Patt Morrison Asks: Vladimir Putin biographer Masha Gessen on Russia, Trump and WikiLeaks

Russian President Vladimir Putin
(Associated Press / Getty)

Russia flies a different flag now, but its song remains the same — the tune of the Russian Federation anthem is the old Soviet Union’s, unchanged. And unchanged too is Russia’s endless strategizing against the United States.

Masha Gessen is a Russian American journalist, author of a critical biography of Vladimir Putin called “The Man Without a Face, the Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.” Nuclear arsenal aside, Russia is not the power it once was, but comments by Donald Trump and the WikiLeaks release of hacked Democratic Party documents has brought the relationship of the uneasy adversaries into sharper focus, and brought more questions to the fore.



Software analysts say Russian intelligence or Russian intelligence-related somebodies hacked Democratic emails. What’s going on?

Russia is a disruptive force on the world stage, and that’s actually what it aims to be. And I think this is where a very important distinction comes in that people tend to miss:

There is no doubt that various Russian intelligence services, and in this particular case we’re talking about two different intelligence services that apparently weren’t aware of each other while they were hacking the Democratic National Committee’s emails.

Russian intelligence services hack what they can and aim to create as much havoc, both in Western Europe and in the United States, especially around election time.

That’s quite different from saying, as some people have said, “Oh, they’re trying to throw the election to [Donald] Trump.” I don’t think that’s what’s going on.

It actually doesn’t work out chronologically either. But they are trying to cause trouble.

Would this hacking be meant to be directed at just destabilizing, just causing trouble, or is there a goal, an outcome that they might have in mind?


That’s the really important question. I don’t think there’s a goal that they have in mind. And there are several things that point in that direction. One is that Russia doesn’t usually have a goal in mind. It’s that the Putin government and Putin himself are not known for creating strategy. What they are known for is creating havoc.

The other thing is that talk of the chronology: Both of these actual hacking attacks by the two different agencies occurred in 2015, long before — one occurred earlier — long before it was even clear that Trump had a shot at the nomination. I think the goal was very much just to create trouble, which is what Russia is known for.

The other thing is, of course, that Putin hates Hillary Clinton. This is very personal for him. He has accused Hillary Clinton personally of having inspired and funded the protests in Russia in 2011, 2012. So imagining that Putin wants to do anything possible to prevent the election of Hillary Clinton, that is easy to imagine.

How much of this is Putin aware of, do you think, or perhaps even sanctioned or directed?

Russia is not a well-run country, and even though it is structured as though it was perfectly centralized, in fact it isn’t. And Putin is fairly isolated from a lot of his own government agencies.

And the fact that there are these two intelligence agencies that have carried out the two hacking attacks, the fact that they apparently, according to American experts, weren’t aware of each other, actually points away from the Kremlin and suggests this wasn’t personally ordered by Putin.


A lot of the way the Russian government works and Russian society works at a larger level has to do with trying to do their best and currying favor by producing good results. So it very much looks to me like these two intelligence agencies were trying to carry out what they thought would be liked by the Kremlin. And then, if they produced good results, that would mean being in favor with the Kremlin and getting additional funding.

That’s a lot of the way Russian politics works. One bureaucrat I interviewed once several years ago said, “We don’t carry out orders, we carry out emanations.”


Emanations, yeah — vague signals that point them in the direction in which they should be working. So I think these two agencies were carrying out emanations.

It sounds like government by Ouija board.

Exactly. And that’s the impression you get sometimes.

But we haven’t mentioned Assange, Julian Assange, who made the ultimate decision about when he was going to release the information that he got from the Russian intelligence agencies.


We don’t know that it was the Russians who decided to release this information just before the Demo convention. That actually looks like it was Assange’s decision. Assange is no great fan of Hillary Clinton, and Assange is also a destructive force, and Assange has ties to — at least functional ties to – Russian intelligence. But he’s not been a Russian agent, and he’s certainly not Putin’s personal agent.

He has been asked and has said he won’t talk about whether there’s any government’s hand behind these leaks, behind the information.

Right, but we don’t need Assange to tell us that. I mean, we have top-level American cyber experts telling us that, yes, there is a Russian government hand. But a Russian government hand doesn’t mean Putin’s hand.

Would Putin be pleased, or at least not unhappy, with what he has been hearing from the Trump campaign?

Given the choice, Putin would prefer Trump to Hillary. There are some things that Putin would certainly like about Trump, including his statement about NATO, and including the fact – and this is probably even more important – that clearly he doesn’t know what the hell is going on in Ukraine, as it shows in the responses he was giving in an interview over the weekend when he made it clear that he had no idea that Russia has actually been waging war on Ukrainian territory for over two years.

That’s nice for Putin. He would much prefer to deal with an ignorant buffoon as an American president than he would with a master strategist and a policy wonk and a hawk like Hillary Clinton.


I remember reading that when John F. Kennedy was elected, Khrushchev was thinking, “Here’s a boy, here’s a pushover.” And certainly Kennedy did not fare well in some of the talks, the initial talks, in his administration with the Soviet Union. The Berlin Wall went up nonetheless. But then there was the Cuban missile crisis. Does the Kremlin, then and now, assess these things strategically, the leadership of the United States, and the mood and the political direction of the United States?

That is a really great question and it really goes to the heart of this. We try to make sense of of the way the Kremlin acts by imagining that it functions very much like the American government, which isn’t perfect but which has a bit of a longer-term view. It’s not true at the Kremlin. I think what you’re getting at, and this is very accurate, is that the benefit of having somebody who’s ignorant and doesn’t have a set anti-Putin opinion becomes American president, that benefit is very short-lived. I can’t imagine a Trump-Putin friendship that lasts more than a few months.

In fact, I think that’s the real danger, or one of the really huge dangers, of seeing Trump become, God forbid, president of the United States, that it will not be a long-lasting friendship, and we will be on the brink of nuclear war because we will have two unpredictable, irresponsible non-strategic leaders in charge of our the world’s nuclear arsenals on both sides.

Should we wait for the other shoe to drop, that there will be emails forthcoming from the Republicans or the Trump campaign?

That’s a good question. I don’t know. I think there are a lot of variables at play. I don’t have information about hacked Republican emails.

There’s also the variable of the intermediary. We haven’t seen Russians actually release any of these emails directly. So would someone like Julian Assange, again, be interested in releasing those emails if that happens? Or Anonymous? Or some other agent of information dumping? Will they have an interest in it?


And finally, how disruptive would really seeing Republican National Committee emails be? It’s hard to predict these things, but I don’t see that at this point it would have much disruptive value. What are we likely to find out – that Republicans were terrified of seeing Trump become the candidate? We know that. That’s not going to pack any sort of punch.

If, on a broader level, you’re asking, should we expect more disruption from Russia during this election, then yes, by all means, we should expect more disruption from Russia.

If, to the satisfaction of the U.S. government, it were found that the Russian government was indeed behind these hacks and these leaks, is there any risk to Russia? What possible retaliation could be constructed?

Russia is like the playboy hooligan, which is one of Russians’ favorite words for disrupting social order. It’s not afraid of reprimand, it’s not afraid of becoming a pariah on the world stage — it already is.

What would the United States do back to Russia? Hack its emails and find out that they don’t really talk about anything, and there’s no policy discussion in that country whatsoever, which is what we would likely find out?

I think the Western world is largely helpless in the face of people who seek to do nothing but create havoc and disrupt things, and that is an accurate description of both Putin and Trump.


I was thinking that even 25 or 30 years ago, the very idea that the then-Soviet Union would have hacked into and tried to perhaps disrupt a presidential campaign would have this country, the United States, in an uproar, and it doesn’t seem to have happened. Do you have any sense of why that’s the case?

Part of it is we don’t actually feel like the United States is in a Cold War, in a confrontation with Russia. I think that Russia is perceived accurately as a huge nuisance, which I know is a little oxymoronic, but I think it’s accurate in this case, except for, of course, that it’s got nukes.

But unlike 30 years ago, we’re not obsessed with nukes. Somehow we think that it’s unthinkable that nuclear weapons would be used, which I think is shortsighted and inaccurate. So we think that’s the worst they can do is hack some emails.

I think another thing is — and I think that has to do just with the United States — is a general distaste for the American political establishment, which is very different from the way Americans felt 25 or 30 years ago when they owned their establishment. I think at this point, they’re alienated from it. And the fact that somebody hacked into the establishment, which is how it’s perceived, that doesn’t cause outrage.

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