There’s a facile narrative that has developed over the past 18 months regarding Russia’s interference operations against the United States.
It goes something like this: Russian President Vladimir Putin, still smarting from the Soviet Union’s demise, had long plotted retribution against Washington.
Putin realized in 2016 that the time had come to trip up American democracy and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton — whom he personally blamed for sending hundreds of thousands of protesters to the streets during massive protests in Russia in 2011-12 against his presidency.
With that, fake social media accounts and infiltration efforts into groups like the National Rifle Associate (NRA) cropped up. Secret meetings set into motion collusion with Donald Trump — a man long in the Kremlin’s back pocket — propelling the unlikeliest of victors to the White House.
As with many good stories, there are elements of truth to this narrative, especially as pertains to the open arms with which the Trump campaign greeted Russia’s help. But it ignores key elements, and over-hypes the notion that the Kremlin spent years plotting and planning to crater America’s democratic experiment.
Andrei Soldatov, one of Russia’s most respected investigative journalists and the author of numerous books on Putin’s Russia, detailed last year one of the turning points in Russia’s interference efforts — a revelation that, unfortunately, failed to gain much traction among American audiences. Writing in a new edition of The Red Web: The Kremlin’s Wars on The Internet, which he co-authored with Irina Borogan, Soldatov took readers through the Kremlin’s reactions to the 2016 Panama Papers revelations, which unveiled the international clients who looked to the Panamanian Mossack Fonseca firm to coordinate a series of offshore companies.
Among the revelations: Russian cellist Sergei Roldugin, a longtime friend of Putin, had amassed billions of dollars. Roldugin, of course, had no clear reason to have obtained that kind of money. But it wasn’t difficult to see why he might be worth that much; as Soldatov wrote, “[I]t appeared he had been put in charge of Putin’s private money.”
Putin certainly acted as if the revelations struck a massive blow. As Soldatov writes, the Russian president “was clearly personally affronted” and “could barely hold himself together[.]” Putin even went so far as to directly cite Wikileaks’ attack on some of the Panama Papers researchers to back up his own frustrations.
— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) April 6, 2016
A few days after the Panama Papers release, Putin summoned a high-level, highly secretive meeting with his inner circle. While we don’t know the nature of the discussion — “The transcript of the meeting was never made public,” Soldatov writes — it appears likely that that the meeting “was about a very sensitive matter, such as the need for a retaliatory response to the Panama Papers exposés.”
As Special Counsel Robert Mueller laid out last month, Russian hackers had already wormed their way into both DNC and Clinton campaign email systems — a fact of which Putin and his inner circle were well aware. Shortly thereafter, DCLeaks.com was registered — and Russia’s interference efforts kicked off in earnest.
ThinkProgress spoke with Soldatov about Putin and the Panama Papers, what we’ve overlooked in the ongoing Russian interference coverage, and what information is yet to come.
Can you take us through Putin’s reactions to the release of the Panama Papers? Was there anything that stood out to you?
To be honest, it was a very unusual reaction. The usual way the Kremlin would react to any kind of investigations is not to give any comment. The idea is that if you do not give any comments, you kill the story. And unfortunately, it’s quite effective, especially with Russian media. So they are in a position to follow up only if they’ve got some official reaction. So if there’s no government reaction, you just kill the story. And that was the case with many investigations about corruption. [But the Kremlin’s reaction] was absolutely unprecedented.
“Nobody actually believed in the idea that you can elect Trump. What they wanted to do was to show that they could make the next American president very weak.”
And the second thing that was really strange [about the reaction] is that even if you have a reaction from the government, you might get some sense from them that it’s a conspiracy, that it’s insignificant, that these journalists are just trying to prevent them from doing their very important jobs. But what we got with the Panama Papers, we got a very emotional response from Putin. Actually, his message from the beginning was that the journalists had crossed the line because it was about his personal friend, Roldugin.
One of the things your book helps lay out is the clear timeline from the Panama Papers release to the release of the emails stolen by Russian hackers — it’s a two-week turnaround from the Panama Papers release to the registration of DCLeaks.com. Can you walk us through the role the Panama Papers played in the hacking operation, or the broader interference efforts we’ve learned about? Or is this all just a big coincidence?
One thing we should understand about the Kremlin’s mentality: These people actually do believe in the idea of Russia as a besieged fortress, besieged by the West, and that makes [it so that they’re] always waiting for some new strike from the West. It’s kind of like an exchange of blows: we strike them, they strike us, it’s always like that. And that’s why you need to put [the Panama Papers] in the bigger context.
“In my view, the Panama Papers provoked the Kremlin to think that Hillary’s striking our personal friends, and now we need to strike her back, and we should do that very visibly.”
So with the hacking operation, you have something you can probably call conventional espionage. You have some activity that started probably in the summer of 2015 that was much more sophisticated, much more secret and clandestine. You might compare it to what the Chinese are doing. And then all of a sudden you have something [in the hacking operations] that is much more emotional, much more bombastic, much more visible — and this second stage started after the Panama Papers. In my view, the Panama Papers provoked the Kremlin to think that Hillary was striking his personal friends, and now he needed to strike her back, and they should do that very visibly.
So I think it was this very triggering moment — that ‘We should teach them a lesson.’ Nobody actually believed in the idea that you can elect Trump. That wasn’t in the cards, and nobody actually predicted that. What they wanted to do was, very visibly, to show that they could make the next American president very weak.
Why do you think these Panama Papers revelations played such a visceral role in Putin’s reaction? You write that he was “personally affronted” — why was that?
I think there are probably several reasons. One reason, and it’s quite obvious, is that the revelations were too personal. And it’s a kind of a role that you know if you’re a journalist in Moscow writing about the Kremlin, that if you touch Putin’s immediate family — his daughters, for instance — that’s crossing the line. If you touch his very personal friends, not just associates, that’s also crossing the line, and you can see some consequences. And that’s what happened with the Panama Papers.
And the other thing is, I think the problem was by 2016 the Kremlin was already in some sort of dead end, and it’s a very bad thing, because if you’re in a dead end, you don’t know what to do next, you have no clear plan, and that prevents you from thinking rationally. The problem is that many things we think was of as Putin’s strategy from, say, 2012 was not real strategy, but a series of tactical moves — some of them very brilliant, some of them very bad.
Turning to the most recent Mueller indictment, which detailed the hacking operations — was there anything that stood out to you? Did anything surprise you, especially on the technical side?
I think the Mueller indictment was a very big step forward. The problem for journalists was that for almost two years, we were were dealing with digital forensics, so you have a lot of code, a lot of technical information, but you do not have any names. And that was a big problem — you can’t go further. And now finally you’ve got some names. You can check them, you can do something with them. It makes the story much more real.
What strikes me is that we have these 12 people [in the indictment], but for some reasons only one agency, the GRU [Russia’s military intelligence agency], was actually identified and named. And it’s kind of strange because the picture we have in mind is that two agencies were involved, the FSB and the GRU, and of course some proxies. But for some reason this indictment focused specifically on the GRU, Russian military intelligence. And I’m eager to know why.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.