How a U.S. Think Tank Fell for Putin
Last June, three months after Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula and just weeks before Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine shot down a civilian airliner, killing nearly 300 people, a small group of Americans and Russians gathered on the Finnish island of Boisto. Policy analysts and former government officials, they had come to discuss the fate of the post-Soviet country whose democratic revolution had helped sink U.S.-Russian relations to their lowest point in three decades.
The symbolism of the location could not have been lost on the meeting’s participants. Sharing an 800-mile border with Russia, Finland has delicately managed relations with its neighbor. During the Cold War, it adopted a policy of formal neutrality, accepted Soviet interference in its domestic politics, and imposed rigorous self-censorship to avoid provoking Moscow. This phenomenon of voluntarily choosing limited sovereignty to appease a large and aggressive neighbor earned the moniker “Finlandization,” and the Soviet Union held up Finland as an example of its ability to live in peace and friendship with its neighbors. At the time of the Boisto meeting last summer, foreign policy luminaries like Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and David Ignatius were trumpeting “Finlandization” as a model for Ukraine to follow.
But what was most notable about the Boisto meeting—which eventually produced a 24-point plan to resolve the crisis—was what it lacked: Ukrainians. Large powers discussing the fates of smaller ones while simultaneously locking them out of the room has an understandably ugly resonance in Central and Eastern Europe. By excluding Ukrainians, the Boisto initiative signatories lent credence—wittingly or not—to the Russian view that Ukraine is not a real country and that outside forces can determine its fate. As for the Boisto proposals themselves, most were amenable to the Kremlin line.
For instance, in calling for both sides to withdraw forces from certain conflict areas in eastern Ukraine, the signatories treated aggressor and victim as moral equals, likening Russian removal of its soldiers with Ukraine’s withdrawing troops from its own, sovereign land. (Full disclosure: I signed an open letter at the time rejecting the Boisto initiative alongside dozens of other foreign policy analysts, including, most important, Ukrainians.)
Boisto was an example of what’s known in diplomatic parlance as a “Track II” negotiation: when parties close to, but not officially representing, national governments engage in discussions about topics of mutual concern. While America and its European partners ignored Boisto, the Russian Foreign Ministry seized on it. “On our behalf, we welcome intentions of the public and academic societies to contribute into the resolution of the situation in the Southeast of Ukraine and to put an end as soon as possible to bloodshed encouraged by Kiev authorities’ forceful measures,” read a Ministry statement. Happy to promote anything that flatters its self-image as a great power and goes over the heads of Ukrainians, Moscow evidently saw promotion of the Boisto proposal as in its interests.
The Boisto Group’s meeting was sponsored by three entities: the Finnish Foreign Ministry, the Institute for World Economy and International Relations (a think tank affiliated with the Russian Academy of Sciences), and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, one of the largest funders of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which describes itself as “the oldest international affairs think tank in the United States.” (Such a long-running pedigree hasn’t been without its hiccups: a former president of Carnegie was Alger Hiss, the State Department official who spied for the Soviets.) Boisto’s first three signatories were Tom Graham, a former associate at the Carnegie Endowment, and a managing director at Kissinger Associates; Andrew Weiss, the Carnegie Endowment’s vice president for studies who also serves as a senior adviser at the Albright Stonebridge Group; and Deana Arsenian, vice president of the international program and director of the Russia program at the Carnegie Corporation. On the Russian side, the delegation included, among others, Alexei Arbatov, a scholar-in-residence at the Carnegie Moscow Center, and Vyacheslav Trubnikov, a former head of the country’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR).
Policy analysts who simultaneously work for major consulting shops founded by former secretaries of state (Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright, respectively), Graham and Weiss—who also served as co-chairs of the Boisto initiative—are influential players in the transatlantic conversation about Russia, although it’s unclear where their analytical work stops and their business interests begin. Graham’s bio at Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, where he is a senior fellow, states that he “focuses on Russian and Eurasian affairs” for Kissinger Associates. (Graham did not reply to an email asking him to discuss the nature of his work.) Weiss’s bio at Albright Stonebridge states that he “assists clients with issues related to Russia and the countries of the former Soviet Union.” In an email, he told The Daily Beast, “My role at Albright Stonebridge Group is focused on helping Western companies and philanthropic foundations understand Russian political and economic realities,” and that “[t]he Carnegie Endowment has strict conflict of interest policies about outside consulting, which I fully abide by.” Weiss did not elaborate on whether such policies prevent him from advising businesses trying to navigate around sanctions imposed on Russia for its behavior in Ukraine, telling me that he “can’t discuss client-specific work at Albright Stonebridge Group.”
“I don’t want to be holier than thou,” a Russia analyst at a prominent Washington think tank said when asked about Graham and Weiss’s work as business consultants while also dispensing ostensibly objective analysis. “It seems to be a direct conflict of interest. I actually think American business money is potentially more difficult to manage than Russian money, in all honesty, because I think the American corporate interests are engaging because they have an agenda with Russia and they’re much more savvy about how to exercise their influence.”
Arsenian, in her capacity as head of the Carnegie Corporation’s Russia program, has undertaken a project called “Rebuilding U.S.—Russia Relations,” a website featuring brief articles by scholars, the vast majority of which argue for a diplomatic détente with the Kremlin, oppose arming Ukraine, or discourage Western sanctions against Russia. Under their tutelage, Carnegie has attempted to steer the debate over the Western response to Russia in a direction more aligned with Kremlin interests. Carnegie’s role as a convener and promoter of the Boisto plan is but one element of a dramatic shift in its agenda from an institution that once hosted some of the Kremlin’s sharpest critics to a place now urging Western appeasement of an ever more aggressive Russia.
Carnegie was the first major Western think tank to open a branch in Russia following the breakup of the Soviet Union, and, ironically, it may be the last. 1994, when the Moscow center was founded, was a period of optimism for liberal reform of the post-communist system, and Carnegie Moscow was one of the leading Western outposts providing independent and reliable analysis of Russian domestic politics and foreign policy. After Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, and throughout his rise as Russia’s new tsar, the center built a reputation for quality and insight. That reputation was built in part upon the work of three individuals: Lilia Shevtsova, a political scientist and one of the most well-respected analysts of Russian politics; Nikolai Petrov, who headed the center’s Society and Regions Program; and Maria Lipman, a journalist and author who edited the center’s renowned Russian-language Pro et Contra journal. All three have been vocal and prominent critics of Putin and the corrupt and sclerotic system he has imposed.
The center began to undergo serious change, however, after Putin returned to the presidency in 2012 following a rigged election and violent crackdown on pro-democracy protesters. In January 2013, Petrov left after his program was canceled, not due to lack of funds, he contends, but a desire not to ruffle Kremlin feathers. “My own explanation was that the move was initiated by Dmitri [Trenin, the Moscow center’s director], whose point was there are some important functions Carnegie should serve, like communication on high-level nuclear issues and so on, and domestic politics is a troublemaker and it would be good to cut off this part of Carnegie,” Petrov told The Daily Beast. Given the increasingly adverse environment in Russia for Western institutions, pressure from the Russian government on Carnegie need not have been explicit. The move, Petrov said, may have been “a reaction to some direct signals, or this could be preemptive action in order to avoid some troubles.” Trenin did not reply to an email seeking comment for this story.
Next to go was Lipman, laid off in the summer of 2014 due to what she was formally informed were “personnel cuts.” This came as a surprise, not least because in 2013 Carnegie Moscow had received a three-year grant of $350,000 from the MacArthur Foundation to fund the publication of Pro et Contra. Lipman told me she “was never able to get an answer” for why she lost her job and her journal when Pro et Contra still had two more years of funding. Weiss says Carnegie decided to “replac[e]” Pro et Contra with a Russian-language website, Carnegie.ru. “Carnegie people flatly denied any political reasons behind it and I have no reasons not to trust them,” Lipman said.
Last out the door in October was Shevtsova, who only two months earlier had signed the open letter protesting the Boisto manifesto, pitting her against her superiors, Arsenian and Weiss. Shevtsova, who is now affiliated with the Brookings Institution, told The Daily Beast: “Carnegie has been a wonderful place over the years with a strong a tradition of pluralism of views, including most prominently liberal principled views. Over the past year or two, however, I have sensed that this has changed, with a squeezing out of different points of view.”
Three months after Shevtsova’s departure, in January 2015, Carnegie announced the hiring of three new analysts in its Moscow office, ostensibly to replace the veterans who had left. “I’m a great admirer of [Lilia] Shevtsova, Masha Lipman and Nikolai Petrov and their remarkable contributions to the Carnegie Moscow Center over many years,” Weiss said in an email. However, one current Carnegie staffer has referred to Lipman and Shevtsova as “dinosaurs” in this author’s presence.
As the Russian government ratchets up a xenophobic campaign targeting Western nongovernmental organizations, accusing them of espionage and attempting to foment a coup, Carnegie’s presence in Moscow continues to be tolerated. Its name is conspicuously missing from the latest list of “undesirable organizations” compiled by the Russian government, which includes many other institutions of similar profile: George Soros’s Open Society Foundation, the National Endowment for Democracy, Freedom House, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, and the MacArthur Foundation, the latter of which announced last week that it will leave Russia due to Kremlin pressure.
Adding to the mystery of Carnegie’s absence from the list of “undesirable organizations” is that MacArthur, Mott, and Open Society have all funded the Moscow center. “My impression is that there have been basically two reactions” to the Kremlin crackdown on foreign NGOs, says the Russia analyst at the prominent D.C. think tank. “One is basically what we saw with the MacArthur Foundation, being asked to do things we don’t think we can do, so goodbye and good luck. The other is to conclude that ‘there has to be good relations, so let’s accommodate demands that are being made.’ I know how difficult it is to manage these programs. There are a lot of people I know who have been associated with Carnegie who aren’t anymore, and it looks a little bit to me that they’ve kind of caved in,” the analyst said.
“The Russian government’s recent attacks on foreign NGOs and foundations are nothing less than a witch hunt,” Weiss emailed. Yet it’s a witch hunt that has, noticeably, not ensnared Carnegie.
A list of events held by the Carnegie Moscow Center on its website provides one clue to why this might be the case: Scarcely any have addressed internal Russian politics or, more amazingly, the ongoing war in Ukraine. “[Carnegie Moscow] used to be a venue where events were held regularly, and, I would say, quite frequently, that discussed current developments in looking at various aspects of Russia. I don’t see such events any more and if they still hold them they are much fewer,” Lipman said.
According to Garry Kasparov, the Russian chess grandmaster, human-rights activist, and Daily Beast contributor, Carnegie functions in a role not unfamiliar to students of the Cold War: as a tribune to the West through which Russian intelligence whispers the official Moscow line—or rather, what Moscow wants the West to believe is that line. The Moscow center is the sort of operation that influential actors in the Kremlin, he said, “use at a time when they need to communicate their messages to the West not from official structures but from something that is viewed as independent and even American.” Indeed, the motivation to cozy up to the Kremlin may have little to do with venality. "I think actually the funding is less of an issue,” said the think tank analyst when asked if the Russian government, state-owned companies, or other entities might be attempting to influence American public opinion via covert funding of Washington policy institutes. "I think Russian money is potentially problematic. My impression is everybody is supersensitive about it. I think the issue is access. It reminds me a lot more of the Soviet days. There’s a subtle self-censorship that begins to creep in.”
Over half a dozen Russia analysts at prominent Washington-based think tanks consulted for this article chose not to go on the record with their concerns out of professional courtesy. But they joined Kasparov in assessing that Carnegie has decided to place a premium on maintaining its presence in Moscow, sacrificing its intellectual independence and analytical rigor in the process. “Certainly this was done with a measure of concern about the direction that the Russian government was taking with NGOs and probably an effort to stay under the radar,” a former Carnegie Moscow Center employee told The Daily Beast about the “makeover” of its staff, characterizing much of what the center publishes today as the product of “self-censorship.” A former U.S. government official who has worked on Russia characterized Carnegie to me as a “Trojan horse” of pro-Kremlin sentiment in Washington.
One person who has played a key role in managing this balancing act is Trenin, the center’s director, who has been affiliated with the Moscow office since its inception. Prior to his career as a think tank analyst, Trenin spent 21 years in the Soviet army, achieving the rank of colonel. An analysis of his work since the Ukraine crisis began reveals a telling pattern of making oddly sanguine predictions of Russian behavior, followed by appeals to the U.S. and Europe that they assent to Russian belligerence.
“Despite what some Ukrainians suspect, Moscow is unlikely to try bringing about the breakup of Ukraine in order to annex its southern and eastern parts. That would mean civil war next door, and Russia abhors the idea,” Trenin wrote last February, just weeks before Russian troops invaded and annexed Crimea. Having inaccurately predicted Russian restraint, Trenin then telegraphed what would soon emerge as a major Russian propaganda point: endorsing the “federalization” of Ukraine, a devolution of power going far beyond the “de-centralization” favored by the West that would allow the Kremlin to project hegemony over the country’s eastern provinces politically rather than militarily (the more costly alternative). “Although federalization is seen in Kiev and western Ukraine as a step toward ultimate partition,” Trenin wrote, “it could in fact help hold Ukraine together.”
Trenin’s kid-gloves treatment of Putin’s expansionist goals has remained consistent throughout the conflict. “The idea of Russia sending forces into Ukraine has always looked fairly incredible to me at this point, ever since the beginning of this present crisis,” he said last May, two months after Russian forces occupied Crimea and the peninsula’s annexation was formalized with a vote by Russia’s Federation Council, its rubber stamp upper chamber. “Believing that Russia is preparing to intervene militarily would be a severe underestimation of Putin’s intellectual capabilities,” he told the Financial Times the following month. Asked about Moscow’s support for pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine’s east, Trenin downplayed its decisive role in arming, supplying, and coordinating their assaults on Ukrainian targets. “They perform a function for Moscow, but no more than that,” he said.
Though he usually delivers his analysis in a dry, dispassionate tone, Trenin, in a recent interview, gave a baldly emotional response. Earlier this month, he told the semi-independent radio station Echo of Moscow: “The Soviet Union lost the ‘cold war.’ I say it as the citizen of Russia. But when an American says that the USSR lost the cold war, my reaction is different…If he says so, he demonstrates to me his superiority, or his lack of knowledge, or his cockiness.” That a Westerner cannot so much as point out historical fact without evoking feelings of grievance and wounded national pride in a former Soviet military officer—who has worked for an American organization for the past two decades—seems to complicate the latter’s role as an objective observer of Western-Russian relations.
Indeed, according to Petrov, the former Carnegie analyst, “I would say that, if in the past [Trenin] was occupying a very balanced position, very good at describing the situation from two points of view, the Russian perspective and the West perspective, now his Western part is cut off and he describes everything from the Kremlin’s perspective most of all.”
If Carnegie’s softer line on the Kremlin were limited to the work of its Moscow office, such posturing could at least be explained away as a result of Kremlin pressure. But the new line is mirrored by institutional sentiments in the United States.
Tthis year, the Carnegie Corporation initiated a forum called “Rebuilding U.S.–Russia Relations,” overseen by Deana Arsenian. The vast majority of the pieces commissioned by the forum promotes the view that Russia—despite its riptide of anti-American disinformation and conspiracy theories that place the State Department and CIA at the center of every major geopolitical development—is a sometimes difficult friend to the United States.
In April 2014, posting on the corporation’s website in preface to an article in the Financial Times by Thomas Graham under the headline “Punishing an aggressive Russia is a fool’s errand,” Arsenian wrote: “The actions and the rhetoric of all involved are progressing along a dangerous path with potential negative ramifications for global peace and security.” Such a pox-on-both-your-houses moral equivalency, it’s true, is a common refrain heard among many policy intellectuals in the West who view the European Union, NATO, or U.S. policymakers as equally responsible as the Kremlin for the mess in Ukraine. But Arsenian went a step farther in justifying a policy of non-punishment for Moscow, arguing that “[f]actual information is hard [to] obtain” about events in Ukraine.
Is it, really, though? A welter of independent reporting and research conducted by nongovernmental organizations had solidly concluded quite a lot about the sequence of events concerning the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea (an Anschluss that Putin himself acknowledged after having lied about it).
Despite all these easily verifiable acts of aggression, leading Carnegie figures persist in advising against any critical Western response. Though Weiss told me that his side gig consulting with Albright Stonebridge “is focused on helping Western companies and philanthropic foundations understand Russian political and economic realities,” he insisted, “I have never advocated nor do I support the lifting (or weakening) of sanctions imposed on Russia as a result of its aggression against Ukraine.” His public statements, however, paint a more complicated picture.
Weiss may not have explicitly opposed sanctions per se, but he has consistently pooh-poohed them as counter to the real solution of cutting a deal with the Kremlin. “Sanctions will make it look like we’re responding, and will give the administration something to point to...But I’m not sure if we’re firing off sanctions bullets that we’ll be as effective on the diplomatic side,” he said last year, shortly after Russia’s land-grab in Crimea. This March, strangely using Soviet-era solecism to refer to Ukraine with a definite article, he denigrated the use of sanctions in an interview with Reuters, stating that “These tools may hurt and bite over time, but the inherent fragility of the Ukraine is so high it is working against the ability of the West to achieve its goals.” (Last year, Weiss sniped at the possible use of sanctions against the tottering regime of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, a Putin ally, amid the violence he unleashed against demonstrators on the Maidan. “Sanctions are a good feel-good instrument,” he told NPR. “They will show the outside world that the U.S. and the Europeans are doing something. But they are really not likely to affect events on the ground.”)
So while never coming out explicitly against sanctions, neither has Weiss endorsed them, opting instead for a subtler middle-ground position that simply dismisses them as a waste of time. This is not really off-message from what Russian officialdom itself maintains: Sanctions, runs the government line, are a big yawn to the country and will really only hurt Europe in the long term. (Never mind that, as former Russian finance minister and Putin adviser Alexei Kudrin recently noted, “In recorded history since 1992, this year Russia has the lowest share in the world economy.”)
Andrei Kolesnikov, one of the three recently hired Carnegie Moscow analysts, provided a more robust opposition to sanctions when he recently wrote that “what Western policymakers fail to understand is that [sanctions are] less likely to undermine the regime than to cause Russians to close ranks behind it.”
Meanwhile, Eugene Rumer, director of Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia program, warned, “Arm Ukraine and you risk another Black Hawk Down,” an allusion to the 1993 attack on U.S. Marines in Mogadishu that killed 18 servicemen. Reasonable people can surely argue against sending arms to Ukraine without resorting to casuistry: As Rumer no doubt knows, there is no proposal currently on offer to send American soldiers into harm’s way against Moscow-backed separatists or undeclared Russian troops. As it stands, the rebels have already downed quite a few Ukrainian helicopters—with a virtually unending supply of materiel sent to them from Russia.
Still another talking point employed by Carnegie’s leadership is the suggestion that Putin is the best of all possible leaders for Russia, an assertion founded on dubious grounds that conveniently provides cover for him to carry on doing whatever he likes with impunity. In a piece headlined “What’s Worse than Vladimir Putin?” Rumer warned against attempts to weaken Russia’s current regime, as what could follow would be worse. “Putin is no peach,” he observed, with mocking understatement, “but if current hostilities endure and sanctions grow more painful, it’s possible that the next Russian leader could be more anti-Western and recalcitrant than he is.” At what point Putin’s hostility might reach a threshold level meriting more painful sanctions, Rumer did not specify.
It is certainly possible that this cohort of analysts believes a softly, softly approach toward a revanchist and deeply anti-American regime is in the best interests of Washington and that a mutually beneficial diplomatic solution to the Ukraine crisis is the best way forward. But that makes it all the more bewildering that Carnegie has opted to liaise with Russian hard-liners pushing for greater military intervention in Ukraine and the advancement of “Novorossiya,” the term used to describe the establishment of a blood-and-soil ethnic Russian empire across swathes of the former Soviet Union.
Last December, Graham, Rumer and Weiss attended a conference in Moscow hosted by the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISI), a think tank that, until 2009, was connected to Russia’s foreign intelligence service (SVR) and now provides analysis directly to the presidential administration. Under the leadership of Leonid Reshetnikov, a retired SVR general, the institute strongly supported the annexation of Crimea, and, according to former institute researcher Alexander Sytin, has hosted the separatist leader Igor Girkin (aka Igor Strelkov), himself a former operative in Russian intelligence and a purported “friend” of the institute’s director.
“Dozens of memos were prepared by the institute on the need to form inside Ukraine clandestine Russian terrorist groups, on the need to make an offensive to take over Mariupol, Nikolaev, and Odessa, and build the New Russia that would include the Transnistria that should be united with Russia as Crimea,” Sytin told Radio Liberty in January.
In a February interview with Moskovsky Komsomolets, Reshetnikov said the U.S. initiators of the Boisto proposal, whom he characterized as “responsible Americans,” had visited him in Moscow prior to the summit in Finland to scope out his views. “I know who was on the American side because this same group at first visited us at the institution with these same ideas,” he told the newspaper. “We spent long hours with them.”
That an institute seeking to foment more war through clandestine terrorist groups in Ukraine would find much to be admired in U.S.-funded think tankers is disconcerting, to say the least.
“Russia has returned to the 16th century, while these people continue to chant: ‘We should not stop Russia or it could become even more dangerous,’” Georgy Satarov, a former adviser to Boris Yeltsin and now the head of the InDem Foundation in Moscow, told The Daily Beast. “But what could be more dangerous than it is now? Ironically, the chorus is singing the same song on both sides of the ocean—in Russia and America. One watching the chorus starts thinking about the conductor and the leading voices. And here they are: in the Moscow Center of Carnegie.”
Carnegie’s dilemma is understandable. Operating a Western-funded organization in authoritarian Russia is incredibly daunting, which is why many others have either been driven out of the country or left preemptively. And as Moscow grows ever more closed off and inscrutable to Westerners, the ability of a well-connected few to present themselves as interpreters of “what Moscow wants” or “what Vladimir Putin is really thinking” is no doubt enticing. Like all think tanks looking to influence U.S. foreign policy, the Carnegie Moscow Center seeks access and a unique perspective. But in gaining them, has it lost its way?