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'The Atlantic': What Putin Really Wants


Every year at about this time, Russian President Vladimir Putin takes questions in a marathon press conference. Almost all of the questions are softballs. You might expect that. There is a whole lot of applause. But at this year's press conference, which happened yesterday, ABC News reporter Terry Moran put a question to Putin about Russia's involvement in the U.S. presidential election. Here's how Putin answered.


PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Through interpreter) Why do you have this spy hysteria - Russia-meddling hysteria?

MARTIN: Hysteria. So the U.S. is still investigating what Russia did and when they did it. And that is something journalist Julia Ioffe has thought quite a lot about. She's written a piece for The Atlantic titled "What Putin Really Wants." And she joins us now. Julia, thanks for being with us.

JULIA IOFFE: Thanks for having me, Rachel.

MARTIN: There's been this tendency to paint Russia's interference in the U.S. election as this highly calculated, very organized, coordinated effort. You found that Russians had a very different take on what happened. How so?

IOFFE: Well, they see Russia the way they - they see the interference the way they see their everyday lives in Russia - as messy, uncoordinated, kind of ad hoc, knee-jerk. And that really was how the Russians interfered in the election. It was a very - you know, one Obama administration official called it throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what would stick. It was a very emotional, ad hoc, improvised attack.

MARTIN: You write - it's a great line in here - that when people ask if Putin plays chess or checkers, it's neither. He plays blackjack, which reveals a lot. Like this is a guy who just really can tolerate a lot of risk. And sometimes it pays off, as it did in the presidential election.

IOFFE: Right, but sometimes the risk immediately blows back on him. So the victories are often Pyrrhic, as it was with the interference in the presidential election. The FSB, the, you know...

MARTIN: Russian Security Services.

IOFFE: Exactly, exactly - is now - there are agents on there that are on the FBI's cyber most-wanted list. They used to be great allies in the fight against terror. Sanctions are now sealed in place for the next generation or so. Russia lost even more diplomatic compounds. Relations have never been worse between Russia and the U.S. They're even worse than they were under the Obama administration. Every meeting - every - any kind of interlude between the Russians and the Americans is immediately viewed with suspicion. That was never even the case under Obama. So he certainly did not get what he wanted. There's definitely a lot of buyer's remorse in Moscow.

MARTIN: What about among Russians? I mean, what are just ordinary Russians say about it?

IOFFE: Well, I think a lot of ordinary Russians don't know what to think. They've gotten so much different information about, you know, how they didn't meddle in the elections. But I think they had a lot of hopes for Donald Trump. And what a lot of Russians now say is that his hands are tied - that he'd like - and it's actually - it was actually echoed by Vladimir Putin himself at this press conference. He said Trump would like to improve relations with the U.S. - oh, sorry - with Russia. But he is not allowed to by the foreign policy national security establishment in Congress in Washington.

MARTIN: You make the argument that so much of the U.S. investigation has been focused on what happened in 2016. And little is being done to focus on the future - what might happen in 2018 or 2020. What are some of the blind spots and vulnerabilities for the U.S.?

IOFFE: Well, the problem is that the - what happened in 2016 wasn't about Trump. It was about undermining our democracy. It was a national security issue. It wasn't about Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. And the Russians did not expect Donald Trump to win. So making - so far, the investigation into what happened in the Russian interference in the presidential election has been focused on Trump and whether there was collusion and whether he'll be impeached - as opposed to a national security issue and what we can do to protect our upcoming elections in less than a year and what we can do do to improve, for example, media literacy in this country so that people can distinguish, you know, fake news put out there by some Russian troll and, you know, an article from The New York Times or The Washington Post or NPR.

MARTIN: Julie Ioffe, her piece "What Putin Really Wants" is in the latest issue of the Atlantic. Thanks so much for talking with us, Julia.

IOFFE: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.