Another Reason to Avoid Rushing on Russia’s Election Role
(Bloomberg View) -- In January, the U.S. intelligence community accused the Kremlin of aiding Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and refused to reveal the evidence that led to the claim -- citing, understandably, the need to protect sources and methods.
In the coming months, the numerous investigations into the affair could shed more light -- they might even produce smoking guns, resignations and indictments. But details are spilling out, and they are not bolstering the intelligence community’s conclusion. Indeed, the most recent revelation suggests they don't understand who has influence in Moscow.
On Wednesday evening, Reuters published an exclusive based on interviews with "three current and four former U.S. officials." These unnamed sources described "two confidential documents" from a Moscow think tank, the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISS), as "providing the framework and rationale for what U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded was an intensive effort by Russia to interfere with the Nov. 8 election."
The first document, circulated in June, proposed a major propaganda campaign in the U.S. to promote a more Russia-friendly candidate than Barack Obama. The second one, from October, warned that Hillary Clinton was about to win the election and called for replacing pro-Trump propaganda with suggestions of voter fraud to undermine the U.S. electoral system's legitimacy.
Describing the documents as “central to the Obama administration’s conclusion” in January, the officials seem to identify the RISS as the architect of what many consider one of the most successful influence campaigns in history. But that seriously overestimates the power wielded by a group that was out of favor following some serious missteps.
RISS is not your run-of-the-mill think tank. Until 2009, it was part of the SVR, Russia's foreign intelligence service. Since that year, it's been a nominally independent structure whose directors have been named by President Vladimir V. Putin himself. At the time of the U.S. election, RISS was run by Leonid Reshetnikov, a superannuated general who had served as head of the SVR's analytical center and Balkans specialist.
Reshetnikov is a Russian nationalist, close to the milieu that provided the volunteers who helped set off, and initially run, the pro-Russian rebellion in eastern Ukraine. Ultimately, he was blamed for failing to predict the Ukrainian revolution of 2014.
Though Reshetnikov kept his job, a number of other analysts were fired. One of them, Alexander Sytin, poured out his grievances in a 2015 article. "Signals started coming in from the Kremlin that it wasn't prepared to get into a full-scale war with Ukraine," Sytin wrote. "The culpability of the institute's experts in adopting or supporting decisions that led Russia into a serious economic and international crisis became obvious." The Kremlin installed a consummate political professional, Vladislav Surkov, as eastern Ukraine’s ultimate overseer.
Reshetnikov’s track record alone makes it unlikely that the Kremlin would listen to RISS -- or, at any rate, to RISS alone -- in a matter as important as a campaign of interference in the U.S. election. And there was nothing confidential about Reshetnikov’s recommendation to “intensify its messaging about voter fraud” that needed to be uncovered by U.S. intelligence. On November 8 -- less than a week after Putin removed him as head of RISS -- he said something similar to the nationalist website Tsargrad TV:
Clinton has all the levers. The financial levers and those of the intelligence services. So we have to guess whether [Trump] will win as he should or there will be falsification. Most likely, there will be desperate falsification. They will drag the grandma in.
The general added that the U.S. electoral system had always been rigged to make sure "Trumps don't get through." The lines were perfectly synchronized with Kremlin propaganda: On October 30, much of state TV's main news show, Vesti Nedeli, hosted by Dmitry Kiselyov, was devoted to the ease of falsifying U.S. election results.
Was the Kremlin directing the propaganda on Reshetnikov's advice -- or was Reshetnikov following the Kremlin? I suspect it's the latter, especially considering the RISS’s chilly assessment of Trump after he was elected.
On November 21, the institute's Igor Pshenichnikov penned a column for the state-owned RIA Novosti agency predicting Trump would probably act like a "normal" Republican president, one that would presumably clash with Russia as others have:
It's impossible to rule out that, once he comes into his own at the White House, Trump will make two or three ritual bows to his backers from the American heartland and then take a more balanced stand from the point of view of the American establishment.
That wasn't a popular view at the time even in the U.S., and Russian state propaganda was jubilant about Trump's victory and full of praise for his warm approach to Putin. Why would the RISS design a plan to elect Trump only to warn against him afterwards?
If indeed U.S. intelligence is basing its understanding of Russia's role in last year's election on RISS documents, it should reconsider. Under Reshetnikov, the institute became allied with far right forces in Moscow who have little influence over Kremlin policy. Putin might agree with them on some points, and he might use them unofficially to advance certain political goals, but they are far from the only voice he hears. Indeed, after their miscalculations in Ukraine, Putin seemed to distance himself from them.
RISS is now run by a man cut from a different cloth -- Mikhail Fradkov, the former prime minister and SVR chief who is more worldly and whose background is in foreign trade rather than the military. Putin has kept him in important jobs throughout his rule, and Fradkov may actually turn RISS into more of a Kremlin brain trust. But last year's "confidential documents" from the institute can only be a footnote to the as yet untold story of what the Kremlin actually did and didn't do in the U.S.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
To contact the author of this story: Leonid Bershidsky at email@example.com.
For more columns from Bloomberg View, visit http://www.bloomberg.com/view.