Daniel Treisman, 53, is one of the leading US experts on Russian politics and economics. A professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles and a research associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research, he was educated at Oxford University and Harvard University, from which he graduated in 1995 with a Ph.D. Treisman has published four books and many articles in political science and economics journals, as well as in public affairs journals like Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy. He has also served as a consultant for the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and as acting director of UCLA's Center for European and Eurasian Studies.
In Russia, he is a member of the International Advisory Committee of the Higher School of Economics and a member of the Jury of the National Prize in Applied Economics. Treisman has been a Guggenheim Fellow and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution (Stanford) and the Institute for Human Sciences (Vienna), and has received fellowships from the German Marshall Fund of the US and the Smith Richardson Foundation. His latest book "The New Autocracy: Information, Politics, and Policy in Putins Russia" has been published this month by Brookings Institution Press.
WZ: Indictments against Russian citizens tied to the Kremlin for election meddling in D.C., American soldiers killing Russian mercenaries in Syria, Russia developing space weapons in partnership with China: Professor Treisman, how would you describe the state of U.S.-Russian relations in 2018?
Daniel Treisman: The relationship is characterized by multiple conflicts at different levels, along with a few remaining areas of possible cooperation. For instance, the US would like Russia to be part of the coalition pressuring North Korea to halt its nuclear weapons program, and there is a shared interest in avoiding clashes in Syria like the one that recently occurred. Managing the conflicts is unusually difficult for several reasons. To name just two, Russia policy in the US is being made or at least strongly influenced from multiple centers – the White House, Congress, the State Department, and, indirectly, the judicial system, including Robert Mueller. And, second, Russia appears committed to a policy of weakening the West through covert actions, which makes it hard to resolve any problems through open dialogue.
Russia tried to interfere in the last presidential election, and there are clear signs its efforts are going to continue. Are there any specific goals the Russians want to achieve, or is it really just to further sow distrust and undermine the American political process? What's the endgame here? Is there even one?
I think that top Russian decision-makers believe that Western governments – first and foremost, the US – are using all methods to undermine the Putin regime. The response is to play the same game, using covert techniques to fan internal conflicts in the West and undermine public trust in Western governments and systems. I think Russia views this kind of competition as the normal state of play between major powers. There is no endgame. This is the "new normal."
What does all of that mean for future U.S.-Russian relations? Where to go from here? And what are the implications for the rest of the world?
Western countries need to walk a fine line. They need to significantly increase Western defenses against attempts at covert subversion. But they need to do so without exaggerating the Russian threat or becoming hysterical. We need far more effective monitoring of Russian efforts to spread propaganda on social networks and the Internet. There also need to be public education campaigns to enable Internet users to identify attempts to manipulate them from abroad. We need to work harder at detecting and preventing foreign actors from financing or otherwise helping extremist parties in the West. And we need to be investing a lot in improving the security of infrastructure and computer systems against cyberwarfare.
On March 18, Russia will hold the first round of its presidential elections, and there's virtually no doubt who's going to come out on top. Please explain why Vladimir Putin looks like a shoe-in for another term.
Unless something truly unexpected happens, Putin will be reelected on March 18. The Kremlin has excluded any candidates who might pose a genuine threat. Most significantly, Alexei Navalny has not been allowed to run. So Russian voters see no serious alternative to Putin. At the same time, his annexation of Crimea remains enormously popular. For Russians, this has turned Putin into a truly historical figure.
In the West, more often than not everything seems to focus on Putin himself. When it comes to what's going on inside Russia: To what (or who) should the West pay more attention aside from him but doesn't?
In a recent book I wrote with a team of Russian experts and Western scholars, I argue that Russian politics these days operates in two alternating modes. The first – "normal politics" or "autopilot" – operates when Putin doesnt personally get involved. In such cases, and this includes the vast majority of state business, outcomes are determined by often-vicious clashes between bureaucratic factions, security agents, business actors, regional elites, and powerful individuals. This looks nothing like the well-oiled dictatorship that some people imagine. These clashes are fought out between factions in the Duma, in the bureaucracy, the media, and law enforcement, using any methods available. The second system – "manual control" (in Russian, ruchnoe upravlenie) – kicks in when Putin takes a clear stand. Then orders are indeed dictated from above, although poor preparation, practical difficulties, and corruption often interfere with implementation. Of course, it makes sense to focus first on Putin. But then we need to understand the nature of the second rank actors, the bureaucratic factions, regional heavyweights, business leaders, media executives and so on. Kremlin policies are directed from the Presidential Administration, often without direct coordination by Putin. And then, especially more recently, the Kremlin has been using a whole range of free-lancers, who are authorized to work on some particular problem, often using covert methods. These are often individuals from Putins entourage. All this infrastructure of Russian power, much of it concealed, is important. And, of course, there have been major changes in Russian society over the last 20 years.
By the time he's going to serve out his term, Putin's going to be 71 years old. What is he going to focus on in what's perhaps going to be his last term as president?
Succession. The key preoccupation will be finding someone "safe" to whom he can hand over the Kremlin.
What's the lasting impact of Putinism going to be within Russia?
The country has modernized rapidly since 2000. Russians are highly educated, with much higher incomes than when Putin first took over. They are sophisticated users of technology, internationally linked, and more modern in outlook than one might think from reading some Western coverage. A transition from Putinism could be painful and disruptive. But in the medium term I think Russia will end up with a more open and participatory political regime. However, this will also depend on whether – when Putins regime comes to an end – the West proves ready to create a new relationship, or whether Western actions fuel defensive Russian nationalism.
What's the lasting impact of Putinism going to be concerning Russia's foreign policy?
Putins regime has created certain problems that will be very difficult to resolve. From the point of view of the West, annexing Crimea violated international law. That issue will be hard to manage even by a Russian regime that wants a better relationship with the West. It is too early to predict certain other legacies of Putinism. It may be that Russia succeeds in weakening the EU and NATO. Alternatively, it might be that Russias actions in Ukraine now lead to a strengthening of NATOs Eastern defenses. We will have to wait and see about this.