Mueller’s Bombshells Are About Putin, Not Trump
The special counsel’s report reveals a disorganized government with unclear lines of authority—and not just in Washington.
For as long as the storm clouds of Russiagate have swirled over the Trump White House, the key question has been: What did U.S. President Donald Trump know, and when? Yet the report on Moscow’s interference in the 2016 presidential election written by special counsel Robert Mueller and his team and released to the public on Thursday confirms that he was focused on a related, but different, question: What did Russian President Vladimir Putin do, and when?
And in that sense, Mueller undoubtedly delivered. Whatever it tells us about the Trump team’s collusion with outside actors to influence the election, the Mueller report does offer a unique look into the murky world of Kremlin intrigue. Above all, it paints a portrait of a Russian government that in large part is as disorganized and shambolic as its counterpart in the United States.
Vladimir Putin has become the shadowy supervillain of U.S. politics: a seemingly omnipotent, five-dimensional-chess-playing mastermind subverting American society, sowing “chaos” across Europe, and subverting the entire world democratic order. Ever since Trump and his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton famously sniped about who was really Putin’s “puppet,” Putin himself has been conspicuously absent from discussions of potential collusion. Like Keyser Soze or Thanos, Putin is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere.
Since the 2016 election, investigative journalists have played the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game, except linking Trump to Putin, with varying degrees of futility. Trump-Michael Flynn-Sergey Kislyak-Putin? Trump-George Papadopoulos-Joseph Mifsud-Putin? Trump-Paul Manafort-Oleg Deripaska-Sergei Prikhodko-Putin? For those with an interest in the workings of Kremlin politics, one benefit of the Mueller investigation—and all of the intelligence tools at their disposal—is that it examines not only efforts emanating from the Trump side but those from the Russian side as well. In many cases—as the Mueller report suggests—those efforts did not always link up with one another, though perhaps it was not for a lack of effort.
In addressing Russian activities, the Mueller report begins by addressing the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency (IRA) troll farm, which intended to sow discord in U.S. politics. This section essentially summarizes the 2018 indictments of 13 Russian nationals associated with the IRA—and the man known as “Putin’s cook,” the oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, who bankrolled the operation. While much here remains redacted to avoid potentially harming ongoing investigations, the report concludes that “these operations constituted ‘active measures’ (активные мероприятия), a term that typically refers to operations conducted by Russian security services aimed at influencing the course of international affairs.” While the specific nature of the IRA’s relationship with the Kremlin remains obscured, the report does make reference to Prigozhin’s publicly known ties to Putin.
The report then chronicles the operations of specific cyberwarfare units of Russia’s military intelligence service, the GRU, which hacked the Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee, then released their emails through DCLeaks, Guccifer 2.0, and WikiLeaks, which was “designed and timed to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election and undermine the Clinton Campaign.” While much of this section is likewise redacted to protect specific intelligence sources and methods, even what we’re left to read suggests a detailed knowledge of the inner workings of the GRU and Russian military intelligence, to the point that “evidence was sufficient to support computer-intrusion (and other) charges against GRU officers.” As with the IRA investigation, that the GRU—as a Russian government agency—got its marching orders from Putin is assumed rather than demonstrated, albeit with reasonable confidence.
Putin makes more appearances in Section IV, “Russian Government Links to and Contacts With the Trump Campaign,” which examines “whether those contacts constituted a third avenue of attempted Russian interference.” Not surprisingly, then, much of this section chronicles the efforts of members of Team Trump to contact Putin through his various intermediaries—both formal and informal—as well as the Russians’ desires to contact Trump. Much of these efforts are already public knowledge, including attempts by Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen and the Russian American businessman Felix Sater to woo Russian government officials for the Trump Tower Moscow project and the efforts of the Trump campaign staffers George Papadopoulos and Carter Page to forge back-channel links with the Kremlin.
However, the most fascinating insights into Kremlin politics come from the testimony of Petr Aven—the head of Russia’s largest commercial bank, Alfa Bank. Aven told the special counsel that he was one of 50 influential oligarchs who meet on a quarterly basis with Putin in the Kremlin, including around the time of the 2016 elections. Before every meeting, there would be a preparatory meeting with Anton Vaino, Putin’s chief of staff. Aven “took these meetings seriously and understood that any suggestions or critiques that Putin made during these meetings were implicit directives, and that there would be consequences for Aven if he did not follow through.”
According to the testimony, in a one-on-one meeting in the fourth quarter of 2016, Putin warned Aven that the United States might impose additional sanctions on Russia, Alfa Bank, and Aven himself, and that he should take all steps to protect all three. “Putin spoke of the difficulty faced by the Russian government in getting in touch with the incoming Trump Administration. According to Aven, Putin indicated that he did not know with whom formally to speak and generally did not know the people around the President-Elect.” Such evidence is clearly at odds with the imagery of Vladimir Putin as the all-seeing, all-knowing puppet master of U.S. politics.
One means of protection against sanctions Aven raised was reaching out to the incoming administration and establishing lines of communication, though “Aven described Putin responding with skepticism about Aven’s prospect for success.”
Following a separate “‘all-hands’ oligarch meeting between Putin and Russia’s most prominent businessmen” in December 2016, Aven asked former U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Burt to help make a connection with the Trump team. A reluctant Burt reached out to Washington think tank president Dimitri Simes, who had contact with Trump’s son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner. Given the heightened media scrutiny, Simes declined the offer to serve as an intermediary. In multiple subsequent meetings with Putin, Aven had to admit his failure to create a back channel between the Kremlin and Trump. And when Aven informed Putin’s chief of staff, Vaino, that he’d been subpoenaed by the FBI about the matter, Vaino “showed no emotion in response to this report and did not appear to care.”
This is not simply one isolated data point of a frustrated and failed overture from the Kremlin. Mueller also chronicles the actions of another influential oligarch, Kirill Dmitriev—the CEO of Russia’s sovereign wealth fund, who rightly refers to Putin as his “boss.” According to the report, “Dmitriev was very anxious to connect with the incoming Administration”—especially Kushner and Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr.—but was repeatedly unable to do so. Most notably, Dmitriev was able to meet with the Trump transition team’s informal envoy Erik Prince in the remote Seychelles to pass on Putin-approved plans for U.S.-Russian reconciliation, which would then be passed up the chain to Trump’s senior advisor Stephen Bannon. While much of the details of the secretive Seychelles meeting remain redacted from the report, Dmitriev said he was “disappointed” not to be meeting a more important representative from the Trump team and they could not go deeper into actual substance.
One further curiosity regards the role of then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. One would think that, if Putin wanted to reach out to Trump’s team, he would do so through the most obvious, formal conduit: the Russian ambassador to Washington. But more than once in the Mueller report it is noted that “while Kislyak was an important person, Kislyak did not have a direct line to Putin,” so other, informal, oligarch intermediaries such as the Putin aide Yuri Ushakov and Vnesheconombank head Sergei Gorkov became necessary.
The image of Putin that arises from the Mueller investigation is a mixed one. On the one hand, the evidence of the “active measures” of the IRA troll farm, as well as the malign hacking of American candidates, political parties, and institutions, certainly feeds the popular image of Putin as a shadowy former KGB spy with an ax to grind against the United States, and all the levers of the Russian state with which to do it.
Yet while Putin made the decision and had the means to pull off unprecedented meddling in U.S. domestic politics, he still faltered when it came to the seemingly far easier task of making contact with the Trump team itself. His inability to do so adds credence to the current literature on Kremlin politics that portrays Putin as a sometimes hands-on, sometimes hands-off leader of a disorganized political system that relies increasingly on informal mechanisms and solutions—such as trusted oligarchs—over formalized institutions, even including his own diplomatic corps and Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
And it reinforces the more tempered portrayals of Putin by Russian independent journalists such as Mikhail Zygar, who portrays Putin not as some grand strategist playing five-dimensional chess but a reactive tactician, where, “Everything that happens is a tactical step, a real-time response to external stimuli devoid of an ultimate objective.” It is a far cry from Putin the puppet master.
Mark Lawrence Schrad is an associate professor of political science at Villanova University. He is the author of the forthcoming book Smashing the Liquor Machine: A Global History of Prohibition. Twitter: @VodkaPolitics