Molly McKew is an information warfare expert and specialist on Russia-U.S. relations. She has worked as an adviser to political officials in Moldova and Georgia. Currently, McKew is working as a writer in Washington, D.C. The HPR conducted a wide-ranging interview with McKew, and what follows are excerpts from that interview.
Harvard Political Review: How would you compare Russia-U.S. relations today with the Cold War era?
Molly McKew: One of the challenges that we face in the United States is that we have far fewer people focusing on the Russian sphere of influence and Russian effort these days. We have far fewer people who are trained in the language, culture, military, and the doctrinal strategic components of Russia.
There has been a long period of drift, since the ‘90s, but certainly since 2001, with so much effort and focus shifted to the Middle East, Afghanistan, and fighting terrorism and away from the traditional Cold War model. We lost a lot of capacity, and we are very unaware of what the modern Russian security state is and how it works. There are a few people that are really good and who get it, but there are generally systems in place that are very slow to re-adapt. You have seen this process if you have been working in it. In 2008, the invasion of Georgia was a shock to a lot of people. Since then, there have been slow readjustments within parts of the government to come around to seeing the kind of things that Vladimir Putin is doing now. But different pieces have moved at different speeds.
Our military is very good at seeing the Russian threat. The intelligence community has been much further behind in readjusting to the Russian threat. The State Department is kind of in the middle. There are all these other elements of our system that need to be focused on some of this and aligned on some of this to expose the money, to expose the influence, to identify the different agents of influence, intelligence, and power that the Russians were using to try to access our system and influence it. And we just do not see it the way that we did.
HPR: How do you think that former President Barack Obama’s foreign policy influenced the power struggle between the United States and Russia?
MM: The Obama period was significant in the development of what we are now facing, because their view of the world was very different. It was idealistic. The approach was very much from this notion of “the United States has no right to dictate anything to anyone, so we are one of many powers of the people. We are not the greatest power.” Again, it was probably initially from the right belief system that it was partially backlash to the Iraq War, partially backlash to other things, partially their own set of core beliefs and principles, but if you are operating from that, the way you saw that in the world was to pull back in a lot of different places
In a lot of places that we, the United States, stepped back from and said “regional powers must lead,” Russia was able to manipulate the states much more easily than it had ever done before. Russia was relatively surprised that it was so easy to accomplish so many things and push forward even faster. There was this acceleration of gains. In 2008, there was a slow restart. They worked on military rehabilitation and other things. Then, you have the annexation of Crimea; there was a real acceleration of effort from the Russians because they realized there were going to be very few consequences for them.
Yes, the sanctions have weakened the Russian economy, in theory, but everybody has been saying that the Russian economy is about to collapse since 1918. It never has. They have built in this strength of ideology in the system, where it is this war of communal mentality, where society is willing to make sacrifices for this great power project. Yes, they know that the oligarchs are still doing fine and that the guys at the top are extraordinarily wealthy. Partially, they do not care, because they still think these guys are achieving the goal of fighting for Russia’s position in the world as a great power state, which is supported by the Russian public. In the eight years that the Obama administration’s policy was shifting things in different directions, [the Russians] saw a lot of opportunities, and they took them.
HPR: What differences do you see so far and what differences do you predict in the Trump administration?
MM: I do not know. I think the most optimistic view that you could take is that Trump seems to be a guy who understands the use of hard power. He seems to be a guy who is tough and willing to stand up to nonsense when it arises. He seems to be a guy that is willing to fight for America’s interests in the world. If you take it at that level, maybe you would be able to say, “Maybe something good will happen.” I think that the difference between the bumper-sticker version of what Trump says and the realities of what is happening with his administration is quite bleak.
There is no policy. There is no one directing the policy. There is no structure within the State Department. The core campaign believes that there needs to be this complete restructuring of the State Department. Until that is complete, they are not going to hire anyone to do any of those jobs. In the meantime, there is nobody there. You cannot run foreign policy this way. It takes a lot of people. Is there the potential to do something different? Sure. Have they said that they are going to do anything different? No.
That is the part that is so funny for, not the partisans on either side, but for the foreign policy people in the middle. The worst parts of what Trump says and what Trump is doing are cartoon continuations of part of the Obama administration policy and that is what is so funny. For now, they do not know what they are or what they stand for. The greatest piece of uncertainty within that is what the policy on Russia will be. There have been moments when they think, “Oh, we need to work with Russia. Oh, Russia is our friend. We have to try to figure out a way to talk with them. Wouldn’t it be good if we had a better relationship with Russia?”
Yes, it would be great if we had a better relationship with Russia, but Russia has shown no signs of wanting a better relationship with us. After the attack in Syria, they have been right back to the normal machine of “America is the enemy. We always told you: you will not be able to work with them.” I think that is where they intend to stay. They will try to find ways to get things from us and to start new negotiations. It seems like they are willing to throw Bashar al-Assad under the bus if they get some sort of agreement about Crimea but who knows. Can it be different? Sure. Is it going to be? Nobody knows.
HPR: What do you think about Trump’s response to the Syrian chemical attack and Russia’s involvement in that?
MM: Look, there is no Syria anymore, and there is no Syrian army. The Russian command structure took over all of this, basically most of the decision-making. They are coordinating directly on everything, using Iranian and Hezbollah forces as their ground troops. The idea that the Russians at that base did not know there were chemical weapons and were not aware of the attack is total nonsense. You have numerous officials giving anonymous quotes saying that the Russians knew about the attack. They had a drone scouting the site before the bombing happened. They were probably involved in the bombing of the site. After the serine attack, they tried to clean up the evidence of the attack.
If you look through the basic points, the Russians knew about that attack, and it was for a reason. The only time you had any significant international response to anything that Assad has been doing was in 2013 when he last used serine. They would have known there would have been an international response. To me, this indicates that Russia was trying to provoke a new situation and change the landscape before Rex Tillerson came to Moscow, before negotiations began. Based on some of the other diplomatic envoys that they have sent to D.C., they are going to say, “We are going to try to compromise on Assad if you are willing to compromise on Crimea.” That is a very dangerous linkage to make. I hope that no one takes that bait, but I think they are thinking about it.
HPR: From your work in Moldova and Georgia, you have experience in countries with pro- and anti-Russia sentiment. What are the difficulties of navigating public opinion with respect to foreign relations?
MM: Moldova is very different from Georgia. In the same way it is important in the United States, being able to communicate with the electorate, with the population about the benefits of international relationships and alliances is critical. It is a skill that we have all probably gotten a lot worse at than we used to be.
Georgians are very pro-European. More than 75 percent of the public supports NATO and EU integration, which is high. Even in Europe, that is high. Most Europeans do not even want to be in Europe anymore. In Moldova, it was different because they did not have a long period of relative stability and success during the reform process. Reforms were much slower. The benefits of them were not obvious and accessible to most of the Moldovan population, and that makes the case for Europe much harder for them.
Moldova has many challenges. One of them is demographic. Moldova is poor, which basically means the entire middle generation – everyone between around 25 and 55 – is out of the country working somewhere else. They can be out of the country making a lot more than working in Moldova. Then you have the youngest generation, which should be the most progressive, being raised by their Soviet grandparents, essentially, who will all go on and on about how much easier things were before and how many more benefits there were and now everything is hard and dark and terrible.
Honestly, in the case of Moldova, that is true. Their post-Soviet period has not been easy or glorious to look at. When these places make it clear they want to integrate more or less, focusing on how to bring the benefits of that process to these countries during an extremely painful reform process for the most part is something we need to pay more attention to. We have gotten much less good at that. It makes it harder to convince places that reform was a good idea.
Until we have figured out that formula better, it is very easy for Moscow or other powers to show up with a bag of money and say, “They want you to do all this hard stuff, like not be corrupt and create transparency laws and have real elections and have laws on inclusivity and fair society. We do not want any of that. We do not care if you oppress your people or if you put the media in jail, we will give the bag of money.” Many people are willing to take the bag of money. We need to somehow fix that balance better. These places deserve better. These are countries that decided to join the left. When people make that choice, we need to work with them to make sure that they get where they want to be.
HPR: How would you compare the relationship between the government and the public in Moldova and Georgia?
MM: In Georgia, the understanding of how democracy should work and the basic functioning of some sort of civil society are much denser. Georgians are engaged, political people. That is not to say that there are not challenges, but the Georgian people are far more aware of how these things are supposed to work for them. It is a more normal political landscape. There are more efforts to hold the government to its promises. There are citizen initiatives to change laws and challenge the government when they think there is an overreach of power.
There is an effort in the government right now, or from the governing party in the coalition, to change the constitution and remove the direct election of the presidency. Georgians are very much a fan of having a directly elected president. They feel like that is their person, really the only person they elect directly. They do not want that to change, so there has been a lot of public pushback about that. Many citizens believe that they have some sort of an impact on the direction of their country and the way that their government makes decisions. It is not always perfect, but they understand how it should work.
In Moldova, that does not exist. You never have had a government for more than a short period of time that has had that kind of relationship with the public. The parties are very personality-based. There had been a total consolidation of power around the main oligarchic godfather of the country: Vlad Plahotniuc, who has no official position. He is just a member of one of the parties, and he is known for being shadowy. There are rumors about how he made his money. None of them are very nice. They are somewhat connected to bank raiding and human trafficking, so he is not someone who was viewed very favorably by most of the country.
This guy has put on the mantle of pro-European-ness, which is really just a façade. He knows that he needs to say this if he is going to be taken seriously by the West. When you have unsavory people pretending that they want to get to Europe for their own purposes but not really doing the work, it disrupts the trust relationship with the public and the public ends up thinking, “If this is Europe, why do we want that?” That is where Moldova is right now. “If this is Europe, we do not want that.”
HPR: How did you get interested in politics?
MM: I started taking Russian sort of randomly. When I was at Stanford, I had been a science person, and I ended up focusing more on that realm. Then I was graduating school with my Russian degree. What the hell was I going to do with that? I went to graduate school and started focusing on international relations. I received my degree from the London School of Economics. What was I going to do with my Russian international relations degree except come to Washington and try to find a job?
It has all been sideways, but the thing I was always interested in was systems and how systems work. Studying the Cold War and the fabric of the Cold War relations was fascinating. That was how I got into this. Since then, I have moved around the world and shifted focuses a couple of times. I was in the Middle East and West Africa, back to the former Soviet world. There are commonalities and lessons between the things that connect them all in terms of what works in society and for people and what does not. That has been helpful to see.
In a U.S. sense, I am not particularly political. I care about the issues I care about. I do not really care about who is going to work on them. Foreign policy did not used to be a political issue in the United States. There was a specific group of people that cared about it, but they were bipartisan. It was Democrats and Republicans who had great relationships working on defense and foreign policy issues up until about 2000, 2001. The Iraq War was a part of this, but it was not the only factor. Since then, there has been much more of a polarization of views. But it switches back and forth. Before, you had the Republicans being the more anti-Russian force. Now, you have the Democrats being the more anti-Russian force.
It goes in both directions all the time. It has become very frustrating. There is this older generation who were Cold Warriors or who have some experience connecting to the world. You also have a new generation of a political class – many of whom came in after 2010, part of the Tea Party revolution and beyond – who have no feel for this stuff, do not think it is important, and do not know how to communicate to their voters about it. All of them think this is a waste of time and do not understand that it is important, but certainly do not know how to articulate to their constituents that America is strong at home when America is strong in the world. Until we have politicians who can make that case again, we are going to keep having elections like the one we had last year, and that is not really great for us.
Image Source: Flickr/Robert Parsons