Russian President Vladimir Putin loves to troll the United States. But he took it to new heights during a press conference in Sochi, Russia, on Wednesday morning.
In the midst of the raging controversies in Washington over the James Comey memo and Trump’s disclosure of sensitive intelligence on ISIS in an Oval Office meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Putin offered to provide a transcript of the controversial Trump-Lavrov meeting: “If the US administration finds it necessary, we are ready to provide the record of the conversation between Trump and Lavrov to the Senate and Congress.”
Putin’s comments amounted to a victory lap after his successful intervention in the US election — which accomplished more than Putin probably imagined it ever could.
- Putin jokingly scolded Lavrov for not sharing leaked info with him: “I will have to reprimand him because he shared these secrets neither with me nor with the Russian secret services, which is very inappropriate on his part."
- He warned that anti-Trump factions were “destabilizing the internal political situation in the United States under anti-Russian slogans,” saying that the US was suffering from “political schizophrenia.”
- He concluded by vowing non-interference in American affairs. “This is the business of the United States itself. We have no intention of interfering there, and we will not do so,” said Putin, who must have been laughing to death on the inside.
Putin’s gloating tone in all of this is palpable. And for good reason: The chaos in the US political system right now, featuring an understaffed and incompetent government riven by division and scandal, is exactly what Putin was aiming for.
Putin earned his victory lap
Russian strategic doctrine suggests that it sees hacking as a very specific kind of warfare. In an influential 2013 article, Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery V. Gerasimov argued that “non-military means,” including “new information technologies,” have eclipsed traditional weaponry in their strategic importance.
“In the 21st century we have seen a tendency toward blurring the lines between the states of war and peace,” he wrote. "The role of non-military means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and, in many cases, they have exceeded the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness.”
The goal of Gerasimov-style interventions isn’t solely to elect leaders who will pursue Kremlin-friendly policies. It’s also to exacerbate internal divisions in hostile countries — to distract them with paralyzing infighting that makes it difficult for them to counter Russian strategic moves internationally.
It’s debatable whether the hack of Hillary Clinton allies was decisive in the election. And Trump has been far more pro-NATO and anti-Assad than his campaign rhetoric would have suggested, surely a disappointment to Moscow.
But what is absolutely unquestionable is that Russia’s intervention in the election created chaos in the US political system. It raised questions about the Trump campaign’s connections to Russia — spawning a series of investigations and scandals that have paralyzed Trump’s foreign policy and legislative agenda.
The biggest and best example is Trump’s firing of FBI Director Comey. Trump appears to have fired Comey out of anger with his investigation into the Trump campaign’s coordination with Russia — an investigation that, of course, wouldn’t have happened without Russia’s intervention in the first place.
Now some legal experts are saying that the Comey firing, paired with Comey’s memo claiming Trump asked him to drop the investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, may have constituted criminal obstruction of justice. The rumblings about impeachment you’re hearing now are proof that this issue has set American politics aflame.
“If Putin were a Hollywood villain, it would be easy to imagine the scene in his lair, as he watched the coverage of Comey’s ouster, cackling and stroking his evil pussycat while concocting his next scheme for world domination,” Phillip Carter, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, writes at Vox.
It’s possible that Putin’s comments on Wednesday were an attempt to sow further chaos — especially the offer to hand over a transcript of the Lavrov-Trump meeting. Such a transcript, depending on what it said and how the Russians chose to doctor it, could end up seriously confusing everyone about what actually happened. But Putin is smart enough to know that Congress is very unlikely to take him up on that. A Russian state transcript is worth less than the paper it’s written on.
It’s more likely, instead, that Putin was celebrating all he’s accomplished to weaken his main global rival. His press conference was basically what Carter’s “cackling and stroking his evil pussycat” looks like in real life.