What Putin Really Wants
Russia's strongman president has many Americans convinced of his manipulative genius. He's really just a gambler who won big.
I. The Hack
The large, sunny room at Volgograd State University smelled like its contents: 45 college students, all but one of them male, hunched over keyboards, whispering and quietly clacking away among empty cans of Juicy energy drink. “It looks like they’re just picking at their screens, but the battle is intense,” Victor Minin said as we sat watching them.
Clustered in seven teams from universities across Russia, they were almost halfway into an eight-hour hacking competition, trying to solve forensic problems that ranged from identifying a computer virus’s origins to finding secret messages embedded in images. Minin was there to oversee the competition, called Capture the Flag, which had been put on by his organization, the Association of Chief Information Security Officers, or ARSIB in Russian. ARSIB runs Capture the Flag competitions at schools all over Russia, as well as massive, multiday hackathons in which one team defends its server as another team attacks it. In April, hundreds of young hackers participated in one of them.
“I’ve been doing cybersecurity since I was 18, since I joined the army in 1982,” Minin told me after we’d ducked out into the hallway so as not to distract the young contestants. He wouldn’t say in which part of the army he’d done this work. “At the time, I signed a gag order,” he told me, smiling slyly. “Do you think anything has changed? And that I’d say it to a journalist?”
After the army, Minin joined the KGB. And when the Soviet Union collapsed, he went to work in the Russian government’s cyber and surveillance division. In 2010, after he’d retired and gone into the private sector, he helped found ARSIB, which has connections to the Russian defense ministry, the Federal Security Service (FSB), and the interior ministry.
The hacking competitions are Minin’s way of preparing future generations, of “passing my accumulated knowledge on to the kiddies,” he told me. He said Russian tech firms regularly come to him to find talent. I asked whether government agencies, like the security services that conduct cyberoperations abroad, did the same. “It’s possible,” he demurred. “They also need these specialists.”
When the Capture the Flag competition broke for lunch, Minin and I stepped into the brightness and the wind outside. The university, a complex of stark white buildings, sits atop a steep hill with the city and the Volga River below. Once, the river was blood, and the hill was shrapnel and pillboxes and bones. Once, this was Stalingrad, a city made famous by the grueling battle fought here in the winter of 1942–43, when more than 1 million men died before the Germans lost the fight and a field marshal and the momentum of the war. Today, it is a haunted city.
“Have you been to Mamayev Kurgan yet?,” Minin asked me. He was referring to another hill, where the battle was so intense, it changed the hill’s shape. Now the Motherland Calls statue stands there, a 170-foot concrete woman raising a sword to summon her countrymen into battle. It’s where Nazi Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus was captured, Minin noted with reverence, and looked into the sunny distance. “You know, it’s important to see how young people defended their homeland.”
When we got to the cafeteria, I saw that it, too, was haunted by its Soviet past. Grouchy middle-aged women in hairnets dished out bland, greasy cuisine. If it weren’t for students tapping at their smartphones, it would have been hard to tell that the 21st century had ever arrived. I sat down at a table with a team from Astrakhan and told them I had been to their hometown once, a romantically shabby old city by the Caspian Sea.
The students smirked. “Everyone wants to leave,” a third-year named Anton said.
“There’s nothing to do there,” his teammate Sergei added.
Anton was hoping that Minin could help him get his foot in the door at one of the state security services. “It’s prestigious, they pay well, and the work is interesting,” he said. If he were accepted, he could hope for a salary of 50,000 rubles (less than $900) a month, which was almost double the average salary in Astrakhan. Was he motivated by any feelings of—“Patriotic conviction?,” Anton finished my sentence, and started to chuckle. “No,” he said. “I don’t care what government I work for. If the French Foreign Legion takes me, I’ll go!”
Isn’t it sacrilege to say such things in a place like Volgograd?, I asked them.
Sergei said the kind of patriotism being fostered in Russia these days was empty, even unhealthy. He’d been angered by restrictions of online behavior imposed after the prodemocracy protests of 2011–12, and by government monitoring of online speech, which he called unconstitutional. “And if you look at the state of our roads and our cities, and how people live in our city, you want to ask, why are they spending billions of rubles on storing people’s personal information in massive databases?”
“They’re going to lock you up, Sergei,” a classmate said, stealing a glance at my phone.
Sergei laughed. “Keep chewing,” he said.
Video: “How Russia Attacked U.S. Elections”
Over the past year, Russian hackers have become the stuff of legend in the United States. According to U.S. intelligence assessments and media investigations, they were responsible for breaching the servers of the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. They spread the information they filched through friendly outlets such as WikiLeaks, to devastating effect. With President Vladimir Putin’s blessing, they probed the voting infrastructure of various U.S. states. They quietly bought divisive ads and organized political events on Facebook, acting as the bellows in America’s raging culture wars.
But most Russians don’t recognize the Russia portrayed in this story: powerful, organized, and led by an omniscient, omnipotent leader who is able to both formulate and execute a complex and highly detailed plot.
Gleb Pavlovsky, a political consultant who helped Putin win his first presidential campaign, in 2000, and served as a Kremlin adviser until 2011, simply laughed when I asked him about Putin’s role in Donald Trump’s election. “We did an amazing job in the first decade of Putin’s rule of creating the illusion that Putin controls everything in Russia,” he said. “Now it’s just funny” how much Americans attribute to him.
A businessman who is high up in Putin’s United Russia party said over an espresso at a Moscow café: “You’re telling me that everything in Russia works as poorly as it does, except our hackers? Rosneft”—the state-owned oil giant—“doesn’t work well. Our health-care system doesn’t work well. Our education system doesn’t work well. And here, all of a sudden, are our hackers, and they’re amazing?”
In the same way that Russians overestimate America, seeing it as an all-powerful orchestrator of global political developments, Americans project their own fears onto Russia, a country that is a paradox of deftness, might, and profound weakness—unshakably steady, yet somehow always teetering on the verge of collapse. Like America, it is hostage to its peculiar history, tormented by its ghosts.
None of these factors obviates the dangers Russia poses; rather, each gives them shape. Both Putin and his country are aging, declining—but the insecurities of decline present their own risks to America. The United States intelligence community is unanimous in its assessment not only that Russians interfered in the U.S. election but that, in the words of former FBI Director James Comey, “they will be back.” It is a stunning escalation of hostilities for a troubled country whose elites still have only a tenuous grasp of American politics. And it is classically Putin, and classically Russian: using daring aggression to mask weakness, to avenge deep resentments, and, at all costs, to survive.
I’d come to Russia to try to answer two key questions. The more immediate is how the Kremlin, despite its limitations, pulled off one of the greatest acts of political sabotage in modern history, turning American democracy against itself. And the more important—for Americans, anyway—is what might still be in store, and how far an emboldened Vladimir Putin is prepared to go in order to get what he wants.
“It wasn’t a strategic operation,” says Andrei Soldatov, a Russian journalist with deep sources in the security services, who writes about the Kremlin’s use of cybertechnology. “Given what everyone on the inside has told me,” he says, hacking the U.S. political system “was a very emotional, tactical decision. People were very upset about the Panama Papers.”
In the spring of 2016, an international consortium of journalists began publishing revelations from a vast trove of documents belonging to a Panamanian law firm that specialized in helping its wealthy foreign clients move money, some of it ill-gotten, out of their home countries and away from the prying eyes of tax collectors. (The firm has denied any wrongdoing.) The documents revealed that Putin’s old friend Sergei Roldugin, a cellist and the godfather to Putin’s elder daughter, had his name on funds worth some $2 billion. It was an implausible fortune for a little-known musician, and the journalists showed that these funds were likely a piggy bank for Putin’s inner circle. Roldugin has denied any wrongdoing, but the Kremlin was furious about the revelation. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, whose wife was also implicated, angrily ascribed the reporting to “many former State Department and CIA employees” and to an effort to “destabilize” Russia ahead of its September 2016 parliamentary elections.
The argument was cynical, but it revealed a certain logic: The financial privacy of Russia’s leaders was on par with the sovereignty of Russia’s elections. “The Panama Papers were a personal slight to Putin,” says John Sipher, a former deputy of the CIA’s Russia desk. “They think we did it.” Putin’s inner circle, Soldatov says, felt “they had to respond somehow.” According to Soldatov’s reporting, on April 8, 2016, Putin convened an urgent meeting of his national-security council; all but two of the eight people there were veterans of the KGB. Given the secrecy and timing of this meeting, Soldatov believes it was then that Putin gave the signal to retaliate.
The original aim was to embarrass and damage Hillary Clinton, to sow dissension, and to show that American democracy is just as corrupt as Russia’s, if not worse. “No one believed in Trump, not even a little bit,” Soldatov says. “It was a series of tactical operations. At each moment, the people who were doing this were filled with excitement over how well it was going, and that success pushed them to go even further.”
“A lot of what they’ve done was very opportunistic,” says Dmitri Alperovitch, the Russian-born co-founder of the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike, which first discovered the Russian interference after the company was hired to investigate the hack of the Democratic National Committee servers in May 2016. “They cast a wide net without knowing in advance what the benefit might be.” The Russian hackers were very skilled, Alperovitch says, but “we shouldn’t try to make them out to be eight feet tall” and able to “elect whomever they want. They tried in Ukraine, and it didn’t work.” Nor did it work in the French elections of 2017.
Alperovitch and his team saw that there had been two groups of hackers, which they believed came from two different Russian security agencies. They gave them two different monikers: Fancy Bear, from military intelligence, and Cozy Bear, from either foreign intelligence or the FSB. But neither bear seemed at all aware of what the other was doing, or even of the other’s presence. “We observed the two Russian espionage groups compromise the same systems and engage separately in the theft of identical credentials,” Alperovitch wrote on CrowdStrike’s blog at the time. Western intelligence agencies, he noted, almost never go after the same target without coordinating, “for fear of compromising each other’s operations.” But “in Russia this is not an uncommon scenario.”
It was almost like one of Minin’s hacking competitions, but with higher stakes. The hackers are not always guys in military-intelligence uniforms, Soldatov told me; in some cases they’re mercenary freelancers willing to work for the highest bidder—or cybercriminals who have been caught and blackmailed into working for the government. (Putin has denied “state level” involvement in election meddling, but plausible deniability is the point of working through unofficial hackers.)
American officials noticed the same messy and amorphous behavior as the summer of 2016 wore on. A former staffer in Barack Obama’s administration says that intercepted communications between FSB and military-intelligence officers revealed arguing and a lack of organization. “It was ad hoc,” a senior Obama-administration official who saw the intelligence in real time told me. “They were kind of throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what would stick.”
This chaos was, ironically, one reason the Russians ended up being successful in 2016. The bickering, opportunism, and lack of cooperation seemed to the Obama administration, at least initially, like the same old story. A report published in January 2017 by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence assessing Russian involvement in the election noted that in 2008, a ring of 10 Russian spies, the most famous of whom was the fiery-haired Anna Chapman, had been in the U.S. in part to monitor the presidential election. But a Department of Justice complaint from 2010 paints a picture that is more The Pink Panther than The Americans. The spies, dubbed “The Illegals,” went to think-tank events and summarized press coverage for Moscow; Chapman registered a burner phone with the address 99 Fake Street. (Chapman was arrested in 2010, and she and her compatriots were deported in a dramatic spy exchange.) The Obama administration seemed to be expecting something similar early in 2016. “They’ve nibbled on the edges of our elections” in the past, the former Obama-administration staffer told me. In 2008, the Illegals “had been trying to cultivate think-tank people who might go into the administration.” But Russia hadn’t tried “to affect the result of the election until this time.”
When the Obama administration began to realize, in the summer, that the Russians were up to something more wide-ranging than what they’d done before, the White House worried about only half the problem. At that point, the most alarming development was Russian probing of states’ voting systems. The dumps of hacked data and the churn of false stories about Clinton seemed less troubling, and also harder to combat without looking political.
In September, Obama approached Putin on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, China, and told him to “cut it out.” That fall, National-Security Adviser Susan Rice hand-delivered a warning to the Russian ambassador to Washington, Sergey Kislyak. The White House tasked the Treasury and State Departments with exploring new sanctions against Russia, as well as the publication of information about Putin’s personal wealth, but decided that such moves might backfire. If the White House pushed too hard, the Russians might dump even more stolen documents. Who knew what else they had?
Nevertheless, with just a month to go until the election, the Obama administration took the extraordinary step of alerting the public. On October 7, 2016, a joint statement from the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said, “The U.S. Intelligence Community is confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails” from U.S. political organizations. “These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the U.S. election process.”
The White House expected the media to run with the story, and they did—“from 3:30 to 4 p.m.,” Ned Price, a former National Security Council spokesperson under Obama, said at this summer’s Aspen Security Forum. But at 4 p.m., the statement was overtaken by a revelation of a different sort: the Access Hollywood tape, in which Trump bragged about sexually assaulting women. Both the media and the Clinton campaign focused almost exclusively on the explosive tape, not the intelligence-community statement.
Even if the public notice went unheeded, the Obama administration felt that the Russians had heard its warnings behind the scenes. According to Soldatov and two former Obama-administration officials, Moscow seemed to have backed off its probes of U.S. election infrastructure by October. But the leaks and bogus news stories never stopped. Obama feared that going public with anything more would look like he was putting his thumb on the scale for Clinton. And he was sure that she would win anyway—then deal with the Russians once she took office.
The coup de grâce, perhaps, was the receipt by the FBI of a dubious document that seemed to paint the Clinton campaign in a bad light. The Washington Post reported this spring on a memo, seemingly from Russian intelligence, that had been obtained by an FBI source during the presidential campaign. The memo claimed that then–Attorney General Loretta Lynch had communicated with a Clinton campaign staffer, providing assurance that the FBI wouldn’t pursue the investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state too strenuously. Sources close to James Comey told The Post that the document had “played a major role” in the way Comey, who as FBI director took fierce pride in his political independence, thought about the case, and had pushed him to make a public statement about it in July 2016. (He said he would bring no charges, but criticized Clinton sharply.) Comey’s public comments about the investigation—in July and then in October—damaged Clinton greatly, possibly costing her the presidency. The document, the article noted, was a suspected Russian forgery.
A forgery, a couple of groups of hackers, and a drip of well-timed leaks were all it took to throw American politics into chaos. Whether and to what extent the Trump campaign was complicit in the Russian efforts is the subject of active inquiries today. Regardless, Putin pulled off a spectacular geopolitical heist on a shoestring budget—about $200 million, according to former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. This point is lost on many Americans: The subversion of the election was as much a product of improvisation and entropy as it was of long-range vision. What makes Putin effective, what makes him dangerous, is not strategic brilliance but a tactical flexibility and adaptability—a willingness to experiment, to disrupt, and to take big risks.
“They do plan,” said a senior Obama-administration official. “They’re not stupid at all. But the idea that they have this all perfectly planned and that Putin is an amazing chess player—that’s not quite it. He knows where he wants to end up, he plans the first few moves, and then he figures out the rest later. People ask if he plays chess or checkers. It’s neither: He plays blackjack. He has a higher acceptance of risk. Think about it. The election interference—that was pretty risky, what he did. If Hillary Clinton had won, there would’ve been hell to pay.”
Even the manner of the Russian attack was risky. The fact that the Russians didn’t really bother hiding their fingerprints is a testament to the change in Russia’s intent toward the U.S., Robert Hannigan, a former head of the Government Communications Headquarters, the British analogue to the National Security Agency, said at the Aspen Forum. “The brazen recklessness of it … the fact that they don’t seem to care that it’s attributed to them very publicly, is the biggest change.”
That recklessness nonetheless has clear precursors—both in Putin’s evolving worldview and in his changing domestic circumstances. For more than a decade, America’s strategic carelessness with regard to Russia has stoked Putin’s fears of being deposed by the U.S., and pushed him toward ever higher levels of antagonism. So has his political situation—the need to take ever larger foreign risks to shore up support at home, as the economy has struggled. These pressures have not abated; if anything, they have accelerated in recent years.
II. The History
When it is snowing, as it was on this spring afternoon, the gray crags of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations blend into the low-slung, steely sky. This is where the Soviet state once minted its diplomats and spies. Here they mastered the nuances of the world before stepping out into it. Today, the university’s role is much the same, although it has been watered down by corruption: The wealthy often buy their children admission. I had been invited to listen to a lecture by one of the institute’s most prominent faculty members, Andranik Migranyan, who himself graduated from the school in 1972. Migranyan spent much of the past decade in New York, where he ran the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation, a Russian think tank reported to have ties to the Russian foreign ministry. Among his old classmates is Sergei Lavrov, the foreign minister, whom he still counts as a friend.
This afternoon, Migranyan was lecturing on Putin’s speech at the 2007 Munich Conference on Security Policy, a speech that seems to be Russia’s sole post-Soviet ideological document—and key to understanding how the relationship between Russia and the U.S. reached today’s nadir. Putin, still a painfully awkward speaker at the time, was seven years into his now nearly two-decade reign. Eighteen years prior, in 1989, he had been a KGB officer stationed in Dresden, East Germany, shoveling sensitive documents into a furnace as protesters gathered outside and the Berlin Wall crumbled. Not long after that, the Soviet Union was dead and buried, and the world seemed to have come to a consensus: The Soviet approach to politics—violent, undemocratic—was wrong, even evil. The Western liberal order was a better and more moral form of government.
For a while, Putin had tried to find a role for Russia within that Western order. When Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first post-Soviet president, named him his successor in 1999, Russia was waging war against Islamist separatists in Chechnya. On 9/11, Putin was the first foreign leader to call President George W. Bush, hoping to impress on him that they were now allies in the struggle against terrorism. He tried to be helpful in Afghanistan. But in 2003, Bush ignored his objections to the invasion of Iraq, going around the United Nations Security Council, where Russia has veto power. It was a humiliating reminder that in the eyes of the West, Russia was irrelevant, that “Russian objections carried no weight,” as Migranyan told his students. But to Putin, it was something more: Under the guise of promoting democracy and human rights, Washington had returned to its Cold War–era policy of deposing and installing foreign leaders. Even the open use of military force was now fair game.
In 2007, speaking to the representatives and defenders of the Western order, Putin officially registered his dissent. “Only two decades ago, the world was ideologically and economically split, and its security was provided by the massive strategic potential of two superpowers,” Putin declaimed sullenly. But that order had been replaced by a “unipolar world” dominated only by America. “It is the world of one master, one sovereign.”
A world order controlled by a single country “has nothing in common with democracy,” he noted pointedly. The current order was both “unacceptable” and ineffective. “Unilateral, illegitimate action” only created “new human tragedies and centers of conflict.” He was referring to Iraq, which by that point had descended into sectarian warfare. The time had come, he said, “to rethink the entire architecture of global security.”
This was the protest of a losing side that wanted to renegotiate the terms of surrender, 16 years after the fact. Nonetheless, Putin has spent the decade since that speech making sure that the United States can never again unilaterally maneuver without encountering friction—and, most important, that it can never, ever depose him.
“You should have seen the faces of [John] McCain and [Joe] Lieberman,” a delighted Migranyan told his students, who appeared to be barely listening. The hawkish American senators who attended Putin’s speech “were gobsmacked. Russia had been written off! And Putin committed a mortal sin in Munich: He told the truth.”
The year that followed, Migranyan said, “was the year of deed and action.” Russia went to war with neighboring Georgia in 2008, a move that Migranyan described as a sort of comeuppance for nato, which had expanded to include other former Soviet republics. But Western encroachment on Russia’s periphery was not the Kremlin’s central grievance.
The U.S., Migranyan complained, had also been meddling directly in Russian politics. American consultants had engineered painful post-Soviet market reforms, enriching themselves all the while, and had helped elect the enfeebled and unpopular Yeltsin to a second term in 1996. The U.S. government directly funded both Russian and American nongovernmental organizations, such as the National Endowment for Democracy, to promote democracy and civil society in Russia. Some of those same NGOs had ties to the so-called color revolutions, which toppled governments in former Soviet republics and replaced them with democratic regimes friendly to the West.
The Rose Revolution in Georgia, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan—“Russia looks at this with understandable mistrust,” Migranyan told his students. He pointed out that the United States, by its own admission, had spent $5 billion in Ukraine to promote democracy—that is, to expand the liberal Western order. Through this prism, it is not irrational to believe that the U.S. might be coming for Moscow—and Putin—next. This is why, in 2012, Russia kicked out USAID. It is why Russia banned the National Endowment for Democracy in 2015, under a new law that shuttered “undesirable” organizations.
Putin’s Munich doctrine has a corollary: Americans may think they’re promoting democracy, but they’re really spreading chaos. “Look at what happened in Egypt,” Migranyan said, beginning a litany of failed American-backed revolutions. In 2011, the Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak stepped down following protests the U.S. had supported, Migranyan contended. But after “radical Islamists” won power democratically, the U.S. turned a blind eye to a military coup that deposed the new leaders. Then there was Libya. “You toppled the most successful government in North Africa,” Migranyan said, looking in my direction. “In the end, we got a ruined government, a brutally murdered American ambassador, chaos, and Islamic radicals.”
“If we count all the American failures, maybe it’s time you start listening to Russia?,” Migranyan said, growing increasingly agitated. “If [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad] has to go, then who comes in, in place of Assad? … Don’t destroy regimes if you don’t know what comes after!”
Putin had always been suspicious of democracy promotion, but two moments convinced him that America was coming for him under its guise. The first was the 2011 nato intervention in Libya, which led, ultimately, to the ousting and gruesome lynching of the Libyan dictator, Muammar Qaddafi. Afterward, many people who interacted with Putin noticed how deeply Qaddafi’s death troubled him. He is said to have watched the video of the killing over and over. “The way Qaddafi died made a profound impact on him,” says Jake Sullivan, a former senior State Department official who met repeatedly with senior Russian officials around that time. Another former senior Obama-administration official describes Putin as “obsessed” with Qaddafi’s death. (The official concedes, “I think we did overreach” in Libya.)
The second moment was in November 2013, when young Ukrainians came out onto the Maidan—Independence Square—in the capital, Kiev, to protest then-President Viktor Yanukovych pulling out of an economic agreement with the European Union under pressure from Putin. The demonstrators stayed all winter, until the police opened fire on them, killing some 100 people. The next day, February 21, 2014, Yanukovych signed a political-reconciliation plan, brokered by Russia, America, and the EU, but that night he fled the capital. To Putin, it was clear what had happened: America had toppled his closest ally, in a country he regarded as an extension of Russia itself. All that money America had spent on prodemocracy NGOs in Ukraine had paid off. The presence of Victoria Nuland, a State Department assistant secretary, handing out snacks on the Maidan during the protests, only cemented his worst fears.
“The Maidan shifted a gear,” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national-security adviser for strategic communications, told me. “Putin had always been an antagonist, and aggressive. But he went on offense after the Maidan. The gloves were off, in a way. To Putin, Ukraine was such a part of Russia that he took it as an assault on him.” (A source close to the Kremlin confirmed this account.)
Putin and Lavrov were known within the Obama administration for their long tirades, chastising the American president for all the disrespect shown to Russia since 1991—like the time in 2014 that Obama listed Russia and Ebola as global threats in the same speech. Yanukovych’s fall made these tirades far more intense. “For two years afterwards, there wasn’t a phone call in which [Putin] wouldn’t mention it,” accusing the U.S. of supporting regime change in Ukraine, Rhodes recalled.
Regime change in Libya and Ukraine led to Russia propping up Bashar al-Assad in Syria. “Not one more” is how Jon Finer, former Secretary of State John Kerry’s chief of staff, characterizes Putin’s approach in Syria. It also led inexorably to Russian meddling in the U.S. election: Russia would show the U.S. that there was more than one regime-change racket in town.
III. The Player
For Russia, a country relentlessly focused on its history, 2017 was a big year. November marked 100 years since the Bolsheviks, a radical minority faction of socialists, brought guns into a fledgling parliament and wrested Russia onto an equally radical path. That bloody experiment itself ended in 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union; December 2016 marked its 25th anniversary. Both anniversaries were largely ignored by the Kremlin-controlled media, because they are uncomfortable for Putin. Bolsheviks were revolutionaries and Putin, a statist to his core, loathes revolutions. But he was also raised to be a person of the Soviet state, to admire its many achievements, which is why he famously referred to the fall of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.”
Putin governs with the twin collapses of 1917 and 1991 at the forefront of his thinking. He fears for himself when another collapse comes—because collapse always comes, because it has already come twice in 100 years. He is constantly trying to avoid it. The exiled oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky has publicly spoken of deposing Putin, and until recently did not eschew violent means. People like Alexey Navalny, the opposition leader, openly talk about putting Putin and his closest associates on trial. The Russian opposition gleefully waits for Putin to fall, to resign, to die. Every misstep, every dip in oil prices, is to them just another sign of his coming personal apocalypse. The hungry anticipation is mirrored in the West, especially in the United States.
For the most part, the Kremlin is focused not on any positive development program, but on staving off that fate—and on taking full advantage of its power before the state’s inevitable demise. That’s one reason corruption among the ruling elite is so breathtakingly brazen: A Russian businessman who works with government clients describes the approach as the “last day of Pompeii,” repeated over and over. Another businessman, who had just left the highest echelons of a big state-run bank out of frustration at its corruption and mismanagement, told me, “Russia always rises from the ashes, time and time again. But I have a feeling that we’re about to go through a time of ashes again.”
Fear of collapse is also why Russian propaganda is intent on highlighting the bloody aftermath of revolutions the world over. Things may not be great in Russia now—the country has struggled mightily since 2012—but, the country’s news programs suggest, things can always get worse. That’s what Russians are told happened in the 1990s, in the nine frenetic years between the Soviet Union’s collapse and Putin’s ascent to power. “When you have two governmental collapses in 100 years, people are scared of them,” Migranyan told me. Many Russians remember the last one personally.
But the number who do is shrinking. One in four Russian men dies before the age of 55. Putin turned 65 in October, and is surrounded by people who are as old as he is, if not older. Russia is now “in an autumnal autocracy,” Ekaterina Schulmann, a political scientist in Moscow, says. “The more it tries to seem young and energetic, the more it obviously fails.” As Aleksey Chesnakov, a former Kremlin insider, told me, in Russia “the most active voters”—the people who buy in most fully to what Putin’s selling—“are the pensioners.”
To Putin’s supporters, his regime isn’t an autocracy, exactly. “It can be described as demophilia,” Migranyan explained. “It is not a democracy, but it is in the name of the people, and for the people. Putin’s main constituency is the people. All of his power comes from his rating with the people, and therefore it’s important that he gives them the fruits of his rule.” The Kremlin calls it “managed democracy.”
This, too, is crucial to understanding why Putin acts as he does, and how he is likely to think about new campaigns against the United States. The Kremlin’s direction of the press, the close eye it keeps on polls and approval numbers, and especially its foreign policy—they all exist to buttress Putin’s legitimacy, to curry favor with his 144 million subjects. It’s a complicated, hiccuping feedback loop designed to guarantee that Putin’s authoritarian rule remains popular and unthreatened.
This is why Putin insists on having elections, even if the result is always predictable. “Without renewing the mandate, the system can’t survive,” Chesnakov said. “According to polls, two-thirds of Russians don’t want a monarchy. They want a democracy. But they have a different sense of it than Americans and Europeans.”
Putin’s third presidential term is up in the spring of 2018. He didn’t bother to declare that he’d run for reelection until December 6 (the election is in March) and he likely won’t campaign.* This is Putin’s carefully cultivated image at home: the phlegmatic leader who hovers coolly above the fray as it churns on beneath him. But in the past year or so, the fray has given him reason to worry.
On a chilly afternoon this spring, I watched college students standing on the steps of a nondescript building off Volgograd’s central square, waiting to meet with Alexey Navalny. The opposition leader and anti-corruption crusader has captured the imagination of many young Russians, as well as that of Westerners who see him as a potential rival of, or even replacement for, Putin. Navalny has declared that he is running for president in the upcoming election.
Police had blocked off the street in front of the building, which housed Navalny’s local campaign office. They stood groggily watching as Cossacks, members of a southern Russian tribe who have historically acted as the state’s vigilante enforcers, strolled up and down the block, casually swinging their black-leather whips. Angry-looking young men in track pants and sneakers—the other fists-for-hire preferred by the Kremlin—paced around the students, eyeing them menacingly. Young women in vertiginous heels—plainclothes cops—milled around. Every few minutes, they took out identical camcorders tagged with numbered yellow stickers and filmed the students standing on the steps, zooming in on their faces.
Navalny had recently been attacked by progovernment thugs who splashed “Brilliant Green,” a Soviet-era antiseptic, on his face. His supporters subsequently posted an image of The Motherland Calls, the giant statue commemorating the Soviet victory at Stalingrad, with its face Photoshopped green, to publicize his rally in Volgograd. The image touched a nerve in a country where the government fetishizes World War II. Within hours, pro-Kremlin social-media accounts were using the image to fuel local outrage. By the time Navalny arrived in Volgograd, from Moscow, the youth wing of Putin’s party was waiting with a protest.
The students standing on the steps of the campaign office found the manufactured outrage funny. They were at an age when most things were funny, even when the state was clearly watching them. The FSB had recently sent a summons to the home of Vlad, a fourth-year student at Volgograd State University who had previously picketed in support of Navalny’s Progress Party. Roman, a bespectacled third-year student in veterinary science, had been called into the dean’s office for participating in a protest. “The dean said, ‘Don’t go to Navalny’s protests. His political position is wrong,’ ” Roman told me, shrugging and shoving his hands into the pockets of his puffy red jacket.
These young men would soon graduate into an economy that had only recently started to grow again after a five-year malaise. But the growth is barely perceptible, while prices for basic goods have soared. Some of their neighbors and family acquaintances hadn’t been paid in months, they said. “Our parents say things have gotten worse,” Roman told me. But their parents also knew the potential cost of openly opposing the government, and weren’t happy that their sons were at the rally that day. They also believed, from watching state TV, that Navalny was an American agent.
The young men laughed at this, too. Navalny had begun to build his base about a decade earlier, with a blog on LiveJournal that carefully documented how government officials supposedly carved thick slices off the state budget and stashed the money in Moscow mansions or real estate abroad. A few years ago, Navalny launched a YouTube channel where he posts slickly produced videos describing alleged government corruption schemes. On another YouTube channel, Navalny Live, he and his team at the Anti-Corruption Foundation host talk shows about politics, the kind of programming that would never be allowed on state-controlled television. Together, the channels have more than 1.5 million subscribers, and the videos have collected hundreds of millions of views.
As the students and I stood chatting, a retinue of preschoolers marched past the office with their teachers. The college students broke into laughter and cheers. “Everyone says that Navalny’s supporters are really young, but I didn’t know they were this young!,” Roman said.
But things quickly lost their comic lightness when a young man in track pants started loudly arguing with an older Navalny supporter, saying Navalny was funded by the U.S. State Department and noting the personal offense he took at the green-faced Motherland Calls statue. “It’s a monument to a great victory!” his friend, another angry young man in track pants, screamed. “It was built on bones! My grandfather fought for Stalingrad!” (His grandfather, he later admitted to me, had been born in Georgia in 1941.)
Suddenly, scores of anti-Navalny protesters appeared, some with brooms, as if preparing to sweep him out of their city. “Navalny, come out!” a middle-aged man with a shaved head screamed into a megaphone as the protesters surged across the sidewalk toward the campaign office. “Navalny, come out!” they yelled in response. The college students packed in tightly on the campaign office’s front steps, ready to defend their leader. The two camps started pushing and shoving, the crowd swaying violently. The cops watched. I looked up and saw Roman’s red jacket. He had taken off his glasses and stood on the top step, blinking and squinting into the noise. The swagger and irony had gone off his face. He looked vulnerable, like a child.
Navalny emerged at the top of the steps, calm as ever. Part of the crowd started chanting, “Shame! Shame! Shame!” Navalny invited the man with the megaphone and his comrades up the steps to talk with him calmly, face-to-face. They came up and grabbed him by the legs and started to drag him toward the hostile part of the crowd. Finally the cops acted, freeing Navalny and pushing the crowd back toward the street.
Navalny escaped into his campaign office, where, for the next three hours, he fielded questions in a room so packed with supporters that his hair was soon dripping with sweat. He spoke about the contrast between government elites’ luxurious lifestyles and the region’s sagging wages; about rising utility fees, despite falling energy prices; about the pitiful state of the roads.
“Alexey!” one of his supporters yelled out. “There’s nothing left in our city since 1945 except the victory!” Everyone clapped.
Navalny laughed at the state’s accusations that his supporters—the hundreds of people sweating with him in the room—had been paid by the U.S. State Department to show up. “This is the real political force of the country,” he said. “And we will win. We are destined for victory, because in any culture, in any civilization, people like us win, because they lie and we tell the truth.”
I wiped clear a small rectangle on a fogged-up window. There was nothing left of the angry crowd, not even the police. They had vanished as quickly as they had materialized.
Two days later, on March 26, Navalny rushed back to Moscow, where thousands of people had heeded his call to come out and protest state corruption. Tens of thousands more came out in nearly 100 other Russian cities and towns, across Russia’s 11 time zones—an unexpected showing that grabbed international headlines. Earlier that month, Navalny had posted an hour-long exposé on YouTube about the extensive luxury-real-estate holdings of the prime minister and former president, Dmitry Medvedev—who in 2008 had lamented that a sum equivalent to a third of the Russian federal budget had disappeared to corruption. Navalny contrasted the opulence of Medvedev’s many homes, filmed by drones, with his awkward call for austerity to the residents of Crimea, who, on joining Russia, had lost access to a steady supply of water, electricity, and reasonably priced food. “There’s no money,” Medvedev advised them two years after the annexation, in 2016, “but you hang in there.”
By the time of the mass protests, the exposé had been watched almost 12 million times. A couple of schoolboys climbed up on a lamppost in Moscow’s iconic Pushkin Square, packed with protesters, and called to the cops trying to get them down, “There’s no money, but we’re hanging in there!”
In recent years, as the economy has struggled, Putin has purchased his popularity with a series of tactical measures. Putin pays extremely close attention to his approval ratings to see what works and what doesn’t. He and his advisers are addicted to polls. According to Alexander Oslon, who runs the Public Opinion Foundation, which does polling for the Kremlin, “They can’t live without them.”
Putin’s approval rating surged in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea—and, by extension, Russia’s return to imperial grandeur. It was a risky maneuver, the equal, perhaps, of Putin’s later interference in the U.S. election. And it paid off, at least in the short term. Russians rallied behind the Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine—and behind Putin, their audacious president. “There was a spike in loyalty” toward “every organ of the state,” Kirill Rogov, a political analyst in Moscow who studies Russian polling, told me—“a conservative shift in all directions. People started paying more attention to the news, they watched more TV, and they became more indoctrinated.” For a decade, a majority of Russians had told pollsters that they would rather be well-off than live in a great power. In 2014, those preferences flipped.
But the rush of patriotism provided by the Crimean annexation proved fleeting. Connected by land only to Ukraine, Crimea is hard to supply from Russia. The peninsula is facing severe water shortages in its near future, and tourism, a mainstay of the local economy, has plummeted. On a recent trip there, I was told by even the most ardently pro-Russia locals, Cossacks who had staged protests supporting Moscow in 2014, that they had come to regret their stance. The violent lawlessness and corruption of Moscow had reached their home, and life had become much harder as Russian citizens. In some ways, they missed being Ukrainian.
Meanwhile, the already sluggish Russian economy has lost cheap Western financing, following the imposition of American and European sanctions. Putin’s response to those sanctions—banning food imports from the United States and the EU—made food prices climb by double-digit percentages. The economy sank into recession. By the beginning of 2017, the government’s approval numbers had nearly returned to pre-annexation levels.
Russia’s intervention in Syria, which began in the fall of 2015, offered another flag-wrapped distraction. As America shrank from its traditional role in the Middle East, Russia expanded its own, making an ostentatious show of fighting Islamist terrorists on behalf of a reluctant Western Christendom. Shortly after the Syrian army, aided by Russian airpower and commandos, retook the ancient city of Palmyra from the Islamic State, the Russian military flew the Mariinsky Orchestra in from St. Petersburg for a concert in front of the city’s historic ruins—and a dozen press cameras. (Russian TV barely covered the loss of the city by Russian-backed forces to isis half a year later.)
There will inevitably be a reckoning for the Syrian adventure, too. For the entirety of his reign, Putin has struggled to contain an Islamist insurgency in Russia’s North Caucasus mountains, from which terrorists have launched attacks on Moscow. But on a trip this spring to Dagestan, a mostly Muslim enclave in the heart of the mountains, I found that the region, once extremely violent, was peaceful. Worried about potential terror attacks in nearby Sochi during the 2014 Olympics, the Russian secret services had allowed hundreds, if not thousands, of Islamist rebels, all of them Russian citizens, to go to Syria. According to one report in Novaya Gazeta, the FSB even provided some of them with a passport and transportation to the Russian border.
It was a shortsighted counterterrorism strategy. Two Dagestani men who traveled to isis-controlled territories in Syria in order to bring back their children told me that they heard as much Russian as Arabic on the streets of isis cities. An October report by the Soufan Center, a security-intelligence nonprofit, showed that more foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria came from Russia than from any other country. What will become of these Russian fighters, now better trained and battle-hardened, as isis territory continues to shrink? Some 400 have already returned to Russia, according to the Soufan Center report, but even those who don’t return home can wreak havoc: In April, a suicide bomber blew himself up at a St. Petersburg metro station, killing 13 people. Russian speakers outside the country who had joined isis were suspected of having radicalized him.
Russia’s interference in the U.S. election was just as shortsighted. At first, Donald Trump’s victory seemed to be a great coup for Putin. Kremlin loyalists celebrated Trump’s inauguration in Moscow, including at a live watch party with free-flowing champagne. And it conferred on Russia prestige of a sort. When I asked Victor Minin, the former Russian-government cybersecurity specialist who runs hackathons across Russia, about the effect of American media coverage of Russian hackers, he said, “It’s the brand of the year. It’s a good thing when, aside from oil, we have cutting-edge specialists and the whole world is talking about them.”
But this victory has burned out even faster than the others. The fingerprints that the Russians left behind, once discovered, raised an uproar in Washington. Congress, in a rare near-unanimous vote, stripped Trump of the ability to unilaterally lift American sanctions on Russia. They will very likely remain in place indefinitely, a prospect Medvedev bemoaned in a Facebook post the day Trump reluctantly signed the bill into law. Unable to get back the two diplomatic compounds in the U.S. that had been seized during the last days of the Obama administration, the Russians plunged headfirst into a destructive tit for tat—which resulted in the seizure of three more Russian diplomatic posts.
Ironically, one of the Russian institutions to suffer the most blowback for the Russian hack is the FSB, one of the agencies believed to be behind the 2016 interference. “Before 2016, the FSB had a good reputation in Washington,” Andrei Soldatov, the Russian journalist, told me. The head of the FSB “was considered a reliable partner in fighting terrorism.” But “it all ended in 2016, and it ended very badly.” FSB officers were put on the FBI’s most-wanted list for cybercriminals, an unprecedented retaliation. The head of the FSB’s elite cyber unit and his deputy were forced out; two other top officers from the unit ended up in Moscow’s most notorious jail. “They’re now under incredible pressure both from the inside and the outside,” Soldatov said. “Sometimes,” says Michael Hayden, a director of the National Security Agency under George W. Bush, “you have successful covert operations that you wish hadn’t succeeded.”
Meddling in the U.S. election might have destabilized the American political system, but it is unclear how carefully Putin considered the potential consequences for his country. His goal is to stay in power another day, another year, and to deal with complications when—and if—they arise.
The protests sparked by Navalny are a complication that has, for now, been dealt with. Police arrested 1,043 people on March 26 in Moscow alone. On October 7, following another, smaller round of protests, they arrested hundreds more. Navalny will not be allowed on the election ballot, according to various reports and one Kremlin insider I spoke with; a recent court finding against him following trumped-up charges of embezzlement will most likely be used to disqualify him.
These were hardly the first protests that Putin has weathered. Massive prodemocracy, anti-Putin demonstrations rocked Moscow in the winter of 2011–12—and were followed by a violent police crackdown on May 6, 2012, the day before Putin was sworn in for a third time. Dozens of people, some of them first-time protesters, were given multiyear prison sentences. The Kremlin soon raised the penalties for participating in any kind of unsanctioned protest. Several people are now in jail simply for sharing or liking posts on social media.
Olga Romanova, who founded the NGO Russia Behind Bars to provide Russians with legal assistance, told me that the lesson the government is preparing for this new batch of young protesters “will be bigger and harsher” than the one in 2012, and that “it will last years.” She said the state was threatening to separate protesting minors from their parents. The feared Investigative Committee “is calling in school principals, school psychologists, teachers for questioning,” Romanova said. “And they testify against the kids.” (This summer, under pressure from the Russian government, Romanova fled to Western Europe.)
Having declared his candidacy, Putin will almost certainly win another six-year term. Instead of Navalny, the television celebrity Ksenia Sobchak, a daughter of the man who helped launch Putin’s political career, will run against him—acting, it is commonly believed, as a Kremlin-approved steam valve for the liberal opposition. The oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, the majority owner of the Brooklyn Nets, is thought to have played this role in 2012. (Both Sobchak and Prokhorov have denied any Kremlin involvement in their campaigns.) In reality, Putin will run essentially unopposed. Other dummy candidates will likely include old men from the “loyal opposition” parties that are on the Kremlin’s payroll. Protests notwithstanding, Putin is still broadly popular, especially among older Russians, and the election, in any case, will be engineered to deliver the right result.
In 2012, when Putin ran for his third term amid protests, the Kremlin put out the message that the system had to deliver at least 50 percent of the vote to Putin to prevent an embarrassing runoff. But as that target moved down through the giant Russian bureaucracy, each layer added a little extra padding, to avoid the wrath of supervisors. The electoral machinery employed various tricks—manipulating voter rolls, stuffing ballot boxes, driving busloads of supporters around to vote at multiple precincts. All the padding added up. On election night, Putin stood on a stage with the Kremlin behind him and tears gleaming on his cheeks: The people had resisted the Western-backed protesters and delivered him a resounding win—64 percent of the vote.
But the margin of that win must now be exceeded, and given that election fraud was the issue that initially catalyzed the protests in 2011–12, the Kremlin has been trying to perform a tricky balancing act: delivering the right result while making the election look fair. On Christmas Eve 2016, at a gathering of deputy governors in Moscow, the Kremlin laid out its election strategy for 2018, which it called “70/70.” The goal was a 70 percent turnout, with 70 percent of the vote to Putin. Without overt fraud, those are very hard targets to hit.
So the Kremlin is said to be looking for the next ratings bump—“a rally-around-the-flag effect,” said Kirill Rogov, the political analyst, “like the surge in Bush’s popularity after 9/11, when, in a moment of national crisis or success, the opposition tamps down its criticism because it just won’t resonate with the population.” In most countries, this wave passes and the criticism reemerges. “But in Russia,” Rogov said, “the rally around the flag never stops.”
IV. Double Down
On April 10, 2017, an assistant to Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, which is investigating Donald Trump’s campaign for possible collusion with the Kremlin, patched in a long-planned call from Andriy Parubiy, the speaker of the Rada, the Ukrainian parliament. Parubiy said he had some potentially explosive information about Trump’s visit to Moscow for the Miss Universe pageant in 2013.
“I would just caution that our Russian friends may be listening to the conversation, so I wouldn’t share anything over the phone that you don’t want them to hear,” Schiff warned.
But Parubiy persisted. “In November 2013, Mr. Trump visited Moscow, he visited competition Miss Universe, and there he met with Russian journalist and celebrity Ksenia Sobchak,” he said in his heavily accented, awkward English. He explained that in addition to having ties to Putin, Sobchak is “also known as a person who provides girls for escort for oligarchs. And she met with Trump and she brought him one Russian girl, celebrity Olga Buzova.” Schiff soberly asked for clarification, and Parubiy answered directly: Sobchak, he said, is a “special agent of Russian secret service.”
Buzova “got compromising materials on Trump after their short relations,” Parubiy said. “There were pictures of naked Trump.”
Schiff betrayed no emotion. “And so Putin was made aware of the availability of the compromising material?” he asked.
“Yes, of course,” Parubiy said. Putin wanted it communicated to Trump that “all those compromising materials will never be released if Trump will cancel all Russian sanctions.” The biggest bombshell: He had obtained a recording of Buzova and Sobchak talking about the kompromat while the two were visiting Ukraine. He told Schiff, “We are ready to provide [those materials] to FBI.”
Parubiy had more to say. He told Schiff about meetings that Trump’s former national-security adviser, Michael Flynn, had had with a Russian pop singer who served as an intermediary for the Kremlin. They’d met at a café in Brighton Beach, a Russian-immigrant enclave in Brooklyn, where, Parubiy said, “they used a special password before their meetings.” One would say, “Weather is good on Deribasovskaya.” The right response was “It rains again on Brighton Beach.”
“All righty. Good, this is very helpful. I appreciate it,” Schiff said. He told Parubiy that the U.S. would welcome the chance to review the evidence he had described. “We will try to work with the FBI to figure out, along with your staff, how we can obtain copies.”
Schiff was right to be concerned about “our Russian friends” listening in, though not in the way he imagined. It wasn’t Parubiy who’d called. It was Vladimir Kuznetsov and Alexey Stolyarov, two Russian pranksters known as Vovan and Lexus. There was no kompromat, no meetings between Flynn and a Russian pop star in Brighton Beach. The call made the Americans look gullible, which suited the callers. Kuznetsov and Stolyarov immediately sent the recording to Kremlin-friendly media, which gleefully made hay of it: another dumb American, ready to believe the most-ludicrous stories about a Russia run by sneaky, evil spies. Any Russian listening to the tape would have instantly recognized how silly the conversation was. There were the B-list Russian celebrities, plus other cultural signals, like the code phrase Flynn allegedly used, which is actually the title of a classic Russian comedy.
“We wanted to talk to someone who specifically works on intelligence and give him a completely insane version of events,” Kuznetsov told me of the prank.
“We leaked him a bunch of disinformation,” Stolyarov said. “It was completely absurd.” (A spokesman for Schiff said, “Before agreeing to take the call, and immediately following it, the committee informed appropriate law-enforcement and security personnel of the conversation, and of our belief that it was probably bogus.”)
Kuznetsov and Stolyarov come off as the Jerky Boys of Russia, but they are more than that. We met at a Belgian pub in one of Moscow’s bedroom communities. Kuznetsov, 31, wore a white shirt flecked with black skulls, and Stolyarov, 29, a gray hoodie with Putin’s face superimposed on a map of Russia. (“I see Putin positively,” Stolyarov said. “I can’t think of anything major I’d disagree with him on,” Kuznetsov concurred.) When the duo met, in 2014, they started pranking Russian celebrities, but quickly tired of it. “It’s more interesting talking to people who decide people’s fates,” Kuznetsov said.
He and Stolyarov have repeatedly denied any connection to the Russian secret services, but they clearly have cozy ties to the government. They have had shows on several Kremlin-controlled TV channels, which requires high-level approval. When I met them, they casually mentioned that they had been at the Russian Parliament the day before, meeting with a well-known elected official. “We’re working on a project,” Stolyarov said coyly, then bragged about having hacked the Skype account of the late Russian oligarch—and Putin enemy—Boris Berezovsky “for a long time.” They had somehow obtained the cellphone numbers of foreign leaders such as Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Kuznetsov and Stolyarov have an extensive list of American victims. In February, posing as the Ukrainian prime minister, they prank-called Senator John McCain, who confessed that the Trump era was the hardest time of his long political life. “He sounded like he didn’t know what to do—like, at all,” Kuznetsov recalled. That same month, they prank-called Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who told them that new sanctions against Russia were unlikely.
The point of Kuznetsov and Stolyarov’s American work is both to uncover important information—like what will happen regarding sanctions—and to troll, distract, confuse, and ridicule people whom American voters might be inclined to respect but who are hostile to Russia. They play on what they see as American naïveté. “This would never happen in Russia,” Stolyarov said. “People wouldn’t be so trusting, especially if they are a member of parliament or a civil servant.” They’d like to prank Hollywood actors, Kuznetsov added, but they are “much harder to reach than American senators.”
If one were to design avatars of Russia’s approach to undermining the U.S.—opportunistic, oblique, clownish, and shockingly effective—it would be hard to do better than Vovan and Lexus. They and the future hackers trained by Minin are all small pieces of a shifting, multipronged covert-influence campaign against Western politicians, systems, and values—a campaign built more on the premise of trial and error than on grand strategy. The Russians have “1,000 ways to attack,” a former U.S. intelligence official told me. “They don’t need all of them to get through. Just a few are enough.”
Where the Russians have broken through, the apertures they’ve exploited seem glaring in retrospect. “I have been impressed over the last five weeks by how fragile our democracy is,” Schiff told me not long before he was prank-called, as we sat in a cafeteria booth in the basement of the Capitol. What Russia showed in the 2016 election—and what it has continued to show in the election’s aftermath—is not so much its own strength, but American vulnerability: that it doesn’t take much to turn the American system on itself. “Covert-influence operations don’t create divisions on the ground; they amplify them,” says Michael Hayden, the former NSA chief. John Sipher, the former CIA operative, agrees. “If there’s anyone to blame, it’s us,” he says. “If we accept the stoking, it’s our fault.”
As Americans are left trying to puzzle out what exactly happened in 2016, and how they fell prey to what Hayden has called “one of the most successful covert-influence campaigns in history,” the campaign continues. Putin, ever the gambler, will continue to seize opportunities as they arise, and bend them to his immediate advantage. Given what’s already been revealed—and the extent to which Congress has tied Trump’s hands on sanctions—he knows that he’ll see no immediate benefit from playing nice. Without meaningful new deterrence, he will continue lashing out as both he and his country age and decline.
Some Americans, including the current president, believe that if only we could identify where our interests align, Russia could be a good partner. But those who have dealt with Putin for decades understand that this is, at best, a fantasy. “Putin defines Russia’s interests in opposition to—and with the objective of thwarting—Western policy,” Ash Carter, Obama’s last defense secretary, told me recently. “It’s very hard to build a bridge to that motivation. It makes it ipso facto impossible” to “work cooperatively with Russia.”
Putin is not a supervillain. He is not invincible, or unstoppable. He pushes only until the moment he meets resistance. His 2014 plans to lop off the eastern third of Ukraine, for instance, broke apart against the surprisingly fierce resistance of the Ukrainian army, and Western sanctions. Obama sanctioned the Russian government for its election interference during his last days in office, closing those Russian compounds and expelling some diplomats, but it was a belated, feeble response. More-forceful options—revealing intelligence that would embarrass Putin, or introducing truly crippling new sanctions—Obama decided not to use.
The current presidential administration, meanwhile, is uninterested in punishing Russia. And the various investigations into Russian election meddling, along with the press’s attention to them, are mostly focused on what happened in 2016, rather than on what Russia will inevitably do in the 2018 and 2020 elections if it is not penalized and credibly warned off future intervention. American counterintelligence forces sit idle, waiting for a directive to do battle with the Russians that insiders suspect will never come.
Putin set out to show that there is nothing special about America, that it is just another country. Whether he is right depends in no small part on whether enough Americans—especially powerful or politically connected Americans—still believe their system is worth defending.
There is one dot on the horizon that particularly worries the Kremlin. In 2024, Putin’s next six-year presidential term will be up. The constitution limits Putin to two consecutive terms, and he will be 71 years old. “All these guys are thinking about 2024,” said the businessman high up in United Russia, Putin’s party. The parliament could change the constitution to allow Putin to serve yet another term. But that’s not ideal. Putin, who trained as a lawyer before he was a KGB agent, has insisted on maintaining a simulacrum of legality. And anyway, he, a mortal man, can serve only so many terms.
So what is Putin to do? Will he hand off his throne to a successor? There are ever fewer candidates. His circle of advisers has shrunk; now it’s made up mostly of old men who, like him, came from Leningrad or served in the KGB. In recent years, he has replaced regional governors with young loyalists and even former bodyguards—most of whom have no significant governing experience but owe everything to him. More and more, he appears to be a man without an exit strategy. As one Putin ally told me in 2013, “We don’t have this tradition of, okay, you served two terms and you leave. We have no other tradition but to hold out to the end and leave feetfirst”—that is, in a coffin.
In 2014, Vyacheslav Volodin, now the speaker of the Russian Parliament, said, “If there is Putin, there is Russia. If there is no Putin, there is no Russia.” Putin has personalized the institutions of the state—the courts, the army, the security forces, the parliament, even the opposition parties—and the economy, too. As the economic pie gets smaller, the elites are cannibalizing one another in the struggle over whatever resources remain, and can be squeezed out of the population. The people now filling Russia’s most notorious jails are elite government officials: countless bureaucrats, at least four governors, and numerous mayors. A minister is under house arrest. They are the losers in an increasingly savage fight. The winners are typically those who spin in the orbit closest to Putin’s dying star.
Ironically, Putin has laid the groundwork for exactly the kind of chaotic collapse that he has spent his political life trying to avoid, the kind of collapse that gave rise to his reign. He has made himself a hostage to a system he built with his own hands. “The lack of alternatives worries everyone, including Putin,” Andranik Migranyan said. He said that in 2012, Putin told him, “I often have to spend time on ruchnoe upravlenie”—Russian for a car’s manual transmission and a term that has come to signify micromanagement. “I would love to leave if I felt like I did enough work to make institutions work independently of the next leader.”
But of course, the longer Putin spends using the stick shift, the less likely the gears will catch on their own, without his strong hand to guide them into place. “It’s the dictator’s dilemma,” says one of Washington’s veteran Russia-watchers. “The only way to take away risk is you can’t leave. And you can’t reform, because that leads to cracks in the system that lead to your overthrow.”
Putin has been kicking the can down the road for a long time, and this has generally worked for him. He is still popular and still in good shape, as his shows of bare-chested masculinity are meant to remind us. But there is less road left every day, and one day, it will run out. Everyone in Moscow knows that day is coming, but no one knows what happens the day after. “If he suddenly leaves in 2024, we will be orphaned,” says Konstantin Malofeev, an oligarch who was sanctioned by the West for supporting pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine (which he has denied doing). He believes that Putin was chosen by God to lead Russia. The next person, he fears, won’t have the same sense of duty. “The next person,” he says, “will be worse.”
* This article has been updated from the January/February 2018 print edition to reflect that Vladimir Putin declared his candidacy for the 2018 presidential election after the issue went to press. It appears in print with the headline “Putin’s Game.”