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.