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.