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Russia’s meddling gets more credit than it deserves

Interview with Mark Galeotti,  a senior researcher at UMV, the Institute of International Relations Prague. Interviewer: Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska. 

July 31, 2017 - Mark Galeotti - Hot TopicsInterviews

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AGNIESZKA PIKULICKA-WILCZEWSKA: I wanted to ask you about the recent protests in Russia. The authorities arrested a large number of people, Navalny was detained even before he left his house. What does it tell us about the Russian authorities?

MARK GALEOTTI: I think it is interesting because the response has not been as vicious or violent as it could have been. Let us be honest, a fair number of the arrests, particularly in Moscow, were because protesters decided not to go to the authorised location but instead to Tverskaya Street in the centre, which was an obvious challenge to the authorities. I think what is interesting is that both sides are playing long games. Navalny is not naïve. He does not believe that he will be standing in the 2018 elections and he certainly does not believe that he could win. He has positioned himself so that in due course, when there is a more democratic process in place, he will already have a recognised name and a national movement.

I think the authorities are also playing a longer game. Look at what happened in 2011-2012: then, they clearly had no idea what to do. At first, they allowed an anti-Putin movement to emerge and then they came back with very heavy-handed repression. This shattered the protests on the streets, but at the same time, it created a worse problem because it forced people to organise much more effectively. What they have realised now is that it was a mistake. So, in fact, their response to the more recent protests has involved a certain degree of permissiveness. After all, Navalny was originally given approval to protest and not at a location way out at Moscow’s outskirts but at Sakharov Street, still not the city centre, but relatively close. Thus they mix a degree of permissiveness with a level of authoritarian repression. I think the authorities are trying to stop the movement from expanding but are hoping that it will burn itself out in time rather than thinking that they can smash it. At the moment, then, both sides are engaged in a long-term strategy and this is just a skirmish in a longer war.

Do you think that the nature of protest in Russia is changing? Or the nature of opposition activity?

These are two connected but separate questions. If you look at the opposition, first of all, it is clear that Navalny has learned the lessons of 2011-2012. Back then, they relied on the initial pulse of moral outrage at the rigged elections and it was a protest movement fuelled by middle class metropolitan semi-elites who wanted to have a say in this process. No real attempt was made to reach out to other constituencies. No real attempt was made to create a protest machine. There is a limit to how far you can rely on Twitter or VKontakte as instruments of protest. And therefore, not surprisingly, while it was amazing and inspiring, it tapped out a limited reservoir of support.

Navalny, unlike many others within the opposition, has realised that, first of all, he should not start by going against Putin. Putin has an iconic status among Russians, even those unhappy with the status quo. Therefore, he purposefully shifted to systemic issues, above all, corruption, and also the position of Prime Minister Medvedev. Secondly, and most importantly, Navalny realised the need for a national movement. And that requires organisation. You have to have people willing to do the boring work: canvassing and putting leaflets through letter boxes, all that kind of stuff. He could not solely rely on tweets and social media activities. And that is why he has been doing the groundwork and it is now beginning to happen.

What for me is very interesting is that there are still two untapped reservoirs of additional protest capacity. One is labour unrest: there is a huge potential in labour protest, a lot of which is happening already, but wildcat, very temporary, and very local because the official trade unions are still Soviet-style engines of the state rather than anything else. So it is scattered and sporadic and also very hard to track. But if you talk to people who travel between the regions it is clear that there is a lot of unrest. And no one has yet managed to find a way to crystallise it, there is no Solidarity-style movement. I was once talking to an FSB officer responsible for a region’s domestic security. “What is your job?” I asked. He replied: “My job is to make sure that no Lech Wałęsa emerges in my oblast”. It is quite interesting that even he put it in such terms.

The second reservoir is related to the fact that for most Russians, life is much harder now compared with before 2014. The average Russian now spends more than half his or her income on food, and has little hope that things will get better soon. Who is standing up for them? The Communist Party and people like Zyuganov, the party leader, have for years accepted their role as part of the fake opposition. But there is a rising cohort of younger, particularly local, leaders. These are people who joined the Party not out of nostalgia for a Soviet Union that frankly never was, and not really because they are Marxist-Leninist, but because if you want to oppose the system, and particularly the kind of rapacious, almost caricature capitalism that it embodies, you want to be part of a structure, and the Communist Party is the only option in town. Even if you look at Moscow, the Moscow party leader Valeri Rashkin is actually quite personally close to Navalny. It will be interesting to see what happens, as you will have the Communist Party either trying to compete with Navalny, or actually joining forces. In the last parliamentary elections, I was looking at the Communist Party’s talking points for their canvassers on the streets and I compared them with past ones. The time before, it was all about anodyne issues such as standing for “more help for veterans”. Who stands for less help for veterans? But for the most recent election, they were telling their canvassers to raise corruption within the government and other real issues. And it is not because Zyuganov wanted that, but because he was forced to accept it. So there are all kinds of interesting potentialities, which are not going to emerge until 2018, and maybe not even then, but are building within Russia.

So you do not see any potential candidate who could challenge Putin in 2018… And in a long-term perspective?

Navalny is a serious contender. Firstly, he is telegenic, smart, speaks in soundbites – a perfect candidate for the modern world. Secondly, although he comes from a relatively affluent middle class metropolitan milieu, many of the values that he articulates are those a lot of Russians consider their own. Consider these 80 plus per cent approval ratings for Putin. While, I am sure they are massaged, influenced by the fact that people do not want to be seen as criticising Putin etc., they are more or less accurate. However, if you look at more specific questions, when Russians are asked: “are you happy with the way things are?” or “do you think the government is responsible for corruption?” you get much more like a 50-50 split. So there is clearly a great deal of unhappiness in the country. Putin is a monarch. He resides distantly somewhere in the Kremlin, or on a cloud, he is separate from real life. But Russians can tell the difference between Putin-the-icon and his system.

In particular, Navalny speaks to corruption, and corruption is an issue which unites everybody. It does not matter if you are a professor at a university in Moscow or a truck driver in Vladivostok, you know corruption, you experience it, you suffer from it. So it is one of the few issues that can unite constituencies. Secondly, he is a patriot. They were waving Russian flags at the protests. That is not just a gimmick, he is genuinely a Russian patriot, something of a Russian nationalist, with a little dash of racism. We may not like that, but it actually positions him closer to the Russian mainstream. This is why I think the Kremlin is not going to let him run in 2018, because that would give him even more of a platform. And the experience we have is that the more people are exposed to Navalny and his message, not just how Navalny is portrayed on Russian state TV, the more they respond to it. I think that someone like Navalny is a threat, if he can survive until whenever the next election will take place.

But of course, if we go back to the Solidarity analogy, when you have got so much protest potential, it is a very unpredictable situation, and who knows what could be the catalyst. I think that the Russian security apparatus is very strong, and there is no equivalent to the Catholic Church in Poland which could mobilise resistance – the Russian Orthodox Church is virtually a subsidiary of the Government. But nonetheless, we cannot exclude new leaders emerging surprisingly quickly, especially because Russia is a very networked country with a very high level of social media use. It is not a country where the architecture of the internet is one where the state can easily control it, as China does. So for all these reasons there is a potential for people to rise very quickly.

What was the real degree of Russia’s meddling in US presidential election? We are being told that either nothing happened or that Trump is a Russian spy. What is the truth?

As ever, the truth is somewhere in between. Did the Russians try to meddle in American elections? Of course they did, it is patently the case. Did they do so, trying to get Trump elected? I do not believe so. I was in Moscow, talking to people before the election and an interesting thing was that no one believed that it was possible for Trump to be elected. They tend to mirror image, to think American democracy is more like their own, and they thought that the American establishment would not allow Trump to win. They were certain that Clinton was going to win, and they were worried about that. They wanted to make sure that on the day she was inaugurated, she would already have a lot of fires to put out: people questioning her legitimacy, divisions within her base, and so forth. Because they believed that she might like to push for regime change in Russia. But let’s be perfectly honest, I think the Russians’ impact on the election was pretty minimal. James Comey had a greater part in Trump’s election than Putin given his FBI’s 11th hour revelations about the continuing investigation into Clinton. And most important of all was Hilary Clinton’s awful campaign strategy, that in hindsight basically handed over the election. Now, would Trump have been elected without the Russians? Quite possibly. Without the other two factors, though, I think it is unlikely.

Why make such a big issue of Russia’s election meddling? I think it is clearly a great partisan issue. I lived in America for seven and a half years and I have a lot of friends there. When it comes to Trump, it is for many not just a political but almost an aesthetic issue as to how much they dislike him. How much more comfortable it is to feel that Russians did it, rather than your own candidate threw away the election when she should have just strolled to victory without any trouble? It is similar to the situation we have in Prague. It is clear that the Russians provided funding for president Zeman’s campaign through Martin Nejedlý, the former head of Lukoil in the Czech Republic. Did that have a crucial impact? I do not think so. Zeman is a cunning politician, who very ably reached out to the electorate in the countryside and the smaller towns, were worried about globalisation, worried about migration. He was reassuring. But again, if you are in the so-called “Prazhka Kavarna” cosmopolitan liberal Prague set, it is more comfortable to think that the Russians elected Zeman rather than that they failed to connect with the rest of the Czech people. So, Russians are getting far more credit for these victories than they really deserve.

But it seems that Russians were pleased with the result of US election.

You say that, and there were certainly celebrations among parliamentarians, but the Russian parliament is entirely meaningless, it is a theatre more than anything else. The serious Russians, people in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and so forth, they were really quite concerned. I spoke to someone who said: “we have no idea what to expect, we are not sure what this is going to mean”. So from the start, they were quite concerned. I was then in Moscow at the time of the Syrian chemical weapons attack and the subsequent American cruise missile strike. The day after, I was talking to someone I knew from the Russian MFA. He said: “this is exactly what our worst nightmares were”. In other words, an American president who is unpredictable, who changes policy literally overnight, who does not feel the need to telegraph policy in advance, and who has a relatively low threshold for the use of force. On the one hand, Russians like the “Trump effect” in terms of the dismay it creates within NATO and Europe, and the way that America is tearing itself apart, as even if Trump was impeached tomorrow, the wounds are going to take a long time to heal. And from Russia’s point of view that is great. But on the other hand, it is almost like they are locked in a large room with a rampaging elephant. While they are happy to see the elephant trampling the other guys, they know that the elephant could just as easily trample them, so they have real worries about Trump too.

So you would not say that Trump is pro-Russian?

Trump is pro-Trump. When it is convenient to be pro-Russian, he is pro-Russian, but basically Trump is interested in his own business, his own ego and the interests and businesses of those close to him. I think a lot of his kind of pro-Russian rhetoric was a way of needling Clinton and undermining her message, it was a way of being iconoclastic. And he hoped that the Russians would give him the kind of quick, easy triumph that he likes. He does not want to do anything long term, he wants a quick hit. And let’s face it, authoritarian regimes can often offer that, as they do not have to worry about what their legislatures, media or populations may think of any deal. As it was, he got it from the Saudis instead, but this is the point: I think he is happy dealing with authoritarians. Obviously, that includes Putin, but it includes a lot of other leaders in the world too.

And when it comes to Russia’s propaganda in Europe, what is its real influence on European politics?

This is an interesting question. One of the problems is the lack of proper, serious research that would evaluate the effects of Russian propaganda. What we have is a lot of questionable surveys and a lot of sensational anecdotes. The problem is that Russians in some ways go with the grain of current trends. Europe is currently going through something of a legitimacy crisis, related to its political system and the whole dilemma about what the European Union ought to be, whether it should be transforming into a federal state, etc. The Russians are identifying existing cracks, and trying to lever them open for the Russian point of view.

I do not believe they have territorial ambitions in Europe, but they clearly seek to neutralise Europe, to ensure it is so divided, distracted, and mired in its own conversations and rows that it cannot respond meaningfully to what Moscow is doing in Ukraine today and maybe somewhere else tomorrow. In other words, the places which Putin regards as being within Russia’s sphere of influence. So they are trying to disrupt Europe. But to be perfectly honest, most Russian propaganda efforts do not have any major impact. They only resonate with people who are already alienated, already inclined to question established truths and mainstream narratives. But that said, there are so many of these disruptive messages that even if, let’s say, 50 per cent fail, and 40 per cent only reach people who are already ready to be influenced by them, it will still get you ten per cent of new potential recipients. And given the fact that Russia’s intelligence operations are at peak Cold War levels, its media operations are massive and well-funded, and it is mobilising a mix of everything from business ties and crime groups to regular diplomatic activities as part of its campaign, the impact is not insignificant.

Most important of all, it is contributing to a culture of suspicion. The Russians are not trying to be seen as friends, maybe with the exception of the Balkans, Bulgaria, Serbia, places with which they have traditional cultural and historical ties. But broadly speaking, Putin does not expect us to suddenly think that he is wonderful and the way the Russian Federation is run is ideal. Of course not. The next best thing is to make people doubt everything. Whether it is on a specific issue, such as questioning the mainstream narrative on what happened to the MH17 (of course we know what happened to MH17!), or more generally, simply convincing people that everybody lies, that everyone is as bad as everyone else, all this contributes to the current chaos within Europe. And this is why it is hard to quantify their impact, even though Russians are clearly contributing to it to a greater of lesser extent. In many ways they are more effective in places which have the least experience of Russia. Thus countries like France or the Netherlands can be a more fertile ground for Russian propaganda than Poland or Estonia.

You mentioned Ukraine and that Russians do not want Europe to be preoccupied with what they are doing there. What are they doing in Ukraine at the moment?

There are two separate issues: Crimea and Donbas. Crimea was an opportunistic theft, because, frankly, every Russian thinks Crimea is rightfully Russian, even Navalny. And most Crimeans were probably happy to become part of Russia, even though the referendum was not a free and fair one. Broadly speaking, Crimeans could see that Russians had a higher quality life and they had been misgoverned by Kyiv for over 20 years. But then we have Donbas. The Russians did not care about the Donbas, but were simply using it to try and force Kyiv to bow to Moscow’s authority, and had no intention that this would be a long term operation. I was in Moscow for the first seven months of 2014, when the invasion happened. Everyone I spoke to, people I have known and have a certain degree of trust with, were saying “six months and it is going to be over”. In six months, Kyiv would have capitulated, the troops would have been brought home and the West would have forgotten about it. They assumed it was going to be like Georgia: that today we would be tremendously upset about it, but tomorrow would be offering a reset. Well, it did not happen. They completely misread Kyiv. They completely misread the mood of the Ukrainian population; consider the rise of the National Guard, in some cases disreputable and dangerous figures, but mostly genuine patriots filling the void when the Ukrainian military was in chaos. Kyiv has since then managed to transform its military into quite a serious armed force, and now the conflict is a stalemate and Ukraine no closer to accepting Russian hegemony.

However, Kyiv would be horrified if tomorrow Putin said “you want Donbas? Have it back”. Because it is such a shattered, ruined place, dominated by armed gangsters and warlords. As I see it, for the moment, Russia is stuck in this war because of its miscalculations. I do not think a frozen conflict was ever the intended end goal, it was not even Plan B, but maybe Plan D. Yet that is what they are stuck with, an extremely expensive frozen conflict. Because they have to subsidise it, Donbas is becoming an invisible oblast, an invisible region that has to be sponsored by the Russian budget, putting greater pressure to Russian regional subsidies. What are they doing there? They are just making the best of what they have got. At least as long as Donbas is theirs, they have some leverage over Ukraine. But more to the point, they cannot move. If they move forward they will get into a serious war and potentially one in which other countries might get involved. If they pull back, it would mean admitting defeat by Putin. So much of his personal self-identity, but also his political identity, is built around the notion that he is the man that never makes mistakes. He needs a “mission accomplished” moment; without it, he will not pull the troops back and jettison Donbas. He can only do that if he can say that Russia has accomplished its goals there, but this is not going to happen. Therefore, the Russians are stuck in there. In some ways this is not terrible for Kyiv, as it has given Ukraine more of an identity. It had been stuck in a transitional nation-building mode since 1991 and did not progress until now. It is a terrible way to build a nation, but a nation is being built.

This interview was conducted at 2017 Prague European Summit

Mark Galeotti is a senior researcher at UMV, the Institute of International Relations Prague, where he is the coordinator of its Centre for European Security. A specialist on Russian security affairs, intelligence, organised crime and similar murky topics, he is also principal director of the consultancy Mayak Intelligence, a lecturer at Charles University, and 2016-17 visiting fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations. He has 15 authored and edited books to his name; his most recent are Hybrid War or Gibridnaya Voina? Getting Russia’s non-linear military challenge right (Mayak, 2016) and The Modern Russian Army (Osprey, 2017), while his Vory: The story of the Russian mafia is due out from Yale University Press in 2018. He tweets as @MarkGaleotti and also blogs at In Moscow’s Shadows.

Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska is an editor with New Eastern Europe

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