Sergei Ivanov (L), Vladimir Putin (C), Anton Vaino (R)
By Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Today an interview has been published in the Financial Times with Sergei Ivanov, President Vladimir Putin's former chief of staff for the last five years who was recently dismissed from this post and made "presidential special representative for transport and environment." If that sounded like he was being demoted and being literally let out to pasture, now we know that's not true -- but we knew it when we saw that he remained a permanent member of the Russian Security Council.
“We are always ready for Realpolitik,” Sergei Ivanov, a member of Mr Putin’s security council, told the FT. In his first interview to international media since stepping down as presidential chief of staff in August, Mr Ivanov said the Russian leadership had been “insulted” by anti-Russian rhetoric during the US election, but counted on American pragmatism to prevail.
“We are prepared for that. We just have to wait until the end of the election campaign. We have to wait a couple more weeks, we just have to be patient.”
So the purpose of this interview is for the Kremlin, through a supposedly "less hawkish" figure, to convey three points:
- The US has merely ratcheted up the rhetoric due to its own election campaign and this will all be over in a few weeks and Russia can then do Realpolitik sort of business with the US.
- Russia doesn't want Trump to be president.
- Russia didn't hack the DNC or anything else in the US to try to influence its election.
But none of these claims are true, all of them are designed to snow pundits and publics alike, and instead of nodding at them like a bunch of bobble-heads, people should be debunking these claims -- simply by recalling yesterday's newspaper, and the papers in the day before that.
One useful exercise is to see how RBC, a seasoned critic of the Kremlin, even with its wings clipped, covers this same story. Their emphasis is different, and headline is accordingly different. The FT says "Putin Aide Signals Thaw in Russia’s Ties with Next US President" whereas RBC says "Sergei Ivanov, Security Council Permanent Member, Calls Cold War 'A Fact of Life". Why does that matter? Because Ivanov's interview isn't any signalling of any thaw, but merely subterfuge, and what matters is a flat admission that there is now a Cold War. For months -- years -- the US has been saying there "isn't" a Cold War and you will find Russian figures saying the same. But that's not true. There is, and we need to plan and execute deterrence accordingly.
The first point about "ratcheting up rhetoric" is designed to make it seem as if Russia is happy to let bygones be bygones and dismiss anything said up until now -- "to do business" -- but as RBC points out, Russia feels "insulted" by this rhetoric of the US campaign, like some teen-ager with machismo who is now going to pop you one. Insulted, as if we're supposed to now...apologize. But wait. Insulted? It's not an "insult" to point out that Russia has bombed a hospital in Syria, or invaded Ukraine and killed people; this is the truth. It's not a "smear" of a nation or a people; it's calling out specific bad behavior of a leadership. It's not as if the US "makes up stuff" when it points out these facts or says some "mean thing:; it's condemning actual bad behavior. That's important to remember when the Kremlin bristles with all this umbrage -- it's fake. Perhaps they've talked themselves into thinking it's merely mean-spirited rhetoric and not actuality, but no that doesn't make it any less true.
What is this "campaign rhetoric" of which Ivanov speaks? He means Hillary Clinton's criticism of Russia -- which isn't all that strenuous, when it comes down to it, it's just not craven as Trump is. That's all. Her criticism -- even John Kerry's calling out of possible Russian war crimes -- is fact-based and real, not "rhetoric" for some "political advantage". The Kremlin can't be allowed to get away with this game that this is just "talk".
People might argue endlessly about what is "mere talk" and what is actuality, but let's look at the other two factual statements that are "verifiable" or "non-verifiable" as the logical positivists might say:
2. "Russia doesn't want Trump to be president". Nonsense. Russia just spent months and months doing everything possible to help Trump be president, by having Putin say positive things about him (and remember, he didn't say Trump was "flamboyant" or "colourful" when he called him yarkiy, misleadingly translated as "bright" (although technically not incorrect); he called him "vivid" and added that he was talented. That is not a slur or a depiction of Trump as a clown, but actually comes from a place of Soviet-style admiration that only a former KGB can have for men they believe to be big entrepreneurs, larger than life -- oligarchs, in a word. Trump is the kind of oligarch that Putin has for his friends. Through its propaganda media at home and abroad, Russia has pumped for Trump and dumped on Hillary -- and not only by having Zhirinovsky say on both CBS and Ren-TV that she supposedly suffers from Parkinson (she does not). There are a thousand ways Russia has pushed for Trump -- most importantly by hacking the DNC and other institutions -- and to come now at the 11th hour and claim the opposite is just a bald-faced lie of the sort the Kremlin is good at telling -- because Westerners aren't always prepared to deal with leaders who lie in their face so blatantly (although they're getting more experience with Trump, perhaps). (This article being RT'd around lately [from July] seems like tabloid fare, until you read the three links that it is summarizing very starkly, all of which report Trump operatives in the tank with Putin and promoting the Kremlin line, and Trump's own dubious business deals related to Russia. This lets you know why it doesn't matter whether Trump read Sputnik cue cards or an alt-right tweet; it's all part of the same resonating tuning fork).
3. "Russia didn't hack the US and America has presented no evidence." Nonsense, through and through. Very serious pronouncements have been made by top US law-enforcement and leadership of the sort that is never made about a rival state to avoid unnecessary exacerbation. And evidence has indeed been supplied with the run-down on Fancy Bear and Cosy Bear and such (a good summary of all this is in Esquire); Leonid Volkov, the opposition activist who was skeptical about the alleged state nature of this Russia hack has now turned around and said he was wrong -- he's now said it is indeed Russian state hackers behind the hacks of the DNC and others -- and the chief way he knows is because the list of the enemies exposed -- including his own party. Basically his point is that there are very few -- none, really -- script kiddies or zero-day zeroes who are going to bother to have Parnas (his party) as an enemy such as to hack it. That's something only the FSB is going to bother with. And already has bothered with, including by hacking Leonid's phone during the Russian election campaign. (Good clue that: watch to see the people who were hacked and harassed and harried during the Russian election campaign, then note that the same list of enemies shows up related to the American hack.) Volkov's post is very important, because one of the ways in which this point about Russia's culpability has been dismissed and distracted from is by claiming that Russian dissidents, too, think the claim is fake.
So no one should be bobbing their heads here. These are lies, and should be exposed.
For some odd reason, FT notes that Ivanov is seen as "less hawkish" than others. Really? By whom? How? Ivanov, if anything, has been seen as even more hardline than Putin and was rumored as the possible coup-meister (or one among a group of siloviki) who was going to take over when Putin disappeared -- and he himself disappeared for a time last year. There is nothing in the resume of a former KGB officer, former top Kremlin official and current PERMANENT security council member (RBC repeats that feature of his profile several times) that suggests "dove" or even "less hawkish".
One thing people have to understand is how much Russians love Nature -- and how much Putin loves Nature and loves to place himself in its setting. Far from being a demotion, this job is a way to have Ivanov continue to do something useful and needed (Russia's terrible roads are a huge problem, too) while remaining right there in the tent.
This is a very telling line from that FT interview:
Mr Ivanov has just swapped offices with his successor and former deputy Anton Vaino and now works just a few steps away from Mr Putin’s other deputy chiefs of staff.
This means Ivanov took the literal office room occupied by the former chief of protocol, and the current chief of protocol was put in another office, so that Ivanov is right alongside the other deputy chiefs of staff -- not in some other building far away where you would think someone with the mere title of "presidential representative of X" would sit. One rumor is that Ivanov was not in good health or at least psychologically affected, after the death of his son in a car accident, and unwilling to take on the administrative burdens of the Kremlin. Now Vaino, with his belief in the Noosphere, is assuming those burdens as more of an administrator, with lesser stature than Ivanov himself had, and Ivanov if anything is freer to play politics: hence this FT interview worthy of Surkov.
Ivanov of course always remained in the Security Council so he was never going to be just checking the status of Amur tigers in Primorye, but at the center of things.
So what does this interview mean? Nothing has changed, there is nobody different in the Kremlin, nothing about a country that is among America's major threats -- as the Defense Secretary explained -- has changed, but if anything, the US has to double down -- as he also explained -- and deter Russia's aggression.
That's not achieved by buying the latest line about "not hacking" or "not wanting Trump" or being "less of a hawk" but by dismissing this as rhetoric and watching on the ground what Russia actually does -- in the North Caucasus at home, to the opposition and critics at home, in Ukraine, and in Syria. And there aggression continues apace and is likely to for some time.