Oh boy, oh boy! The United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has come out with a new report on ‘Russian active measures campaign and interference in the 2016 US election’, and it’s a whopper – 1,000 pages. Being a glutton for punishment, I whizzed through it last night, but unless you are truly obsessed with the topic, I don’t recommend that you follow suit.
The reason is that it is unlikely to change your mind. If you already believe in a vast Russian conspiracy to undermine American democracy, you will read the report as confirmation that you are right. And if you don’t, you’ll find nothing in it to make you think differently. I’m not going to waste your time, therefore, discussing whether I consider the report’s conclusions credible. Instead I will use the report in a different way, as a lens through which we can examine the basic assumptions which drive analyses of anything Russia-related in the United States.
When writing an intelligence analysis, it is always advisable to first list one’s assumptions, so that the reader can take these into account. Unfortunately, the Senate committee doesn’t tell us what its assumptions are, but a couple become very obvious over the course of 1,000 pages.
First, Russians don’t have individual agendas, or even very much, individual personas. They are, by and large, mere extensions of the state. We are thus repeatedly told that this or that Russian has ‘ties to Putin’, ‘links to the intelligence community’, ‘ties to the Kremlin’, and so on. Every Russian is a tool of the Russian government, and as such suspect.
Second, Russian and American interests are incompatible. Anything which might in some way influence Americans to be more pro-Russian undermines American security. ‘Influence’ theoretically can be good as well as bad. But Russian influence is purely negative.
Assumption no. 1
Let’s now give some examples to illustrate the first of these assumptions, starting with the role played by one-time campaign manager for Donald Trump, Paul Manafort, and his connections with Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska and various players in Ukraine. The report tells us that:
Deripaska introduced Manafort to pro-Russia oligarchs in Ukraine, including Rinat Akhmetov. These Ukrainian oligarchs had deep economic ties to Russia and were aligned with a pro-Russia political party which was backed by the Russian government. Over the next decade, these oligarchs paid Manafort tens of millions of dollars and formed strong ties with Manafort … Connections between Manafort’s program in Ukraine and Russia’s own influence efforts there suggest that they were effectively part of the same campaign to undermine the Ukrainian government and support pro-Russia candidates.
Note here how a) Deripaska, Akhmetov, and other Ukrainans are portrayed not as an independent actors with their own agendas but as ‘pro-Russian’ and part and parcel of ‘Russia’s own influence efforts’. In reality, it has been said that when working in Ukraine Manafort encouraged his client Viktor Yanukovich to pursue an association agreement with the European Union – in other words to pursue an agenda contrary to that of Russia. But such nuances are lacking in the report – everything and everybody is somehow connected to the mysterious body known as ‘the Kremlin’.
We see this again and again in the report. In Moscow for the Miss University pageant, Donald Trump met some more rich Russians (strictly speaking, Azeri-Russians) Aras Agalerov and his son Emin. Discussing a meeting between Donald Trump Jr and Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, the report says this:
Agalarov likely did this on behalf of individuals affiliated with the Russian government, judging from his ties with Russian officials who have pursued a repeal of the U.S. sanctions under the Magnitsky Act. … The Committee assesses that some of the same information used by Veselnitskaya at the June 9, 2016 meeting was also used in an influence operation earlier in 2016 by individuals in Moscow who have ties to Russian intelligence and to Putin. … The Committee assesses that at least two participants in the June 9, 2016 meeting, Veselnitskaya and Rinat Akhmetshin, have significant connections to the Russian government, including the Russian intelligence services.
Note how all involved are ‘affiliated with the Russian government’, ‘have ties to Russian intelligence and to Putin’, and have ‘significant connections to the Russian government’. The very fact that someone is alleged to have such connections is grounds enough for concluding that everything they do is coordinated with that government and its agencies.
Such ‘ties’, though, don’t necessarily mean very much. We are told the following, for instance, regarding Trump’s dealings with a Moscow real estate agent during his efforts to build a tower in Moscow:
A body of information suggests [Moscow Realtor Andrei] Rozov’s personal and professional network likely has at least some ties to individuals associated with Russian influence operations. For example, Rozov’s associate Stalbek Mishakov has significant ties to Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch who the Committee assesses undertakes a wide variety of Russian government influence operations.
Such ‘ties’ abound. Trump advisor Carter Page visited Moscow. The report notes that, ‘During these visits, Page met briefly with a figure about whom the Intelligence Community has counterintelligence concerns.’ The report continues:
There are indications that news of Page’s visit reached senior levels of the Kremlin. Denis Klimentov became the press secretary of the NES in the fall of 2016. Page had repeated direct contact with Klimentov starting as early as his July 2016 trip to Moscow, … Klimentov’s brother and business partner, Dmitry Klimentov, is a US-based public relations consultant consultant who is a former acting New York bureau chief for, the Russian news agency RIA Novosti. Dmitriy Klimentov maintains regular contact with Dmitry Peskov, who is the Press Secretary for the President Putin.
Similarly, the report says of gun-rights activist Maria Butina
Butina had support from, and contact with, numerous Kremlin-linked oligarchs … These individuals included Konstantin Nikolaev, a major financial backer of Butina’s gun-rights organization with reported ties to the Russian Presidential Administration and Russian security services
And then there is ‘an individual named David Geovanis [who] alleged that he had information about Trump’s relationships with women in Moscow.’ According to the committee, ‘Geovanis has ties to Kremlin-linked oligarchs, several of whom are sanctioned by the United States. Some of Geovanis’s contacts are also associated with Russia’s intelligence and security services, and some are involved in Kremlin foreign influence operations.’
And so on and so forth. You get the point. Every Russian you meet is ‘connected’ to the Kremlin or Russian intelligence in some way, however remote.
Assumption no. 2
Then there’s assumption number two – the incompatibility of Russian and American interests. Take, for instance, part of the report which details Manafort’s relationship with his associate Konstantin Kilimnik, who of course ‘is a Russian intelligence officer’. According to the report, ‘Manafort discussed with Kilimnik a peace plan for eastern Ukraine that benefited the Kremlin’.
Given that a key element of this plan involved the return to Ukraine of former president Viktor Yanukovich, I doubt that this plan originated in the Kremlin. Moscow has its own peace plan – the Minsk agreement. It seems unlikely that it needs another.
But putting that aside, what’s interesting here is how a peace plan which benefits Russia is portrayed as something threatening to US security. The idea that peace could benefit Russia and simultaneously benefit the United States seems to be beyond the committee’s grasp. The underlying assumption appears to be that what is good for Russia is bad for America.
Such an assumption makes any attempt to engage in diplomacy, either directly or via backdoors, distinctly suspect. And so we are told the following, as if it is proof of the Trump campaign’s lack of respect of American interests:
Russia took advantage of members of the Transition Team’s relative inexperience in government, opposition to Obama Administration policies, arid Trump’s desire to deepen ties with Russia to pursue unofficial channels through which Russia could conduct diplomacy.
Oh no! The Russians sought to ‘deepen ties’ and ‘conduct diplomacy’. How terrible!
This isn’t an isolated incident in the report. It reflects an underlying concern that anything done to improve relations with Russia suits Russia’s interests, and therefore by implication harms America. Thus Carter Page again comes under scrutiny in a passage which says, ‘Page also advocated for better relations with Russia, a position in concert with Moscow’s official perspective and consistent with candidate Trump’s minimalist posture that sought better relations with Moscow’. Arguing that the USA might benefit from better relations with Russia is thus condemned as ‘a position in concert with Moscow’s official position.’
Likewise, Ms Butina and her sponsor Alexander Torshin ‘engaged in a multiyear influence campaign … Their goal was to develop and use backchannel communications to influence U.S. policy outside of the formal diplomatic process to Russia’s advantage and to the detriment of the United States.’ In this passage, ‘Russia’s advantage’ is clearly contrasted with ‘the detriment of the United States’, although the committee fails to produce a single example of how Butina’s lobbying in any way worked to America’s ‘detriment’. It appears that the fact that it was in favour of Russia is alone proof enough.
‘Beginning in 2015,’ the report says, ‘Torshin and Butina developed and operationalized a plan, which she called the “Diplomacy Project,” to create channels· for informal communication between the Russian and U.S. governments,’. ‘Diplomacy’, ‘informal communication’ – one might imagine that these are normal things. Apparently not.
Putting it all together, it’s clear that a distinct mindset lies behind this report – one which regards Russians per se as suspicious; and also views Russia as innately hostile, pursuing interests which are utterly incompatible with those of the United States of America. This means that a) dealing with Russians, b) allowing them to influence you in any way, and c) seeking any sort of agreement with them, are all thoroughly undesirable.
In these circumstances, I can’t see how any major progress in Russian-American relations is possible, at least in the short term. When you can’t have dealings with Russians without coming under suspicion of being ‘influenced’ by the Kremlin or Russian intelligence; when you can’t discuss possible solutions to mutual problems because these might ‘benefit’ Russia’; and when Russian ‘influence’ is always bad influence, it strikes me that all avenues to progress are blocked.
If this report merely reflected this negative mindset it would be bad enough. Unfortunately, however, I think that its effect will be to magnify it. American-Russian relations are in the deep freeze. It looks like they will remain there for some time to come.