Tuesday evening, The New York Times reported that associates of then-candidate Donald Trump, including within his presidential campaign, had had “repeated” contact with Russian intelligence officials, and that American intelligence and law-enforcement officials had records of intercepted communications to prove it. The news came a day after Michael Flynn resigned as Trump’s national security adviser after having misled the vice president about the substance of his own conversations with the Russian ambassador prior to Trump’s inauguration.
The nature of the contacts the Times disclosed Tuesday were murky; the four current and former officials who described them to the paper declined to specify what, exactly, those contacts entailed; how many people were involved and who all of them were; and what their aims might have been. American intelligence had been investigating the possibility of collusion between Trump aides and Russian intelligence, but the Times report noted that the officials interviewed had “seen no evidence of such cooperation.”
The only individual officials identified by name to the Times as being on the intercepted calls was Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, who denied having “knowingly spoken to Russian intelligence officers,” maintaining that “it’s not like these people wear badges that say, ‘I’m a Russian intelligence officer.’” The Times noted that Manafort has done business in Russia—indeed, reports surrounding his dealings with a pro-Russian party in Ukraine helped lead to his exit from the Trump campaign last August—and that “it is not unusual for American businessmen to come in contact with foreign intelligence officials, sometimes unwittingly, in countries like Russia and Ukraine, where the spy services are deeply embedded in society.”
What, then, might it mean to have “repeated contact” with Russian intelligence? I put this and other questions to the Russian investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov, who along with Irina Borogan has written several books on Russian intelligence. What follows is a condensed and edited transcript of our conversation, conducted by phone and email.
Kathy Gilsinan: What is the range of things it could mean to have “repeated contacts with Russian intelligence,” to use The New York Times’s words? What, if anything, can we learn from reports that American intelligence agencies are investigating contacts between Trump campaign aides and Russian intelligence?
Andrei Soldatov: We do not know actually what that does mean. The problem is that you have [intelligence agents] almost everywhere—you have them in the administration of the president, in the parliament, in the ministries, and in big corporations. They are FSB [formerly KGB] and other secret services agents, some of them former, some acting. Sometimes these people are sent openly and officially, and sometimes they are sent undercover.
That was a special thing for [Russian President] Vladimir Putin in the beginning of his very first term: Fill key positions [with] these people, because he believes he can trust only these people, and he gave them this big status. And the problem is that they say to you that they are all former [intelligence officials], but to draw a line between a former and acting officer is impossible in many cases. The Russian secret services have the practice of “attaching” officers under cover—meaning that you have [an intelligence officer] placed in some position, on top of a particular company, or particular bank, or particular ministry, to oversee what’s going on there—and the cover could be the retirement. It’s a state secret to know the actual status.
Gilsinan: Is there even any conception of how big, say, the FSB is? Do we know how many people work for the FSB?
Soldatov: No, it’s also a state secret. Why it’s so different from the U.S. intelligence is because [Russia has] a central apparatus—people based in Moscow—but also we have a huge regional [intelligence] empire. Every region has a so-called regional department of the FSB. And the regional departments have the right to do exactly the same thing. They can send people undercover, they can attach people to local businesses, and it’s a very murky area. There is no way to say how many people they have. So some people say that maybe in the central apparatus it’s about maybe 6,000 people. But [counting the regional departments] it might be about 70,000 people. [And] we are talking only about the FSB, but [Russia has] lots of security services—we can also talk about SVR, the Russian foreign intelligence service. We can talk about the SBP, which is a presidential security service. We can talk about some other people.
And most of them have this practice of having attached officers. Actually it’s a very Soviet practice. The idea was to prevent foreign espionage. But they saved this practice and improved [it] and [for] Putin, it was his personal solution. He decided to send more people than was done in the 1990s. It’s mostly deputy people—deputy chief, deputy minister—but sometimes it’s the first position.
Gilsinan: You wouldn’t necessarily have to be having contact with the government as such to be having contact with Russian intelligence, right?
Soldatov: Right, you might be in contact with some oil company or some gas company, and you might meet plenty of these people.
Gilsinan: So you yourself have had repeated contacts with Russian intelligence.
Soldatov: Well, I’m a journalist, obviously. I’m writing about these people.
Gilsinan: If I’m a random person just going about my business in Moscow, say, am I having contact with Russian intelligence all the time without knowing it?
Soldatov: It could happen, if you are in contact with the Russian high-level bureaucracy. If, say, your business involved contacts with so-called state corporations, oil and gas corporations, or big important things for the Russian Federation, your chances are very high. If your business is something about retail or some small or middle-level companies, well it’s not that high.
Gilsinan: What are “senior” Russian intelligence officials, with whom the Times says Trump aides had contact? How significant is it for them to be “senior”?
Soldatov: Once again, it's a tricky thing. While mid-level officers tend to be attached to small companies, generals, big shots, tend to be attached to big corporations, given high positions in the ministries and so on. So the higher your contacts are, the more chances you meet a “senior” official.
Gilsinan: Have Russian intelligence officials had contacts with U.S. presidential campaigns in the past? How new is Russian interference in U.S. presidential campaigns more broadly?
Soldatov: There was an interesting story recalled by Bob Baer, a former CIA officer, in his book See No Evil. He [recounts how] a contact of his met with Alexander Korzhakov, the chief of the [Russian] President’s Security Service, and Pavel Borodin, chief of the Kremlin’s administration, who offered to help Bill Clinton’s campaign. Baer refused, of course. But the story reflects how the secret services in Russia have been viewing the U.S. election, as something which could be “helped”—a rather simplistic approach.
Gilsinan: What are your biggest lingering questions about the recent reports? What do you think is not known here? What do you think people should be investigating? What do you think is wrong?
Soldatov: Well of course everybody doing business with Russia, and the Kremlin, they know that there are a lot of people from Russian intelligence, and the problem is that these people often act as businessmen. It’s not always about government intelligence. The biggest question is whether Trump and his people [understood] that [Russian intelligence had] an interest in what goes on in the United States and the elections. It’s not enough to say that this guy spoke to some people from the Russian intelligence, or from the foreign intelligence. The thing is to know, does he actually understand this? That no, these people are not just businessmen, not just officials, that they try to get information.
Gilsinan: You think it’s just as plausible that it could’ve been a total accident?
Soldatov: I think it’s still a question. As far as I [can tell] from The New York Times story, there are actually texts of intercepts of conversations [that] might give a lot of help to understand what’s actually happened.