• Show Notes
  • Transcript

On this episode of the United Security podcast, Lisa Monaco and Ken Wainstein discuss the allegations that Putin ordered the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and what it says about the state of contemporary Russia—Putin’s use of violence to quash dissent, the appropriate U.S. response, and the possible connections of this incident to the popular uprising in Belarus.  

The United Security podcast is produced by CAFE Studios. 

Executive Producer – Tamara Sepper; Senior Editorial Producer – Adam Waller; Audio Producer – Nat Weiner; Editorial Producers – Sam Ozer-Staton and David Kurlander

OPENING CHIT CHAT

  • “Washington Football Team launches new era by completing comeback win over Philadelphia Eagles,” USA Today, 9/13/2020
  • “The Nationals are Running Out of Time,” FiveThirtyEight, 9/11/2020
  • The Beatles, “Back in the U.S.S.R. (2018 Mix/Lyric Video),” YouTube, 1968
  • John Le Carre, The Russia House, Penguin, 1989
  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “Why did James Comey say, ‘Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?’” Washington Post, 6/8/2017

ALEXEI NAVALNY

  • Navalny’s Instagram Account
  • Navalny’s YouTube Channel
  • Michael Schwirtz, “Aleksei Navalny Was Poisoned at His Hotel, His Team Says,” New York Times, 9/17/2020
  • Jim Heinz, “Russian opposition leader Navalny ‘risks his life every day,’” AP News, 8/22/2020
  • “Comatose Russian dissident Alexey Navalny arrives at Berlin hospital,” CNN, 8/22/2020
  • “Alexei Navalny: Two hours that saved Russian opposition leader’s life,” BBC, 9/3/2020
  • Andrew E. Kramer, “Kremlin Critic Aleksei Navalny Says Attack Left Him Mostly Blind in an Eye,” New York Times, 5/2/2017
  • Ivan Nechepurenko and Iliana Magra, “Aleksei Navalny, Putin Foe, Is Hospitalized After ‘Allergic Reaction’ in Russian Jail,” New York Times, 7/28/2019
  • David Herszenhorn, “Aleksei Navalny, Putin Critic, Is Spared Prison in a Fraud Case, but His Brother Is Jailed,” New York Times, 11/30/2014
  • Andrew E. Kramer, “European Court Vindicates Aleksei Navalny, Russian Opposition Leader,” New York Times, 11/18/2018
  • Robyn Dixon, “Trolls, tracking and films: How Putin’s Russia obsessively hounded opposition leader Navalny,” Washington Post, 8/29/2020

NAVALNY’S ENEMIES

  • Max Seddon and Henry Foy, “Russia: who wanted Alexei Navalny dead?,” Financial Times, 8/28/2020
  • Ivan Nechepurenko, “Kremlin Critic Says Russian Premier, Dmitri Medvedev, Built Property Empire on Graft,” New York Times, 3/2/2017
  • Navalny’s drone footage of Medvedev’s properties, YouTube, 3/1/2017
  • Navalny’s documentary on Medvedev, YouTube, 3/2/2017
  • Robyn Dixon, “Dmitry Medvedev was Putin’s political wingman for years. Now Putin wants some distance,” Washington Post, 1/15/2020
  • Barbie Latza Nadeau, “‘Putin’s Chef’ Threatens to Destroy Alexei Navalny in the Courts if He Survives Poisoning,” The Daily Beast, 8/26/2020
  • Nathan Hodge, “A threat disguised as a duel: Putin’s ex-bodyguard challenges opposition leader,” CNN, 9/12/2018

RUSSIAN POISONINGS

  • “Navalny ‘poisoned’: What are Novichok agents and what do they do?” BBC, 9/2/2020
  • “Alexander Litvinenko: Profile of murdered Russian spy,’ BBC, 1/21/2016
  • Luke Harding, “The Skripal poisonings: the bungled assassination with the Kremlin’s fingerprints all over it,” The Guardian, 12/26/2018

U.S. RESPONSE

  • CBW Act, 22 U.S. Code § 5604 Determinations regarding use of chemical or biological weapons, 1991
  • Remarks by President Trump in Press Briefing, WhiteHouse.gov, 9/4/2020
  • Secretary of State Pompeo Talks Navalny With Ben Shapiro, State.gov, 9/9/2020
  • “G7 Foreign Ministers’ Statement on the Poisoning of Alexei Navalny,” State.gov, 9/8/2020
  • “House Lawmakers Ask for Probe Into Russian Poisoning Case,” AP News, 9/8/2020
  • Michelle Lewis, “U.S. could restrict funds for ‘malign activities’ over Navalny poisoning,” Reuters, 9/10/2020
  • Paul Sonne and John Hudson, “Faced with Russia crises, Trump and top aides strike different tones,” Washington Post, 9/15/2020

POSSIBLE SANCTIONS

  • Shaun Walker, “Litvinenko suspects added to US sanctions list against Russia,” The Guardian, 1/10/2017
  • Alex Horton, “The Magnitsky Act, Explained,” Washington Post, 7/14/2017
  • “Russia, the Skripal Poisoning, and U.S. Sanctions,” Congressional Research Service, 8/14/2019
  • David E. Sanger, “Obama Strikes Back at Russia for Election Hacking,” New York Times, 12/29/2016
  • “Obama says destruction of MH17 is a ‘wake-up call’ for Europe,” The Guardian, 7/18/2014
  • Randall Mikkelsen, “Mumbai-like attack could happen in U.S. : Bush aide,” Reuters, 1/7/2009

BELARUS 

  • Masha Gessen, “So why try to assassinate Navalny now?” The New Yorker, 8/20/2020
  • Alex Ward, “How a homemaker with no political experience took on Europe’s longest-serving dictator,” Vox, 8/11/2020
  • “What’s happening in Belarus?” BBC News, 9/8/2020
  • “Russia used lessons from Georgia war in Ukraine conflict,” Euractive, 8/6/2018
  • Michael Carpenter & Vlad Kobets, “What Russia Really Has in Mind for Belarus,” Foreign Affairs, 9/8/2020

PRAGUE SPRING

  • State Department Office of the Historian, “Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia, 1968,” State.gov
  • Prague Spring Archive, UT Austin, 1/7/2019
  • Lyndon B. Johnson’s August 1968 phone call with then-candidate Richard Nixon, UVA Miller Center
  • “Archive: NBC Nightly News reports on Czechoslovakia’s 1989 Velvet Revolution,” NBC News, 5/22/2019

UNSUNG HEROES 

Lisa Monaco:

From CAFE, this is United Security. I’m Lisa Monaco.

Ken Wainstein:

And I’m Ken Wainstein.

Lisa Monaco:

Good morning Ken Wainstein.

Ken Wainstein:

Good morning. Good to see you, Lisa.

Lisa Monaco:

How are you doing?

Ken Wainstein:

I’m doing fine, moving into the early days of fall, missing summer.

Lisa Monaco:

I know it’s been great. The last couple of mornings, it’s felt fall like, which is a pleasant change.

Ken Wainstein:

Fall is in the air, I don’t wake up sweating and dealing with the humidity of D.C. and there’s actually football coming. Football is here. So, fall is officially here. In fact, it’s a little bit like the world has turned upside down because here in D.C., we have the World Championship Nationals, who won the World Series last year and now are fading into oblivion with a very subpar year and then the Washington football team lost its starting quarterback. Boston’s name, Boston’s Hall of Fame running back just pummeled the Philadelphia Eagles in the first game of the season. So, go figure.

Lisa Monaco:

That’s a great recap for the weekend sports.

Ken Wainstein:

Isn’t that what this program is?

Lisa Monaco:

Yeah, I really hope the ESPN folks don’t get worried that you’re coming for them. You’re going to pose a big challenge.

Ken Wainstein:

I’ve got a future in sports.

Lisa Monaco:

We won’t be talking anymore about football, but we have got lots to cover today. It feels a little bit, Ken, like it’s all Russia all the time with what we’ve got to talk about today.

Ken Wainstein:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). But it also indicates what kind of threat Russia is. I think one of the themes that we’re going to talk about today is that Russia is Russia, but to go back to that old Beatles song, back to the USSR in some ways. We’re seeing many parallels between what’s going on now and what went on back in the days of the Soviet Empire. Same repressive tactics within their country, same kind of efforts to rein in satellite states and develop satellite states. Same kind of reflexive efforts against us and Western European’s efforts to spread democracy. I think it’s worth a broadcast all to itself.

Lisa Monaco:

Well, you’re showing your full range here, Ken, between football commentary and now, Beatles references. I think, let’s just get straight into it. The first thing I think we need to talk about is what’s been going on with this poisoning of Russian opposition leader, Alexei Navalny. The whole story, Ken, is like right out of a Cold War spy novel.

Lisa Monaco:

I think we should first step back and figure out how did we get here and more to the point, how did Navalny get to Germany? Maybe we should just lay down some of the facts, I think. It starts on August 20th, almost a month ago, where this Russian opposition leader, Alexei Navalny seemed to have been poisoned in Siberia. He was in Siberia, they were organizing candidates to run in local elections, and he was traveling from Siberia back to Moscow, and he got violently ill on the plane as he was traveling from Siberia to Moscow. So ill, that that plane had to make an emergency landing.

Lisa Monaco:

The news is that we’re learning again, this comes from Navalny’s own Instagram account, and his own posting there. We’re learning that he may have been poisoned while he was at his hotel in Siberia. It includes discovery that the water bottle he was using, may have been laced with this poison. That comes from evidence that was gathered by his own team, his own lawyers and legal team that was with him in Siberia. They rushed… It’s really quite dramatic. It sounds like they rushed to the hotel to gather up evidence after he got really sick on this plane. So, they rushed to the hotel where he’d been staying to grab up this evidence.

Lisa Monaco:

Ultimately, they took it with them to Germany where it got tested. This is really a story that has had many twists and turns just over the last couple of weeks. It also, as you said at the outset, it’s got some eerie parallels to some recent events.

Ken Wainstein:

Yeah, it’s, as you say, right out of a John McCrae Cold War spy novel. As you said, he’s in the Siberian city of Tomsk, and he’s taking a flight back after having done some political mobilizing and trying to generate the vote for the opposition in Tomsk. Gets on the airplane, collapses. Obviously feels like something has been introduced into his system. The airplane then makes an emergency landing in Omsk. That was a flight from Tomsk to Omsk.

Lisa Monaco:

If this weren’t so dangerous and deadly serious, it would be amusing, that little play on words that you just made, but obviously… No, appreciate that.

Ken Wainstein:

Bad taste, but I couldn’t resist. They get them out in Omsk. The reports initially are that the Russian doctors there are holding on to him, denying that he has any kind of poison in his system despite the obvious symptoms of serious poisoning. It appears to his people that the doctors are still trying to hold on to him until the poison can take full effect and kill him. Speculation, but that’s what they read into that.

Ken Wainstein:

Eventually, they relent and allow Navalny to be released but only after his wife appeals to Putin directly in a public letter asking for him to be released. He gets released to an NGO, this group called Cinema for Peace Foundation, that flies an airplane in, charters a plane, picks him up and takes him to Germany where German doctors start to take care of him.

Ken Wainstein:

They immediately diagnose it as likely poisoning. They start getting treatment, and they saved his life. But for that NGO flying in there and pulling him out and the public pressure on Putin to allow him to be released and to leave the country, he probably would be dead today.

Lisa Monaco:

Yeah. Let’s talk about first, who is Navalny, and then talk about some of these, what are, I think, fascinating, dangerous parallels, because this whole thing fits a pattern of Russian behavior against dissident voices, against opposition figures, especially those like Navalny who have gained traction and who have gained a substantial following. Let’s just get some facts out on the table about who Navalny is.

Lisa Monaco:

As we’ve said, he’s a prominent opposition leader. He’s been very, very visible. He’s led protests in the past over disputed elections. He’s been a fierce critic of Putin. He’s called Putin the leader of a party of crooks and thieves. He’s not mincing any words, and he’s posed a real thorn in the side of Putin, frankly, and of his cronies, and he’s gained a real following over the years.

Lisa Monaco:

He mounted a campaign and an effort for Mayor of Moscow once in the past, he’s got this YouTube channel that he set up with about 4 million subscribers when he launched it. The whole purpose of that YouTube channel has been to expose corruption in the Russian government by Putin, by his cronies. He’s really cut quite a figure for himself in Russia and gained a real following, such that he has been the subject of repeated attempts to silence him.

Lisa Monaco:

This isn’t the first time that he has had some bad luck, to put it mildly, when it comes to things he’s ingested, and he’s found himself on the wrong end of a few events, which have a lot of parallels with efforts by the government to silence him.

Ken Wainstein:

Yeah. He’s seen as a particular threat to the Kremlin, because, as you said, he’s focused on corruption. In fact, that’s how he got his start back… He’s only in his 40s now, and he rose to prominence back in the late 00s, around 2008. His MO at that point was to get himself in as a minority shareholder in oil companies and other businesses that were booked in to the Kremlin, and they were engaged in corruption and to start asking questions, and he could do that as a minority shareholder and start pulling out information about the corrupt relationships between these businesses and the government.

Ken Wainstein:

Started to disclose that, as you said, on social media, took advantage of social media coming to the fore, really appealed to the youth and started building up a following. His focus on corruption has really been his calling card and gosh knows there’s lots of corruption around Putin and the Kremlin. That obviously was a direct threat to the oligarchy and to Putin.

Ken Wainstein:

On two occasions in the past, he’s had these mysterious maladies that he thought or, possible poisoning efforts. One, he ended up mysteriously having this allergic reaction of type he’d never had before. Face swelled up, and it was very extreme. He was never able to ascertain what it was, but that was his speculation at that time. Another time, somebody threw some green liquid in his face that really damaged his eye. Who knows who was responsible for these incidents, but they’re pretty clearly efforts to intimidate him, if they were, in fact, intentionally introduced into the system.

Ken Wainstein:

Then as you pointed out, the government has gone to great lengths to try to diminish him, to try to cause death by 1000 cuts. Step back for a second, obviously, there are different ways that the Kremlin can deal with people like this and have dealt with people like this. But the option or the route that they’ve opted to take here is to try to disable him.

Ken Wainstein:

Once he got to a point of popularity, then we’re really just sending him off to a gulag or whatever would cause more damage than good for the Kremlin, i.e. would generate sympathy and enthusiasm and be a rallying call for the opposition. They decided to instead try to undermine him with the use of the state judicial system. They brought these various spurious charges against him, ranging from embezzlement to fraud to accusing him of stealing some piece of street art, to accusing him of defrauding a French perfume company. Even saying that he had something to do with killing an elk. All efforts to try to bring charges against him, which would diminish his stature in the public eye, but also disable him from being a candidate.

Ken Wainstein:

As you pointed out, right after he announced that he was going to run against Putin, lo and behold, charges are lodged against him, which then prevent him from running as a candidate. No coincidence there, I’m sure.

Lisa Monaco:

Well, yeah, they literally locked him up so that he couldn’t run. But to show the force of the figure he’s become in Russia, he also got released after there were massive protests that were mobilized. There’s been this dance it seems or balance that they’ve tried to strike where they try and diminish him, as you’ve said, they try and take them off the field, literally and figuratively, take him off the political field during election times, but also, I think, been a concern about the massive outpouring of protest that some of these measures have taken.

Lisa Monaco:

He’s a serious figure. This has gotten a lot of attention. I think there’s a few things that we should all be very concerned about here. One is the repeated efforts, of course, of the Russian government to try and silence critics, where this Navalny episode fits within the long history of Russia’s efforts to silence opposition figures and the extreme lengths that they’ll go to do that. To the point of using banned chemical agents on both, it seems in this case on their own soil against a citizen of their country, but also, as we’ve seen in the recent past, in 2018, against those who have fallen into disfavor in the Kremlin’s eyes on foreign soil. Here that’s talking about the case of Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, who in 2018, were found unconscious in a park in Salisbury, England.

Lisa Monaco:

It was determined after investigation by the Brits into this, that they were poisoned with a nerve agent that was left on their doorknob of their home, of Skripal’s home. Now, Skripal, no angel, right? He was a double agent. He was a former GRU, that’s the military intelligence arm of the Russian government. He was a former GRU officer and he turned into a MI6, a British intelligence asset. He’s playing both sides, and fallen into disfavor with the Kremlin. He was in the UK in 2018, after having been traded in a spy swap with Russia.

Lisa Monaco:

Clearly, Russia was exacting revenge with this effort to poison him, and they were doing so in a very noisy and public way. They sent agents from Russia, to the UK, those guys used Russian passports and were caught on CCTV twice while they were walking around in Salisbury before they conducted this operation. It’s clear that the Russians wanted to make it known that they had the capability to do this. They did this against Skripal and his daughter, and used what was then found to be this nerve agent called Novichok, which turns out to be very similar, if not in the same nerve agent family as that which has now been found by the doctors in the system of Navalny while he’s been in Berlin.

Ken Wainstein:

it was developed by scientists under the Soviet Union, and they had a stockpile of it. We know that the Russian state would have access to it. But Skripal is a great example. I think the amazing aspect of that, while there are many amazing aspects, but one is that he actually went over to the UK as part of a spy swap. We swap somebody to the Russians that they want to protect. We got him or the Brits got him, so they can protect them. Then the Russians come around afterwards and try to kill the guys. It’s really not cricket.

Lisa Monaco:

No, it’s my cricket. Nice use of the British words. No, but it’s incredibly brazen. It just shows more and more the lengths to which the Russians will go to exert their power, to exert their influence. We’ll talk more about that when we talk about the situation in Belarus in a minute. That’s obviously one of the things that I think we should all be very, very concerned about in this Navalny episode, but we should also discuss the whodunit factor here, right?

Ken Wainstein:

Absolutely.

Lisa Monaco:

We know that Navalny’s got a bunch of opponents in Russia, up to, and including Putin. In the mystery element of this, who do you think done it?

Ken Wainstein:

Yeah, we’ll look, to answer that question, you have to go back and look at the background that we just discussed. Not only do we have the poisoning, but we have this whole record of the Russian state ginning up investigations and prosecutions to try to just disable him as an opposition candidate, which, when you think about it, would be like President Trump trying to gin up an investigation against his political opponent, Joe Biden. Wait a minute, that sounds vaguely familiar.

Lisa Monaco:

To soon.

Ken Wainstein:

Sorry. But it really is. It’s a blatant misuse of the state’s authority to dispense justice for political reasons. You have that that’s obviously state action, then you have this mysterious poisoning, right on the heels and in the midst of that state effort to try to disable them as a political opposition leader. You have to think at first, okay, is it the current leader of the Russian government, Vladimir Putin? Look, Putin has many, many reasons, and we’ve talked about them, for wanting Navalny to go away. Putin has shown that he cannot abide real opposition, he cannot abide criticism, especially criticism from somebody who’s as effective as Navalny.

Ken Wainstein:

Navalny is truly effective. He’s a complete package. He’s smart. He’s energetic. He’s personable. He’s got an earthy approach to people that make people gravitate to him. He has zeroed in on a topic for which the Kremlin is incredibly vulnerable, i.e. corruption, and that’s something that the people of Russia, going back to the days when they rebelled against the Tsar with the Russian Revolution, the Russian people are sensitive to, he seems to be uncorruptible himself, which is a rarity. He’s internationalist in his approach, he’s talking about the plight of other persecuted people like in Belarus, et cetera.

Ken Wainstein:

So, he’s incredibly famous, and that makes him seemingly untouchable. As Putin looks out across the political landscape as he’s nearing the end of his time, I think he and his people are feeling more and more insecure, and a threat like this is just something that they would need to deal with. A lot of reasons why Putin might well have ordered it himself.

Ken Wainstein:

Then just to round out that point, then there’s the possibility that Putin didn’t order it himself, but Putin has this whole cadre of people around him who are his henchmen, whom he empowers to go do his bidding, whether it’s go overseas and try to send private army members over to Syria to try to effectuate Russian foreign policy objectives, or taking care of dissidents.

Ken Wainstein:

He’s got this cadre of people, they are enabled, they’re enriched by being part of his inner circle, they have an interest in keeping Putin in place. They just take it in their own hands, and it takes it back to the Henry II Shakespeare play, the famous line, “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?” Where the king of course, is trying to get rid of Becket. Then sure enough, Becket gets killed by the Knights. He didn’t order it, but he made it clear.

Lisa Monaco:

Can I just comment on the fact we’ve gone from football, to the Beatles to Becket.

Ken Wainstein:

I’m a man for all seasons.

Lisa Monaco:

I know. It boggles the mind, I think, your range here. But look, I think he also, Navalny has proven himself a very dynamic thorn in the side of Putin and his supporters and his underlings. He famously, and I think this is… When I was reading about this, I thought it was particularly interesting, he famously used drones to fly over the former Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, to fly over his estates, to show the kind of opulence and the kind of palatial estate that Medvedev had, and he put those videos on social media, and they went viral, just exposing the corruption in the Kremlin system.

Lisa Monaco:

It’s clear he’s probably got enemies behind Putin to include oligarchs and other friends of Putin. Also, to include, he’s gotten on the wrong side of the oligarch who has finally announced the Internet Research Agency. That’s the name of the troll farm that the Mueller investigation found was the origin of a lot of the disinformation campaigns on social media that sought to disrupt our elections here in 2016. He’s got a lot of people who he’s made angry.

Lisa Monaco:

But, we should talk about the response to all of this. That’s the other thing, I think-

Ken Wainstein:

But first, I got to cite one thing.

Lisa Monaco:

Another Shakespeare reference?

Ken Wainstein:

No, this one’s a little more earthy. This is Putin’s former bodyguard, Victor Zolotov. He actually challenged Navalny to a duel [inaudible 00:20:43]

Lisa Monaco:

Pistols [inaudible 00:20:44]

Ken Wainstein:

Yeah, 18th century. He asked Navalny to take him up on a personal combat duel, and that they would step into the ring on the Judo mat. I’m quoting here, “And I promise to make juicy tenderized meat out of him.”

Lisa Monaco:

Oh my God.

Ken Wainstein:

Isn’t that beautiful?

Lisa Monaco:

Yeah.

Ken Wainstein:

You’re right. He’s got… He, Navalny has lots of enemies who are highly placed in the Kremlin and around the Kremlin, who might well have taken it upon themselves to try to neutralize him as a threat to their position.

Lisa Monaco:

I think the other thing we really need to be talking about with all this and why it’s so significant is, frankly, the very different approaches and different responses that the United States has had to this whole episode versus some of our international allies, and even within the United States, there have been different responses even within the government.

Lisa Monaco:

The State Department and senior officials in the State Department have gotten increasingly strong in their reactions and in their statements. But we’ve had mixed signals to put it mildly, coming out of the White House and coming from President Trump.

Lisa Monaco:

As I said, the statements have varied in strength from The State Department. The US ambassador to Russia has called for an investigation by Russia, which I tend to think is fairly meaningless. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo initially expressed his concern, but has gotten more aggressive of late in his statements around this. My reaction first and foremost, for us calling for a Russian investigation… That feels to me like serious fox, henhouse territory. We’ve now got the confirmed use of this nerve agent. I think there needs to be a considerably more forceful response.

Lisa Monaco:

In the last week or so, we’ve seen a mounting response from officials in the State Department, and particularly Deputy Secretary of State Steve Biegun. But President Trump has been really very, very weak on this to the point of not even acknowledging that this poisoning occurred.

Ken Wainstein:

Yeah, the Presidents silence has been deafening in a lot of ways. It’s important that even if you have the Secretary of State, Deputy Secretary of State, ambassador and others, saying the right thing, trying to put pressure on Russia, Russia listens to what the president says. Our allies, the EU countries are going to listen to what the president says, and he has barely even mentioned it, only in response to questions from reporters, and has gone to great pains to try to avoid pointing the finger at the Russian government.

Lisa Monaco:

Well, even his response to reporters has been barely intelligible first and been incredibly weak to the point of non-existence, right?

Ken Wainstein:

Yeah, he deflects attention to China, what about China?

Lisa Monaco:

And every other place. He was asked in a press briefing on September 4th, he was asked explicitly about the Navalny poisoning. He was asked explicitly about the German conclusion that in fact, Navalny was indeed poisoned, and he was asked what should be done? Trump’s first response was to question whether, in fact, the poisoning even occurred. Then he had this bizarre rambling response, where he praised himself for being tough on Russia, and then slid it over to his own view of his own good relations with North Korea. Oh, by the dictator of that country who killed his own half brother-

Ken Wainstein:

By poisoning. Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Lisa Monaco:

Mild aside there.

Ken Wainstein:

We all make mistakes.

Lisa Monaco:

Then he rambles into talking about the Afghanistan war, and he criticizes Germany for negotiating an energy pipeline with Russia. Then he decries the press for even bringing up Russia with him, and manages to work in a criticism and questioning of global warming in that whole response. That was all over. He did everything he could, literally, to not acknowledge that this was going on.

President Trump:

There’s nobody been tougher on Russia than I have. We get along… I get along with almost all countries. I get along with North Korea. Remember, we’re supposed to be going to war with North Korea. If Hillary got elected you’d be at war right now with North Korea. That would be a very messy warm very bad word.

Lisa Monaco:

He finally ambled back to the question and says, “Well, we don’t really know what happened. We don’t have proof, but it’s terrible. But we don’t really know what happened.” In the meantime, he’s got the world’s best intelligence community at his fingertips. You think he might ask them, “Hey, what do you think happened here?”

Ken Wainstein:

Right. Look, just based on the publicly available facts, it’s obvious that this was likely orchestrated by the Russian government at some level or as I said earlier, henchmen of the Russian leader. For the president not to say anything direct about this and to try to… He goes actually to great lengths to evade the question, says a lot, and it says a lot to Russia and to Putin, and I think empowers Putin to continue this kind of behavior because he sees there’s not going to be a response.

Ken Wainstein:

But keep in mind, this is not isolated. This has been a standard part of the President Trump playbook for a number of years. We remember that he sided with Putin against his own intelligence community on their findings, that Russia had intentionally interfered with our election. The Skripal situation, as you said, he expressed doubts in relation to the IC’s determination that this was a Russian assassination. I think he took on the Prime Minister May of Britain on that issue.

Ken Wainstein:

Recently, there have been reports about how he dismissed and didn’t act on his reports that the Russians were paying bounties for the deaths of US servicemen. This is of a kind with these prior incidents. As some have pointed out, it might even be getting worse because some of the people who used to be around him who were pretty hawkish toward Russia, like John Bolton and Fiona Hill are no longer around him. To the extent that he sees it’s politically beneficial for him to try and deflect attention away from Russia’s misdeeds, so that he won’t be tarnished by them because of his relationship with Russia. He’s got nobody around chasing him, and that’s very dangerous, because once again, Vladimir Putin takes his cues from what the president says and doesn’t say.

Lisa Monaco:

Can we talk for a minute about what, in a normal world might happen when you have this type of international event? I don’t know about your experience, but when I served in the White House as the Homeland Security Advisor, if there were and there were events like this, the use by Assad of chemical weapons against his own people comes to mind. When those types of international events happen, what has happened in the past and what frankly should happen is the next morning in the president’s daily briefing, that first meeting of the day that presidents have historically had with their senior intelligence team, the president should be asking for an assessment. “What does our intelligence community think? What’s our best thinking on what happened here? What do we think was the reason for it? What were the intentions behind it? How certain are we? And then what can we do working with our allies to make this public, to call this out, to isolate this activity? So, share information with our allies, condemn it strongly, work with our allies with multilateral organizations like the UN to cause attention on it, and to summon a collective response to show that we’re not going to tolerate it or we’re going to call it out.”

Lisa Monaco:

We should know, a version of that did happen in response to the Skripal incident that we talked about that happened in 2018 after the British concluded and reported to the international community that this was done with this banned chemical weapon. The US did join, the Trump administration did join with our allies to condemn that activity, to sanction it, to expel Russian diplomats from the United States and Russian diplomats were expelled from the UK and other countries.

Lisa Monaco:

So, there was a collective action and a coming together to really condemn this incredible brazen act of use of a chemical weapon on foreign soil. There is some precedent for that happening. One wonders, what’s going on here, and why they can’t summon and muster the same organization in response to the Navalny episode. Now, we should know, Pompeo has recently gone further on this. He has called it out, he has joined a statement with the G7, the group of industrialized nations to really strongly condemn this activity. But as you say, Ken, the Russians and frankly, the rest of the international community is watching what our White House says. They’re watching what President Trump says, and it’s a real mixed message.

Ken Wainstein:

Right. It just highlights the point that we’re not on the sidelines. Whether we want to be or not, the United States is a world leader-

Lisa Monaco:

Well we are on the sidelines, unfortunately, but we shouldn’t be.

Ken Wainstein:

But we can’t be. Everybody looks to us to be on the field, and we can’t be on the sidelines. On this one, we are. Just to go back to your experience of the White House, I had the same experience and it was actually quite heartening once I got there to see whenever there was an incident around the world, our interests were necessarily involved to one degree or another because we are a world leader. When that happened, there was a process in place where all the cabinet officers who had an equity in that situation would gather, and we would consider the response, the immediate response and then a long term response.

Ken Wainstein:

I think back to the example that you just gave, to the Mumbai attacks in 2008, and that was terrorists out of Pakistan attacking Mumbai and killing 160, 170 people, horrific attack. Of course, that had multi-layered issues. They were dealing with who were the attackers? Why did they do it, how they do it? How do we bring justice to them? But it was also this tinderbox of a relationship between Pakistan and India, and this could be the match that could set it off to nuclear powers. So, we had to deal with that.

Ken Wainstein:

It was the United States stepping in diplomatically, militarily with our intelligence community, to try to defuse a tense situation, but also to send the message that this is of importance to us, and we’re going to help, in that case, the two parties deal with it. The analogy is there and I think that model is something that we’ve seen throughout our government service being employed every time something like this happens. My fear is that that’s not really happening, and that goes back to one of the themes we’ve struck in all these broadcasts, which is the importance of what is called the Interagency process, having a vibrant, strong process by which all the members of the various national security related agencies are prepared and ready to step in, work together at a moment’s notice to deal with these kind of situations.

Ken Wainstein:

I fear that’s some of the… One part of the reason why we are on the sidelines, is that process has fallen apart. It’s not as strong as it has been in the past, and as a result, even if the president were inclined to have a strong response, we just don’t have the process in place to bring it about, at least not in a timely manner, where we’re actually going to have a strong impact on our adversaries in particular, like Russia.

Lisa Monaco:

Yeah, and it appears that what we’ve got is a White House and a State Department that are increasingly at odds on this particular issue on the issue of Russia. You’ve got folks like the Deputy Secretary of State, who’s I think, generally well thought of, Steve Biegun, who’s become the point person on Russia. In the last couple of weeks, he’s been doing the type of diplomacy you would expect in response to this situation. He’s criticized the Russians for failing to follow through on investigation or to launch one. He’s called out the use of the nerve agent and the use of nerve agents like this anywhere to include on their own territory. He’s pushed allies to condemn the poisoning.

Lisa Monaco:

Those have been strong statements and actions that are in the mainstream of what you would expect our senior diplomats to be doing. But the problem is, those actions are overshadowed and frankly undercut by this silence from the White House. It gets to the point where it’s a real challenge because what are our allies to think?

Lisa Monaco:

The other thing, Ken, that comes to mind from my experience when I served in the White House is how we responded and worked with the international community to respond to the downing of a Malaysian airline flight that ended up killing 283 passengers. It was a civilian airliner in July 2014, people may recall this, fell out of the sky in Europe, over Ukraine, and it turns out our intelligence and working with the international community we exposed very quickly, the fact that it was downed by a surface to air missile, a Russian surface to air missile that was seemingly operating out of pro-Russian controlled territory in the Donbass region.

Lisa Monaco:

This was obviously in the context of the Russian annexation of Crimea that happened, and its activity in the Ukraine. We moved very quickly to declassify the intelligence that our intelligence community had gathered to understand what had happened here and worked with the international community to expose this. That’s the kind of thing that the United States has done historically when faced with such an important international incident that exposes the malign activity of an adversary like Russia.

Ken Wainstein:

Right. Then beyond just calling out malign activity by an adversary, there are a number of different options for sanctions and responses that can be used in situations like this. One that comes to mind, of course, is the Magnitsky Act. The Magnitsky Act is named for a man by the name of Sergei Magnitsky, who was a Russian lawyer who devoted his life to trying to figure out what kind of graft and corruption was going on in the midst of the Russian government. His reward for that was getting arrested and then being killed.

Ken Wainstein:

In response, we passed the Magnitsky Act which provided for blocking the responsible government officials and related businessmen from entering the United States, froze their assets and banned them from using the US banking system. That act then has been more broadly applied to human rights abuses in general. In fact, that it was something that had a little cameo in the whole Mueller situation because that lawyer who attended a meeting in June 2016 at the Trump Tower from Russia, that got a lot of play in this whole investigation, she was there specifically to try to persuade the then candidate Trump to overturn the Magnitsky Act because it’s something that really has gotten under the skin of the Russian oligarchs.

Lisa Monaco:

Proving once again that all roads lead back to Trump Tower.

Ken Wainstein:

It’s the center of the universe. But that’s one of the options that’s out there. In fact, you all invoke that, did you not, in January 2017, I believe, after it was determined that the Russians are responsible for the poisoning of Litvinenko.

Lisa Monaco:

Right.

Ken Wainstein:

I think that was right as you guys were leaving the White House, along with the sanctions that were applied for the election interference.

Lisa Monaco:

That’s exactly right. Again, that Litvinenko poisoning was something that, it took about 10 years for the British to conduct an inquiry, conclude that this guy, Litvinenko was poisoned while he was at a London hotel, and was poisoned, they determined by the Russians. Ended up that conclusion was made, the British released its report. Literally in the waning days of the Obama administration, there were sanctions levied under the Magnitsky Act against the perpetrators of that poisoning. That was done also along with the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats and intelligence officers who are operating here in the United States, the closure of two facilities, Russian facilities here in the United States that were being used as diplomatic cover, but we’re really operating as intelligence operations and listening posts here in the United States.

Lisa Monaco:

All of that was done on the heels of and in response to the attack on our election in 2016, as well as other Russian aggression against our people, many of our diplomats and others in Russia. That was, we’ve used that Magnitsky Act before and other sanctions, the election interference sanctions that we put in place for malicious cyber activity. Those are the types of tools that we have used in the past to try and respond to this type of activity.

Lisa Monaco:

We should also, by the way, can put in a plug on the Magnitsky Act, because it featured prominently in an episode of Stay Tuned. Preet had a great interview with Bill Browder, who is the individual here in the United States who had hired Sergei Magnitsky to do the work that ultimately ended up getting him this attention and throwing him in prison, where he unfortunately did die.

Ken Wainstein:

Yeah. Then just to move on to other areas by which we could force the Russians to pay a penalty, there’s a whole regime, we won’t get into the details, but a whole regime under the Chemical and Biological Weapons Act and the Chemical Weapons Convention by which we can hold the country to account for their use of chemical weapons. In fact, the Trump administration did exactly that, after it was determined that the Russians were responsible for the Skripal poisoning and that resulted in, I think, a number of countries, 26 different countries expelling over 150 Russian diplomats and we expelled 60 of the Russian diplomats who we thought were intelligence operatives and then closed the Russian consulate in Seattle, all as a sanction growing out of the finding under that legislation that Russia was responsible for the use of that chemical weapon.

Ken Wainstein:

There is a regime that can be resorted to, that has been resorted to, including by this administration, and it’s very effective, and it’s something that sends a message. My hope is that ultimately, we’ll see something like that grow out of the Navalny situation as well.

Lisa Monaco:

There’s going to be mounting pressure to have exactly that. I noticed that there’s been a bipartisan call now from members in the house, to the White House, to use some of these tools, most recently from two members; a Democrat and a republican from the House of Representatives. More to come on this.

Ken Wainstein:

One of the key questions here in deciding what kind of response we should make is, why did the Russians do this now? Why Poison Navalny now? This guy has been out there since 2008. He’s been gaining steam and has a real following. Up to now, except for those two weird situations where they might have tried to poison him before, why try to kill him now? Some have speculated that maybe it’s because he’s getting traction, and in fact, the election returns in some of the recent elections showed that he, Navalny, and his efforts have really eaten into the electoral results of Putin and his party.

Ken Wainstein:

But then others have said that maybe this is a matter of Putin looking to what’s going on in Belarus right now, having concern that maybe that kind of agitation within Belarus and the demonstrations and expressions of desire for freedom in Belarus could end up bleeding over into Russia, and maybe that’s one of the reasons why he decided to get more aggressive against Navalny. What do you think?

Lisa Monaco:

As you said, Ken, this isn’t the first time that Navalny has encountered some, what did you call them, mysterious maladies? But other smart Kremlin watchers, in addition to yourself have said there might be two possible explanations to the timing of this attack on Navalny. One is maybe it’s an accident, not the poisoning itself, but the timing of it, in other words. Was there an ambitious, somebody close in the Kremlin, who wasn’t maybe given explicit authority, but is looking to be an overachiever here. The other possible explanation is that the Kremlin and Putin in particular is seeing these protests happening in Belarus, these massive protests that are rising up in opposition to the dictator there, Alexander Lukashenko, who’s been in power for some 26 years, which, by the way, Putin’s been in office for 20. So, he may think, but for the grace of God, go on, right?

Lisa Monaco:

The people in Belarus have shown that there is, even in their own country where the institutions there have been so dominated by this autocratic head of their country, Lukashenko that the people can still rise up and assert some power and express their view that enough is enough. If you’re an autocrat, whether it’s like Lukashenko or Putin, you might be looking around and saying, “How else am I going to deal with this except by suppressing and putting down to the point of poisoning the presumptive leader of those uprisings, and of that opposition?” I think it would be a mistake not to see these things linked in some way.

Ken Wainstein:

Also, I want to say that I appreciate you naming me as a Kremlin watcher, adding to my resume, along with being a professional sports savant and an expert in Shakespeare. Thank you for that. It doesn’t take a seasoned Kremlin watcher to see the connection here between Putin’s efforts to rein in the opposition within his own country and the threat that he sees mirrored in what’s going on over in Belarus. Just to frame what is happening in Belarus, it’s a country that’s right smack dab between Russia and Poland and Western Europe, and it’s incredibly strategically important to Russia. It was… The Ukraine back in the Soviet day, were, the two of them and Russia were the core of the Soviet Union.

Ken Wainstein:

Putin and the Russian government feel very strongly that Belarus needs to remain in its sphere of influence and cannot drift toward the West. Obviously, one of the main signs of drifting toward the west is starting to engage in democratic reforms. The question is, what is Putin going to do to prevent that from happening? He’s got a somewhat of a fraught, tense relationship with Lukashenko, who as you say, is an old school, autocratic dictator.

Ken Wainstein:

The early indications are that Putin is playing it in a very crafty way. He’s not just taking the old playbook of the Soviets and rolling tanks in to Belarus. He did that with Georgia, and he’s seen the consequences of that. He did that in Ukraine, that hasn’t turned out so well. He’s trying to be a little craftier, and he’s sending media personnel in there to try to control the media, to depict the protesters as agents of foreign influence, rather than as Belarusians who are just trying to express their need for independence and freedoms.

Ken Wainstein:

He’s also sending people in to help. This report suggests he’s sending people in to help the government, not just go in and do mass arrests, which generates more and more sympathy, but to take out the opposition leaders very surgically, which would be consistent with what he did with Navalny. This is a developing situation, but the fact that the Russians seem to be inserting themselves more aggressively into what’s going on in Belarus, add that to what we’ve seen Putin or his circle willing to do with Navalny, and it shows that this might be a regime, the Russian regime that’s getting more and more concern for security and willing to resort to more and more extreme measures.

Lisa Monaco:

Ken, your reference to the actions in Georgia, the former satellite Soviet state there, reminds me of other parallels that are relevant here. Just a month ago, Ken, the current president of the Czech Republic, Andrej Babiš, and I hope I haven’t really mangled his name. He tweeted about this potential parallel between what’s going on in Belarus today and the Russian invasion of then Czechoslovakia in 1968.

Lisa Monaco:

He tweeted and I quote, “1968 must not happen again in Belarus. The European Union must act. They must encourage the Belarussians not to be afraid to implement the Velvet Revolution model of November 1989.” Really, it’s a very stark call out by the current president of the Czech Republic to the history of 1968 and the then Soviet invasion of the neighboring country of Czechoslovakia. It’s really quite a stark point of reference from somebody who likely is feeling it quite acutely just on the periphery there in Czechoslovakia.

Ken Wainstein:

Yeah. That was a period called the Prague Spring in 1968, where the Czech’s tried to step away from Soviet control, they tried to loosen up the constraints on their society, allowed for a resurgence and literary expression that had been repressed, loosened up personal freedoms, and of course, the Soviets then moved in and took out the government of the Prague Spring, the new liberalizing government and put it in a hardliner to remain there. That Soviet control government remained in place until 1989, which is you say was the time of the Velvet Revolution, which is when the Czechs finally cast aside that authoritarian government, and they opted for self-determination. That was the same time as the rest of Eastern Europe, got released from the bonds of the Soviet Empire The Velvet Revolution obviously was a much happier ending than what happened in 1968.

Lisa Monaco:

Well, it’s interesting because our intrepid historical researchers at CAFE were able to come up with a recording that is now housed in the History Center at the University of Virginia, your alma mater, I might call out. It’s got this fascinating excerpt from a phone call between President Johnson and Nixon about what was going on literally, in real time what was going on in 1968 as the tanks are rolling in to Czechoslovakia, the then Soviet ambassador to the United States alerted President Johnson to the invasion, and he did so at the White House on August 20th, 1968.

Lisa Monaco:

The reports are that Johnson who had been really following this all very closely, what was happening in Prague was quite upset when Dobrynin, who was then the Russian ambassador to the United States, told him that the Czech leadership had lost confidence in their leader, Dubček, and that they themselves had ordered the invasion, which of course was not accurate.

Lisa Monaco:

It turns out late in the evening on August 20th, when all of these events were unfolding in Czechoslovakia, Johnson, the sitting president, in the White House calls the Republican candidate, the then Republican candidate for president, Richard Nixon, and they talk for over 15 minutes about the invasion, and about what the Dobrynin had reported to Johnson and Johnson’s confusion about what the US could do about all this.

President Johnson:

Today, [inaudible 00:50:37] the Soviet Ambassador came in having called a short time earlier and said he had an urgent message from [inaudible 00:50:45] He read to me a two page statement, the net of which was that the Soviet and the East Germans and the Poles and others were invading Czechoslovakia in response to a request by the Czech government. He said, this was not a matter that affected the United States’ national interest.

Ken Wainstein:

Then the next day after that conversation that he had with candidate Nixon, President Johnson went out and gave a public statement about the events in Czechoslovakia in which he made it very clear that he, and the United States were condemning what they were doing in Czechoslovakia.

President Johnson:

The tragic news from Czechoslovakia shocks the conscience of the world. The Soviet Union and its allies have invaded a defenseless country to stamp out a resurgence of ordinary human freedom. It is a sad commentary on the communist mind that a sign of liberty in Czechoslovakia is deemed a fundamental threat to the security of the Soviet system.

Lisa Monaco:

In contrast, in November of 1989, we saw then vice president, George H.W. Bush, who had just been elected president himself, praise the reemergence of democratic movements in Prague and elsewhere.

Speaker 5:

In Washington, President Bush applauded today’s developments.

George H.W. Bush:

The people of Czechoslovakia have the same aspirations for freedom that others have, and I would expect we’d see further changes there, just as we have seen in Poland, Hungary, and then in the German Democratic Republic.

Lisa Monaco:

As we wait to see how Russia responds to the movement underway in Belarus, we’ll have to watch and see as the current president of the Czech Republic suggests whether today’s events and the current events will look more like 1968 or like 1989.

George H.W. Bush:

In the meantime, our hopes and prayers will be with the people of Belarus.

Lisa Monaco:

Here, here.

Ken Wainstein:

Before we go, let’s not forget we have an unsung hero that we want to give a shout out for, or heroes in this case, and given the topic today about the use of chemicals and chemical weapons, potentially by a foreign state, I think it’s worth talking about the people whose job it is and mission is to help enforce the various prohibitions against the use of chemical weapons around the world.

Lisa Monaco:

Right. Those would be the representatives of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. It’s a group that was founded in the late 1990s as basically being a watchdog for the use of, and the misuse of chemical weapons and the evasion of the Chemical Weapons Convention, which is an arms treaty that was signed by about 193 nations including Russia, I might add.

Lisa Monaco:

This OPCW, this organization is put in place to ensure transparency and protection in international cooperation around this watchdog function for the misuse of chemical weapons, weapons that have been banned by the international community. They do really important work, and they’re the type of organization that comes into play when countries and adversaries are using these banned weapons, and they’ve figured prominently in some of the events that we talked about today from the Skripal poisoning to others. These folks do really important work to be the watchdogs of the misuse of these types of chemical weapons.

Ken Wainstein:

We’ll stay tuned to see their role in the aftermath of the Navalny poisoning, just like they did with the Skripal poisoning, I’m sure they’ll play a central role in ascertaining what happened and then focusing on the wrongdoer.

Lisa Monaco:

That’s all we’ve got time for today, Ken. We’ll be back in two weeks.

Ken Wainstein:

In the meantime, please send us your questions at [email protected] and we’ll do our very best to answer them in our next episode.

Lisa Monaco:

Till next time.

Lisa Monaco:

That’s it for this week’s episode of The United Security Podcast. Your hosts are Lisa Monaco, and Ken Wainstein. The executive producer is Tamara Sepper. The senior Producer is Adam Waller. The Senior Audio Producer is David Tatasciore. And the CAFE team is David Kurlander, Nat Wiener, Matthew Billy, Sam Ozer-Staton, Noa Azulai, Jake Kaplan, Calvin Lord, Geoff Isenman, Chris Boylan, Sean Walsh, and Margot Maley. Our music is by Allison Leyton Brown. Thank you for being a part of the CAFE Insider community.