Rus­sian med­dling abroad: Does Putin pull all the strings?

Texarkana Gazette - - NATION / WORLD - By An­gela Charl­ton and Matthew Bod­ner An­gela Charl­ton re­ported from Paris. Kate de Pury in Moscow con­trib­uted to this re­port.

MOSCOW—As al­leged Rus­sian plots, con­spir­a­cies and crimes un­fold against the West, pros­e­cu­tors and pun­dits rou­tinely blame Vladimir Putin or a cir­cle of Krem­lin in­sid­ers said to be act­ing on di­rect or­ders from the pres­i­dent.

Putin may in­deed have in­volve­ment in some shad­owy schemes, but is he mi­cro­manag­ing ev­ery sus­pected poi­son­ing, com­puter hack and in­flu­ence cam­paign?

Ex­perts say not nec­es­sar­ily. In­stead, they say Putin and his en­tourage may be send­ing out sig­nals about what he wants, and am­bi­tious of­fi­cials and in­di­vid­u­als scram­ble to in­ter­pret and ful­fill them to win his fa­vor.

The mot­ley mix of Rus­sians ac­cused of med­dling in U.S. pol­i­tics seems to il­lus­trate this. Gun ac­tivist Maria Butina, who is jailed in Wash­ing­ton on charges that she tried to in­fil­trate U.S. po­lit­i­cal or­ga­ni­za­tions as a covert Rus­sian agent, is among those on the mar­gins of power who seemed to seize an op­por­tu­nity to ad­vance their own in­ter­ests and po­ten­tially please their rulers by ma­nip­u­lat­ing gullible Amer­i­cans.

It’s un­clear whether Putin was even aware of Butina’s ac­tiv­i­ties. But the ini­tia­tive— like Rus­sian lawyer Natalia Ve­sel­nit­skaya’s ef­forts to meet with Don­ald Trump’s cam­paign team, or on­line trolling cred­ited to “Putin’s chef” Yevgeny Prigozhin—dove­tailed with the Krem­lin’s dual goals of desta­bi­liz­ing Western democ­racy and end­ing sanc­tions against Rus­sia.

Only Putin can say for sure what strings he pulls. But some projects—such as the attack in Bri­tain with a mil­i­tary-grade nerve agent in March—ap­pear more likely to have his bless­ing. Bri­tish au­thor­i­ties say the poi­son­ing of for­mer Rus­sian spy Sergei Skri­pal was car­ried out by Rus­sia’s GRU mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence agency, with a likely green light from the high­est lev­els. Rus­sia ve­he­mently de­nies any in­volve­ment.

“Rus­sia is not as cen­tral­ized as peo­ple some­times think,” said Alexan­der Baunov of the Carnegie Moscow Cen­ter. In­ci­dents of elec­tion med­dling abroad weren’t part of “a sin­gle planned event, but sep­a­rate peo­ple and ac­tions” op­er­at­ing loosely un­der the same anti-Western ban­ner.

Such ef­forts don’t al­ways co­a­lesce. Ob­servers de­scribe ri­val­ries among Krem­lin in­sid­ers as they jos­tle for fa­vors or in­flu­ence. Prigozhin’s sup­posed fi­nanc­ing of mer­ce­nar­ies in Syria, for ex­am­ple, is re­port­edly at odds with De­fense Min­is­ter Sergei Shoigu but helps Rus­sia main­tain a foothold in the Mid­dle East.

“Putin’s state is like a court,” said Mark Ga­le­otti, a Rus­sia se­cu­rity ex­pert at the In­sti­tute of In­ter­na­tional Re­la­tions in Prague. “You have the peo­ple above mak­ing it clear what it is they are look­ing for, and then you have peo­ple be­low ei­ther look­ing to find ways they can lever­age their ex­ist­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties and con­tact base to po­ten­tially pro­vide value, or look to pack­age what they’ve al­ready got and sell it to ad­vance their agenda.”

THE GUN AC­TIVIST

Butina, or­dered Mon­day to re­main in a U.S. jail while she awaits trial, seems to be a fringe fig­ure, whose gun ac­tivism started in Siberia, far from Rus­sia’s de­ci­sion-mak­ing core in Moscow.

As Trump pur­sued the pres­i­dency, she and in­flu­en­tial pa­tron Alexan­der Tor­shin al­legedly used their con­nec­tions with the Na­tional Ri­fle As­so­ci­a­tion to cul­ti­vate a back chan­nel to Repub­li­can pol­i­tics. They tapped a vul­ner­a­bil­ity on the Amer­i­can right: the grow­ing num­ber of con­ser­va­tives who don’t con­form to the Wash­ing­ton es­tab­lish­ment’s con­sen­sus on Rus­sia, said Michael Kof­man, head of the Rus­sian pro­gram at the CNA think tank in Vir­ginia. Some on the right have shown great affin­ity for what they see as the un­yield­ing pa­tri­o­tism, faith and im­agery of Putin’s Rus­sia.

The pair were oddly open about it, us­ing their own iden­ti­ties on so­cial me­dia and ad­ver­tis­ing their net­work­ing suc­cesses.

“One of the more re­mark­able as­pects of this case is how not-covert, ob­vi­ous and self-ag­gran­diz­ing it re­ally was,” Kof­man said.

THE LAWYER AT TRUMP TOWER

An­other Rus­sian al­leged to have tried to in­flu­ence the U.S. elec­tion cam­paign was lawyer Natalia Ve­sel­nit­skaya, who met with Trump cam­paign aides in Trump Tower in June 2016, re­port­edly to of­fer Moscow’s help in de­feat­ing Hil­lary Clin­ton.

While Ve­sel­nit­skaya has de­nied act­ing on be­half of Rus­sian of­fi­cial­dom, scores of emails and doc­u­ments shared with The As­so­ci­ated Press show she served as a ghost­writer for top Rus­sian gov­ern­ment lawyers and re­ceived as­sis­tance from se­nior In­te­rior Min­istry per­son­nel in a case in­volv­ing a key client.

Still, she’s not ex­actly part of Putin’s in­ner cir­cle. In­stead, Baunov said, “she’s a lady who was try­ing to ad­vance her own per­sonal ca­reer.”

The leaked doc­u­ments sug­gest Ve­sel­nit­skaya went to Trump Tower as part of ef­forts to help her clients try to over­turn U.S. sanc­tions— one of the Krem­lin’s strate­gic goals.

“Some peo­ple in the Krem­lin, in spe­cial ser­vices, could be aware of the ex­is­tence of Ve­sel­nit­skaya and what she was do­ing,” Baunov said. “But that doesn’t mean … ev­ery­body asked in con­fer­ence calls ‘how is her project go­ing?’”

AP Photo/Alexan­der Zem­lianichenko, Pool, File

■ Vladimir Putin en­ters to take the oath dur­ing his in­au­gu­ra­tion cer­e­mony as Rus­sia’s new pres­i­dent May 7 in the Grand Krem­lin Palace in Moscow.

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