James Bond is sent to arrange the defection of Soviet consulate clerk Tatiana Romanova in Turkey, where SPECTRE plans to avenge Bond’s killing of Dr. No… in the first movie. This was the second one – Bond in Istanbul not Jamaica – and none of it made much sense. There were gypsies. But it was great fun. Lotte Lenya played Rosa Klebb, a former Russian SMERSH colonel-turned-SPECTRE operative, and she was absurdly nasty and comically sadistic. She’d been famous for her performances of the songs of her first husband, Kurt Weill, but this wasn’t that. This was 1963. Everyone understood the situation. The Russians were the enemy. Bond was in Istanbul to snag an amazing new Russian encryption device so that the good guys, the Brits and the Americans, would always know what they were up to. SPECTRE and everyone else wanted it too, except those gypsies – but Bond saved the day. And he got the girl, the beautiful Tatiana Romanova. She’d be Russian no longer.
That was a simpler time. The Russians were the Soviets back then, before the Soviet Union collapsed and they became just Russians again. But nothing really changed. Vladimir Putin wants to rebuild what was once the Soviet empire. He says so. He grabbed Crimea and may still grab Ukraine. And he wants to mess up the smug United States. We’re fools. He’s not. He knows how to run a country. We don’t. Democracy is a joke. A strong leader can fix everything. Only he can make things right.
Donald Trump used to say that. Only he could save America. He got it. He became the first United States president to openly admire Putin’s authoritarian view of governance. Putin got it right. Kim in North Korea got it right too. Erdoğan is no Ataturk. Erdoğan got it right in Turkey – screw the rules and do what you want. Putin smiled.
William Saletan knows why Putin smiled:
Donald Trump was a tool in a long-running Russian campaign to weaken the United States. That’s been documented in Republican-led investigative reports, and now it has been updated with new evidence, thanks to the U.S. Intelligence Community’s assessment of the 2020 election.
The report, drafted by the CIA, the FBI, and several other agencies, was released in unclassified form on Tuesday, but it was presented in classified form on Jan. 7. In other words, it was compiled, written, and edited during Trump’s administration.
It destroys his lies about the election, and it exposes him as a Russian asset.
They all knew about their boss, and now that he’s gone, they can specify his specific bullshit:
The report debunks conspiracy theories, promoted by Trump and his lawyers, that hackers in other countries robbed him of victory. “We have no indications that any foreign actor attempted to interfere in the 2020 US elections by altering any technical aspect of the voting process,” including “ballot casting, vote tabulation, or reporting results,” says the document.
A separate analysis released by the Department of Justice reaches the same conclusion. The IC [Intelligence Community] report adds that evidence of such operations, if they existed, would have shown up in U.S. surveillance or in “post-election audits of electronic results and paper backups.”
The report implicitly mocks insinuations from Trump’s lawyers that former Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez, who died in 2013, somehow rigged Trump’s defeat. “We have no information,” it notes drily, that “current or former Venezuelan regimes were involved in attempts to compromise US election infrastructure.”
And forget China:
During the campaign, Trump, his national security appointees, and his allies in Congress insisted that China was meddling in the election to help Joe Biden. They even claimed that China’s interference was more dangerous than Russia’s. The report shreds that fiction. China “did not deploy influence efforts intended to change the outcome of the US Presidential election,” says the assessment. It finds no attempt by China to “provide funding to any candidates or parties,” and it challenges the Republican spin that China feared Trump because he was too tough. It argues, to the contrary, that Beijing saw Trump as a weaker adversary because he “would alienate US partners,” whereas Biden “would pose a greater challenge over the long run because he would be more successful in mobilizing a global alliance against China.”
That’s what Biden is doing at the moment – China was right – and Russia was nasty:
As to Russia, the report leaves no doubt: In 2020, as in 2016, “President Putin authorized, and a range of Russian government organizations conducted, influence operations” to help Trump and hurt his Democratic opponent. For example, “Shortly after the 2018 midterm elections, Russian intelligence cyber actors attempted to hack organizations primarily affiliated with the Democratic Party.” Then, in late 2019, Russia’s military intelligence service, the GRU, “conducted a phishing campaign against subsidiaries of Burisma holdings, likely in an attempt to gather information related to President Biden’s family.” Throughout the 2020 election, agents “connected to the Russian Federal Security Service,” FSB, planted negative stories about Biden. Internet operatives working for the Kremlin, including the troll farm that had boosted Trump in 2016, continued to promote “Trump and his commentary, including repeating his political messaging.”
All of that has been documented again and again, and now there’s this:
Attacks on Biden and his son, Hunter, were part of this operation. Through “US officials and prominent US individuals, some of whom were close to former President Trump and his administration,” the report says Russia’s intelligence services “repeatedly spread unsubstantiated or misleading claims about President Biden and his family’s alleged wrongdoing related to Ukraine.” In this way, Trump’s circle “laundered” the Russian-planted stories, which were then recirculated – and promoted by Russia’s online proxies – as American news.
But wait, there’s more:
One section of the report zeroes in on two Russian agents, Andriy Derkach and Konstantin Kilimnik, along with their associates. It says they met with and passed materials to people linked to the Trump administration to advocate for government investigations. Derkach peddled audio recordings that were edited to make Biden look corrupt, and he “worked to initiate legal proceedings in Ukraine and the US related to these allegations.”
The report doesn’t name the Americans who collaborated with the Russian agents, but it’s easy to identify them from news reports. Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, met with Derkach twice. Donald Trump Jr. promoted Derkach’s tapes. Trump’s 2016 campaign manager, Paul Manafort, gave Kilimnik inside information on the campaign. Trump, in a 2019 phone call, pressed Ukraine’s president to open an investigation of Biden, as Derkach proposed. And congressional Republicans, led by Reps. Jim Jordan and Devin Nunes, parroted a Russian-planted narrative “to falsely blame Ukraine for interfering in the 2016 US presidential election.”
But the most important effort was this:
Trump helped Putin discredit American democracy. That was a major goal of Russia’s 2016 and 2020 operations, the report explains: “Throughout the election, Russia’s online influence actors sought to amplify mistrust in the electoral process by denigrating mail-in ballots, highlighting alleged irregularities, and accusing the Democratic Party of voter fraud.”
Trump peddled the same fears. After the election, as “Russian online influence actors continued to promote narratives questioning the election results,” Trump duplicated that message. Russia’s agents also hyped “allegations of social media censorship,” as Trump did.
Putin had his man:
The IC assessment doesn’t address what Trump knew about the Russian influence campaign. But according to former officials who spoke last fall to the Washington Post and the New York Times, he was directly warned. In a December 2019 conversation, then–national security adviser Robert O’Brien told Trump that Giuliani had been “worked by Russian assets in Ukraine.” Trump shrugged and went on promoting the allegations Giuliani was feeding him.
That makes Trump more than a Russian asset. It makes him, in technical terms, an agent of a foreign power.
But all of that is over now. Trump is gone. Giuliani has disappeared. But not everyone has gone. Steve Benen notes this:
It’s obviously not great that Donald Trump’s personal lawyer partnered with a Russian agent, directed by Putin, on an anti-Biden scheme while the Kremlin was working on helping keep the then-Republican president in power.
But Rudy Giuliani wasn’t necessarily Andriy Derkach’s only point of contact. It was last year, for example, when we learned that Derkach claimed he fed information to Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who was searching for anti-Biden dirt ahead of last fall’s elections.
Asked last summer whether he’d possibly relied on information from pro-Kremlin Ukrainians, the Wisconsin Republican appeared reluctant to answer, saying only that he and the Senate committee he led “are getting information from a variety of sources.”
A month earlier, at a House Intelligence Committee meeting, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) pressed Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) – the panel’s top GOP member – on whether the Republican had received anti-Biden information from Derkach.
According to a transcript from the closed-door discussion, Nunes didn’t want to answer.
The intelligence community’s assessment raises some difficult questions for Trump and Giuliani, but they’re not the only ones in an awkward position.
There are others. Putin used them all and they will have to answer for that, but none of that matters now. Putin finally met his match:
President Vladimir V. Putin dryly wished President Biden “good health” on Thursday after the American leader assented to a description of his Russian counterpart as a “killer,” and long-running tensions morphed into a furious exchange of trans-Atlantic taunts.
The previous evening, Russia took the rare step of recalling its ambassador to Washington after Mr. Biden’s comments in a television interview, warning of the possibility of an “irreversible deterioration of relations.” On Thursday, seated in a gilded chair on the seventh anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Mr. Putin all but called Mr. Biden a killer himself.
“When I was a child when we argued in the courtyard, we said the following: ‘If you call someone names, that’s really your name,’” Mr. Putin said, quoting a Russian schoolyard rhyme.
That was a lame comeback to Biden calling him out:
Despite Mr. Biden’s long-running criticism of Mr. Putin, some Russian analysts had voiced hope that the Kremlin could forge a productive working relationship with the new administration in Washington on areas of common interest. But Mr. Biden’s combative stance in an interview with ABC News that was broadcast on Wednesday seemed to puncture those hopes, even as many of Mr. Putin’s critics praised the American president’s comments.
In the interview, when asked whether he thought Mr. Putin was a “killer,” Mr. Biden responded: “Mmm hmm, I do.” He further pledged that Mr. Putin is “going to pay” for Russian interference in the 2020 election, which was detailed in an American intelligence report this week.
The message was clear. He’s not Trump, Vlad, the free ride is over:
Earlier this month, the Biden administration announced sanctions against Russian officials after declassifying an intelligence finding that Russia’s domestic intelligence agency had orchestrated the poisoning of the opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny.
At the White House on Thursday, Jen Psaki, the press secretary, shrugged off the recall of the Russian ambassador, noting that the American ambassador to Moscow, John J. Sullivan, was still in place.
Asked if Mr. Biden regretted his somewhat undiplomatic characterization of Mr. Putin, she said, “Nope. The president gave a direct answer to a direct question.”
Yes, but Putin was fine with that:
To the Kremlin, Mr. Biden’s interview offered a fresh opportunity to highlight its confrontation with the West for its home audience – a useful tool at a time of broadening domestic discontent over a stagnant economy and official corruption.
Mr. Putin has painted Mr. Navalny and other Kremlin critics as Western agents on a mission to destroy Russia…
On state television, news programs devoted extensive airtime to describing Mr. Biden as confused and out of touch, while politicians lined up to voice their anger and threaten a response.
Pyotr O. Tolstoy, the deputy chairman of the lower house of Parliament, thundered that “the only language” that Americans understand “is, unfortunately, the language of force.” Another senior lawmaker, Andrei A. Turchak, described Mr. Biden’s utterance as “a challenge to our entire nation.”
“Conservative American journalists already suspected that Biden has dementia during the campaign,” a reporter intoned in prime time on the state-run Channel 1. “Over time, these suspicions have only intensified.”
Mr. Putin, in his comments on Thursday, picked up on the notion being pushed by the Kremlin’s news media that Mr. Biden was somehow unwell.
“I would tell him: Be healthy,” Mr. Putin said, in response to a question about Mr. Biden’s comments posed by a woman in Crimea in a televised video conference on Thursday. “I wish him good health. I say this without irony, without joking.”
He might have smiled when he said that. Everyone knew what he really meant. But he knew he lost:
On Thursday evening, Mr. Putin appeared to try to tamp down tensions, and said he would direct officials to set up a phone call with Mr. Biden in the coming days because “we can and we must continue to have relations.”
Biden is not Trump. He gets it. He has nothing to work with now. His man in Washington is gone. And yes, he is a killer:
Some Western intelligence agencies have accused Mr. Putin, among other things, of ordering the assassination attempt of his most vocal domestic critic, Mr. Navalny, by a military-grade nerve agent in Siberia last year. Mr. Putin has denied playing any role in that near-deadly poisoning, quipping in December that if Russian agents had wanted to kill the opposition leader, “They would have probably finished the job.”
The Russian government has also been linked to attacks on foreign soil, including the poisoning of the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England, in 2018 and the shooting death of a former commander of Chechen separatists in Berlin the following year.
Mr. Putin signed a law in 2006 legalizing targeted killings abroad – legislation that Russian lawmakers said at the time had been inspired by American and Israeli conduct.
No one believed that, and now no one on this side believes him. Trump is gone. There’s no voice crying out. Trust Russia! Trust Putin!
Those days are over, and Joshua Keating reviews the changes:
Joe Biden has decided to skip the part where a new president acts like he might get along with Vladimir Putin.
When George W. Bush first met the Russian leader in 2001 – at a time when the previously obscure Putin was still something of a mystery in the West – he famously said he had “looked the man in the eye” and “found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. I was able to get a sense of his soul.” Bush would later regret the remark when Russia went to war with U.S. ally Georgia in 2008.
Barack Obama had the advantage of coming into office when the more amenable Dmitry Medvedev was president (though Putin, then prime minister, was still unofficially the most powerful man in the country), and he promised a “reset” in relations with Russia. But after a few productive agreements on arms control and Afghanistan, relations foundered over Ukraine, Syria, Libya, and a host of other crises.
Donald Trump’s frequently expressed fondness for Putin and his desire for better relations with Russia was the subject of just a bit of controversy early in his presidency, but it didn’t amount to much in practice. U.S.-Russia relations lurched from crisis to crisis under the Trump administration, which ended up imposing even tougher sanctions on Russian officials than the Obama administration had and selling weapons to Putin’s rivals in Ukraine.
None of it made sense. Biden put an end to the nonsense:
Biden has promised no resets. The president is a longtime Russia hawk and made that stance a major feature of his 2020 campaign. In his first major foreign policy speech, he said that he had “made it clear to President Putin, in a manner very different from my predecessor, that the days of the United States rolling over in the face of Russia’s aggressive actions – interfering with our elections, cyberattacks, poisoning its citizens – are over.”
And there would be no more bullshit;
The sentiments Biden expressed about Putin in an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on Tuesday weren’t exactly a surprise, but the way he expressed them still managed to set off a diplomatic crisis.
Biden repeated a story he had previously told in a 2014 New Yorker profile, in which he, referring to the Bush line, once told Putin during a face-to-face meeting that he had “looked in your eyes and I don’t think you have a soul.”
Putin supposedly replied, “We understand each other.”
Yes, it’s best to clear the air, and this may actually be a win-win:
Ultimately the “killer” affair may have more to do with domestic politics in both countries than foreign policy. All Biden really did was repeat a story he’s been telling for years, and concur with his own intelligence agencies’ assessments of Putin’s activities. But by choosing to do it, he did draw a contrast with Trump…
The Trump years opened up a wide partisan gap in U.S. views on Putin, and it’s hard to imagine Biden will suffer politically for criticizing the Russian leader, no matter how glibly.
As for Putin, he’s been using international crises to deflect attention from problems at home for decades now. A shot across the bow from Biden, when it can be spun as an attack on all Russians, is a gift for the Russian president. His sarcastic response, and the contrast he’s drawing to the supposedly doddering American leader, will also play well with his supporters.
Neither the U.S. nor Russia is likely to benefit from any of this, but both presidents probably got what they wanted.
They got clarity. Russia has its aims. The United States has its aims. It’s 1963 in Istanbul again. Take it from there.