TIME: 24th January 2017, 18:00 – 19:00
VENUE: Henry Jackson Society,26th Floor, Millbank Tower 21-24 Millbank, London, SW1P 4QP
Sir Andrew Wood, Associate Director, Chatham House, British Ambassador to Russia, 1995-2000
David Satter, Senior Fellow, The Hudson Institute, Fellow, The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies
David Clark, Director, Russia Foundation
David Clark (Chair): This is one of those moments where the world seems to have turned on its axis. We suddenly seem to have gone from talking about a new Cold War to contemplating what we could maybe… what some people anticipate is going to be a new détente. But one that’s done almost entirely on Russia’s terms. You have an American president who has just taken office who has said that only a fool would not want to have good relations with Russia, who has said that he wants to look at sanctions and lifting sanctions as soon as possible, with appointed around him individuals to key foreign policy positions. You have a long track record of supporting Russia’s positions on a variety of issues and a track record of closeness to Vladimir Putin for a range of ideological and commercial reasons.
So what does this mean? Are we now about to see the reordering of the world around a realist transactional framework of relations between Russia and America? A sort of 19th century style Great Bargain with spheres of influence? Russia fulfilling all of the ambitions that Vladimir Putin has set for it in terms of getting a free hand in the post-Soviet space in exchange for partnering with America in a war on ISIS and other things. Or are these two aggressive, ego-driven nationalists destined to do what aggressive, ego-driven nationalists always seem to do which is fall out and squabble amongst themselves and end up as enemies? And if so what would be the issue that would be the breakpoint? Other things that occur to me as interesting points of discussion are: can Donald Trump realise his vision given that it’s one that is only shared by a tiny section of the American foreign policy making establishment? How’s he going to get Congress on board for realising his plan for a new relationship with Russia? And what is Russia’s objectives? Is Putin going to be the white knight that many of them have hoped for? Is he going to share Russia’s vision of the world and its ideological underpinnings on things like social conservatism and nationalism and hostility to rules-based international institutions and so on?
Now here to help us answer these questions and many others, we have two great speakers. We have from the United States David Satter who is a veteran going right back to the Brezhnev era when he was the Financial Times Moscow Correspondent from 1976 to 1982. He’s held a number of other senior journalist positions commenting on Soviet and then Russian affairs and has written a string of very good books on Russia the most recent of which I can highly recommend having just finished it called The Less You Know The Better You Sleep which is an excellent summary of how we got to where we are now that we’ve debunked some of the widely held myths I think that need to be debunked. And he will guide us on where Washington is at the moment. And to help us navigate the Russian end of this equation we have Sir Andrew Wood who has held a number of very senior diplomatic positions in the foreign office including latterly the UK ambassador to Russia from 1995 to 2000 and is now an Associate Fellow at Chatham House and has been a friend of the Russian Foundation for many years, taking part in our events and has always been very well worth hearing and again tonight I’m absolutely sure. OK If I could ask first of all David Satter to go, I’m going to ask our speakers to speak for about ten minutes each and then we’ll take questions and contributions from the floor. David.
David Satter: Thanks. Thanks very much. I’m very glad to be here. Actually I’m a bit intimidated by the idea that I have to explain what’s going on in Washington because I don’t understand it and I don’t think that very many people do understand it. I can begin with one incident in which I was peripherally involved at least which was when after Donald Trump was nominated and he became the Republican Party candidate for president, he made overtures to John Kasich. Kasich was, still is, the governor of Ohio and he was actually leading the public opinion polls of all the republican candidates in the national opinion polls. His problem was that the republicans didn’t vote for him. And he indicated through intermediaries officially that, were Kasich to agree to be his vice-presidential candidate, he would give Kasich full authority over domestic and foreign policy. Now whether he really intended to do that or not I don’t know but it was an interesting moment because Kasich’s position on Russia issues is diametrically opposed to the positions that were taken during the campaign by Trump and which he has unfortunately reiterated since. I know that because I was his advisor on Russian affairs. In fact I had the honour of getting ready to address the rest of his foreign policy team on the morning when he pulled out of the race after he was defeated in the Indiana primary by Trump. But what I think the lesson of it, the lesson that I drew, is that Trump does not have deeply held views. The issue of Russia is not crucial to his core constituency. The people who voted for him voted for him for economic reasons in many cases and also out of social, and in some cases personal, resentment over the way in which the country was going.
I’m from Chicago and every summer my family vacationed in Indiana on Lake Michigan. And there are a cluster of towns where the people work in the steel mills. I got to know them over the years. The positions that Trump has taken were things that I had begun hearing 15 years ago and which I didn’t take fully seriously. There isn’t a single issue that he’s raised that I didn’t hear from people in these Indiana towns. In fact those are the people who voted him into office. That population is not pro-Putin and it is not pro-Russian. It certainly is anti-free trade and anti-globalisation in the form that that’s taken. All of which leads me to believe that either Trump may not act on all his really quite worrisome positions or that, if he does so, he’ll be quick to modify and retreat it. That’s the optimistic view. I’ve argued myself- and I’ll briefly summarise the position I’ve taken because it’s had some resonance in the states- is that Russia is a completely unsuitable partner for the United States. One reason is its disregard for civilian casualties. The idea of partnering with Russia in a war against ISIS would involve the United States and other Western powers would associate us with the same type of atrocities that were committed in Chechnya beginning in 1995 with the carpet bombing in Grozny which we saw in Aleppo and to which the innocent people of Raqqa for example can be subjected in an all-out Russian partnership aimed at destroying the Islamic State with unpredictable and probably extremely long-term consequences.
The other point that I’ve tried to make in discussions with foreign policy professionals, both in the United States and in France, is that Russia has a long history of using terrorists for its own purposes and against the interests of its so-called partners in particular the United States. The most important example of this is the Boston Marathon bombing and the new information that has emerged about what the Russians knew or did not know. At a recent Brick Summit meeting in Goa, Putin said at a press conference that he instructed the head of the FSB not to cooperate with the US after supposedly US authorities did not respond to Russian overtures regarding the older of the two Tsarnaev brothers. That’s completely different from the US FBI and CIA versions of what happened. But what’s clear is they had information about Tsarnaev during his six-month sojourn in Russia that was not shared with the United States and had it been shared it might have been possible to prevent that terrorist act. Putin comes back to this time and time again a little bit like Raskolnikov returning to the scene of the crime. It’s an example of the cost of why it’s not advisable to reject Russia’s generous offers of cooperation.
And finally, of course I’ll be glad to respond to your questions, the fact is that the ultimate goals of the two countries, of Russia and the West (and the United States of course) are not only different but they’re incompatible. The animating factor in Russian policy is the desire of a small group of corrupt individuals to hold on to power and property and they’re fully aware of the crimes that they’ve committed on the road to doing so. And they will act in a manner, both internally and internationally, in a way which is in every case intended to consolidate their hold on power. The United States, for all the faults of American policy, is interested in global peace and stability and that’s absolutely not the case of Russia because the kind of regime that Russia is, the kind of regimes that it supports, are really antithetical to that stability.
Now will Trump recognise all these things? Is there sentiment in the US foreign policy “establishment”? It’s a very perplexing picture. There are people who have been appointed to high posts who are fully realistic about what is going on including the Defence Secretary and the head of the CIA (from my knowledge). Another thing that’s interesting is that a couple of friends of mine are involved in the transition team and involved in selecting people for the National Security Council, which is very important, and the State Department jobs that involve Russia. Their views are diametrically opposed to the position that’s been taken by Trump. So what he is saying is distressing. It’s unrealistic. It’s potentially dangerous. I have no feeling of certainty that he’ll follow through although he may initially and that, if he does follow through, he’ll persevere. But these are very unsettled times for the world, particularly for the United States where the election of Trump as I think everyone here knows has had an effect… the effect of greatly exacerbating internal tensions and conflicts. So I wish I could be more categorical about what’s going to happen but that’s the way it seems at this point in time… what are we a couple of days into what people are calling the ‘Trump Era’.
David Clark: Thank you very much David. Sir Andrew.
Sir Andrew Wood: Well by tradition I should contradict everything David just said. But actually I find that extraordinarily hard to do. What Trump says about everything is quite contradictory in itself. I think he just says the first thing that comes into his head. Some think it’s a tactical way to promote debate. What Trump says is often contradictory, spur of the moment, apparently not thought out and doesn’t square, as David already said, with some of the appointments he’s made or at least US interests. He starts from the position that what is required is good relations. He must get on with Russia. This is actually not a policy at all, because for two people or two nations to get on, they have to have similar views and similar aims. And it’s actually very hard for me to discern anything which America could benefit from Russia while I could see quite a lot as to where Putin, but not Russia in my view, would benefit from some of the things that Trump has said and preached. In contrast to the not abnormal beginning of a US administration which often takes 18 months to settle in, there are 3 main constants in Putin’s view.
First, as David already said, is the retention of power. This means also that there will be no economic or political reform under Putin. It follows from that that economic prosperity will not come either so there will not be great economic opportunities within Russia for US firms. This is often held up as an incentive but even in the other periods when various presidents from George Bush through to Barack Obama were trying to improve relations. There was never any real thickening up in the economic relationship excluding arguably the natural resources one. Russia is not going to change in that respect and if you believe the statements that are frequently made by the president of Russia, just look at every single statement in every year since he came to power. He always says “we’re going to reform” but nothing ever happens.
Second constant is the pursuance of a great power status. This means regional domination. This means Ukraine as its central feature. It is also an extraordinarily incoherent policy. I defy anyone to say what a great power is. Others are also perfectly entitled to resist as indeed Ukraine has done.
The third aspect which I think is permanent is not just Putin but the circle around him also and their absolute obsession, almost surreal obsession, with the United States. The demands for “respect” are essentially the demands of a gangster chieftain from subordinates. They’re not the respect which a country can earn by the cultural contribution it can make that is sought for its own people, by its devotion to a genuine institution. They are deeply…in some ways neurotic. But they’re not going to go away.
So what are Russia’s aims broadly speaking? Within the first one (the retention of power) obviously the abolition of sanctions or at the very least their lessening. That is quite probable it seems to me although Congress is much opposed. But in an administration which is finding its feet and whose president seems to think that personal relations are the be-all-and-end-all of policy, maybe. Obviously that has implications for Ukraine which in my view are dangerous. It also has implications for fuelling the belief that sanctions never worked. Sanctions have worked. Of course they have not caused Russia to retreat but they have at the very least been a deterrent to Russia from acting even more aggressively. It would be a shame if that was thrown away. But I don’t think even so they would do anything serious to greatly improve Russia’s economic prospects which remain pretty dire.
Within the second aim- that is the pursuance of great power and status- one can actually argue that it would be in Russia’s interests to have at least what I would call a period of digestion. What they’ve done in Ukraine is in broad terms to fail significantly. They have dominance over roughly 4% of the country. They supposed at the beginning genuinely that the people of Ukraine were a kind of good-minded, cheerful variety of Russians but that they would feel a deep affinity to Russia. There is an affinity to Russia among the Ukrainians but it’s not as simple as the Kremlin thought it was. Even if they could therefore get US agreement, which I hope they will not, to the idea that Crimea is part of Russia now or that somehow things can be frozen acceptably in Donbas, they would have actually succeeded in anything very much. Those are both huge economic liabilities. And the idea that the next president of the United States would do what was asked to Obama- that is to pay for the damage that Russia has done- seems to me to be ludicrous.
In more general terms it has not been said, and David mentioned some of the fears about the Baltics and kind of stretching out to New Yalta or something like that, Russia has already overreached itself. Syria too is not really a success, a long term success, for Russia in my view. I don’t see that they’ve established a secure polity from their point of view there or that things are going to be calm in, let’s say, six months’ time.
Secondly the domestic support for foreign adventures has declined. What people are now looking for in Russia is some economic progress. Some hope that the standard of living will begin to improve and, stretching a point, they also hope that somehow the government will answer to their hopes and needs. I didn’t say they’ll hold the government accountable. That’s asking for too much but there is a thing there.
Lastly I would just like to point out that the whole argument over Ukraine and other states has been framed as though it were an East-West conflict. It is not an East-West conflict. It is an effort by the people of Ukraine and Georgia and Kazakhstan, they also feel the same sort of way, to establish their independence and their right to develop in their own way. This is not something which has been engineered by the United States, let alone Germany or Great Britain. It is something sui generis so even if the United States were to say “OK you can have it” it wouldn’t get it. Russia would not get it.
Within three, that is obsession with the United States and respect, there are people who argue- as Tom Graham for example has done and people like Dugin in a rather more persuasive way if you like, that if the United States shows respect towards Russia and treats it fairly and is good, there’ll be an answering change in perceptions within Russia of the United States. I don’t believe that for a moment. We do face tactical dangers because there are elements, what I like to think along with David is a learning period for the new administration, where for example it would suit Russia if NATO became less coherent. It would suit Russia if the European Union continued to find itself immersed in troubles. But in the end you have to ask what it is that Russia could really offer the United States now or, in my view, ever.
I’ve mentioned sanctioned. We’ll no doubt talk about Ukraine and Congress’ attitude towards it. I’ve talked about Syria. If you look at other issues like China, there are people apparently in the United States who suppose that somehow they can form an alliance with Russia against China. Some hopes. Russia sees China as a reasonable sort of partner without one that would interfere in its affairs and certainly there is no record of Russia working with United States against China. And in any case I think Russian influence on Beijing is rather slim. Secondly there’s been talk, again in the states, about cooperating against terrorism. What is a terrorist? The people being slaughtered in Aleppo were terrorists for the Russians. They were civilian casualties for the United States. There’s Tehran. There are people in the United States apparently that hope that Russia will work against Tehran and make it more subject to their desires. Again the lessons so far are precisely the opposite. There is the issue eventually of possible trade wars. I don’t see that there’s actually any profit for the United States in relation to Russia in that area. So in sum I think what we have here is a mess with tactical threats and risks but not one that can possibly last on the assumption that the United States respects its own interests. “Vsyo” (That’s all in Russian).
David Clark: Thank you very much for that. OK what I’ll do now is open the meeting for questions and contributions and I’ll take those in groups of three. Broadly speaking: one there, one from the centre, and one from there. So I’ve got one from there, one there and anybody on this side want to ask a question? Not yet. Anybody else? Sir.
First Questioner: One thing I’ve noticed lately is that the hard left and the so-called ‘old right’ seem to bind to exactly the same kind of disinformation and conspiracy theories which come out of Moscow, something which I believe is broadcast from Russia Today studios. Could you comment on Russian propaganda and what the West needs to do to counter it?
David Clark: OK. Sir
Second Questioner: Thank you very much indeed for the observations you’ve made. It seems to me that what you have said is very much against the new president of the United States. 63 million people voted for him. We’ve got similar problems in Europe because they take strong objection to what the establishment have been doing over the past twenty years or so. Is there anything that either of you can see in the election for Mr. Trump which is good and which is not adverse to the interests of the world?
David Clark: One question there. I think you wanted to ask one. Did you?
Third Questioner: Thank you David. It’s really interesting to hear your comments on the Trump-Russia fact here but my question is: there was something mentioned about how American conservatives perhaps and people who voted for Trump, I believe it was you David, may not be pro-Russia. And I found in some research that there may be some indication, particularly among American evangelicals, that there could be a sense that Russia is a conservative nation with sort of our values on LGBT issues for example and so now Russia is morphing into the good guy whereas the democrats and the liberal left of both Europe and America are the bad guys. And so Russia now is kind of our ideological ally and so the Trump administration certainly has people who hold that view within it. I’d just be interested in both of your comments on that because I know you’re also aware of those people.
David Clark: Thank you very much. Just to recap the questions, for those that didn’t hear them, were: how do you counter Russian propaganda that appeals to old-left and hard-right? Is there anything positive to take from Donald Trump’s election given that 63 million Americans voted for him? And finally does Putin have an ideological base in the form of social conservatives and evangelicals and also I think the old-right comes within that category as well. David would you like to go first?
David Satter: Yes, thank you. Those three questions are very different and yet they’re actually linked. As for Russian propaganda and how to deal with it, I spent this morning at the Quai d’Orsay talking about this very subject with people in the French Foreign Ministry. The reality is that the best answer to Russian propaganda is being honest about Russia’s true history. The problem is that decades of superficiality and shallow intellectual study of Russia have left us with a view of Russia that is really at variants with what exists there.
The symbol of Russia is the bear and bears are famous for, if you don’t know anything about bears, their talent for mimicry. And Russians are also very gifted when it comes to mimicry. I mean they mimic Western institutions. I mean we have a parliament. They have a parliament. We have elections. They have elections. We have media. They have media. We have courts. They have courts. The fact that everything is controlled in Russia doesn’t prevent these fictitious institutions from creating an impression on people who are inclined toward superficiality. Now the true history of Russia in the post-Soviet period is extremely edifying if it’s understood both for Westerners and for Russians. I’ll give you one example, because we don’t have time and I don’t want to take up too much of the panel’s time, but simply the way in which Putin came to power.
Putin came to power, and there is overwhelming and incontrovertible evidence of this, as the result of a terrorist attack against his own people. I now am seeking documents under the Freedom of Information Act and have already gotten some documents, although the CIA has been very uncooperative, which make clear that the Unite States at the time fully understood how suspicious those bombings were but declined to raise the subject. Well if we’re going to continue to decline to raise the subject: terrorist attacks against their own people, assassination of political leaders, assassination journalists, poisoning of foreign nationals for example (Alexander Litvinenko by the way was a British subject) then we shouldn’t be too surprised if there’s an open field for Russian propaganda so we have only ourselves to blame.
Now as far as the Trump phenomenon is concerned, unlike a lot of people, I actually do think there are some positive aspects to it. The most positive aspect of all is that he defeated Hilary Clinton who had absolutely no business being anywhere near the presidency. But more to the point, the white working class of the United States is a group that in a democratic society also needs to be represented and needs (and deserves) a certain amount of political attention. The hope is that Trump phenomenon will result in a slight rebalancing of the issues in the United States. I mean why, for example, is it incitement when somebody is punched at a Trump rally but it’s not incitement when five police officers are assassinated, murdered, ambushed in the wake of a Black Lives Matter demonstration. We have to be a little bit more balanced on some of these issues.
Finally I think Trump is absolutely unfit to be president of the United States but, based on the conversations I’ve had over the years with people I know are his core constituent, I believe there is some good that might, might, come of this change in the United States and the readiness with which the American media has abandoned fair journalistic practices is also a sign that people need a lesson in objectivity and fair play and that they can’t always have things their own way.
Finally there’s the question of Putin as a conservative leader defending traditional values. The gay issue is of course a great distraction for people who don’t think very deeply and of course don’t have very much experience with Russia. In Russia it’s hard to be gay. It’s hard to be openly gay. It can just be hell on earth. But the issue isn’t gay rights or gay marriage. The issue is the ability of the Russians to befuddle the West because of our own superficiality. A corrupt and inhuman leader like Putin cannot be the advocate of moral values. A perfect response to that is: who is it who gave the order to open fire on a gymnasium in 2004 filled with children and parents in Beslan with flamethrowers and grenade-launchers. And who is it who gave the order not to put out the fire for three hours while parents and children were burned alive. Is there any civilised country which would have responded to a hostage situation in that way? That’s actually the reason why I chose that title The Less You Know The Better You Sleep. This is really true that the less you know the better you sleep and the more stupid you become. And there’s nothing more stupid I think than this notion that Putin (or the Russian leadership) could remotely be considered to be moral leaders. And I think that, with any luck, practice will demonstrate that that’s a bit optimistic but in any case I hope that that particular false impression won’t gain traction.
David Clark: Thank you very much. Sir Andrew don’t feel like you have to answer all three questions.
Sir Andrew Wood: Very, very briefly. Never underestimate the power of a lie. Never underestimate the appeal of someone who looks like a strong man but he isn’t. Not really. And never underestimate either the kind of burden of guilt which flies instantly towards any Western mind when they see something going wrong. So Russian propaganda- the effect that it’s all our fault because of NATO or whatever- has force. And people don’t think about very much. Well we’ll see.
David Clark: Thank you very much. Ok we started late so I think we can probably go until about quarter past seven another. That probably gives us another half an hour. We’ve got a lot of people indicating that they want to come in. All of them are men so far so if any women want to ask any questions then please indicate and I’ll call them in next round. Sir you were first.
Fourth Questioner: Thank you. Since you temptingly raise the word ‘Crimea’ perhaps I could ask you to comment. I don’t know when he actually said it but there were press reports that Trump was prepared to consider the Crimea as being a bargaining chip and might recognise it and so on. It’s certainly something which I must say that in realpolitik I don’t see it ever going back to Ukraine. So in other words nothing would change if he did say it. But it would be recognised by him. Could it be recognised by Europe if he did?
David Clark: (Points to audience member) Sir at the end. Sorry you wanted to ask a question. (To another audience member) I’ll come to you in the next round.
Fifth Questioner: I noticed neither of you made much mention of what some of the European Union countries perhaps…because you don’t wish to speak ill of the dying. But would it be fair to say that his propaganda has been extraordinarily effective? And perhaps you could add a bit more, if so, about why you did allude to perhaps laziness and intellectual shoddiness? Because I am astonished he’s getting away with so much without it being thrown back at him.
David Clark: And the gentleman right at the back there. Yes sir.
Sixth Questioner: It’s interesting to hear comments about America talking about being the human moral leader of the world. It’s a unipolar world. But he made the point that after the demise of the Soviet Union it was the biggest geopolitical disaster because there was some stability during the Cold War. Now the points that the gentlemen here made about Ukraine, about Syria…I mean, regarding the comments of Wesley Clark, General Wesley Clark, he was told by one of his former work colleagues that there were plans to invade seven countries in five years as part of the new American century. And as far as Ukraine is concerned, we’ve got this evidence there. Victoria Nuland with regards to the EU she said “Fuck the EU”. So where does America have the right to say it’s the purveyor of peace throughout the world? The evidence isn’t there for that. Maybe during the Second World War when Russia and America were allies. But how many people did the Soviet Union lose? Thirty million?
David Clark: Thank you very much for that question. I think everyone got all the questions. I don’t need to repeat them. But Sir Andrew would you like to come back first?
Sir Andrew Wood: I will start briefly. With the last one, if you seriously believe the Cold War was an example of stability you just remember Czechoslovakia, Hungary, East Germany and so on and so forth. It was not. It was a time of great danger. The invasion of Ukraine was a further criminal act and deeply destabilising for everything. As far as Crimea is concerned, I don’t agree that it is permanently lost to Ukraine. A great deal will depend on what happens in the wider world. It’s not actually a great economic advantage to Russia itself. It has military advantage. That is certainly there. But I don’t see any reason whatsoever we should say “OK have it. It’s yours. It isn’t ours any way”. And it’s been in a general way only Russian since the late 1700s. On the effectiveness of propaganda in the EU, again I think this can be easily overdrawn. Germany used to be absolutely key to a rather sympathetic understanding of Putin and Russia, key to the perception that somehow if you are nice and cooperative and you have the same sort of policies as you had under the aus politik, somehow Russia will change for the better. I don’t think that is at all a deeply held view in Germany now. If you include within the EU Poland or former countries within the Warsaw Pact, very few of them are actually subject to the view that Russia is a good place and we’d all be friends and we’d be like them. I don’t think that. It’s just not true. I was brief and, I hope, to the point.
David Clark: OK. David did you want to cover any of this?
David Satter: Yeah, I’ll try to be brief as well. I live now in Washington DC. I did live in London. I’ve lived in a lot of other places. But in any case now I live in Washington DC and I used to drive down 16th Street past the building that housed the Lithuanian embassy. And it continued to function all through the years when there was no independent Lithuania. As a child growing up in Chicago I remember every year there was the Captive Nations parade and all the nations which no longer existed or which were no longer independent paraded down State Street in Chicago which is one of the main streets. And then history changed. Suddenly the Lithuanian embassy was staffed. It became a full-fledged embassy and Lithuanian became an independent country. The annexation of Lithuania was never recognised by the world community and it’s the same with Crimea. Eventually I believe the progress of history will be such and I think it’s even foreseeable that Crimea will be returned to Ukraine but it’s important not to accept the annexation of Crimea which is destabilising the world security prematurely. It’s not viable for Russia to be the only country which arrogates to itself the right to annex pieces of its neighbours.
David Clark: Are there any women who want to ask questions? Yes. Please.
Seventh Questioner: I was wondering, given that Turkey and Russia are beginning to strengthen their times somewhat and given the importance of the US bases in Turkey, do you think that could play into any kind of arm-twisting to the United States?
David Clark: Two questions on this side.
Eight Questioner: In regards to sanctions it’s pleasing to see that there is a bipartite and congressional effort to lock in some of the existing sanctions and I hope one of the legacies of the Trump years will be the reassertion of congressional authority. But in the eventuality that it would be extended, what combination of personal sanctions, sectoral sanctions or asset freezes might be the most effective to actually influence and impact upon Russian behaviour.
Ninth Questioner: Trump is ultimately a businessman and he’s very soon going to find that Russia has very little business to offer and neither does it welcome it. I mean historically it’s never welcomed more than the shallowest of outside involvement in Russia. At that point will he just walk away and say that “this place has nothing for me”? I wonder at the point if Ukraine plays its cards right it can say… well first of all it’s also led by a billionaire businessman so they can find a common language there. Secondly it can say that it has many assets, and it does have many (it is an industrial agriculture centre), and is open for business.
David Clark: Okay the questions were: Turkey-Russia, what do we make of that relationship? What would be the most effective sanctions going forward on Russia? And will Trump the businessman lose interest in Russia for lack of obvious opportunities and willingness to partner. David perhaps you could go first this time.
David Satter: Well on the subject of Turkey, what interests me…it is true that where they have a lot of influence, the Russians have tried to put pressure on US bases. They did so in the case of Kyrgyzstan where the former President Bakiyev was pressured, at least originally, to close the US Manas airbase. And the US eventually was able to get access with the help of a lot of money. But I don’t think that’s very likely in the case of Turkey. What I find very interesting in the case of Turkish-Russian relations is that, as we know, Russian planes are testing the boundaries of various NATO countries including the UK and are buzzing American ships and planes. It was very, very risky behaviour. They were doing the same thing in the case of Turkey and a Russian plane was simply shot down. The Turks did what we are very hesitant to do. There was a question of how the Russians were going to react. Well they didn’t react at all. They are now trying to establish a partnership with Turkey which is a sign that standing up to Russian intimidation is not only possible but it’s necessary. Now as for sanctions in Ukraine, I don’t think that the policy towards Russia which has been enunciated by Trump is economically driven. Other aspects of his policy are. I think it’s more the illusion that the Russians can help us dispatch Islamic terrorism. And so I don’t think those considerations will really play much role and if you look at his statements, that’s the idee fixe that seems to be behind his attitude toward Russia. That plus the fact that they did a good job of taking advantage of his superficiality. He went to Russia for the Miss Universe contest. It’s like carrying coals to Newcastle. And I think the effect on him was really to predispose him toward Russia and Russians. Irrespective of the real nature of the situation, beauty contests are a very poor indication of what’s really going on in Russia. And he’s going to have to understand that.
David Clark: OK. Sir Andrew, the last question was about Trump and the business dimension.
Sir Andrew Wood: Well I don’t really think there’s much business to mention in reality between the United States and Russia. Secondly it’s very interesting to do a kind of psychological study of Trump. But one of the most obvious things is absorption in himself. Putin’s got some of the same characteristics. Another characteristic is his cavalier regard to truth, most recently displayed by this absurd argument about how many people turned up to the inauguration. I mean that is not the action of a wise man. It was perfectly obvious that there were fewer and any way what the hell does it matter. He isn’t just a businessman and I think one should be slightly cautious at any rate at this early stage in over-interpreting his ability to carry out transactions, make deals stick and so on. He has been successful yes but he’s also been bankrupt. We shall see.
David Clark: Thank you. We’ve got time for two more rounds of questions.
Tenth Questioner: Can you give us your opinion on what the intelligence landscape will look like with Trump and Putin. Obama obviously made his way clear towards the end of his time?
Eleventh Questioner: We haven’t spoken much on what has happened with the role of the Russians that they may or may not have played in the American elections. But going forward we have two relatively major elections in Europe this year. What role will the Russian government may or may not take in the upcoming elections?
David Clark: I can see lots of people. I will try and come to you all.
Twelfth Questioner: I wonder if I could just raise the elephant in the room. Nobody has mentioned so far the intelligence report that there was much fuss about a couple of weeks ago. I just wondered if you’d like to comment on what it was about.
David Clark: OK well I’ll leave that to the panellists to decide how to handle that. I will say that probably as much as we’re ever going to know about the background to that and certainly Sir Andrew’s tangential involvement has already been aired in public. So I don’t want him to feel like you’re being put on the spot to say anything more than has already been said because there’s certainly not much more to know any way. But if you wish to comment on that please do. The other questions were about relations between Trump and the intelligence community and about the future of world order with or without Angela Merkel and how she fits into this equation given she stands for election this year. And also the hacking of the US elections. The dirty tricks against countries that are holding elections.
Sir Andrew Wood: Shall I start briefly? The Russians will certainly interfere as best they can in the German, French and any other elections whether by subsiding or by using RT or whatever. It will certainly do that. I think what’s happened in the United States has put other countries of the West on guard against it, which is not a bad thing to be. The report itself I’ve taken the elementary precaution of not actually reading it because if I do people are going to ask me “what do you think about this?” “What do you think about?” And so on. But one of the things that gave currency to the report was actually Trump’s own reactions against some of its allegations before they were even made. For example hacking, he knew it wasn’t coming from Russia. He had to be pretty much held to the floor admit that it did. He subsequently produced the absurd proof that one of the alleged people on his team, involved in talking to hackers, could not have been in Prague because he didn’t have a stamp in his passport. Well folks Prague is in the Schengen region. It wouldn’t have a stamp would it? All it does is raise suspicions and I think the date he gave specifically, I’m told, was actually not in the report either. So there’s a kind of stupid atmosphere about it. And I don’t think there’s much doubt that he must at least have known in the general way what hacking was going on and what it was about.
On the question of his future relationship with the intelligence community, I hope that he’s learned some sort of lesson. He did say that he was so clever he didn’t need intelligence reports unless something had changed. And he may be so stupid as to believe that. But it’s not actually a particularly wise position to be in. And I suppose that he will learn from those around him to act better and not just say the first thing that comes into his head. But we’ll all be entertained in a way and learn I suppose.
David Clark: David.
David Satter: OK. This is really one of the big issues in the United States as you may know. Ostensibly we’re talking about the reliability of the intelligence services. At least, that’s what it seems to be. But in fact what we’re talking about in reality is the legitimacy of Trump’s election. If the intelligence services had come up with information that was derogatory regarding Hilary Clinton, he would have been praising them as the greatest intelligence service that was ever created. He’s simply trying to defend the legitimacy of his election and his disregard for facts and his disregard for what actually happened is such that in a situation like this he’s ready to impugn the people on whom he’s really going to depend as president. Now there’s an explanation though for this, which is that the partisan atmosphere in the United States is such that the Democratic Party and the supporters of Hilary Clinton really are anxious to create the impression that Trump was practically the Manchurian Candidate presented by Putin in order to win the election and make the United States a Russian colony.
In fact however the Russians had very little to fear from Hillary Clinton. You have to bear in mind, and I know this because I know all these people personally, that when the reset policy was initiated, in the wake of the invasion of Georgie by the way, in the wake of the murders of Alexander Litvinenko here in London and Anna Politkovskaya in Moscow, not to mention the 1999 apartment bombings which I at least have tried to call to the attention of an indifferent world, none of this prevented Hilary Clinton as Secretary of State from advocating a policy which in effect blamed the problems in US-Russia relations not on Russia but on George W. Bush. So in this partisan atmosphere everybody is disregarding the truth. Everyone is trying to twist the situation to their advantage. Trump perhaps goes further than other people because maybe he’s less disciplined or maybe he’s just not used to being held accountable for his words.
And the dossier which appeared in Washington was circulating for months. I was told about it long before it appeared in the press. Finally CNN reported that the FBI and the CIA were investigating the existence of compromising information about Trump. And that inspired Buzzfeed to publish the whole dossier which then of course everyone read. And Trump reacted to that by denouncing the intelligence services because whoever informed CNN (and this is the truth) was committing a crime by the way. That’s against the law to reveal that much detail about a supposedly secret investigation. Now was the dossier valid? Were some of the charges valid? I unlike Andrew have actually read the dossier.
Sir Andrew Wood: I had my reasons.
David Satter: No I know you did. Andrew and I go back many years. He was a political councillor in the British Embassy when I was a young, much younger, Financial Times correspondent. I read it and I can only tell you my opinion about it which is very subjective and I don’t ask anybody here to agree with me. But I thought it was a Russian provocation. The language that was used, the turns of phrase, the obvious appeal to American naiveté and prejudice and manipulation. And even the famous incident (which of course we won’t go into the details here since we have ladies present) in the Ritz Carlton Hotel seem to me to be product of KGB/FSB novelists. In fact I even have some personal experience of this because, when I was expelled from Russia, they said the real reason why I was expelled was because I had organised a brothel for underage girls. This is not true by the way…like I have to convince any of you.
Sir Andrew Wood: According to Putin they’re the best in the world.
David Satter: But I recognise the authorship and the literary touches. The fact is that Trump is a hard guy to compromise. I once had a conversation with a Russian prosecutor on the subject of kompromat. Kompromat is Russian slang for compromising information. He said to me “You know Dave, in Russia women are not kompromat. Nobody cares what you do with a woman. Even men are not kompromat these days. True kompromat in Russia has to be either children or animals.” So what are you going to do with Trump? Clearly he’s not gay. I mean he’s been around long enough for people to know that. So you’re going to have to add some colourful detail about what he does with women that’s sufficient to embarrass him. And I think that’s where the story in the Ritz Carlton came from. And I think that the real goal here: the Russians are wise enough to know that both sides are hungry for kompromat on each other. The real goal is not to elect Hillary Clinton with all her defects or Donald Trump with all his defects. The real goal is to undermine American institutions to conflict between whoever’s the president and the intelligence community and of course to demonstrate to the Russian public that “you may think that this is a real election with an outcome that’s not determined in advance but really they’re just as bad as we are”. And I think that was what was involved.
David Clark: OK we’ve got time for one final round of questions. I’ve got four people who’ve been waiting for a while to come in and if I could go to them. Sir
Thirteenth Questioner: Sir Andrew, you mentioned the role of personality. If we look at Putin and Trump’s personalities, they’re ego-maniacs. And I’ve been very worried that both this sort of personality, and they both seem to be very impulsive, you could have catastrophe on your hands. Because the last time we had that sort of person in the world is when you had Adolf Hitler who invaded countries in Europe and thought he could get away with it. I’m just wondering whether Trump or Putin could say “Ah the West. They’re weak. They’re feeble. They’re useless. I can do what I like.” Are we looking for things like nuking North Korea or something like that?
David Clark: OK. Thank you. We’ve got to keep them very, very brief because we’re close to running out of time. Sir.
Fourteenth Questioner: Thanks and thank you guys. It’s been very interesting. I want to pick up on something you said Sir Andrew about…you were referring to tactical potential problems and even a probable reducing of sanctions. What do you think would be the minimum to get both sides to a table and might it just be that, after Trump arranges that, he might just think ‘let me just focus on something much more important’ like China.
David Clark: Thank you. Sir, try and keep it as short as possible.
Fifteenth Questioner: You’ve focused a lot on the military aspects and the international relations aspects I just wanted to see what the panel thought on what the future of the Russian economy will be over the presidency, not necessarily because of Donald Trump but actually just the way the Russian economy may go in the next few years.
David Clark: OK, final question.
Sixteenth Questioner: (Largely inaudible. Pertains to the state of the Russian economy).
David Clark: Ok thank you very much for those questions. If could handle as many of them as you think you can and make any concluding remarks that you feel you want to make. Sir Andrew?
Sir Andrew Wood: First of all the personality question, I think there is a danger of total misunderstanding. It wouldn’t be necessarily aggressive and dangerous results. But they’re both people who have their own relationship with truth and the power of words to convey what they think ought to be the case but is not. So they could confuse each other a great deal. I recommend an excellent piece by Masha Gessen in the New York Review of Books on this very subject. It’s very good indeed. So nuking North Korea I doubt it but if anyone deserves it, it would probably be them.
The Russian economy is set for further process of recession rather than anything else. By the end of this year they will probably have run through their national reserve fund and will probably be going into the national welfare fund. It’s going to be very hard for Putin to do anything else much serious before the elections in 2018 and I suspect he won’t have the will or the means to do it afterwards either.
The tactical risks, I don’t think that there is a price that Russia would accept to change its policies. Yes you can have tactical reasons for easing pressures or trying to make things stick. You know there’s a sort of digestive process, as I put it, rather than pushing ahead in a thoroughly aggressive would depend partly on whether EU stuck together, whether NATO retained its sense of coherence and so on. So there’s a huge number of variables there. And I think it would be in Russia’s interests to play it slow for now. I also think they’d be absolute mugs to go much further in terms of aggression either. So I don’t believe the fall in the price of oil was designed to weaken the Russian economy. It actually had already been declining seriously since 2008 or even earlier precisely because it cannot reform itself and because it has no real way of getting beyond ranchy economy ruled by unlaw rather than predictable judicial processes. Just look at the rate of Russian investment, whether foreign or domestic, and you will see this is a country in real trouble. Have I covered everything?
David Clark: I think that’s pretty comprehensive. David?
David Satter: Well I agree with Andrew about the economy. I don’t have too much more to say. Simply the image of Putin, I would like to point out that the alpha male image of Putin is an artificial construct. This is something that is the product of a massive PR operation. Putin did not become president because he was an alpha male. He became president because he was ready to carry out any order and participate in any crime. He was the penultimate grey bureaucrat, devoid of any personal charisma and any personal appeal. He never ran in an election. He was elected because of the Second Chechen War. And the war was not even created by him. It was created for him. So something to keep in mind that this is, as a lot of personal testimony makes clear, a person with enormous personal complexes. Even his remark about Russian prostitutes or an earlier remark he made which you may recall about the Israeli president who was jailed for rape and he expressed some admiring remarks that he was still raping women at his age. And there’s plenty more like that indicates that this is a person who has very serious personal complexes and I would not push this idea of aggressive alpha male too vigorously. In fact he would be less dangerous if he were a genuinely masculine figure because rather than someone who is trying to act out a role and is placed, through no personal merit of his own, at the head of a hugely powerful country.
David Clark: Thank you very much indeed. Well it just leaves me to conclude by saying that we were never I think, at this stage, really going to be able to look into the crystal ball and see what the next four years hold in store. But we have I think at least clarified the main questions and touched upon why the answers to those may not be as straightforward as many people assume. So I think that’s pretty good going for the first week of a new administration. And I’d like you to join me in thanking the Henry Jackson Society for putting on this event and in particular to thank our two speakers for two very excellent contributions this evening. Thank you.