Last week, ahead of the US elections, Eleanor Rose spoke to chess genius and political activist Garry Kasparov on Russia’s interests in tomorrow’s presidential elections.
Bellingcat: Russia expressed wishes to send electoral monitors to oversee the US elections, and now the Russian NGO ROIIP claims it will perform distance monitoring. What would you expect from a distance monitoring exercise?
Kasparov: Let’s agree on semantics, because you keep saying ‘monitoring’, but of course all these delegations and missions sent by Russia – they’re all state controlled, and they all just are working to further the Kremlin’s agenda. Even if they’re covered by NGO titles … it serves their plans to weaken the resolve of the free world.
Bellingcat: We saw evidence that Russian electoral monitors from ROIIP also observed the Scottish referendum. Some of what we saw suggested they had made their minds up before they went to Scotland – they posted on Facebook what they felt about the process before polling ended, which is against UK election commission rules.
Kasparov: What you observed in Scotland could also be seen by following Russian propaganda, which was comparing Scottish independence and almost mourning the next day when the referendum failed.
You could see the same in Russia regarding the referendum in Holland about association with Ukraine. It is quite amazing really that Holland was holding a referendum on an issue that had no real impact on the life of Dutch citizens, and again it was still considered by Putin’s propaganda machine as a triumph of nationalist forces, which again helped Putin achieve his political agenda.
With Brexit – it’s the same story. So they couldn’t hide their joy over the results of Brexit, and it’s not surprising that Russia is openly backing forces like Le Front National, that are openly calling for referendum on France’s membership in the EU.
Anything that helps Putin to divide Europe and to make it more vulnerable to his aggression is welcomed – and we should not forget that Putin is not a military dictator, but he’s a KGB guy. So that’s why clandestine operations are always preferable to him than a military assault, though he can use the latter one as well, as you can see.
But he always starts with traditional underground operations. Now he has huge resources and probably the largest network of lobbyists and agents since Comintern, and he’s not shy of using these agents.
Now of course, the USA offers the biggest prize a KGB colonel could ever dream of. And I don’t know whether they will send a delegation to the US because at the end of the day the US is too big – it’s not Holland – and one or two delegations will not be able to do any [real] job, or to cause any potential damage for the process. I understand that they may even stay away officially while Russian hackers will do the job.
We can see in my view more than enough evidence of them trying to get into the system to create havoc, chaos, by distorting data in the voters’ registration databases.
I have no doubt that Putin is looking for very chaotic development in the US, preferably for him civil unrest, which could be fueled by Trump’s statements about rigged elections. And unfortunately to the best of my knowledge the US electoral system, the databases actually, run by states and in some cases by municipalities, are very vulnerable and they could be sort of soft targets for professional hackers working for Putin.
Bellingcat: How would that work?
The scenario is very simple. You have a handful of battleground states where the results could be decided by really small margin. Just imagine if in a state like Ohio, Virginia, Florida, or Nevada, voters will by accident not find their names when they appear at polling stations.
So all they have to do is to erase randomly – Democrats, Republicans, who cares – and basically make sure there are tens of thousands are not able to vote because their names mysteriously have been erased.
If you can hear all these complaints from battleground states then the results of the elections can be easily challenged, and that will be from… (I assume Hillary is still going to win…) it will give Trump a unique platform to challenge the entire process.
Obviously the US officials are doing some kind of work, but from my knowledge of the system and the adequate protection that is required, I don’t think they will be able to defend the databases if the Kremlin seriously wants to attack them.
Bellingcat: Russia claimed it had been refused access to observe US elections, which was actually incorrect. The US offered Russia to observe as part of the OSCE delegation. Why would Russia lie about electoral monitors?
Kasparov: It’s a part of the same story. Of course Putin wants Trump in the Oval Office, but I think he realizes it’s probably not doable. But the second best scenario – and some would say his ideal scenario – is total chaos as a result of the elections being challenged. And this is a part of the same playbook. The American system is rigged, our observers are not allowed, Trump is complaining, voters couldn’t find their names… It’s all about destroying the integrity of the political system, which somehow serves Putin and other dictators who are not running fair elections at home.
Basically the last defense line of Putin and the like, other dictators, is “Look – nobody is perfect. Yes, we have problems at home, but look at the Untied States. Donald Trump is denied victory because…” And then you count observers not allowed, and you have a long list of [other] grievances.
Bellingcat: Putin recently denied that Russia could influence the elections, saying: “Is America some kind of banana republic? America is a great power. If I’m wrong, correct me.” What do you make of such comments?
Kasparov: Don’t forget that somehow that could be Putin’s psychological revenge for Obama’s – in my view – stupid statements. He called Russia a “regional power”; when you deal with dictators, if you say something of this kind, which is diminishing, you have to back it with your actions. Obama said a lot and did nothing, so it’s an ideal target for Putin.
In an interview with Christiane Amanpour, [Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov] said: “It’s flattering, of course, to get this kind of attention—for a regional power.
By the way, neither Lavrov nor Putin is denying Russian intervention. Basically what they said – and Lavrov’s English is good enough to understand the difference – they said, “Prove it.” And Putin is … he’s using this image you know, banana republic versus a great country, saying: “Protect your country if you can. If you are not protected, you are not a superpower.” This again serves his agenda politically, because it shows that the US is weak.
Defying the US, defying Obama for quite a while was Putin’s main trump card. Because a dictator who can no longer satisfy his people with a steady increase in improvements of living standards – he should rely on propaganda which portrays him as the only man, the white knight that protects mother Russia against global evil. And defying America gives him extra strength. Virtual, of course, but nowadays it’s almost as good as real, because he’s so powerful that he can defy America, and America is on the defensive and they cannot even protect their own electoral system. No one at home will challenge a dictator who is so arrogant and aggressive that he is challenging the US – not just in Ukraine and in Syria, but on US soil. And enjoying impunity.
Bellingcat: In the laws of 13 US states, foreign observaters are explicitly forbidden at polling stations. That’s drawn criticism from Russia, which is able to say the US doesn’t comply with OSCE recommendations. How can they respond to this?
The US has such a transparent system and there is so much media that can go after violations from both sides. So I don’t think that foreign observers, especially from countries like Russia, could do any good for US elections. But again, it’s part of the plan. The United States, when you look at legal requirements, it very often relies on state laws or federal laws. And we know that elections in America are run by state laws, since it’s an electoral college [system]. Complaining about different laws in different states is just ridiculous because some of these states have death penalty, some don’t. Some of them have really strict gun control measures, most of them don’t.
This is the way the United States election system works, and it still works fine. But again, it doesn’t matter, because if you had a plan to discredit the US electoral process you’d look for every opportunity, and unfortunately the diversity of these laws from state to state offers an opportunity to present a picture of uncertainty, ambiguity, lack of transparency – simply picking one state that could have very strict laws on foreign observers and basically saying: “This is how the whole country works.”
Bellingcat: Some of Trump’s comments about the elections being rigged look very much like comments we have seen made by the Kremlin about foreign elections. What relationship do you think Trump has to Putin?
Yeah you’re right in saying that sometimes it seems, and it is, that most of the comments he makes about the rigged elections and the stark choice America is facing – electing Hillary Clinton will start World War Three – these kind of statements come straight from the Kremlin’s propaganda.
Now regarding relations – I don’t know. Trump is not known for consistency. On most of the issues he touches, he flip flops, changing his position even during one speech, sometimes even during one sentence. It’s not unusual. But strangely enough, he’s extremely consistent in praising Putin. He doesn’t flip flop on Russia, and he even rebuked his running mate. When Mike Pence said America has to take a strong stand against Putin in Syria, Trump was ready to go over his own running mate but not to criticize Putin.
He is not a very savvy political expert, but he understands – and he has too many advisers to tell him – that his pro-Putin position doesn’t help him in that it doesn’t bring votes. I have the understanding that Trump is very pragmatic; the man does nothing that doesn’t serve him. The fact is that he is still sticking to a position that doesn’t help. And, by the way, it gave Clinton a unique opportunity to divert attention from Hillary’s own problems, also connected to Russia.
That tells me that there’s something else that we should look for, and that maybe the ties between Trump and Russian oligarchs are much deeper than we can think of.
And that brings us to the second issue: Trump’s taxes. My initial thought was that the reason Trump didn’t want to release his taxes was simple, was connected to the fact that he is not as rich as he pretends to be and that could jeopardise his image as a multibillionaire. Of course he’s very, very rich but if it happens his overall wealth is say US$ 300 million not US$ 9 billion, that would hurt his image in the eyes of people who are buying him as the most successful real estate mogul.
But now I suspect that there’s something else, something more sinister. You look at Donald Trump’s biography and [at the] many things we know about Donald Trump … Women, gambling, casinos, bankruptcies. And I wonder who has rescued Trump during the period of his bankruptcies, whether there was a considerable amount of Russian money. Because we know there was foreign money – Trump said about it himself. There was a lot of foreign money poured into Trump’s enterprise. What percentage of this money came from Russia? And I think if we were to ask this question, maybe we would understand the real reasons behind Trump’s refusal to even mildly criticise Putin.
Bellingcat: You mention Clinton will probably win – and that getting Trump in power is not the overall goal for Putin. Say Clinton wins, what do you see happening?
Kasparov: Of course it depends very much on the outcome. How close are the elections? Trump will challenge the elections. I think it’s unlikely he’ll recognise the results if it’s close. And you have enough people, you’re talking about tens of millions of people in this country who will not recognise Hillary Clinton as president. America will be weakened. So American resolve to oppose Putin’s aggression will not be adequate.
Clinton as president will be tied by her own domestic foes that will be attacking her from every direction. Now you’ve got more stories coming about of these leaked emails, you know – God knows, she could be under investigation. And if Trump rallies enough Republicans to block Hillary’s initiatives that means America as a geopolitical player will be paralysed. That’s exactly what Putin needs. It’s a perfect, perfect result of the election. America is in turmoil. Again he will be hoping for civil unrest and I can easily see the clashes between Trump supporters and Hillary supporters; you don’t have to be an author of a Doomsday scenario just to imagine what can happen in many battleground states if the results are so close and if voter databases are tampered by hostile foreign powers.
Amd then Putin will be in a position to deliver another blow, or blows, as he chooses, since again I can hardly imagine America being dragged into this domestic fight will be strong enough, will have enough resolve and determination to fulfil its duties as the head of NATO.
Bellingcat: That is a pretty frightening picture. What should the US do about it?
Kasparov: Unfortunately Obama’s policy of retrenchment led to the Iraq expansion which is – it’s a lesson, another lesson from history – hopefully we can learn from this one, though we haven’t learned from previous ones – that creating a vacuum doesn’t mean that everything’s standing still, it’s simply being filled by other guys, so as it happened in the Middle East. Obama failed to respond to Putin’s aggressive acts, and I suspected it after Obama walked away from Syria in 2013 when Assad used chemical weapons. That was a clear signal for Putin that nothing would come no matter what Putin does on his side. As I said, it’s business as usual. Obama keeps talking, and he can say whatever he wants, and Putin knows that it’s all talk and he does what he believes is in his interest at this very moment.
I think that America had to retaliate or at least make it very clear that the cyber attack will not go unpunished. But the problem is that we just heard bravados from Biden, but it was not backed by anything substantial. Again I might be wrong, I don’t know, they might be doing something. But so far we are always hearing concern from the White House that “Oh, our actions could spike the cyber war,” but we are at cyber war – I mean they are attacking – and they will keep attacking as long as America tries to avoid the clash. Because they view America’s caution as a sign of weakness.
Bellingcat: There are signs Russia has been working to undermine the OSCE for a long time – they claimed not enough people from east of Vienna are represented, and have moved to limit OSCE funding at various times. How can we see the comments Russia has made in the US elections as compared with other foreign elections – is this their biggest effort yet?
Kasparov: Yes, absolutely. By the way, let’s not waste our time looking for discrepancies in their statements. Lavrov and Putin could say something today and tomorrow they can refute themselves. Lying for dictators is a normal form of communication, so that’s why when Western politicians are trying to reconcile Putin’s different views – whatever he says is just for today, and tomorrow could be different, and yesterday it was just another story. So one day they could criticise the OSCE and another day they could demand that OSCE rules are imposed on some American state. It’s all about convenience, it’s all about their current goals. I compare it to chess – dictators are always very tactical, they play one move and they don’t care what’s happening long term, it’s not about strategy.
It’s all about surviving today, maybe tomorrow morning and then it will be another day. And they just saw there was a unique opportunity because they spotted so many weak spots in the Western political system. And after years of infiltration of this political system, financial system, economic system by having people like Schroeder, Berlusconi, Sarkozy and then you go down the ticket – they realised that they could reach their goals by playing the classical political game. So by using elections as a mechanism to bring people they support to power, or if it doesn’t work, to make sure that those who stay in power are so weak that they will not be able to move.