Mitt Romney was not among the attendees at the first-ever PutinCon, a day-long symposium held in New York City on March 16, but his spirit hovered over the gathering. The former Republican candidate for president, briefly in the running to become Secretary of State under Donald Trump, famously declared in 2012 that the Russian Federation was America’s “No. 1 geopolitical foe.”
President Obama pounced. “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back,” he taunted in one debate, “because the Cold War’s been over now for 20 years.” Romney later hedged, but the damage was done. His campaign never regained its footing.
As it turns out, Romney had a point.
“He was probably right,” Michael Carpenter, a former assistant secretary of defense and a foreign policy adviser to vice president Joe Biden (he now runs the Biden Center at UPenn), admitted to Task & Purpose during a coffee break. “Russia was not being as aggressive back then as it is now, and I think there was a somewhat naive hope that if we drew a thick red line under the bad behavior the Russians engaged in prior to Obama, the most egregious being the invasion of Georgia, that somehow they might shift their behavior and become more cooperative. That premise in retrospect turned out to be false.”
While Carpenter argued that the so-called “reset” with Russia did achieve some positive results, including the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and sanctions on Iran, “There was an element of naivete among a lot of officials about the fact that the Russian state had been captured by the ex-KGB elite, and that was sort of inexcusable.”
Although PutinCon was at heart a deeply wonky event, with sessions devoted to Putin’s rise to power, his possible psychopathology, his manipulation of the democratic process, control of the media, financial corruption, military adventurism, state-sponsored killings, and aggressive use of propaganda to undermine Western democracies, the organizers made every effort to sex things up. The venue, a closely guarded secret until a day before showtime, turned out to be an Off-Broadway theater that hosts Jersey Boys and Avenue Q.
While there was sadly no cosplay going on — nobody sported a judo get-up or arrived shirtless on horseback — the day’s chief antagonist was presented as the living embodiment of a comic book supervillain. His grim, icy visage greeted attendees at check-in and loomed over the stage. His origin story and his dark psychology were presented in mythic terms. And the speakers comprised a Justice League of the anti-Putin elite, including the event’s host, chess grandmaster, and longtime dissident Garry Kasparov; investor Bill Browder, the architect of the Magnitsky Act; journalist Masha Gessen; U.S. Attorney-turned-podcaster Preet Bharara, and Russian democracy activist Vladimir Kara-Murza, the survivor of two poisoning attempts, who offered up a full-throated denunciation of the Putin regime and a stirring call for change.
The event’s centerpiece was a long-distance appearance by opposition leader Alexei Navalny, whose documentary revealing the corruption of prime minister Dmitry Medvedev helped spark recent street protests throughout Russia. Halfway through the proceedings, Navalny addressed the crowd via a pre-taped video greeting. When the presentation had to be restarted several times due to technical issues, Cozy Bear seemed one obvious suspect.
Although most of the information presented was familiar to even amateur Russia watchers, PutinCon appeared to be aimed in some ways at an audience of one. “Half of this event was just to piss off Putin,” said McKew, who formerly served as an advisor to Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili. “You can argue that it also flatters him. But because of the timing just two days before the election, I think it was very much designed to be an irritant.”
It certainly doesn’t seem to have swayed Monday’s “contest,” in which the only real unknown was how many of the nation’s citizens would bother to participate in an obvious sham. (While an PutinCon organizer announced in the afternoon that the conference’s hashtag was trending on Twitter in New York, a glance at #putincon tweets out of Moscow showed just six, all of them pro-Putin.)
By chance, the event also coincided with news reports of several fresh outrages likely perpetrated by the Kremlin: the poisoning of Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter with a rare nerve agent, and the death last week of businessman and Kremlin critic Nikolai Glushkov, which is now being investigated as a possible murder, just two of numerous cases of suspected Russian “wet work” committed in the U.K. and even the U.S.
One crime that went largely unmentioned was the influence operation that intelligence agencies believe Russia conducted against the American 2016 election. Indeed, the name Trump barely came up. But maybe there wasn’t time. The catalog of Putin’s other misdeeds is voluminous and makes the hacking of the DNC look pretty tame: It goes back at least to the 1999 apartment bombings in Moscow and other cities, which he used to solidify power. (According to PutinCon speaker David Satter, a veteran journalist who covered the bombings, evidence implicates Russian security services in the attacks.) Then you’ve got the brutal war in Chechnya, the murders of numerous political opponents, the wars in Georgia and Ukraine, and the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (with 298 passengers aboard), an act attributed to Russian-backed separatists using a surface-to-air missile supplied by the Russian military.
Meanwhile, there is no shortage of evidence of the Russian Federation’s pioneering efforts in what’s come to be known as “hybrid warfare”: a mixture of conventional and unconventional means, overt and covert operations, deployment of proxies, cyberwarfare, propaganda, and disinformation, among other tactics.
On the military side, McKew said, Russia has embraced a far more aggressive force posture in recent years, with precious little push-back. “They have three new bases in Syria, they have been negotiating permanent air base rights in Iran, they’re looking at putting something in the Red Sea, they’ve become more active in the Caspian and Libya, they’ve moved a ton of missile defense to the far east, and then there’s the Arctic,” she said. “We do need to pay attention to all that.”
Though McKew views the country as fundamentally weak (its GDP is smaller than that of Italy, and sanctions and low oil prices have taken an economic toll), the Kremlin’s penchant for risk-taking has afforded it an intimidating profile. “They poke at the Baltics, they poke at the Nordic states, and that simulated nuclear attack on Sweden a few years back wasn’t very nice,” she said. Russian pilots have regularly confronted U.S. jets in the skies over Syria, at one point boasting about how these encounters showed off their combat prowess. “All the guys on our side are super cautious,” McKew notes, “but it’s only a matter of time before something stupid happens.”
This incessant saber-rattling has a “huge psychological effect,” she added. “It’s meant to send a message: ‘We’re going to do what we want, and we know you’re not going to do anything back.’ The more they can create acceptance of this pattern, the better off they are, and they’ve been doing it for a decade.”
Increasingly, the democracies of the West may finally be stiffening their resolve. On February 7, after a group of fighters attacked U.S. forces in Deir al-Zour in Syria, the Americans mounted a fierce counterattack, killing significant numbers of Russian mercenaries employed by a company with close ties to Putin. Interestingly, the Kremlin barely responded. The U.K. government of Theresa May appears somewhat willing to hit back over chemical weapons attacks on British soil. And while President Trump has regularly praised Putin and has so far failed even to impose bipartisan sanctions he himself signed, other members of his administration are taking a stronger line.
As PutinCon broke up around 6:30 pm, one attendee pointed out that despite being served breakfast, lunch, pastries and endless cups of coffee throughout the day, not a single attendeee had fallen ill — not yet, at least. It felt like a small but meaningful victory for the forces of truth and justice.