What the Russia!?!

Show Notes

We start this episode with a mini-primer on Russia: In terms of land mass, Russia is much larger than the US. The reverse is true on population, with the US almost at twice the population of Russia. There is a major difference in nominal GDP (market value of all final goods and services without regard to cost of living)  — Russia at $1.857 trillion; US at $17.419 trillion — major fluctuations annually but the point is, US economy is much, much stronger.  But Russia has less debt as a country than the US. Russian military is well-armed, and Russia has more known nuclear warheads (both active and total) than the US

Vastly oversimplified history is that a Cold War existed between the US and Russia following World War II up until the late 1980s. Constant political and military tension between the two superpowers, which had vastly different political and economic systems. 

Russia as it exists today was established in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union. This resulted from the Reagan - Gorbachev relationship, the relaxation of Soviet control in Eastern Europe, and the eventual declaration in 1989, between Boris Yeltsin and George HW Bush, that the Cold War was over. Boris Yeltsin had generally good relationships with GHW Bush and Bill Clinton 

Then came Vladimir Putin, who became President after Yeltsin resigned. Putin is a former KGB officer (KGB roughly translates to Committee for State Security — military service overseeing internal security, intelligence, and acting as secret police).  He’s 64 years old. He was the President of Russia between 2000 and 2008; then he was term-limited from seeking a third consecutive term and was appointed Prime Minister from 2008-2012 by president Dmitri Medvedev and became Russia’s president again in 2012. 

Under Putin, Russia has become more assertive in international affairs (and assassinations - Poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko), blamed the US for revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine. Russia and the US clashed over the US building an anti-ballistic missile station in Poland in 2007.

In 2009, President Obama and Putin hit it off at the G20 in London and promised a fresh start to US - Russia relations. That’s when Hillary Clinton and her Russian counterpart actually pressed a reset button (which fell pretty flat in a lot of ways, especially because the State Dept messed up the spelling so it translated to “overload” instead of “reset”). In 2010, Russia and the US agreed to start reducing nuclear arsenals. But in 2011, there were massive protests in Russia following a legislative election, and Putin accused the US of interfering and inciting unrest. Putin specifically believed that Hillary Clinton had incited unrest in the country. Putin started moving away from democracy and seeking superpower status again. He manipulated trade policy and caused divisions within NATO. 

And it just kept getting worse. The US passed the Magnitsky Act in 2014, imposing financial and travel restrictions because of human rights abuses in Russia. This law is named after a Russian lawyer and auditor who died in a Moscow prison after investigating fraud involving Russian tax officials. The US has accused Russia of violating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and President Obama called Russia a “regional power” rather than an international player. That didn’t sit well with Putin. 

Now Russia supports the Assad regime in Syria and some have called Syria a proxy war between Russia and the US. In 2016, Putin suspended a plutonium management agreement with the US, saying that the US has violated the agreement. 

With relations at a historic low (at least since the mid 1970s)…Donald Trump comes along. 

Trump’s History With Russia (mad props to Politico)

People to know: 

Carter Page — Trump named him as a foreign policy advisor in March 2016. Page is a banker and lived in Moscow for three years. He resigned in September. 

Paul Manafort — Trump hired him as campaign manager in March 2016. Manafort had recently served as a senior advisor to the pro-Russia Ukrainian President. In August, NYT published an expose showing that the pro-Russia Party of Regions earmarked $12.7 million for Manafort. 

Roger Stone — long-time friend of Trump who has said bizarre things in lots of forums, including on twitter, that suggested he knew what wikileaks had and when it would be released 

2013: Trump holds the Miss Universe pageant in Russia; makes a comment about Putin attending, says he does a lot of business with Russians in tv interviews. After the Miss Universe pageant, he tweets that he learned a lot in Moscow, that the US must be very smart and strategic

2015: - September: the FBI tells a tech-support contractor at the DNC that the DNC might have been hacked. The contractor isn’t sure if the FBI agent is real. 

- November: Trump says he knows Putin well because they were on 60 Minutes together and says he supports Putin “knocking the hell out of ISIS.” 

- Dec: Michael Flynn goes to Russia Today dinner, is paid to speak. 

Dec. 17: Russian President Vladimir Putin praises Trump, then the front-runner in the Republican primary, at his year-end news conference.

“He is a very flamboyant man, very talented, no doubt about that. But it’s not our business to judge his merits, it’s up to the voters of the United States," Putin says. "He is an absolute leader of the presidential race, as we see it today. He says that he wants to move to another level relations, a deeper level of relations with Russia … How can we not welcome that? Of course, we welcome it.”

Trump responds with praise of his own.

"It is always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond," Trump says in a statement. "I have always felt that Russia and the United States should be able to work well with each other towards defeating terrorism and restoring world peace, not to mention trade and all of the other benefits derived from mutual respect."

Feb. 2016: Trump starts saying that Putin has called him a genius (he repeated it many times throughout the campaign) 

March 19 2016: John Podesta gets an email instructing him to change his password. A Clinton campaign staffer tells him (incorrectly) that the email is legit. He changes his password, which allows Russian hackers access to his mailbox. Same thing happens to Billy Rhinehart, another Clinton staffer, a few days later. 

April 2016: Trump gives a foreign policy speech and calls for better relations with Russia…the Russian ambassador was there in a literal front - row seat. 

“We desire to live peacefully and in friendship with Russia and China. We have serious differences with these two nations, and must regard them with open eyes, but we are not bound to be adversaries. We should seek common ground based on shared interests. Russia, for instance, has also seen the horror of Islamic terrorism. I believe an easing of tensions, and improved relations with Russia, from a position of strength only, is possible, absolutely possible. Common sense says this cycle, this horrible cycle of hostility must end and ideally will end soon. Good for both countries. Some say the Russians won’t be reasonable. I intend to find out. If we can’t make a deal under my administration, a deal that’s great — not good, great — for America, but also good for Russia, then we will quickly walk from the table. It’s as simple as that. We’re going to find out.”

May 2016: James Clapper says there are some indications of cyberattacks aimed at presidential campaigns.

June 2016: A Trump advisor, Carter Page (we’ll talk about him in a second) says Putin is a stronger leader than Obama. Guccifer 2.0 publishes some DNC emails. 

July 2016: Three Trump advisors, including Carter Page meet with the Russian ambassador in Cleveland and say they hope to improve Russia-US relations

Same week — July 18: The Republican National Convention adopts the official Republican Partyplatform, with the following language on Ukraine: “We support maintaining and, if warranted, increasing sanctions, together with our allies, against Russia unless and until Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity are fully restored. We also support providing appropriate assistance to the armed forces of Ukraine and greater coordination with NATO defense planning. … We will not accept any territorial change in Eastern Europe imposed by force, in Ukraine, Georgia, or elsewhere, and will use all appropriate constitutional measures to bring to justice the practitioners of aggression and assassination.”

The Washington Post reports the same day: “The Trump campaign worked behind the scenes last week to make sure the new Republican platform won’t call for giving weapons to Ukraine to fight Russian and rebel forces, contradicting the view of almost all Republican foreign policy leaders in Washington.”

Gordon, one of Trump’s national security advisers, would later tell CNN that he opposed efforts to add language that was more aggressively pro-Ukraine because he believed that would have been inconsistent with Trump’s public statements on the matter.

July 20 - Jeff Sessions meets with the Russian ambassador The Wikileaks gets started and DWS resigns More leaks, more warm statements about Russia

August  - Trump gets briefed on direct links between the Russian government and the email hacks. He names Kellyanne Conway as campaign manager, Manafort starts fading and then resigns 

September - President Obama and Clapper make public statements about Russia’s involvement in the hacks; Trump and Pence both say that Putin is more a leader than Obama. Trump tells Russia today that Russia probably isn’t behind the attacks and that the Democrats were likely floating that story

September 8 - Jeff Sessions meets with the Russian ambassador again

More leaks. More Trump skirting the Russia issue in debates. 

Nov 9: Russian parliament applauds when Trump’s election is announced

December 8: Carter Page is in Russia, says he’s there to meet with “business leaders and thought leaders” 

December 26: A former KGB official who is believed to have been assisting in putting together a dossier on Trump’s relationships with Russia is found dead in his car. 

December 29: Obama administration sanctions Russia for election involvement

January & Feb - IC says Russia definitely intended to influence the election. Flynn Resigns 

Sessions recuses himself. Now Trump says Obama wiretapped Trump tower Corey Lewandowski says that President Obama listened in on Jeff Sessions’ office.

After tackling this timeline, we attempt - but mostly worry - about what should and most likely will come next in the intelligence community and in Congress.

In the Heels, Beth adds to our idea about our app that helps you avoid small talk by adding a feature that alerts people to what you DO want to talk about. (PS Sarah wants to talk about Making Oprah). Sarah is thinking about Lent both fun practices and giving up things. Pema Chödrön: Are You Addicted to Distraction?