In reading Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America by David Corn and Michael Isikoff (authors of Hubris: The Inside Story of the Spin, Scandal and the Selling of the Iraq War), we find hiding between the prose — The Putin Doctrine. The Putin Doctrine is: use information warfare against enemy states to divide their peoples and cripple confidence in their institutions. Andrey Krutskikh, a Russian adviser to the Kremlin, was quoted from a WAPO column as hinting at what was coming, “We are at the verge of having ‘something’ in the information arena, which will allow us to talk to the Americans as equals.”
That ‘something’ in Krutskikh’s speech was what would become known as the Russian Attack on the 2016 Presidential Election. I was lucky enough to spend some time recently with one of the co-authors of Russian Roulette. This remarkable look at the 2016 election year was written by Mother Jones‘ David Corn and my guest, Michael Isikoff, chief investigative correspondent for Yahoo! News. The first thing I wanted to talk about was something that had become known as the Gerasimov Doctrine.* I asked Isikoff to explain what it is and why it became so important. “Well, there had been discussion of it in national security circles. As we explained in the book, General Gerasimov was the chief of staff of the Russian army,” Isikoff began. “He published this obscure article** about how he saw the future of warfare—information warfare. As Gerasimov outlined it, wars of the past between dueling armies’ tanks and aircraft would become less prevalent and would be replaced by virtual warfare in which cyber attacks and weaponizing of information to destabilize the enemy would be the preferred course of action. In many ways it was a playbook of what the Russians unleashed on the American election of 2016.” Gerasimov is a very high ranking official in the Kremlin. “This is an article that dates back to 2013. It did begin to get some circulation within the American national security community after a translation of it was published I believe by Radio Free Europe and as a result it really forecast what we experienced in 2016. The sad part is that within the Pentagon and among other national security experts, it did not get the attention it deserved.”
Indeed Gerasimov wrote, “The very “rules of war” have changed. The role of nonmilitary 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.” — according to an English translation by Robert Coalson. While I can understand the objections of Galeotti to the world adopting this term as the Russian Federation’s new strategic doctrine for fighting their enemies, after reading Russian Roulette and also Malcolm Nance’s book The Plot to Hack America, released prior to the election of 2016, it’s clear the Gerasimov Observations have largely been adopted as the Putin Doctrine.
Isikoff explains how Putin deployed this strategy and while it’s arguable that General Gerasimov deserves the notoriety he’s gotten, the facts of the case are less so. “As we disclosed in the book,” Isikoff says. “There was a secret Kremlin source who was telling a U.S. official as early as 2014 that this is what Putin and his national security establishment had in mind; that they had these vast, extensive plans to destabilize Western democracies in Europe and in the United States using many of the techniques that General Gerasimov outlined in that article. And there were multiple reports sent to Washington, to the intelligence community, to the State Department outlining what this secret source was saying; somebody who had direct access to Putin’s Court. And again these warnings did not get the attention they deserve.” Isikoff added, “U.S. policymakers who dealt with Russia were focused on the crisis in Ukraine and Putin’s intervention in Ukraine. They really didn’t take these warnings as seriously as they should have. In part because, as we say at one point in the book, borrowing a phrase from the 9/11 Commission: ‘There was a failure of imagination.’ It did not seem conceivable to U.S. policymakers in 2014/15 that the Russians would go to these lengths in seeking to undermine our democratic system.”
Invoking the words of Richard Clarke after the 9/11 attacks, I asked the reporter if our government had failed us. The great Masha Gessan, among others, tried to tell the western world how the ex-KGB director thinks. I wanted to know if Obama understood that the “Russian reset” and any other concessions would look like weakness? As the Russians were attacking, did the Obama White House give a stand-down order? I could tell by the long pause, Isikoff would answer carefully. After all, what I was really asking was — did President Obama fail us?
“Well, to be fair, the standout order that we discuss in Chapter 14 was communicated by Susan Rice, the national security adviser to President Obama, and to Michael Daniel who was the cyber coordinator in the White House who had been developing these very aggressive plans in the summer of 2016 to push back against what the Russians were doing. [Daniels was developing] options for waging a counter cyber attack on Russian news sites, Russian propaganda sites, and Russian online personas. And that was viewed inside the White House by President Obama and his senior staff as too provocative. They came up with an alternative course of a private warning that Obama would give to Putin at a summit in China in early September of 2016.”
Isikoff expands on the administration’s thought process. “One can debate how seriously Putin would have taken that warning. But after the election, the Obama administration did respond with new sanctions against various Russian officials and expelled [Russian diplomats and spies]. But I think that there is a lingering view even among many who served in the Obama administration that it was too little too late and that the responses should have been much more muscular, much earlier and much more public. Remember, the U.S. government doesn’t say anything about what the Russians were up to until October which was well after the U.S. intelligence community had ample information about the multi dimensional nature of Russian attack. Now again to be fair, Obama’s hesitancy was because Republicans on Capitol Hill—namely Mitch McConnell, and to a lesser extent Paul Ryan—were unwilling to cooperate and be on board in a White House statement about what the Russians were up to. And again, one can debate whether McConnell’s partisanship in that instance should have been as decisive a factor as it was in Obama’s in effect decision to that point to stand down from a public response.”
Even if the specific aggression from the Russian Federation, the attacks on state election systems, the propaganda war, the espionage in regard to the DNC and members of the Clinton campaign, was unforeseeable, Corn and Isikoff describe other forms of Russian aggression, including physically assaulting Americans from the embassy in Moscow, and the military actions in Georgia and Ukraine. Putin was acting like a child pushing the boundaries of a parent and there didn’t appear to be a moment during the Obama presidency where there was a public rebuke until the death of Sergei Magnitsky in 2009 led to sanctions that bore his name in 2012. Putin is still largely able to act like a child whose parents never learned to say, “No.” And mean it.
“Right. It’s not a bad analogy. Now, the harassment of diplomats is something that has been going on for quite some time, including during the Cold War. But there was a spike in these sorts of activities that actually, ironically, coincide with when Michael McFaul, who had been Obama’s Russia expert on the National Security Council, becomes ambassador. And for reasons that I think even he had problems processing, the Russians saw him as an adversary even though he had been an architect of what was known as the reset policy during Obama’s first term—which was to improve relations with Russia. It was a policy that scored some early successes but then quickly collapsed as Putin returned to power in early 2012. I think the first real criticism of the Obama administration on this matter should be its reluctance to accept the fact that its cherished reset policy had reached a dead end.”
Hillary Clinton had, of course, been President Obama’s secretary of state during the reset years and she was never completely sold on the reset. Russian Roulette tells of her parting memo about Putin’s ambitions. But Putin himself went from trying to curry favor with Clinton to holding a deep grudge bordering on paranoia. I asked Isikoff to explain that dynamic. What was it that caused this change?
“Well, there was there was a bit of a grudge that Putin held against Hillary Clinton because of her public statements and what he perceived as her public encouragement to protests in Russia at the end of 2011 over Putin’s decision to return to power. Remember, Putin has been the president and stepped down to become prime minister while Dmitre Medvetev became president who seemed to be somebody that the Obama folks thought that they could work with despite the warnings, as we outlined in the book, from many people like Garry Kasparov who said Putin continued to pull the strings of power. He was lurking in the background as the real force to be reckoned with. Hillary Clinton criticized the elections that were held in Russia. Putin saw that as American interference in his domestic affairs even though what Hillary Clinton was saying was not radically different than the kinds of things secretaries of state say about rigged elections around the world all the time, but Putin saw it as a threat. And more broadly, after he makes the fateful decision to annex Crimea and intervene in Ukraine the Obama administration imposes sanctions, as does the EU. And though Clinton was gone from the State Department by then, Putin saw Hillary Clinton as part of the same national security establishment in the United States that was taking these actions against him and Russia. So he came to see Clinton as an adversary.”
I asked if there was any evidence that Putin really saw Hillary Clinton as a serious threat. And Isikoff took a moment before saying, “I think, you know, most likely at the start of the campaign he assumed that Hillary Clinton was going to win and saw her as his adversary and whatever steps he could take during the campaign to undermine her and chip away at her credibility or raise questions about her character would be something that would serve his interests after she became president.”
The most challenging part about reading Russian Roulette is that you keep waiting for Obama to hit back. There’s a moment in the book when the authors quote Michael Daniel (White House cyber security)as saying, “You know, when you’re in a street fight you have to hit back.” I asked if there was ever any indication that President Obama believed that he was in a street fight with Vladimir Putin, because it sure seemed as if Vladimir Putin orchestrated a street fight.
“I just don’t think that was the way that President Obama looked at the world. He was not a guy who wanted to fight street fights. He had an entirely different approach to foreign policy and governance. Unfortunately, the people had to deal with it around the world; Vladimir Putin first foremost did not have the same view.”
The other great storyline in Russian Roulette is driven in large part by Trump’s strange relationship with Russia and the most famous aspect of the storyline has become the memos known as the Steele dossier that details, at times, sexually explicit aspects of this relationship. I asked if the inclusion of these salacious sex stories, like the tale of Trump being in a hotel room with urinating prostitutes, took away from more serious elements of the dossier.
“I think it’s fair to say there remains a murkiness about the most sensational claim of the Steele dossier. Certainly as we dissect it, the sourcing is extremely sketchy and not clear that any of the sources cited by Steele would have had any firsthand knowledge of the [“Pee”] tape. And I think that ought to be a red flag for all of us. That said, the discovery of the kinds of performances that were done at The Act, which is the Las Vegas nightclub that Trump and Emin Agalarov and Ron Goldstone were all at in June of 2013, is intriguing but it doesn’t necessarily bolster the claims in the Steele dossier. It could well be that some garbled version of what was the performances [at The Act] made their way to Steele’s sources. We simply don’t know. We are at almost a year and a half since the dossier was first published by Buzzfeed, and we’re almost coming upon the two year anniversary of the writing of the first memo by Christopher Steele. And we have no further way of resolving one way or the other whether there is any validity to [the claim of the Moscow prostitutes] that was published in that document.”
I asked if he was resigned to believing that the salacious claims of the Steel dossier are unprovable and Isikoff told me, “I think broadly speaking, it’s pretty clear that Christopher Steele was onto something about the contacts between the Trump camp and the Kremlin. And he had a track record of being a reliable source for the FBI and the State Department. He was not a flake. So I think that’s one reason that so many folks within the U.S. government and the intelligence community took his allegations seriously. I think the jury is still out on how much of the document, how much the specific claims in the document will be substantiated. What we believe and what we write in the book is that he stumbled upon what was legitimately concerning relationships between people in Trump’s orbit and people in Putin’s orbit. But it will be very fascinating if and when (Special Counsel) Robert Mueller finally either delivers a report or is called to testify before Congress, what he will say how much of the Steele dossier he was able to corroborate.”
Throughout reading Russian Roulette I was amazed at how much plausible deniability for Donald Tump seems to be built in to what we’ve learned about the Russia scandal. He cheered for Russian interference, and surely an effort to collude was made by his son Donald Jr., but everything else could support former CIA chief, Michael Hayden’s, view of Trump as a “useful idiot.”
I explained my doubt that Trump ever had any intention of winning the White House, citing the report of General Flynn telling someone he would only have a problem “if we win” and my theory that Trump was following the “Newt Gingrinch model” of a presidential race where you exploit the process to run one long infomercial to make money off the process of running.
“This is his world, isn’t it? Just go back and look at Trump University which is one giant infomercial machine.” Mr. Isikoff was clearly ready for this observation, adding, “One of my favorite favorite moments in the book that has gotten very little attention is the morning of October 7 when Jay Johnson, Homeland Security Secretary, calls Trump to give him a briefing on Homeland Security’s plans for dealing with Hurricane Matthew; which was a hurricane that was threatening to hit Florida that very day. This turns out to be the most fateful day in the campaign and one of the most fateful days in modern American politics. Hillary Clinton had asked for a briefing on what impact Hurricane Matthew would have and Johnson had agreed to give it to her and he figured if he gave her a briefing he had to give Trump a briefing. He calls Trump and Trump couldn’t be jollier; ‘Hey, Jay. What are you doing? What are you up to? You’re doing a hell of a job. By the way when all this is over what are you going to be doing [after the election is over]?’ And Jay Johnson says, ‘Well, I’ll probably go back to my law firm in New York.’ And Trump says, ‘Well you ought to come by and see me at Trump Tower. We’ll have lunch.’ Jay was somewhat dumbstruck and gently points out, ‘Well, there are some scenarios in which you might be in Washington rather than in New York.’ Trump ended up saying something like, ‘oh yeah,’ as if he never even thought about it. I thought that was a pretty revealing anecdote.”
At the end of the interview, I told Mr. Isikoff that he is a hero. While he shied away from that assessment, I want to share it here. In the United States, especially in dark times, the free press and investigative journalism in particular is our greatest resource in holding on to our democracy and holding leaders accountable. I highly recommend reading Russian Roulette. It’s a clear eyed beginning to what we now know as the Mueller Investigation. No one is above the law. Finding the truth is still important and no matter how Trump and his acolytes distort it, truth will always exist. It may not end up being all that we want it to be, but we have to hold onto it once we find it.
*Mark Galeotti of ForeignPolicy.com credits himself with (and expresses regret for) coining the name: Gerasimov Doctrine. He reported that it was a placeholder name based on the Russian General who delivered a speech (article) about how information warfare as the wave of the future for disrupting powerful countries was a lesson learned from the Arab Spring and was never meant to lay out a Kremlin war policy.
**For an excellent breakdown of who Gerasimov is and more about his article, please see: https://www.armyupress.army.mil/Portals/7/military-review/Archives/English/MilitaryReview_20160228_art009.pdf
You can follow the adventures of Michael Isikoff by exploring Yahoo! News and following him on Twitter @isikoff