What Vladimir Putin Wants From America's Elections

A discussion on the sources of Russian conduct

Russian President Vladimir Putin casts his ballot at a polling station during a parliamentary election in Moscow, Russia, September 18, 2016.
Russian President Vladimir Putin casts his ballot at a polling station during a parliamentary election in Moscow, Russia, September 18, 2016.  (Grigory Dukor / Reuters)

From summer’s hack of Democratic National Committee emails to warnings about the possibility of Russian-backed cyberattacks on U.S. voting systems, Russia has taken on an outsized role in the American presidential election. But what does Russian President Vladimir Putin really want, and what should America do about it? Peter Pomerantsev and Arkady Ostrovsky are journalists and authors who have reported extensively on modern Russia, and they recently got together to dissect what we know—and what we don’t—about Putin’s motivations and why, in Ostrovsky’s words, “Russia today is more dangerous than the Soviet Union was.” A condensed and edited transcript of their conversation follows.

Peter Pomerantsev: Arkady, I wanted to ask you: What is Putin up to? Why is he hacking the DNC? What’s his aim, if he’s doing it? Is he doing it?

Arkady Ostrovsky: There is little doubt in my mind that the Russian state is behind it—just like it was behind doping its athletes at the Sochi winter Olympics in 2014. Certainly the U.S. is now accusing [the Russians] of doing it formally.

It’s part of information warfare aimed at undermining the West. The Russians, the Soviets have been doing it for a very long time. It was called “active measures.” Yuri Andropov, the head of the KGB when Putin joined the organization, had [a] special academy course in active measures, which Putin might have actually even attended. The idea is you undermine the integrity, the confidence, of your adversary. So I don’t think there is anything particularly new in it.

We had wrongly assumed that Russia’s confrontation with the West was about ideology. But it has always been about the threat that a Western system of governance, based on the rule of law and human values, posed to the Soviet and current Russian system, where the rule of law is subjected to the powers of the state. In the 1990s when Russia embraced democracy, the West ceased to be a threat. After the reactionary restoration of the 2000s, the West once again poses a threat.

I suppose the main difference between Russia and the Soviet Union is that the Soviet Union was trying to demonstrate that its system was different and better than the Western one, while Putin is trying to show that there is no difference between Russia and the West today. Russia doesn’t have a vision for the future; Russia doesn’t have an appealing ideology. All he needs to do is show the West as hypocritical, as cynical as Russia is—that we’re all the same. It’s sort of [a] lower denominator.

His aim is to discredit the U.S. election process. I don’t think he really thinks he can get Trump into power. I don’t think he particularly cares, frankly. In some ways, Hillary Clinton might be just as good, if not better [from Putin’s perspective], because Putin constantly needs a confrontation with somebody. If Hillary wins by a narrow margin and has a limited room for maneuver, Putin may be just as happy. So at the moment, he is confronting the whole American election system. The dirtier the election, the messier it is, the better.

Pomerantsev: So actually—because Hillary will probably win—he’s trying to provoke her. It’s a typical Kremlin thing to do, to prod and look for a reaction. We know people like this on the street. You’re walking down the street and some thug starts shouting at you, “You looking at me?” Like Taxi Driver. Putin’s like Robert De Niro. So what do you do in that case? Do you walk on? Should Hillary Clinton ignore him? But if you ignore someone like that, they keep on going after you.

Ostrovsky: I think you’re right. As [Putin] himself has said about his youth in Leningrad, when he was growing up on the rough streets, if you feel a fight is inevitable, you strike first. And he needs this fight.

[There was a] very famous article by Andrei Sakharov, the great Russian humanist, physicist, and Nobel [Peace] Prize winner. After the Prague reforms [introducing greater political freedoms to Czechoslovakia] in ’68, he wrote that famous article—which I think printed more copies than Agatha Christie; it was phenomenally popular—about “convergence” between the Soviet Union and the West, and the threat of nuclear Armageddon. He was basically saying the Soviet Union and the West can and should converge to avoid a nuclear conflict—the convergence of the two systems, [their] values, etc.

Now the Soviets were more terrified of the idea of convergence with the West than they were of nuclear war. And I think Putin is exactly the same. There’s all this stuff that he goes on about—how he’s acting in self-defense; how [annexing] Crimea and [intervening in] Ukraine were in self-defense; that [the] hybrid warfare that he is conducting is self-defense and he is just mirroring what the West is doing. But the reality of it is that the West is a threat to Putin—not in the ways in which he portrays it—but, a Western system, based on the rule of law, based on open access, based on competition, is a threat to the system he has built, which is based on the power of security services, on the distribution of rent.

And therefore I think convergence on Western terms is actually quite scary to him. To protect his own system Putin needs to do two things: prevent neighboring countries drifting towards the Western model and make the West less of a magnet. He needs to make the U.S. model look less attractive. And this election is helping him a great deal. If the U.S. loses its appeal, if it becomes isolationist and nationalistic, it will boost his own hold on power and his popularity both inside and outside the country.

I think he’s escalating things at the moment to then be able to trade it for some sort of a detente. He would be very happy if the West accepted him the way he is, with all the thuggery and abuse of human rights, etc. But he certainly cannot afford for Russia to start experiencing the same kind of feelings that the Ukrainians [were] experiencing in the winter of 2013-2014 [when mass protests led to the removal of the Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovych]. So I think he’s trying to achieve a bipolar world where the U.S. recognizes Russia as a different system, doesn’t touch it, recognizes its sphere of influence, doesn’t meddle in Russian politics—for which he blames Hillary; he said that she was the one who started spurring the protests in Moscow in 2011 and 2012. But I think it’s now gotten to the stage where he just can’t help himself; he needs an outside enemy because it’s the only form of legitimacy for him now.

Pomerantsev: So going back to Hillary and the West, how should they respond?

Ostrovsky: I think first of all you need to keep calm and assess accurately what is driving Russia’s system and why it is acting this way. The key point is that Russia is acting like this out of weakness and insecurity, rather than strength and confidence, and that’s very important. I think Putin is acting out of a sense of insecurity, inferiority, and because his archaic form of state doesn’t really match the economic and social stage which Russia is at [currently]. In the same way as [the American diplomat] George Kennan was describing Stalin’s Soviet Union in 1946—mind you, Stalin’s Soviet Union was a hell of a lot stronger than Putin is today—he saw that Stalin was acting out of weakness, out of worry because he felt he couldn’t really compete with a Western system. I think what drives Putin is exactly the same sense of insecurity, weakness, and illegitimacy. As Kennan writes, and historians write, Russia uses aggressiveness as a form of defense.

I think that’s where Obama made a big intellectual mistake. I think Obama has rightly also said that Russia is weak demographically, economically. So the assessment was right. Obama’s conclusion that you don’t need to do anything about it was wrong. A declining power with nuclear arms is a hell of a lot more dangerous than a strong power with nuclear arms, one that has self-confidence. Russia today is more dangerous than the Soviet Union was. It doesn’t have collective leadership of the Politburo that imposed some constraints on the leaders of the country after Stalin’s death. [Putin] doesn’t have the experience of the Soviet leaders of the Second World War—the Soviets came out as the victors, along with Americans, and for whatever they said about each other, they remembered they were allies in the Second World War.

Now what should the West do? If our analysis that Russia is weak and is acting out of weakness, then the best policy is containment. You contain a weak power on the basis that the dynamics within the country will work themselves through.

Pomerantsev: I don’t understand what containment means in a globalized world, where we’re all completely interconnected, where there is no Berlin Wall. I’ll give you an example. We all talk about how horrible Russian TV is—how it does hate speech, incitement of violence, nuclear threats, it makes the lives of minorities hellish. And the Kremlin will always support it, but at the same time, Russian TV [is] full of Western advertising—IKEA, Volvo, Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble. All the reality show formats, all the entertainment formats are bought from Sony, Endemol, etc. It’s actually the most economically integrated Russia probably has ever been. So how on earth in a world like that—and we want an integrated world—do we do containment?

Ostrovsky: I think that’s the biggest weakness of that system, because at the core of that system lies fundamental conflict between a completely anachronistic, Soviet-style state, in a country which is integrated in the world; which is a country of upper-middle income, and until recently of high income; of completely modernized consumption; of very large cities and big middle classes in those cities; that is able to compete but cannot compete economically because of confrontation with the West and isolationism.

Russian investment has fallen 37 percent over the past four years. It’s fallen because Russians don’t see a vision of the future. They don’t invest in the economy. Russia is not China. Russia cannot grow on the investment that China grew on, which is investment from the rich Chinese diaspora from Hong Kong and Taiwan. So Putin needs growth. These people need something to do—there are a lot of them. They have no political representation. They’re not part of the political system, which is geared toward pensioners and people who cannot compete.

Putin is trying to pretend that those 25 years that passed since the end of the Soviet Union haven’t happened. Well, you can’t do that. They have happened, and a whole new generation grew up. That conflict, I think, will continue to determine what happens in Russia. How [do] you contain a power like that? In terms of this information warfare, it’s not about building cyber firewalls—I know nothing about technology—but I would have thought that, as long as the West is self-confident and attractive, and as long as the public is made aware of what the Russians are doing, the danger of Russia undermining the West in minimal. Actually the effectiveness of the Russian warfare is very doubtful to me. They’re tapping into [the] existing mood, but to suggest that the Russians have produced Donald Trump, that the Russians have engineered Brexit, is ridiculous. Brexit happens because of feelings about migrants; Trump happens because of the alienation with the elite; and Putin is stepping into existing trends.

We need to contain Russian aggression and the spread of its dysfunctional, corrupt system of governance into neighboring countries, particularly in Ukraine. Unfortunately, Ukraine itself is institutionally weak and corrupt and is therefore vulnerable. But then again, if it had been strong—economically and institutionally—we would not be here in the first place. So we need to strengthen Ukraine—economically, militarily, and institutionally. We need to turn Ukraine into a model country, a new West Berlin. It needs to be the carrier of the brand of the Western system. That is obviously very difficult, but we have no choice but make Ukraine succeed. In the long run you cannot have security in Europe and in America without a secure and democratic Russia, and one way to help achieve this is to turn Ukraine into a success story. The Germans understand this, but I am not sure that Americans do.

The biggest concern for the U.S. is to stop Russia attacking Ukraine militarily. By propping up some of the most corrupt Ukrainian officials and making deals with Ukrainian oligarchs, we are only helping Putin’s cause and making things worse for ourselves.

I don’t think we should threaten the expansion of NATO for one simple reason: that we’re never going to carry through with this threat [to come to the defense of any new countries admitted]. But I do think we need to strengthen Ukraine.

We should make very clear that, while we’re not contemplating accepting Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, or any other [former] Soviet republics into NATO, we stand ready to arm them with lethal weapons at the first sign of Russia’s further aggression and we should be ready to do that.

We [also] need not to confuse Russia with Putin. They were doping Russian athletes during the Olympics in 2014; they are also doping the Russian public with the imagery of war and victory and resurgence. But the doping doesn’t last very long; it actually wears out. People in Russia are not crazy or war-hungry. They don’t want war. They want normal lives—they want to travel, consume, they want their kids to go to good schools.

We should not take Putin as the whole of Russia, and we should not read too much into those ratings of support [for Putin at] 82 percent. Russia is a lot less consolidated. We should be appealing to all those urban middle-class Russians, saying, “Look, you are part of Europe, you are part of the world, you are integrated, you deserve better, and you’re welcome to be part of this economy and you are losing out big time because of the Russian system of governance.” I’m not talking about dissidents; I’m talking about millions and millions of people. The narrative coming out of Washington should be “Yes, you can.”

Pomerantsev: Hillary Clinton gets into power, or someone else gets into power, do you think she should reach out personally? You think she should like do a YouTube video?

Ostrovsky: Given Putin’s willingness to use military power for political goals and his threats to use nuclear weapons, I think you have to engage in a conversation with Putin, by the same logic you would engage in a conversation with a terrorist who’s holding hostages and is threatening to blow them up. If you have hostages in a building, you don’t turn your back and say, “I have nothing to talk to you about.” You go and talk to them. Because you have people’s lives at risk, and any responsible politician should do that. That doesn’t mean ceding territory; it means you have to take that threat seriously. It’s a dangerous situation. It comes down to the game of chicken, like in any deterrence. Putin believes that the West will always blink first; he needs to be dissuaded of that notion

Two, I think you use much more subtle ways of appealing to the Russian public—soap operas, dramas, with a sort of coded message, lots of student exchanges, internet, certainly. I think we could do a lot more.

Pomerantsev: So basically you’re saying, on the one hand, a real military toughness, partnered with love bombing the Russian people.

Ostrovsky: No, just holding on to your values. As we know, the Cold War ended not because Russia had been defeated militarily. The Cold War ended because the advantages of the Western system of governance and Western economy just became too obvious. And people turned their back on the Soviet regime in the end. And who were these people? This was [the] intelligentsia. Well [the] intelligentsia, for our intents and purposes, is [the] Russian middle class. Let’s not talk about intelligentsia in intellectual terms; let’s talk about intelligentsia in income terms. They had private flats, they had private cars, they went on holidays, they were Soviet middle class, and they’re the ones who realized that they’re losing out big time. They started to compare their salaries, they started to compare their conditions. The most effective way of dealing with Russia, is for the West to hold together, to regain confidence in its values and to make its brand attractive again.

You talk very interestingly about the difference between Soviet and Russian propaganda. You tell me: Why you think the Russian propaganda works and the Soviet didn’t?

Pomerantsev: It’s a very interesting question about whether it works. As you pointed out, it’s very hard to measure the efficacy when they’re just going with the flow of things. We see the same thing with the encouraging of far-right movements in Europe, which the Kremlin tries to do. Again it’s very hard to understand what is the Kremlin’s contribution to this problem. It’s the fanning flames business—did the fanning of the flames make the fire worse or not?

But in the Soviet times, when they did these fake stories—for example when they [tried] to prove that the U.S. created AIDS, which is a story I think appeared in 1987 in 80 newspapers in 30 countries—they were at least trying to make their forgeries look real. Like some biophysicist who argued this, and even changed their nationality to make them look French as opposed to East German. And now they don’t even bother, they just push out all these fake stories onto the internet, onto conspiracy websites. And they may look ridiculous to us, or to readers of The Atlantic, but these sites, they have a huge audience, which is rapidly increasing in Eastern Europe, in Southern Europe, in Italy, in Spain. Radical parties whose readers read these publications are getting closer and closer to power.

A few years ago, we were all laughing at the Russians for using conspiracy theories, appealing to the tin-foil hat brigade. The tin-foil hat brigade is getting pretty close to power everywhere. So they seem to have bet right. I remember three years ago having this conversation with journalists who cover Russia and all of us essentially laughing at the Russians, and going “Oh look, they’re backing Nigel Farage, and Geert Wilders,” who is the far-right leader in [the Netherlands], “investing in Marie Le Pen, and the sort of freakier parts of Italian politics.” And even in Germany, when [the Russian-funded news channel] RT launched, it was ridiculous. They went for this loony far-left, far-right stuff—you have a party in Germany which is a sort of like far-right [and] far-left in the AFD. What scares me is that Russia seems to have bet right on this kind of trend. And now we literally have a candidate in the U.S., Donald Trump, who is allegedly repeating stuff from Sputnik, the Russian kind of news wire which does fake news as well. So we have this rise of conspiracy theorists, radical movements—

Ostrovsky: Nationalists and populists.

Pomerantsev: Well yes. I think there’s nothing wrong with being a nationalist or populist, but we didn’t see that in Bernie Sanders’s campaign—that kind of use of disinformation—but it’s happening everywhere. If the Kremlin were to disappear tomorrow, would the problem still persist? Yes, but it just worries me that this is happening.

Ostrovsky: It therefore actually [raises] a very uncomfortable question. For a very long time we saw Russia as an odd one out, as a separate case—look, there is the West, and there is Russia. We’re good they’re bad. Putin’s narrative is sort of “We’re all the same.” Russia often has been an extreme manifestation of trends in the world, as was Marxism. Is Putin ultimately actually a manifestation of what’s going on everywhere?

Pomerantsev: I think so—that’s what my book was about, partly—but a more radical and grotesque one in many ways. Look at what you just said was Russia’s big contradiction. You have a group of Russians who yearn for a model that they’re used to which is embedded in Soviet behavior and this very complex web of corruption, but that’s kind of the Russian system. And then on the other hand you have this contradictory pull towards globalization, which is exactly the same trend we see in Europe—between nationalists who want to hang on to a system they feel very comfortable with and liberal globalists who want to create a vision of an interconnected world. Just in the Russian case, there’s a dynamic that [has] a lot to do with its own history, traumas, and tradition of violence and extremes and ecstasies and depressions. But the underlying tensions are actually very similar to what we see in many other places.

Ostrovsky: The difference I suppose is the risks that flow from that—I would say that Western systems are sort of stable enough to work through [them].

I think we’re all sort of obsessed with the idea of Russia’s threat to the West, but I think we should not underestimate Russia’s threat to itself. When you have that contradiction without political instruments to deal with it, such as elections; when you have a country of Russia’s size, over 11 time zones which Putin [has] centralized to an extreme degree; when you still have a country which is ethnically quite complex and you have no way of solving those contradictions politically, the risk of Russian disintegration actually becomes very severe. And I think what worries me is, yes the trend is the same everywhere, just as it was at the time of the First World War, but it was only in Russia that it resulted in the Bolshevik Revolution.

[This was] partly because you have a monarch in Nicholas II who is sitting in St. Petersburg, at the same time that Malevich and Kandinsky are already painting their great works, and thinking he can run [the country] the same way as Charles I did before the revolution in England. Of course you can’t. In a way you now have Putin sitting in the Kremlin, and you have all the Westernized young people in the cities, and he’s pretending that he’s the sort of new Ivan the Terrible, the new Stalin. The upheavals in Russia can be far greater, in a country of that size. What if [the disintegration of the Soviet empire] was not complete? What if what we’re seeing is not a resurgence? What if what we’re seeing is the last phase of disintegration of the empire, its agony, its last flare?

Pomerantsev: I think my instincts would echo that. However I’m not petrified of that process. There are two myths that the Kremlin likes to put out when it comes to information war. Defensive myths—“apres moi, le deluge,” you know, “after me, will come fascism.” I actually don’t agree, I don’t think there’s much genuine demand for radicalism from the people, or desire for war or self-sacrifice. Putin’s wars, they’re videogames. The war in Ukraine, he was saying the opposite—he was saying that Russia isn’t in that war, that this is what happens to countries that want democracy. The story was, Crimea was bloodless—it was like a hockey game, “hey we scored.” What he was saying [was] that democracy leads to blood and chaos, and here you’re safe. And you see the utter boredom the Russians have towards Syria; it might as well not be happening. All the TV shows about Syria haven’t done well in terms of ratings. So there’s no demand for extremes. If Russia were to disintegrate further, would that necessarily be what we fear, a massive Yugoslavia?

Empires do die and transform, and we’re seeing something similar in Britain, which thinks it’s about to have a resurgence of the Anglosphere when of course—I’m sure Britain will cope fine in Brexit, not saying it will be a disaster—but the idea that it can sort of find its old early empire role, which seems to be one of the bizarre fancies going around at the moment.

Ostrovsky: Right, and we’ll see what happens to Scotland.

Pomerantsev: The reality is probably slow disintegration, and so be it! That’s no tragedy, that’s just life. So should we be afraid of this moment?

Ostrovsky: We should be afraid of the reaction that it might provoke in Putin. In Britain, you have those different trends. If it comes to Scotland, it probably will have another referendum on independence, but it can be resolved politically. It’s very unlikely that London will send tanks and planes to Scotland.

What happens when parts of the Russian Federation—it’s only Federation in name—starts splitting off or wanting to go their own way? I don’t know, but what worries me is that the thing which Putin had started in Ukraine is a model of what might happen in Russia itself. It would be a very bitter and evil irony if the situation they had engineered—of chaos, disintegration, stability degradation in Eastern Ukraine—will actually become their reality. Not as a videogame, but as the real thing.

Pomerantsev: Yes, because at the end of the day, it doesn’t necessarily need to be a fight about identity. It could just be a fight for resources. It could just be a battle between people over large amounts of oil money. A lot of the fighting in eastern Ukraine, a lot of it is sort of gangs and resources—really practical things all dressed up in the language of identity. That could be the least important ingredient.

Ostrovsky: When I was in Ukraine, the one thing you heard again and again, not just from the radicals but from people in the streets, [was] “we should stop sending all our money to Kiev.” There’s this [mentality of], “We’ll be better off on our own.” In fact, that was the argument that Ukraine itself, ironically, had used when it was splitting off from the Soviet Union. [Leonid] Kravchuk, the first president of Ukraine, said “We were the bread basket for the entire Soviet Union; we thought if we didn’t have to feed the entire Soviet Union, we’d be much better off on our own.” What if Siberians start feeling that?

Pomerantsev: Last question: Are you talking five, 10 years? Obviously these trends exist and probably Russia will disintegrate further. Are you talking hundreds of years?

Ostrovsky: I would say I think it will definitely in our lifetime, for the simple reason that we’re a lot younger than Putin. I think we’re going to see it within 10 years.

Pomerantsev: And you fear, it started with a civil war and it will have to end with a civil war?

Ostrovsky: I think Russia might go through some very, very ugly phases still, and some very unpleasant pictures on television. But I do think at the end of it, it does emerge as a European-style nation-state. Whether we get there peacefully, as I hope we do, is what we don’t know, but this system is not sustainable.

Pomerantsev: Of the two recommendations you made for the next administration, the second one was love-bombing Russia—while they do nasty information war to us, we should do nice information back at them. At the moment it’s games that Putin is playing, I think everyone understands that best in the Baltics and places right next to it; it’s mind games. But actually what you’re saying is that the logic of the system is that we have to be ready for real confrontation.

Ostrovsky: I think we should be ready. I think Putin is leveraging his weak position with military confrontation. As I said on the hard security stuff, there are two things we need to do. Number one, we need to do whatever [possible] to separate nuclear from all other aspects at whatever cost—we need to get back into that Cold War status quo of genuine deterrence of each other. And the second thing is, we need to contain.

Pomerantsev: That’s just so depressing.

Ostrovsky: No, on the contrary, I think it’s very hopeful. I think, yes, the transformation of Russia is overdue and it will happen in our lifetime. Let’s just hope it is bloodless.