Joshua Yaffa, a New Yorker correspondent reporting from Moscow and a New America fellow, has been writing for months about Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and the Russia scandal, which seems to get more interesting by the day. Recently, he wrote about the frustration many Russia journalists feel over the American media’s coverage of the Russia story, which they think has overstated Putin’s direct influence on various aspects of Russian society, and makes the men and women in the Kremlin appear to be much smarter than they actually are.
Yaffa and I discussed these subjects recently by Skype. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we talked about the problems with overstating Putin’s power, why there might be many small stories of collusion rather than one big one, and how being in Moscow makes you think differently about the Trump administration’s troubles.
Isaac Chotiner: How have five-plus years in Moscow changed your perspective of this whole scandal?
Joshua Yaffa: I don’t know exactly where on the spectrum I am, whether closer to the American media perspective or closer to the Russian media perspective, but definitely somewhere in between those two poles. On the American side, I think I get, as it were, the magnitude and insanity of the story, something I think that Russian correspondents don’t always feel: what a big deal this is in Washington, and deservedly so.
On the other hand, what brings me closer sometimes in perspective to my Russian colleagues is that I’ve just observed the way this place works over a period of many years—and by “this place,” I mean Putin, the Kremlin, the Russian state. And I see that, although it might have a tie with the kind of aspirations of being a global, Machiavellian spoiler, upending the best-laid plans of the United States and the west more broadly, oftentimes, Putin lords over a pretty dysfunctional, quasi-broken, definitely very corrupt machine that lacks the nefarious omnipotent powers of a Bond villain superstructure. I think that sometimes in the American coverage, there’s an understandable inclination, or a subconscious drive to connect all the dots in a way that makes the Putin machine and the tentacles of the Putin machine look all-knowing and all-powerful.
What specifically do you think people get wrong?
That Putin is the singular authority in a system that cleanly and efficiently executes his every order. That Putin says X, and within an hour, X has been brought to reality. Sometimes it does work like that. I don’t want to fully minimize or disregard the extent to which Putin has pretty singular control over the Russian political system. The problem is just in the actual gears of the machine, and in Putin’s ability to snap his fingers and conjure up reality.
The second part related to this is this question of tactics versus strategy, and in some of the reporting and trying to connect the dots on the Russia story—not every piece, not every reporter, but there is, at times, an inclination to retroactively connect the dots in a way that makes it look like Putin’s Russia had this long-standing master plan over the course of many years, and that different plans were put in to motion at different times, but they all were part of this greater strategic plan. And by “strategic plan,” I mean intent to actually reach policy destination x. And I think that’s also a misunderstanding of the way the Putin system works.
Some of the Russian journalists I had in my piece spoke to that, as, I think it was Mikhail Zygar, the author of a really great insider look at Kremlin politics, who told me there’s no plan, it’s just chaos. And I think that’s important to keep in mind, that the Putin system is ultimately very reactive. It’s tactically nimble but isn’t great at making and executing long-term strategic plans.
Before we move on: Has that system itself changed in the past five years?
I think it’s gotten more blunt and less flexible. I came in the very beginning of 2012, at the height of the short-lived season of protest. That was the tail-end of this sort of fun house, post-modern, authoritarianism-lite version of Putinism, when everyone was kind of play acting, and there were certain valves, sociopolitical valves in place to allow limited avenues for independent, weird self-expression in political thought. The Putin system was very good at creating the veneer of a vibrant, pluralistic democratic and social system, but a lot of it was fake. Fake youth groups, fake political parties, it was all a stage-managed show, but the show went on, as it were.
I think over the years I’ve been here, starting with Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012, there’s been a kind of hardening of the Kremlin line, both internationally and then at home, after Ukraine in 2014, and continuing all the way up to this present day. There’s just less patience, less flexibility, less interest in playing that game. And the Putin system is more directly, at times, repressive. There’s less pretending these days.
So is your theory of this larger scandal that the Russian government was trying certain things to screw with the election and thought they would cause low level chaos and hopefully help Trump, and just lucked out beyond their wildest dreams?
Essentially, yes. I don’t think that Putin in his wildest dreams thought that the American people would actually inflict this upon themselves, which is ultimately what happened. These are American voters who put Trump in office, not Russian ones.
I also think that Putin and his cohort have a very genuine cynicism, and I think that’s important to understand. Their cynical read on how the world works is not just for show. I think they, deep down, are convinced that cynical self-interest is what drives the world. There is no such thing as genuine, earnest belief and motivation, and so that leads to all sorts of analytical conclusions, and one of them was that somehow, the American system, the American establishment, would never “allow” Trump to win. The media, the existing political parties, the lobbying machine in Washington, all of these forces that in a country, say, like Russia, really would keep a renegade candidate from becoming president would somehow constrain Trump. I think those assumptions drove his tactical decision-making throughout the campaign.
But if that’s the case, why try to tip the scales so much?
For a few reasons. One is that Putin had, again, this kind of cohort of paranoid, security-minded officials around him, who had a very apocalyptic view of a Clinton presidency. They saw her as more hawkish than Obama, rightly so, I think. For them, that meant a whole series of spooky consequences for Russia, and Russia’s ability to maneuver globally. And then there’s Putin’s rather genuine conviction that somehow, the United States and particularly Hillary Clinton was behind the protest against him in 2011, 2012, all the way to foreseeing some sort of escalation, possibly direct military standoff or conflict in Syria if Clinton were to be president.
They saw the Clinton presidency as a real threat to them, and anything they could do to weaken her on the way in and cast doubt on her election and ultimately presidency would have been advantageous. And beyond weakening Clinton, I think the bigger advantage they saw in intervening in the election no matter what the outcome would ultimately be is just to weaken the very institutions of American democracy, and to just throw doubt and uncertainty and chaos into the process. To just throw mud on the gears of the American democratic system, that’s a net positive for Russia no matter the outcome of the election.
It’s interesting and instructive to go back to the way the Russian state media covered the campaign in the run up to the election, right in the days before the vote. It is a nice backdoor into Kremlin thinking. In the days before the election, the tone on state TV was not at all about celebrating Trump and preparing for a Trump victory, or even really hoping for a Trump victory. The tone on state TV was, “Of course Clinton will win, that’s the inevitable result because that’s the only result the American system will allow, but this whole election period has revealed what a rotten, broken, dysfunctional system American democracy has become.”
One of Russia’s more bombastic television hosts, Dmitry Kiselyov, said that from day one, the next U.S. president will face impeachment hearings. All of this, to me, really looked like they were preparing for the enemy they knew, and hoping that she would enter office as weak and distracted as possible.
It’s a weird sort of backhanded compliment to our system though.
You’ve articulated an important part of the Russia–U.S. dynamic as seen in Moscow. It’s one part loathing, mixed with one part envy that’s not allowed to be given a full voice, a sort of sublimated envy.
As far as Putin and co. are concerned, there’s nothing they can do that hasn’t been invented, tested, and perfected by the Americans. It may seem weird to us—Americans have the feeling of a certain violated innocence as a result of the facts coming out of this scandal—but in the Russian point of view, it’s the United States who is the original trickster and manipulator of other people’s politics. In recent years, the Kremlin has felt like it’s had to play catch up on things like cyber, a realm it didn’t understand or appreciate until well after the U.S. had, and in pulling off “color revolutions,” which Putin believes the U.S. stood behind in countries all over the former Soviet Union and Middle East.
Not that the 2016 Russian influence operation was a “color revolution” exactly, but as far as Putin sees it, he is only dipping his toes into what the U.S. has been doing with panache and chutzpah for the past several decades. I’m not saying I endorse this view: the American and Russian approaches to affecting political outcomes do seem to differ greatly, to put it mildly. But I’m convinced that this difference does not exist for Putin and those around him in the Kremlin. The U.S. just got a taste of its own medicine as far as they are concerned.
Has this week’s Donald Trump Jr., story changed your opinion at all of the larger scandal?
No, not really. I never thought that collusion, or anything that came close to collusion, was unlikely or impossible, so seeing it in detail wasn’t a shock. What’s interesting is the detail it provides us into understanding the mechanics of how these things actually work. Even if this wasn’t the grand Kremlin scheme to elect Donald Trump, and this was just a meeting of some kind of b-list grifter and hangers-on, the fact is that they got mixed up in this, and do seem to have high level contacts here in Moscow. Understanding the way that these players on different levels, with different interests, collide and do their own bidding, do each other’s bidding, for me, as someone who’s tried to devote much of my professional life to trying to understand the nitty-gritty, the mechanics of how this place actually works, having that level of detail is fascinating. I’m not surprised at all that they would go through these intermediaries who, on their face, look like quasi-silly, bit players.
What do you make of the lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya as a figure?
I see her as a kind of political climber within mid-tier politics, someone who did not have access and contacts to the very top echelons of power, who made her career working in the Moscow Region, which is a tricky thing to translate or explain to American audiences. The Moscow Region is the suburban ring outside of Moscow, without actually encompassing the city itself, so that provides a metaphor for, I think, her career. An orbiting power without actually penetrating its most vaunted or sacred enclaves.
It seems like she really did dedicate several years of her life to counteracting the Magnitsky Act. This was a passionate commitment of hers. It’s quite possible that she could have seen this meeting as an opportunity, I’m just totally guessing here, of course, but she could have seen the meeting with Don Jr. as an opportunity to advance her pet cause with some influential Americans, while also doing a favor for someone else.
The thing that stuck out to me was, and we are talking pre-WikiLeaks, that someone could write in an email to Don Jr., “This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and it’s government’s support for Mr. Trump,” without anyone batting an eye or asking “what on earth are you talking about?”
That brings up a question that I think applies to a lot of the story, which is the answers to some of these mysteries are found in America, inside the dynamics of the Trump campaign and the Trump family. Why Donald Trump Jr. was such a kind of ultimately bad, failed conspirator, lacking a clever sense of how one conducts the dirty dealings of politics, that’s more a question for Trump Jr. Why did he not react to something that any sane political operative, or just American citizen should.
But also, why didn’t he say, “What Russian government attempt to …”
I agree. Unfortunately as of right now, we don’t really know whether that suggests there was a previous understanding that a conspiracy existed, or they’re just such idiots that it didn’t register with them as something strange.
And why the person who sent the email sent it and chose that phrasing.
Right. And those are all mysteries that, until we hear from say, Emin Agalarov fully, we won’t know what happened before the email chain was created.
A smart person recently said to me that even if there is a grand conspiracy, it’s not going to be a grand conspiracy that all connects together. There’re going to be lots of different threads with different people doing different things, and in that sense, it may seem unsatisfying even if the worst fears turns out to be true.
Of course, and here I’m not sure that Russia is such an exception in terms of how it runs covert operations. It seems like, not that this is a world I know that much about, but Intelligence 101. It’s not like Natalia Veselnitskaya knows anything about the Russian hackers working for the FSD or the GRU who penetrated the servers of the DNC and Podesta. If this was an operation conceived of and coordinated by the Kremlin, the various players that were used at different moments to actually execute it might look like weirdo has-beens with no immediate connection to the inner sanctum of Russian politics. That would, I guess, not only reflect the way things are done in Russia, but also reflect best practices of how one runs a covert operation.
Have you seen the pee tape and how is it?
The most sought-after piece of footage in all of Moscow remains beyond my grasp.
Maybe you should do some real reporting, and then you can come back for another interview.
Let’s get off this Skype call and I’ll go straight back to the pee tape beat.
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