As U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign intensifies, Lisa Sundstrom, associate professor of political science, discusses President Vladimir Putin’s motivations, Russian sentiment and the history of kompromat (Russian for “compromising material”).
What misconceptions do people in the west have about Russia?
One is this idea that all Russians, like their government, hate the west. That’s not really true. Russians, on the whole, tend to like Americans and people from other Western countries, but they don’t really like the American government’s policies in the world towards Russia and in the world generally. They don’t like President Trump, and they didn’t really like President Obama either.
What is kompromat, and how is it used in Russia?
Kompromat is a condensed Russian word meaning “compromising materials.” There’s a long tradition of it being used in the Soviet and early post-Soviet period, often by intelligence agents. In a more contemporary democratic context it tends to be used by politicians or business people who are trying to gain an advantage over opponents or competitors. It can be quite pernicious, because sometimes there are intentional efforts to lure people into compromising situations and then document it in order to blackmail them with the threat of exposure. One famous scheme is what’s called the “honey pot,” in which people are lured into sexual relationships. It could be an extra-marital relationship or, because there is such widespread homophobia in Russia, sometimes it involves a same-sex relationship or other social taboo.
How likely are the Russians to have kompromat on Trump?
I think it’s pretty likely that there is, or that Trump believes there is. I have a hard time understanding a logical reason why Trump is behaving the way he is, with respect to Putin in particular. He never says anything bad about the man, and resists any attempts by Congress to tighten up policy on Russia to make it more hostile. Meanwhile, he’s constantly attacking leaders who are supposedly firm allies, like Trudeau, May and Merkel. I have a feeling that it’s less likely to be the sort of sexual scandals than it is financial misdealing, or perhaps debts owed to Russian businesspeople tied to Putin.
What does Putin want in terms of the geo-political landscape?
I prickle a little bit when I hear commentators saying that Putin wants to restore the borders of the old Soviet Union. I think he wants certain parts of the old Soviet Union that could be strategically useful or provide resource wealth; I don’t think he wants certain parts of the Caucasus or of Central Asia back. What Putin really wants is to create enough instability to weaken other countries around him, and thereby have more latitude to do whatever he wants.
Putin’s popularity within Russia remains high. Why is that?
Throughout his presidency, his approval rating has been around 70 per cent or higher–a dream for any western democratic leader. Putin’s popularity has been based partly in his image of strength—he is famously a teetotaller and he is very physically fit, in contrast to many leaders who preceded him.
Until 2014, the economy had been really performing well. Russians were enjoying infrastructure improvements, incomes and state benefits were increasing, and most people felt like they were doing better. But following the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and resulting international economic sanctions, and periods of slumping oil prices, the economy has been suffering. In response, the government has been decreasing state benefits, especially with a very unpopular pension reform right now. As a result, Putin’s popularity rating is at a historic low of about 40 per cent.
How are average Russian citizens reacting to the current news cycle?
Most Russians purposely stay away from politics as much as possible to try and keep their heads down. So much of the Russian media that’s visible is constrained and largely self-censored. People have to actively seek out hardcore investigative news. That’s part of the trouble. They may not necessarily agree with the government, but they try to ignore it as much as possible. I’m afraid of that happening in the United States, with the endless scandals and controversies of the Trump administration—that people will become so numb and traumatized that they can’t deal with paying attention to the news anymore.