Richard Lourie
PUTIN
HIS DOWNFALL AND RUSSIA’S COMING CRASH

To Katya,

May we discuss all this someday

I cannot forecast to you the actions of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.

—WINSTON CHURCHILL[1]

The politics of Russia flow not from her true interests, but from the individual inclinations of specific persons.

—AUSTRIAN CHANCELLOR VON KAUNITZ TO MARIA THERESA, IN 1745[2]
Изображение к книге Putin

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

I want to thank George Soros for a valuable idea.

There are quite a few Russians I would like to thank for their insights and hospitality, but see no good reason to do so here when the current situation in their country does not reward association with books of this sort.

There was another American who was indispensible to this book, its editor, Marcia Markland. In all my years working as a writer, I have always taken pride in making the deadline whether it involved a restaurant review or a long tome. But this book thwarted me at every turn. Day after day my mind was as blank as the paper I stared at. The few pages I did manage to produce did not, when held between thumb and forefinger, provide the satisfying heft that indicates the coming of a book. Months passed, years.

In all that time Marcia and I would meet fairly frequently for lunch. The pleasures of conversation never faltered, though there was, of course, one subject that could prove awkward if broached. But Marcia never once mentioned the overdue manuscript. And when I could no longer stand it and said something on the subject, she would invariably reply—“Just make it good.” She was, if such an expression can be used, “a perfect gentleman.”

PREFACE: PUTIN TRUMPS AMERICA

Until quite recently Russia was an exotic country, distant, huge, both more brutal and cultured—Stalin at the Bolshoi—but then suddenly it was right here with us in the intimacy of the voting booth.

By the time the House Intelligence Committee convened in open session on March 21, 2017, the nature of that intrusion was fairly clear; the Russian state used hackers to break into the computers of the DNC and of Democratic Chairman John Podesta and then revealed their contents via WikiLeaks in an effort to tilt the election in Donald Trump’s favor. The fact that there was no such parallel hack and leak of Republican computers is itself compelling circumstantial evidence of intent. And that in turn indicates that the Russian intelligence services were in no particular hurry to conceal either their favored candidate or their involvement. Had they wanted to remain invisible, they would have. But sometimes they prefer to send a message as in Soviet times when, after a surreptitious search of an apartment, a KGB agent would leave a cigarette butt floating in the toilet, as if to say: We were here.

It will never be known with quantitative certainty how significant the Russian meddling in the 2016 elections was. In time the Russians themselves might come to rue their choice, finding Hilary Clinton, for all her animus toward Moscow, a more seasoned and competent professional, more reliable and predictable than Trump.

But the most important question of all is one that probably can and certainly must be answered. As Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee phrased it: “…if the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it aided or abetted the Russians, it would not only be a serious crime, it would also represent one of the most shocking betrayals of democracy in history.”[3]

Those are the terms, the stakes.

What’s less clear is how much solid evidence there is of collusion. But there would appear to be enough for the question of collusion to be an integral part of the investigation the FBI is conducting. As FBI director James Comey said at those hearings: “I have been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election and that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts. As with any counterintelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed.”[4]

The problem here is that counterintelligence operations are typically long and drawn-out, taking months, even years—the FBI has already been looking into Russian meddling since July 2016. That means for the foreseeable future, the White House will be under a “gray cloud”[5] of suspicion to use the expression of Devin Nunes, Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Mike Morrell, the former acting director of the CIA who made no secret of his support for Hilary Clinton or his disdain for Donald Trump, used a different metaphor: “There is smoke, but there is no fire at all.”[6] In any case, whether it’s gray clouds or smoke, it is clear that we’re in for a long spell of obscurity that can only make the current climate of jittery uncertainty all the more so.

Another point where clarity is of the essence is in assessing Putin’s psychology and forestalling his actions, for there is general agreement that the Russians will strike again.

In his opening remarks, Chairman Nunes said: “A year ago I publicly stated that our inability to predict Putin’s regime and intentions has been the biggest intelligence failure since 9/11 and that remains my view today.”[7]

There are many reasons why America is constantly outwitted by Putin. American categories of thought about Russia are too neat and clean. To the American mind government, crime, business, and the secret police are four quite different things. In Russia they easily shade into one another and it could be argued that at various times, Putin has had his hand in all of the above. Another reason is that the U.S., for all it shortcomings, remains a country of laws while Russia is a more Darwinian society where the law of the jungle, or, as the Russians call it, the law of the wolf, tends to prevail.

For Putin the game of power has only three rules—attain, maintain, retain—and all the rest is nonsense and pretense. Putin views American lack of historical memory not only as the naiveté of a young culture, but a convenient means for eluding responsibility. American can partake in the assassination of leaders—Allende, Hussein, and Gaddafi—and thereby change regimes, but when Russia does anything of the sort it is a crime against humanity.

To Putin the Orange Revolution that broke out in Ukraine in 2004 was no spontaneous uprising of the people but an integral part of the West’s campaign to outflank and weaken Russia. In Putin’s KGB-conditioned worldview, there are very few spontaneous events and the few there are immediately coopted and exploited by those quickest afoot. Someone is always behind everything, every organization is a front.

The expansion of NATO between 1999 and 2004, now flanking Russia from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and the uprising in Ukraine in 2004 were not discrete events but part of a pattern his training and experience had taught Putin to recognize. In interfering in the U.S. domestic political process, Putin was just doing unto others what others had already done unto him, and, if anything, feeling a little guilty about being so remiss in retaliating.

Does Putin have any particular power over Trump and how long have the Russian intelligence service been taking an active interest in Trump? The second part of the question is easier to answer than the first. Trump began making noises about running for president as early as 1988 having switched from the Democratic to the Republican Party the year before. That alone, along with his wealth, celebrity, and later attempts to do business in Russia, would have been more than enough to open a file on him.

Putin made his career by gathering sexually compromising video on Russia’s attorney general, who had launched a potentially ruinous investigation into the economic wrongdoings of President Boris Yeltsin and his family. Saving Yeltsin won Putin the president’s ultimate trust in the deal in which Yeltsin gave Putin power in exchange for immunity. So, Putin needs no convincing that compromising material can be important, even decisive. Does he have any such material on Trump, who has been so fulsome in his praise of Putin and so woefully slow to accept the intelligence community’s assessment that the Russians had conducted politically motivated hacking during the 2016 campaign?

The largely unsubstantiated dossier compiled by former MI6 agent Christopher Steele claims that Trump hired prostitutes to urinate on the bed in the presidential suite in the Moscow Ritz Carlton where Barack and Michelle Obama slept, thereby to defile it. “The hotel was known to be under FSB control with microphones and concealed cameras in all the main rooms to record anything they wanted to.”[8]

If any such material exists, its principal value is in the threat to use it. And oddly enough, developments in modern technology would make it easier to deny. Anyone, a la Zelig, can be photoshopped in, or out, of any image, proving ample grounds for denial. The only way to guess if Putin has any such compromising material on Trump is to watch Trump’s behavior for any unusual constraints on his usually unconstrained behavior.

But the real point here is that the hold Putin has over Trump need not be based on any such lurid material. If there was indeed collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence, Putin would have ample evidence of that in his possession and could release it at any moment to WikiLeaks, making FBI director Comey’s drawn-out investigation over in the blink of an eye, the click of a key.

* * *

“You know the closest I came to Russia, I bought a house a number of years ago in Palm Beach … for $40 million and I sold it to a Russian for $100 million,”[9] was Donald Trump’s way of combining his two favorite activities—denial and braggadocio.

The buyer was Dmitry Rybolovyev, known as the “fertilizer king,” with a net worth that hovers around the $10 billion mark. After buying the house in summer 2008, Rybolovyev never spent a night in the place, which had a severe mold problem. The house is now slated to become the most expensive tear-down in real estate history.

This might simply be a case a case of hucksters and suckers. Or maybe someone too rich to be the least bit price conscious. Rybolovyev garnered headlines by purchasing an $88 million dollar Manhattan apartment for his daughter, a student. He is also currently suing his art advisor, claiming that he fraudulently overcharged him and sold him Rothkos and Gauguins for something like twice their actual market value.

But there is another explanation that fits nicely with other of the events that have led to the investigations by the FBI and House Intelligence Committee. The Russian leadership could have indicated to Rybolovyev that doing the American real estate magnate a $50 million favor was a good investment all around. For Rybolovyev there was really no downside—he would also have done the Kremlin a service and acquired yet another piece of fancy property which, if he could find the proverbial “greater fool,” he could sell at a profit. That now seems to be the case with the house torn down and the 6.3 acres divided into three parcels, one of which is already sold.

Trump said that was the closest he got to Russia, but in the meantime Russia kept getting closer to him in the person of Felix Sater.

Born in the USSR in 1966, Felix Sater came to the US when he was eight, his family fleeing persecution as Jews. He adapted quickly to American life, both to its brighter and darker sides. He dropped out of Pace University to become a broker at Bear Stearns, a hungry young immigrant on the make. In 1991 at an altercation at a bar in a Manhattan Mexican restaurant, Sater smashed a Margarita glass on the counter and stabbed its jagged stem into his opponent’s face, causing injuries that required 110 stitches to close. He served more than a year in prison for the crime. In 1998, Sater pleaded guilty to one count of racketeering in a $40 million stock fraud carried out with four Mafia families of New York. But Sater would not spend a day in jail for his crime because, as Loretta Lynch would state in her hearings to become U.S. Attorney General, Sater had “provided valuable and sensitive information” to the government, his work “crucial to national security and the conviction of twenty individuals, including those responsible for committing massive financial fraud and members of La Cosa Nostra.”[10]

Sater apparently had important connections in the missile black market, negotiating to buy back Stingers before Osama bin Laden could get his hands on them and begin shooting American passenger planes out of the sky. For all the obvious reasons, little is known about this side of Sater’s contribution, but its significance can be judged by the scale of the government’s forgiveness.

By 2001 Sater joined Bayrock, a development company with offices in Trump Towers. By 2005 Bayrock got a one-year deal to develop a Trump luxury high-rise in Moscow, a deal which like most other of Trump’s Russian ventures, oddly came to naught. Between 2006–2010, Bayrock and Sater are integrally involved in Trump SoHo, a hotel/condominium in lower Manhattan. This is the time period referred to by Donald Jr. when he said in 2008: “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets, say in Dubai, and certainly with our project in SoHo.”[11]

If Sater, who it must be remembered came to the U.S. at the tender age of eight, was able to return to Russia and the former Soviet republics and work to buy up missiles on the black market, it would not have been too difficult for him to help raise significant funds for Trump projects, especially since at that time Russia’s prosperity was at an all-time high, with oil reaching nearly $150 a barrel in July 2008.

Trump would later disavow any real connection with Sater, saying, under oath, that if he “were sitting in the room tight now I really wouldn’t know what he looked like.”[12] But other Russians were taking a closer look at Trump as the first decade of the twenty-first century came to a close, at least according to the Christopher Steele dossier whose sources allege as of June 2016 that “the Russian authorities had been cultivating and supporting … TRUMP for at least 5 years … the TRUMP operation was both supported and directed by Russian President Vladimir PUTIN. Its aim was to sow discord and disunity both within the US itself, but more especially within the Transatlantic alliance, which was viewed as inimical to Russia’s interests.”[13]