Beyond the confrontation. Interview with Edward Luttwak

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In the recent months the US-Russian relations have been in this weird place where Russia suddenly emerged again as a topic of a heated and very controversial electoral campaign and again in a form of an Evil Empire. The relations have been strained since 2014 following the events in Crimea, Ukraine and the sanctions rounds even though the same two countries managed to cooperate around Iran, and were rubbing shoulders in Syria. The recent storm has been caused by the leakage of the Democratic party emails, allegedly done by Moscow with the end goal to undermine Hillary Clinton (who is holding firm anti-Russian position) and support Donald Trump (who has praised Vladimir Putin in the past). With the elections taking place this week, Rethinking Russia spoke to an influential Republican geostrategist, CSIS senior associate Edward Luttwak about the current state of the Russian-American elections.

Rethinking Russia: US media are buzzing about Russia being an actor, not a factor, of the American election in 2016. What do you think about it?

Edward Luttwak: There is no question that there were these leaks and there are accusations that these leaks were actually engineered by the agents of the Russian state. Not just by private people. But there is actually no hard evidence but they are sure about it.

What is clear is that Internet has just become another venue, another place where the two countries can quarrel and dispute. The recent incident is an evidence of a very important fact: neither Russia nor USA are facing any real threat, they certainly do not threaten each other in any classic way. There is no Russian invasion of United States and there is no American invasion of Russia. They are moving away from the real geopolitics and the leaders on each side find it quite convenient to attack the other. From the point of view of Hillary Clinton, it is a very nice idea to say that Vladimir Putin is a very bad man, from the point of view of Putin it is a very idea to say that United States are interfering and being intrusive and so on and so forth. Thus neither has a real problem. If they had a real problem, it would have been very different. But right now there is no strategic confrontation. There is this superficial rivalry which is politically useful.

RR: However, as you mentioned – no hard evidence has been presented. How should one treat this kind of accusations that are based on the evidence that is not shown?

EL: This story is plausible, it makes sense, it can be sold and evidence in these matters is very hard to find. Nobody is seriously looking for the evidence. If the evidence was to be found, it would be challenged and denied. So, I do not think it is an important matter unless there was a plan to close access to the Internet, to prevent these things. Actually there is no such plan.

Cyber security in political institutions is very impressive, very formidable and convincing unless you happen to be a hacker. If you are on the other side, if you are a hacker, then it is a joke. What institutions know about cybersecurity is a joke for hackers. Do you remember in December 2015 the San Bernardino case? Apple was 100% sure that its iPhone could not possibly be penetrated. FBI was ready to go to the Supreme Court to order Apple to open its iPhone which allegedly could not be penetrated. FBI were hiring the lawyers, preparing for this big case and then a very small Israeli company Cellebrite called the FBI, literally calling on the publicly available number and offered to read the iPhone for a very small amount of money. They came to Washington and in the end there was no need for the Supreme Court. Apple had the illusion that its phone is secure. FBI thought that it had great technics to read phones, but it didn’t. And then three boys from Israel read the phone. And when FBI people said – at least you cannot read our phones, and the boys from Israel read their phones too. In other words, we have here communications system and we believe that it is secure, so when they are read, we always think of some “Evil empire” that could read your emails. That is total rubbish. Any kid could do it, or at least some kids can do it. And therefore there is going to be much more of this, and no possibility to identify who was responsible.

RR: Edward Snowden recently gave an interview to FT where he discarded the hacking of the DNC emails as something unimportant and routine, something that is done on a regular basis by many governments, including the American one. Would you agree with this point of view?

EL: It is very mundane, very routine, and if the quarrel between USA and Russia is about this kind of thing, then I repeat there is nothing serious going on.

RR: Could you, please, comment on Jo Biden’s statement when he said that Russia would get more of its own weapon, meaning that USA will start hacking back?

EL: It is a new frontier for unserious confrontation because we are talking about the glimpse on the computer screen. When you switch off the computer, the problem goes away. So it is not serious.

RR: Why would the Democratic establishment and most of the media believe that there is some kind of agreement between Trump and Putin even though they never met? Is there a belief that the two are somehow communicating and aligning their strategies?

EL: Anybody who observed this election knows that the media have been completely and totally unfair to Trump. Trump can be responsible for a thousand things and he may deserve every possible accusation but the media have been very unfair and have accused him of being Putin’s agent. All Trump is saying about Putin is that since no one in Europe wants to defend Ukraine, everybody has refused to defend Ukraine, therefore the logical thing to do is to make a deal about Ukraine with Putin. That is all. And this is kind of reasonable. But the media saw this as indicative of him being some kind of Putin’s agent, some kind of business partner of Russian evil people. Trump is being commonsensical about Russia. I am not a defender of Trump, maybe he is the worst candidate in the world but his position on Russia is just reasonable. If you do not have a European army willing to defend Ukraine, you need to find an arrangement with Putin.

RR: If the US media routinely downplay and discard most of Trump’s statements as ridiculous, why all of a sudden did they start taking seriously his statements on Putin and Russia?

EL: Well, actually, it is because they realize that there is a geopolitical basis to what he says. They are right to take it seriously. Trump on Russia and Ukraine is more serious than anyone.

RR: It is very surprising to see Russia all of a sudden being present again in the everyday discussion about the American elections. What would Trump’s victory and Clinton’s victory mean for the US-Russian relations? Should we get worried in Moscow?

EL: If Trump wins – which is very unlikely but possible, then I believe he will want to make an agreement with Putin. Because as Trump says if Europeans are not ready to send 300 thousand troops to Ukraine, then we must make a deal and he will. If Hillary Clinton wins, she will prefer to continue lecturing Mr. Putin on how he should behave, how not to support evil Assad, etc. One approach is to make a deal and another approach is to lecture. Hillary’s goal is to teach Putin how to behave.

RR: Do you think it will be just lecturing and teaching, or will there be an escalation because actually many people in Russia believe that there might be one if Clinton becomes president…

EL: No escalation. This is a story about people not willing to commit. There is no willingness to actually do anything. It is not like anyone is willing to send an American army to Ukraine or Syria, an army that would then be in confrontation with Russian forces. There is zero willingness to do this, zero willingness to engage in the Ukraine. No willingness to commit means no confrontation.

Interview by Yulia Netesova

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