MOSCOW—The Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISS) is the Kremlin’s think tank. Managed by former officials of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), it draws up guidelines for President Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy, and last year it was watching the American elections very closely.
Indeed, according to a Reuters report in April, during the 2016 campaign that took Donald Trump to the White House the RISS produced and distributed around the Russian government two documents: one a framework advising Putin how to swing the 2016 U.S. presidential vote in Trump’s favor, and the other a strategy to discredit the elections if Trump failed.
This week in an exclusive interview The Daily Beast spoke with Lt. Gen. Leonid Reshetnikov, who was in charge of RISS until January 2017—which is to say during the entire period in question last year. He denied the allegations in the Reuters report and gave his own interpretation of what led Russia and the United States to their current state of conflict.
“The American intelligence services are a machine that is always working, constantly making up anti-Russian cases,” Reshetnikov told The Daily Beast.
The general perception is that Moscow is defending itself against U.S. aggression, a view strengthened after brief encounters between Putin and Trump at an Asian economic summit in Vietnam. Those produced an accord about fighting the so-called Islamic State in Syria by largely accepting Russia's strategy and dominance there, but there was no relief from past sanctions against Russia and against Putin’s inner circle, or new ones that are due to kick in.
In August, Trump reluctantly signed a bill that was passed overwhelmingly by Congress imposing heavy sanctions on Iran and North Korea as well as Russia. It effectively ties Trump’s hands, preventing him from waiving any of the measures against Putin without Congressional approval.
Some in Moscow argue that Putin’s advisers in the secret services and the ministry of foreign affairs have grown too “old-fashioned,” perhaps too genteel. (One thinks of suave Sergei Lavrov, the foreign minister.) Others see the failure of Russia’s diplomatic push as simply one more example of the U.S. demonizing Russia for all kinds of ulterior motives.
RISS expert Anna Glazova says that relations between the two countries are worse than during the Cold War between the Soviets and the United States. The RISS expert says that U.S. accusations leveled against Russia are cover for economic competition, which is the real reason to implement sanctions "against our country," as Glazova put it on the RISS website this week.
In 2014, after Russia annexed Crimea, a strategic peninsula that had been part of Ukraine, the Group of 7 economic powers, led by the United States, decided to implement three stages of economic sanctions. The goal was to stop Russia from funding, arming, and supplying weapons to Ukrainian rebels in the east of the country. The first stage limited cooperation with Russia, the second was meant to stop any help with technologies for Russia, and the third, the worst part, was to limit the development of certain sectors of the Russian economy.
Then additional sanctions were imposed by the Obama administration last year to punish Russia for its interference in the American elections. Previously, in 2012, the U.S. imposed sanctions targeting members of Putin’s inner circle believed responsible for massive corruption and, specifically, the death in prison of whistleblowing accountant Sergei Magnitsky.
The RISS analyst, Glazova, did not mention any of the reasons behind the U.S. economic sanctions. Instead, she insisted they are “an attempt to push our energy companies off the world’s market.” And since Russia’s greatest source of income is the sale of oil and natural gas, that would be disastrous, but low energy prices already have been at least as hurtful to Russian prosperity as the sanctions.
It is important to understand this line of defensive thinking at RISS, one of the key institutions advising the Kremlin.
“It is a very influential center,” Sergei Markov, a member of the Public Chamber of Russia’s parliament and an adviser to the presidential administration, told The Daily Beast. “I once passed a recommendation on an important issue to the country’s leadership through RISS and all my suggestions were heard and implemented.”
The Reuters report in April said the RISS gave recommendations to the Kremlin—a game plan—on how to affect the U.S. presidential elections. If true, those policy papers could be a key element for the investigations related to Russian meddling in the U.S. elections that are being conducted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team and committees of the U.S. Congress.
It should be noted that those investigations are focused on the question of Trump campaign team complicity or conspiracy with Russian operatives, not the question of whether there was Russian interference. Of that there seems to be little doubt. The U.S. intelligence community concluded last year that Russians carried out a massive effort to affect the outcome and credibility of the American elections, and that this was done on Putin’s orders. Those findings were made public in January.
Curiously, President Trump has been the main voice in the United States casting doubt on these conclusions, although it is often difficult to determine what he actually means. As the New York Times reported Saturday, after Trump’s brief meetings with Putin he called accusations of Russian meddling a politically motivated “hit job” that interfered with important cooperation between Moscow and Washington on life-or-death issues.
“Every time [Putin] sees me he says, ‘I didn’t do that,’ and I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it,” Trump said. “I think he is very insulted by it, which is not a good thing for our country.”
The leaders of the intelligence agencies that came to the conclusions about Russian meddling published in January were “political hacks,” he said.
But, as much as Trump might want the core conclusions about Russian efforts to subvert American democracy to have changed, they have not. This, even as evidence mounts that some of his campaign advisors and his relatives, including son Donald Trump Jr. and son-in-law Jared Kushner, were in direct contact with Russian agents or proxies.
On Sunday, pressed for a clarification, Trump said he backed the conclusions of the U.S. intelligence agencies “as currently led, by fine people.” As to whether he believed Putin’s claim there was no Russian interference in the elections, Trump said, “What he believes, he believes.”
The Reuters report in April about the RISS policy papers was not based on the documents themselves, but on interviews with “three current and four former U.S. officials.”
According to the report, the U.S. intelligence services had obtained two documents prepared by the RISS. One of them was “a strategy paper written last June  that circulated at the highest levels of the Russian government but was not addressed to any specific individuals,” according to the report. It advised the Russian leadership to launch a massive propaganda campaign on social media and in the Kremlin-controlled mass media to encourage Americans to vote for Trump, considered a candidate who would be friendlier to Russia than Barack Obama had been or Hillary Clinton would be.
The second document drafted in October 2016 warned that Hillary Clinton was most likely going to win the election, so the focus should shift to discrediting Clinton’s legitimacy, raising questions of voter fraud that would undermine her presidency.
Lt. Gen. Reshetnikov, the former head of RISS, dismissed the Reuters report when he talked to The Daily Beast on Monday of this week.
“I was the RISS director until January, and I definitely never signed any of the described papers,” he said. “All documents passed to the very top of the country’s leadership are marked, ‘classified as secret,’ they could not be circulating in public.” Washington was just listening “to some information passed to them by their Moscow spooks,” Reshetnikov said.
He denied having anything to do with the army of trolls agitating for Trump on social media last year.
“It could be that some one or two former RISS employees, freelancers, had written some recommendations to the leadership, which, if they were circulating in public were not very serious,” Reshetnikov said. “Besides, somebody in the U.S. said the recommendations were 30 pages long. I do not remember anything as long as that. We tried to write short notes, since we realized that the management did not have enough time to read what we wrote.”
Before President Putin appointed Reshetnikov as the director of RISS in 2009, the general was the head of the information-analytical department of the SVR and the number one Kremlin adviser on foreign policy. He had been part of the foreign intelligence service since 1976.
Reshetnikov and his colleagues worked on themes for Putin’s key speeches at international events, including the memorable speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, when the Russian president criticized Washington’s behavior as the only center of global authority and suggested the world develop a multi-polar system that would allow other centers of economic and political influence to grow stronger.
It was also in 2007 that Putin decided to oblige all independent and foreign-funded NGOs to register as “foreign agents.”
Reshetnikov blamed the current tensions between Russia and United States on Washington. “The Cold War between Russia and the USA that lasted for decades in Soviet times has never ended,” Reshetnikov said. “The main problem is that the USA proclaims itself responsible for the New World Order while, as President Putin said in his speech in Munich, Russia rejects that concept.”
This is fundamental, according to Reshetnikov. “Especially under Obama, Washington wanted to downgrade Russia to the level of a second-rate regional power.”
But now, “Russia is growing more powerful in its own concept of multipolar world, defending its sovereign spiritual power, while the U.S. suffers from ideological crises,” said Reshetnikov.
He said that the RISS was a powerful institution with at least 200 employees working under his management, focusing on both closed and open sources to analyze the current Cold War situation.
Reshetnikov blamed Washington for constantly offending Russia, for NATO expansion into countries neighboring Russia, for bringing anti-missile systems to Europe, for not cooperating in Syria.
“The American intelligence services are a machine that is always working, constantly making up anti-Russian cases such as the Magnitsky case or some reason to ban Russian Olympic athletes, but they will not have enough power to keep pressing Russia all over the perimeter,” said the intelligence veteran. In his view, Russia has plenty of reason to look for revenge.
“The war is obvious: the U.S. implemented sanctions against Russia, and put pressure on Europe to back up the neo-Nazi regime in Ukraine, but our response, as President Putin said, is ‘the dog’s barking but the caravan’s walking.’ We’ll proceed with our strategy and that will be our way to give them a blow in their teeth.”
The economic sanctions against Russia would be lifted if the Kremlin decided to withdraw military advisers and equipment from Eastern Ukraine, but there is no sign that’s going to happen.
As Kremlin advisor Markov put it, “I am convinced, that the sanctions will be lifted, as soon as we liberate Odessa and Kharkov from the neo-Nazi Ukrainian regime.”
The former RISS head Reshetnikov says that he has never had any illusions about Donald Trump.
“I always knew that he was not free, that he was very limited in his actions, bound hand and foot," Reshetnikov told The Daily Beast. The Russians had hoped for a very upbeat encounter at the economic summit, but, “Trump has to avoid positive meetings like the one planned in Vietnam because he is half of a president,” said Reshetnikov. “So we need to wait for two to six month and see how this difficult situation develops.”
On that score there is little doubt what at least half of Trump would like to do. Over the weekend he blamed “haters and fools” for thwarting the good relationship he wants to have with Putin, and he didn’t mean Russian haters and fools.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin is contemplating retaliation after the U.S. Department of Justice proclaimed the Kremlin-backed TV network RT, formerly Russia Today “a foreign agent.” Moscow wants to punish the U.S. media working in Russia for turning the U.S. public against it.