA OLIKER: This is what people who study Russia all have in common.

Look, at some point we all either die or it breaks. It either gets so bad that we have a full-blown nuclear war and nuclear winter sets in—that's terrible—or something breaks us out of it, the aliens invade and we band together to fight them. I don't know.

JEFF MANKOFF: Or we muddle along like this for a long time.

OLGA OLIKER: But this is an ugly muddling. We are spiraling. The U.S. policy—and this isn't a result of the summit—is a policy of graduated sanctions related to Ukraine, which is further exacerbated by all the other sanctions we keep throwing at Russia for everything else that we're angry at them for doing, which in fairness they seem to be doing.

The Russian perception is that all of this is an effort to contain Russia. It's hard to break out of this. The Russians think you can have a summit, presidents can agree, and all the sanctions will go away because the Americans will stop their silly policy of trying to contain us, and the Americans think—at least the American government outside of the White House—that there are these various issues on which we need to respond to Russian actions together and separately.

It's like we're in two different realities, and these realities do not fit together.

JEFF MANKOFF: What I was going to say, again there is a Cold War precedent for a lot of this where there were U.S. government attempts to sanction the Soviet Union even while there was normal diplomatic contact, including at the highest level. There is a kind of ahistoricity when it comes to the American view of this relationship.

I think you might be able to make the same argument about Russia. There I think they do see it as this either/or kind of position. If there is some lesson to be learned from the Cold War, it's that this kind of suboptimal situation can last for a long time, and you can have contacts and summits and attempts to resolve problems, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the overall relationship is going to be any better.

OLGA OLIKER: But you do need to have the diplomatic ties. In a sense, one of the tools that we are using to punish the Russians is to cut back on diplomatic ties. I think in some ways this creates a different set of dangers than the Cold War, where there generally was a consistent view that you had to keep talking.

JEFF MANKOFF: Eventually. And I would say that we could criticize Trump's meeting with Putin for a long time—we could spend the rest of the podcast doing that—but I think the notion that you need to have these kinds of contacts is actually right. Whether Trump is the proper interlocutor for them is another question, but the importance of having regular contact, regular meeting, including among high-level interlocutors, between the United States and Russia, is really important, and I agree with Olga that this attempt to hold regular diplomacy hostage to the status of the relationship, to see diplomatic engagement as a reward, is very problematic.

DEVIN STEWART: Jeff Mankoff and Olga Oliker from the Russia Program at CSIS in Washington, DC. Thank you so much, you two.

OLGA OLIKER: Thank you.

JEFF MANKOFF: Yes, thanks very much.

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