Updated | Not since the beginning of the Cold War has a U.S. politician been as fervently pro-Russian as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Just four years after his predecessor Mitt Romney declared Russia to be Washington’s greatest geopolitical threat, Trump has praised President Vladimir Putin as a real leader, “unlike what we have in this country.” Trump has also dismissed reports that Putin has murdered political enemies (“Our country does plenty of killing also,” he told MSNBC), suggested that he would “look into” recognizing Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula and questioned whether the United States should defend NATO allies who don’t pay their way. When Russian hackers stole a cache of emails in July from the Democratic National Committee’s servers, as security analysts have shown, Trump called on “Russia, if you’re listening,” to hack some more.
“Trump is breaking with Republican foreign doctrine and almost every Republican foreign thinker I know,” says Michael McFaul, U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014. “He is departing radically from Ronald Reagan, something never done by any Republican Party presidential candidate.”
It’s easy to see why Putin views Trump’s ascendancy as a godsend—and why he mobilized his cyberspies and media assets to his aid, according to security analysts. “Trump advocates isolationist policies and an abdication of U.S. leadership in the world. He cares little about promoting democracy and human rights,” continues McFaul. “A U.S. retreat from global affairs fits precisely with Putin’s international interests.” Putin has been relatively reserved in his public support for Trump—calling him “colorful and talented,” which in Russian comes across as faint praise—but Kremlin-sponsored propaganda outlets like Sputnik and RT (formerly Russia Today) have lavishly praised Trump, tweeted #CrookedHillary memes and supported Trump’s assertion that Barack Obama “founded ISIS,” and Russia’s world-class army of state-sponsored hackers has targeted Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party.
What’s more, it’s increasingly clear that after the DNC hack the Kremlin is relishing, even quietly flaunting, its newfound role as a meddler in U.S. politics. After years of U.S. influence over Russian affairs, especially in the chaotic 1990s, it is sweet revenge for the Kremlin to be cast once again as global puppet master. And most fundamentally, the Kremlin’s support for Trump is part of a longstanding strategy to sow disruption and discord in the West. Whether it’s by backing French ultra-nationalists, Catalan separatists or the Brexit campaign, or boosting Donald Trump’s chances by blackening the Democrats, the Kremlin believes Russia benefits every time the Western establishment is embarrassed.
Russia's brazen cyberattack on the DNC servers was “a cyber psy-op,” according to Brian Whitmore of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. “At least one of Moscow's goals is apparently to force the United States to treat it as an equal superpower,” Whitmore wrote in the influential Power Vertical blog. “Suddenly, for the first time since the Cold War, Russia occupies center stage in a U.S. election. Suddenly, there are global headlines about the threat of Russian hackers.”
The forensics of the DNC hack point to two things—first, that two well-known Russian hacker groups with connections to that country’s intelligence services were responsible for the break-in, and second, that when the material was released through WikiLeaks, the Russians made little effort to disguise their hand in the heist. A detailed report in July by the hacker-watcher collective CrowdStrike stated that one group, Fancy Bear (or APT 28), gained access to the DNC database in April. The other, Cozy Bear (or APT 29), broke in as early as June 2015. According to Alexander Klimburg, a cybersecurity expert at the Hague Center for Strategic Studies and author of the forthcoming book Dark Web, APT 28 is associated with Russia’s GRU military intelligence and APT 29 with its Federal Security Service, or FSB. “Our team considers them some of the best adversaries out of all the numerous nation-state, criminal and hacktivist/terrorist groups we encounter on a daily basis,” blogged CrowdStrike’s chief technology officer, Dmitri Alperovitch. “Their tradecraft is superb, operational security second to none.”
Last year, APT 28 hacked the State Department, the White House and the civilian email of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It was also involved in hacks of French TV and the 2014 meltdown of a German steel foundry after malware infected its systems, an attack known in cyberwar circles by the chilling clinical term “cyber-to-physical effect.” The DNC hack, then, was just one of several “very forward-leaning attempts to signal to the West Russia’s cyber capabilities,” says Klimburg. “They often don’t care about being discovered. Indicating that you are behind something is part of the operation.”
When CrowdStrike first fingered the Russians, an internet user calling himself Guccifer 2.0 claimed that he, not the Russian government, was the culprit. Guccifer attempted to signal his non-Russianness by using an ordinary French Hotmail account—the cyber equivalent of disguising yourself in a Groucho Marx false nose—but the metadata on the documents he provided were found to contain Russian signatures, including “Felix Edmundovich,” the first names of Soviet secret police founder Felix Dzerzhinsky.
Foreign intelligence agencies have been found snooping on American political campaigns before. In 2014, Chinese hackers broke into Romney’s servers, for instance. But the DNC hack has elevated such interference in politics to a frightening extent. “I just want to underscore how unprecedented this is—using espionage to influence an American presidential election crossed a new level of intervention,” says McFaul.
Don’t Bad-Mouth the Boss
What’s in Project Trump for Putin is clear. But the more puzzling question is how Trump became Putin’s man in Washington. Former CIA Director Mike Morell wrote in The New York Times that Putin “recruited Mr. Trump as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation” with flattery. But the truth is more nuanced. Trump’s pro-Putinism goes back to at least 2007, when he told CNN that the Russian strongman was doing “a great job” rebuilding Russia. Trump was pushing real estate deals in Moscow at the time and, according to one Moscow-based American businessman who negotiated with him, Trump’s admiration for Putin was rooted in “pure self-interest…. He was looking to make friends and business partners” among Russia’s politically connected elite. “Oligarchs aren't going to do business with anyone who bad-mouths the boss,” explains the real estate developer, who requested anonymity because of his ongoing Russian investments.
Trump’s affinity for the Kremlin deepened after he launched his political career in 2014. Trump has surrounded himself with advisers with deep connections to the Putin regime. Trump’s chief foreign policy adviser, Carter Page, once ran the Moscow office of Merrill Lynch and advised the Russian energy giant Gazprom (in which he still owns shares, Page said in March). Page’s company, Global Energy Capital, continues to work with Russian investments—and Sergey Yatsenko, Gazprom’s former deputy chief financial officer, works for GEC as an adviser. Since both companies have suffered grievously from the sanctions the U.S. and EU imposed against Russia over its annexation of Crimea, Page is a passionate advocate of lifting them—something Trump has said he will consider.
On July 7, Page took time off from the Trump campaign to give a speech at Moscow’s New Economic School, where he slammed America’s “often hypocritical focus on democratization” and praised Russia’s policy of “noninterference” and “respect” for its neighbors. “Page toed the [Kremlin] party line,” says one senior Moscow expatriate professional who attended Page’s talk. “He’s a believer…. It’s common among Western businesspeople in Russia to be pro-Putin. But it’s rare to hear it from someone at the top of Republican politics.”
Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, a Trump adviser and former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, is a regular guest on RT, the Kremlin’s conspiracy-theory-minded English-language propaganda channel. He has refused to say if he’s on RT’s payroll, but last year Flynn flew to Moscow to attend the station’s 10th anniversary gala, where he sat two chairs away from Putin. Michael Caputo, a public relations adviser who helped run Trump’s New York primary campaign, lived in Russia in the 1990s, and Gazprom’s media arm contracted him to improve Putin’s image in the United States. Richard Burt, a former U.S. ambassador to Germany during the 1980s who is known for his strong skepticism of the U.S.’s commitment to its NATO allies (Burt appeared in a panel discussion in April on the topic “Does America Need Allies?”), reportedly helped draft at least one Trump speech where the candidate blasted NATO’s “free rider problem,” according to Politico.
Burt is chairman of the advisory council of The National Interest, a publication of the Center for the National Interest, a strongly pro-Russian think tank based in Washington. In May 2014, the CNI hosted a roundtable discussion at which the director of the Kremlin-backed Institute for Democracy and Cooperation strongly defended Russia’s position in Ukraine. In April, Trump chose the CNI as the venue for his first major foreign policy speech, and the audience included Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak.
Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort has longstanding ties to Ukraine’s Kremlin-backed former President Viktor Yanukovych, advising on campaigning for his Party of Regions in the 2006 parliamentary elections and paving the way for Yanukovych’s ascent to prime minister and then the presidency, from which he was ousted in 2014 amid massive pro-EU protests. Ukrainian parliamentarian Serhiy Leshchenko wrote in The Guardian that he had seen “so-called ‘shadow accounting’ documents” that show “a total of $12.7m of payments made to Manafort” by the Party of the Regions, at least $2.2 million of which, according to the AP, was channeled to two prominent Washington lobbying firms in 2012. Manafort denies any wrongdoing, though the very public discussion of his Ukrainian business connections certainly played a part in his being sidelined as Trump’s campaign manager in mid-August.
During his time at the helm of the Trump campaign, Manafort played a crucial role in hauling the Republican Party’s official position away from its traditionally anti-Russian stance. According to The Washington Post, Trump campaign staffers gutted a proposed amendment to the Republican Party platform that called for the U.S. to provide “lethal defensive weapons” for Ukraine to defend itself against Russian aggression, defying a strong GOP consensus on the issue.
Trump has business ties in Russia that go back to 1987, when he and his then-wife, Ivana, visited Moscow to scope out a luxury hotel joint venture with the USSR’s state tourism agency Intourist, according to his memoir The Art of the Deal. That deal came to nothing, but Trump returned in 1996 to negotiate a high-end condominium project with U.S. tobacco giant Liggett-Ducat. Trump “talked a big game,” recalls the American real estate developer, who has direct knowledge of the negotiations. “But what was needed was not New York real estate connections but Moscow political connections…. Trump didn’t have those.” In 2005, Trump took another crack at a now-booming Russia, hoping to build a Trump Tower on the site of a former pencil factory. He partnered with Bayrock Group, a New York–based developer that had co-developed the Trump SoHo and Trump International Hotel and Tower in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to pull together financing. Bayrock’s CEO was Tevfik Arif, a Kazakhstan-born former deputy head of the Soviet Ministry of Commerce’s hotel department, who had made money running high-end tourist hotels in Turkey. The deal failed—in part because of Arif’s choice of Soviet-born Felix Sater (later Satter) to run Bayrock’s Moscow operation. Sater had served prison time for slashing a man’s face in a 1991 Manhattan brawl—“He got into trouble because he got into a barroom fight which a lot of people do,” Trump once said in a court deposition—and in 1998 was convicted for fraud over associations with White Rock Partners, a Mafia-connected New York stock brokerage. (Arif was detained in Turkey in October 2010 on suspicion of organizing sex parties for wealthy businessmen and Eastern European models aboard a $60 million yacht once used by the nation’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, according to charges filed by prosecutor Yusuf Hakki Dogan. Arif was cleared of all charges the following year.)
After the Bayrock debacle, Trump had better luck selling high-end real estate to wealthy Russians in the West. “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,” Donald Trump Jr. told a real estate conference in 2008. “We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.” Among those deals was the sale of a mansion in Palm Beach, Florida, to Russian fertilizer billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev for $95 million in 2008, according to Florida property records. In the wake of several bankruptcies, Trump found it hard to raise money in the West, so he gathered money from Russian and Kazakh investors for his Trump SoHo and three other Bayrock projects. Salvatore Lauria, a partner of Sater’s in White Rock Partners, helped gather $50 million in investments for Trump SoHo that included, according to a lawsuit against Bayrock, “unexplained infusions of cash from accounts in Kazakhstan and Russia.”
Trump’s latest set of Russian partners are the most high-rolling—Aras Agalarov and Emin Agalarov, real estate developers born in Baku, Azerbaijan, who paid Trump to organize the 2013 Miss Universe competition in Moscow. They also signed a deal to build a Trump Tower in the Russian capital, though the building has not yet got off the ground. The Agalarovs have received several contracts for state-funded construction projects, and Putin personally awarded Aras Agalarov the Order of Honor of the Russian Federation soon after the Miss Universe pageant. Trump told a National Press Club lunch in Washington in 2014 that during his trip to Moscow the previous year he had spoken “indirectly and directly” with Putin, “who could not have been nicer.” In fact, Putin never showed up at the gala, and the two have never met.
But even the Agalarovs are far from Russia’s big leagues of power and money. “It’s bizarre that people are talking about Trump’s Russian business interests, because he never made it in Russia,” says the Moscow-based American real estate developer. “He tried to become a player, but he didn’t know the right people.”
Despite Trump’s lack of significant business success in Russia, his political career has made him an important part of Putin’s wider strategy to weaken the West and court conservatives around the world into a grand anti-liberal alliance headed by Russia. In August, Moscow hosted a gathering of nationalist and separatist activists from all over Europe and the U.S.—part of an ongoing effort to encourage anti-EU and anti-NATO political groups, including Greece’s Golden Dawn, Bulgaria’s Ataka and Hungary’s Jobbik. As Vice President Joe Biden warned in a speech in Washington last year, “Putin sees such political forces as useful tools to be manipulated, to create cracks in the European body politic which he can then exploit.”
To Putin’s mind, the campaign is a way of pushing back against what he sees as meddling by Washington and Brussels in his backyard, from allegedly encouraging anti-Putin protests in Moscow in 2011 to fomenting the pro-European Maidan uprising in Kiev in 2013 that led to the ousting of President Yanukovych (and put Paul Manafort temporarily out of a job). Putin “honestly believes that the U.S. is trying to overthrow him,” says Kremlin-connected political technologist Gleb Pavlovsky, who advised Putin until 2011.
“In the eyes of Russian elites, Western aggression must be met with a response,” argues Eugene Rumer, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Russia and Eurasia Program and a former national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the U.S. National Intelligence Council. “Hacking into DNC computers…is simply payback for Western media reports about elite corruption in Russia. It helps boost the Russian narrative that money and politics go hand in hand everywhere, and that Russia is no different from the United States or other Western countries whose governments are critical of Russia.”
The Billionaire Stooge
Temperamentally, Putin and Trump don’t have much in common. Putin is a steely, shy, highly controlled career KGB man who has spent his life in disciplined institutions and got his break not through public politics but by being a perfect courtier to Boris Yeltsin. The other is a freewheeling dealmaker with a taste for the trappings of wealth, beautiful women, publicity of any sort and a deep need for the acclaim of crowds. But both are brilliant opportunist tacticians with a cynical attitude about the truth, willing to cherry-pick facts to build narratives that suit their purpose. Trump more closely resembles Russian or Ukrainian oligarchs—though he is much poorer than most of them—insofar as he has hijacked a political movement to fuel his personal ambition and boost his business interests.
The Kremlin’s support of Trump—offered in the form of backing from propaganda channels like RT and Sputnik—is electorally insignificant. Even the covert revelations of the DNC hack didn’t make much of a dent in Clinton’s ratings (though WikiLeaks founder and RT contributor Julian Assange promises devastating new findings in October). What’s truly disturbing is the cyberwar methods used by the Kremlin to disrupt the election—and the wider and more sinister political program that the Kremlin is pursuing.
“The target of the hacks wasn’t just Clinton,” Eerik-Niiles Kross, the former head of Estonian intelligence, wrote in a recent essay in Politico. “Nor is Moscow much interested in supporting Trump (willing useful idiot though he may be). What the Russians have in their sights is nothing less than the democratic fabric of American society and the integrity of the system of Western liberal values…. The political warfare of the Cold War is back—in updated form, with meaner, more modern tools, including a vast state media empire in Western languages, hackers, spies, agents, useful idiots, compatriot groups, and hordes of internet trolls.”
In other words, Trump is merely a useful stooge in the Kremlin’s grand design to encourage NATO disunity, U.S. isolationism and the breakup of Europe. In practice, all the effort of Russian-sponsored hackers, think tankers and propaganda channels is unlikely to have much real effect and on balance have probably harmed Trump’s chances of getting into the White House. But the effort is real. As Kross put it, “Russia is effectively using our democracies and our systems of rule of law against us…. America, welcome to the war.”
Correction | An earlier version of this article wrongly stated that a May 2014 roundtable at the Center for National Interest was a press conference hosted jointly with the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation.