Speculation about Donald Trump secretly being under Moscow's thumb has been floating around for many months now, but it went into overdrive this week. The reason was simple: Standing next to Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, the president of the United States said he believed his Russian counterpart's denials at least as much as the word of US intelligence agencies when it came to hacking during the 2016 campaign. Trump has since claimed he misspoke, a walk-back that isn't convincing anyone. Not that it matters for his short-term political future – Republicans, for all their tortured condemnations, are not going to actually punish him for boosting a hostile power.
So the most tangible thing to come out of Helsinki was fresh fodder for the growing community of Americans convinced Trump is literally an asset of the Russian government. Of course, they hardly needed it to run wild: Earlier this month, New York magazine's Jonathan Chait stitched together news reports and other bits of (sometimes flimsy) evidence percolating in the ether to argue, relatively coherently if not convincingly, that Trump might have been turned by the Russians as far back as 1987.
But is Trump really behaving the way an asset of a foreign government – and Russia's in particular – would be expected to? How does Moscow tend to run its spies and assets in the post-Cold War era? How much is Putin likely to be personally involved in all of that? And if Trump is in fact some kind of Russian pawn, how are they working him, or manipulating him?
For answers to those questions, I called up Mark Galeotti, senior non-resident Fellow at UMV, the Institute of International Relations in Prague. A leading scholar and expert on the Kremlin (and VICE contributor), he's the author of a recent book on the country's criminal underworld, as well as a journalist in his own right who has written about the inner-workings of their intelligence regime.
VICE: What's your sense of how big the modern network of Russian intelligence assets tends to be? It includes not just big names but small ones too, right?
Mark Galeotti: Absolutely, there will be a whole variety of different forms of assets. Sometimes you'll get more information from a minister's driver than [you would if you] actually tried to recruit the minister himself. Of course, the problem with actually assessing numbers – even the security and intelligence services don't really know how many assets there are. We have a tendency to think about this as being like something out of The Americans – in relatively constant, careful handling. Well, a lot of them are semi-detached. They're people who maybe every now and then are of use, every now and then have some information that might be helpful. And they may not even know who has recruited them. So the network of assets is one that [you have] to identify in terms of depth of handling, shall we say.
So yes, it's totally broad – a lot of these are going to be people whom you might say are on the shelf, ready to be used from time to time.
A lot of the discussion over the last year or two, certainly since the publication of the infamous Steele dossier detailing the Russian government allegedly having the notorious pee tape, has centred on the idea of kompromat. And maybe that's abetted by the specific personality of Donald Trump – a man with a documented history of sexual misconduct. But is your sense that that's the only or even primary way assets are obtained or activated? I would suspect kompromat is just one slice of the pie here.
Very much so, and let's be honest: It's also the least useful approach. Blackmailing people to be assets is your very last option. On the whole it doesn't work well. Human assets are so useful precisely because they're self-propelled. You get them involved, you get them enthused with the idea of being a asset, and they will go out of their way to get more information that might be useful to you. If you actually are coercing someone, then you become a threat to them. At best, you'll get the minimum level of cooperation – they'll do what you tell them to do and nothing more. At worst, they actually will seek to turn against you. And smart counterintelligence agencies try to make it easy for people to basically come forward and therefore in effect be recruited as double agents.
So kompromat exists, but it's not the favoured approach.
What's your sense of how Russian intelligence over the years has tended to sort of work or manipulate or run American-based or American assets in particular?
The majority of agent recruitment is people who are going to have access to the kind of information that the intelligence agencies have been tasked with finding. And until very, very recently that was the point – who might know precisely what's going on at the Pentagon? Who might have access to what's happening inside the FBI or the CIA? Who can pick up the best gossip on the Hill? And therefore you seek to recruit and retain the people who you think could have access to that – it could be a journalist, it could be an insider in agency, or it could be someone's brother-in-law who goes out for a beer and enjoys hearing stories about what's going on on the Hill or whatever.
The interesting thing is this whole issue of assets as political agents of influence is something that in the 90s and the aughts really wasn't that central to what the Russians were doing. They were looking for information, not influence.
Right, but that shifted since Putin returned to the presidency, right?
It may have started before but certainly 2014 is a useful milestone year, because obviously with Crimea, you suddenly got this dramatic worsening of relations with the West. And also I think a sense among Putin [and his circle] that the last bridge had been burned. The Sochi Winter Olympics after all were an attempt to regain some kind of soft power – and they were successful. But it was overshadowed by what happened in Ukraine and the decision to go into Crimea. That was when Putin decided we're at war, in effect – a political war, but war nonetheless. That has opened up the realm of intelligence activity. They've become much more adventurous.
If you are in fact a Russian agent or working on behalf of Russia, how often would you likely be in touch with your handlers? What does that look like day-to-day, from a logistics standpoint?
Generally speaking, if you are an actual definite recruited asset, then maybe on a monthly basis, you might have some kind of contact. Often it will just be someone who catches up with you at the regular conference you go to in some other country once a year, just to see if there's anything you might know, and if there is – or what you know might have suddenly become important – maybe they'll put you in touch with someone else. There is no one-size-fits-all approach.
There are also cases where someone might not be a witting agent, right? One common explanation of Trump's behaviour that doesn't rely on him being a spy is just that he's egotistical and they get to him by appealing to that, manipulating him.
Yeah, of course, and let's be perfectly honest – so does everyone else. When [French President Emmanuel] Macron invited trump to the Bastille Day parade, he did so knowing full well that Trump likes to think of himself as a tough guy and would be seduced by that. Everyone is trying to find their own lines into Trump, the Russians are just particularly good at this.
Let's say Trump actually has been in some way suborned or in otherwise recruited—a straightforward asset. If I were running him, one of the things I'd have done even before the election campaign was say, "Look, you really have to be laying into Putin and Russia at every opportunity. You have to be presenting them as this evil Machiavellian threat. Because then, when we use you to, I don't know, recognise the annexation of Crimea, no one can then turn around and assume that it's because you're an agent." The whole extraordinary, bromantic passion he seems to have for Putin in some ways has hamstrung much of his value, in that respect, because Congress is deeply suspicious. As is the public, and his own administration, when it comes to Russia.
They might have some kind of leverage on him, who knows – I'm not entirely convinced. I think it's more they have understood the kind of person Trump is, and they are playing him to the hilt.
What are the scenarios for how Moscow could be running Trump, if they are?
I would give you three. To start with one extreme, if he is an absolute entrapped or recruited agent of the Kremlin, you would be trying to make sure you got the most bang for your buck, which is exactly why you'd have tried to get him to play it cool, so you could use him at a crucial moment. You'd also be wanting him to be as deeply involved in intelligence matters as possible, reading more briefing materials, not less. None of that seems to be present.
Let's assume, though, that you have his metaphorical private parts in a vice, but nevertheless you don't feel you can trust him, whether in terms of his personality or how much leverage you have on him, which is a bit more plausible. Then in a way you'd be seeking to find ways, without making it obvious, you could use him most effectively. There, I think you'd pick a few specific cases where you think he could deliver something. He's not really delivering much that's real [so far], but it could well be that he's working in that direction.
The third option is you don't control him but you do have lines into him, maybe through people in his entourage, or whatever. You have a pretty good sense of him, more than just the usage that you can do when he comes to a summit with Putin. And in that case, again, Trump being Trump, someone who is erratic and self-centred, your best use of him would be in some ways as a hand grenade. You toss the pin and you throw it in a particular direction. And this is why – I don't believe Trump is recruited and controlled – I don't think one can say flatly that there is no chance of any kind of management. Because if you wanted to use him as a grenade, you'd want him to blow apart the American polity and also the whole Western political–economic structure. The problem of course is it seems to be that this is what Trump himself wants to do. Is this Trump? Is this Putin? is this a bizarre Trump-Putin hybrid? It's hard to tell. From their point of view, what Trump is doing as disruptor in the West absolutely fits in with Russian aims. But I think, I'll be honest, I think they're just lucky rather than claiming any great credit.
At some point, does it matter all that much if he's a spy or not? Putin's reputation has been burnished by spy fever. They've already won in that sense, no?
Having the American political elite regard them as this land of sophisticated masterminds who can basically determine elections, elevate presidents, and in a Machiavellian way decide which way the world's going to spin, that actually does play towards the Russians. Putin's made a strategic choice: He's not going to make friends. Even with the World Cup, he's not going to make allies. Even those people in Europe who are vaguely pro-Putin, they're not about to say, "Oh look, let's become vassals of Russia." He's long come to terms with the fact that Russia is going to be considered this disruptive bully. And therefore he wants it to look like the most formidable disruptive bully on the playground – one that is so tough, so unpredictable, that you do not want to mess with him.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.