In a result that should surprise no one, Vladimir Putin was elected to a fourth term as Russia’s President on Sunday, March 18. The Kremlin’s outrageous efforts to increase turnout—including reminders to show up at the polls posted on the mobile apps of major state-owned banks—combined with massive and well-documented electoral fraud sufficed to give Putin 76 percent of the vote with a reported 68 percent turnout, the highest for the past decade. With this, Vladimir Putin gets a broad mandate for continuing his hostile policies towards both his own people and other countries.
Last week, just two days ahead of this inevitable outcome, I attended PutinCon, a conference held in New York and devoted to exposing the threats posed by Putin’s governance. Organized by the Human Rights Foundation and led by the chess champion and prominent Russian opposition leader Garry Kasparov, PutinCon took place in a Broadway theater and attracted more than a dozen remarkable speakers and hundreds of attendees. Among them were Bill Browder, the financier and architect of the Magnitsky Act; former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who oversaw the case against Prevezon that involved money laundering in the Magnitsky case, and who was fired two months before the case was settled; and even the Republican candidate Paul Martin, who is running for Congress in California’s 48th District against Rep. Dana Rohrabacher and is building his campaign primarily on anti-Putin resentment.
I asked some of the speakers and attendees at PutinCon four questions about how to deal with Vladimir Putin’s Russia in the next six years.
Is cooperation with Putin’s Russia still possible and needed? If yes, in which areas?
Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York from 2009 to 2017:
In some areas we have to cooperate with most countries. Outside of my expertise on matters of war and peace and dealing with problems in the Middle East, sure, there might be some things we can cooperate with him on. But we should also stand strong for our own country as well.
Bill Browder, CEO of Hermitage Capital Management:
I think that we need to understand, the people in the West need to understand, that Putin has no interest in negotiating or cooperating on any issue. He only understands raw power, and so all the interactions with him should be on the basis of raw power.
Vladimir Kara-Murza, vice chairman of Open Russia, chairman of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom:
There are some areas in which Western governments must talk and maintain dialogue with the Kremlin regime. But while they do that, it is important to also stand on the position of principle. Major Western governments should be able to do more than one thing at a time. If Ronald Reagan was able to negotiate success with arms control with the Soviet government and at the same time begin every bilateral summit by putting down the list of Russian or Soviet political prisoners on the table, then so Western governments today, including the U.S. government, can discuss not just those issues that they feel are in their interests to discuss with the current regime in the Kremlin, but also raise issues that are relating to the rule of law, to democratic governments, and to the respect for human rights, which are, by their very nature and by the international obligations undertaken within the OSCE, supposed to be a matter of international concern.
Paul Martin, Candidate for U.S. House CA-48 Primary:
I would want to look at how Ronald Reagan dealt with Brezhnev. I would want to look at how JFK dealt with Khrushchev. There has to be [a] relationship to some extent, I’m assuming. But as long as they’re meddling in our elections, that brings the situation to a whole entirely different realm. And we have Donald Trump who has not given any orders to begin either a retaliatory or a preventative act.
Luke Harding, foreign correspondent for The Guardian, author of Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win:
It’s just not possible at the moment. Putin’s not interested in mutual solutions. He’s a zero-sum guy, and he really sees the world in quite simple terms that what’s bad for America is what’s good for Russia, and vice versa. He’s not interested in doing traditional cooperation, which is not to say that you shouldn’t engage with Russia. It’s good to talk. Everyone is pro-talking, but you have to talk with a goal in mind. Clearly, you need to talk with Russia over Syria, over the Middle East, over Iran, over Ukraine and so on, but I think it has to be done from a position of strength and also an understanding that Putin is pretty contemptuous of western politicians. He thinks they’re all hypocritical, they’re perishable, they never last very long. Whilst he lasts forever. He outlasted Brezhnev, closing in on Stalin. He will be there when Trump is gone and Theresa May is toast, and so on. I think we need to be absolutely clear-eyed about what the Russian state is in 2018, and it’s a pretty nasty revisionist, authoritarian government that uses all sorts of illegal methods to pursue its goals.
David Kramer, Senior Fellow in the Vaclav Havel Program for Human Rights and Diplomacy, Florida International University:
It’s not. They don’t share any values, obviously, and increasingly share fewer and fewer interests. So, trying to strike a cooperative relationship [with a country] that murders its owns people, interferes in other countries’ elections, and baits its neighbors, it’s pointless.
Garry Kasparov, former World Chess Champion, chairman of Human Rights Foundation:
I think it’s totally useless to keep looking for common ground with the Putin regime. He’s not looking for any compromises, and it’s unfortunately a one-way street. The sooner Putin’s regime goes down to the dustbin of history, the better for all of us.
Jamie Kirchick, journalist, visiting fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe and Project on International Order and Strategy at the Brookings Institution:
I think on some discreet issues like implementing the New START treaty, arms reduction to the extent that de-conflicting in Syria and these very discreet issues, yes—but there’s no grand strategic commonalities that we have. We don’t see the world in the same way. We don’t want the same things in Syria. They’re not interested in counter-terrorism. So, no. I think aside from a handful of these discreet issues, there’s really no room for cooperation.
What should the United States do to better counter the Kremlin’s attacks on the U.S. and Western democracy?
Luke Harding: First of all, acknowledge them. Trump has been very equivocal about whether Russia attacked or maybe it was some guy sitting on a bed or whatever. I think there has to be an understanding that what Putin’s trying to do is use the openness of western society almost as a weapon against western society. The fact that it’s quite porous, that you can have freedom of opinion, that you can hire a bunch of people to try and subvert Facebook and Twitter. We need to be very clear about that.
Karina Orlova: What do you think the United Kingdom should do in response to the poisoning of Sergey Skripal?
Luke Harding: Beyond diplomatic expulsions, which we’ve seen from Theresa May, they need to do something about oligarchs. Every oligarch likes living in London. It’s a great place. I can’t afford to live there. You could de-visa the top 5,000 Kremlin officials and their families, so they can no longer have visas. You can enact the Magnitsky law against people who abuse human rights. Actually this sort of legislation can be used against all sorts of human rights violators. It’s not just the Russians. There are plenty of decent Russians out there. There’s all sorts of other countries as well. But at the moment, the UK, London in particular, is pretty much a kleptocrats’ playground.
Preet Bharara: I think at a minimum sanctions should be imposed. I think the President should speak strongly about it. I think he should support our allies like the United Kingdom when they are attacked on NATO soil, those would be good starts.
Paul Martin: Our agencies should be given permission by the President, and then from there we certainly have our own cyber experts. This is the land of Google and Apple, we certainly have the capacity to counter attack them through cyber means, but prevention is the big thing. There aren’t even preventative measures being taken. So I would say our hands are tied behind our back, because our Commander-in-Chief won’t allow it. Basically a leader should say, “We’re being attacked, our sacred democracy is being attacked. People have died for this form of government. I release all resources, financial and everything else to stop this from happening right now.” We don’t have that happening.
Garry Kasparov: First, the free world and the United States must recognize that we are at war. Whether it’s a cold war or hybrid war, you name it, but you can lose any war even being superior in forces to [the] enemy if you don’t admit that you’re at war. America has a variety of instruments to make Putin and his cronies pay the price, but so far, we can see the lack of political will on both sides of the Atlantic to start using these instruments. Hurt them where it hurts. Follow the money and make sure that the price that they will pay for following Putin’s orders will be unbearable.
Bill Browder: The main thing that the West, that America and other countries can do, is to freeze and seize money of Putin, Putin regime officials and well-connected oligarchs with the Magnitsky Act.
Thor Halvorssen, founder of Human Rights Foundation: I do not believe that democratic states should allow the propaganda vehicles of dictatorships to operate in their sphere. I would immediately shut down RT and all organs of the Russian state in democracies. They do not serve the purposes of media or well-informed citizenry. In fact, they do quite the opposite.
David Kramer: An active containment strategy, which means an increase in sanctions, going after the money, Putin and his regime, denying them and their families and their mistresses, daughters and sons, the privilege of coming here. It means increasing U.S. energy exports to Europe, it means increasing the military presence in the Baltic states and then the non-NATO countries, and it means pushing back on Russian corruption and cleaning up our own act, because otherwise we’re enablers of the regime.
Jamie Kirchick: I think there needs to be tougher response to their behavior. Whether that’s sanctions or whether that’s releasing compromising material that we have on them, on Putin and his cronies. On visa bans, we need to be implementing more. Sending home the children of oligarchs and government officials that are studying in Western universities. There’s a whole set of tools that we can be using.
Vladimir Kara-Murza: Better implement the Magnitsky Act and the Global Magnitsky Act, and really engage this individual, personal sanctions mechanism against those individuals in Putin’s regime who are engaged in abuses of international law, human rights violations, and corruption. And I want to stress, I’m not talking about sanctions on Russia, I’m talking about specific, individual, targeted measures against those people who are responsible for these abuses. Implement this law better.
How do you see the transition of power in Russia after Vladimir Putin?
Bill Browder: I don’t think Putin is going to leave power until he either dies of natural causes or is deposed. And so the transition will probably be unexpected and potentially violent.
David Kramer: It’s hard to say how it will come about. I imagine that at some point, if Putin shows an unwillingness to lead, people around him will decide that he’s leading up to a dead end, or it’s possible that Russians will reach a point where they’ve had enough. We never know what the tipping point is in a country. But I’m not resigned to the likelihood of Putin being there for 10 more years.
Jamie Kirchick: I’m not hopeful it’s going to get any better. I think it’s not going to be democratic renewal after he’s gone. I think it will sadly be more of the same, but potentially, worse.
Garry Kasparov: There’s no guarantee that when the Putin regime collapses, Russia turns into a democracy, but there’s a guarantee it will never happen if Putin stays in power. There’s no way that regimes like Putin’s can evolve peacefully into a democracy because we’ve reached a point where the collapse of Putin’s dictatorship will be accompanied by violence. It’s in our interest to make sure this violence will be short-lived and not too damaging, but we should recognize that the future of Russia will not be secured unless we’ll be willing to investigate and properly evaluate the crimes committed both by Putin’s regime and also by his Communist predecessors.
Vladimir Kara-Murza: I’m a historian by education. If you look at the history of Russia going back a century or so, every time the Russian people had a free choice in a more or less free election between dictatorship and democracy, they always chose democracy. 1906, 1917, 1991. And so I have no doubt that when Russian citizens are given the opportunity to freely vote to elect their own government that they will vote responsibly. It is our task as a responsible opposition, and this is the main focus of our work at the Open Russia movement, is to already today be preparing for that post-Putin transition. Because as the history of Russia again shows us, big political changes in our country can start quickly and unexpectedly. We cannot afford not to be ready when that time of change comes. So we need to be thinking about and preparing for a post-Putin transition today.
Luke Harding: It’s not happening any time soon and there’s no succession plan. It’s a personalist regime, it’s basically a dictatorship, which is neo-Soviet in many respects, although not ideological as the USSR was. My fear is that you would get Putinism without Putin. I think that’s entirely possible. You can get someone like him, perhaps not quite as effective, but similar.
Which of Putin’s weaknesses should the West exploit?
Jamie Kirchick: Their money. Their money that they have parked in all sorts of Western financial institutions: City of London, offshore bank accounts. They’re much more economically integrated with the West than they were during the Soviet era. We can use those tools to squeeze them more than we are.
David Kramer: It’s a weakness that he and we share, and that’s corruption. His regime is so corrupt. It depends on feeding corruption to placate people, to address their needs, but it means he’s vulnerable, because the only way they enjoy the corruption that they engage in is by putting their money in safe places like the West. So if we go after it, they don’t have the opportunity to exploit their ill-gotten gains. But it also means we have to clean up our own house, too.
Garry Kasparov: As [with] every dictator, Putin is very sensitive to geopolitical defeats. Any chance to show that Putin is no longer [an] all-powerful demigod, who can call the shots in any part of the world, is going to help. You have many spots on the world map where it could be achieved, whether it’s Syria, North Korea, or [the] free world, if you want to use banks, not tanks. The key is psychology. Every dictator survives as long as he looks strong. He doesn’t have to be strong, I want to emphasize it, but he has to look strong. Putin knows the rules of the game and it seems to me the West is slowly recognizing that without making him look weak, we do not expect realistically any uprising in Russia that will overthrow him.
Vladimir Kara-Murza: A lot of people—the corrupt officials and the oligarchs around the Putin’s regime—have for years been using Western countries as havens for their money that they are stealing from the people of Russia. And for the same amount of time, these Western countries have been accepting this dirty money and these people on their soil and in their banks. It is long past time for countries to pride themselves on democratic governance and respect for the rule of law, [that] they stop this bad practice and that they finally shut their doors to those people in the Putin regime who use Western countries as havens for their looted wealth and send a message that they will no longer be able to do that.
Luke Harding: His money. He has a lot of money. He has more money probably than any other person in human history. He and his team are worth $300 billion. It’s a proxy system, so formally it doesn’t belong to him, but he can use it to buy whatever he wants. Billionaires don’t like being separated from their money very much. It’s what keeps them awake at night. They don’t really care about super patriotism and “Krym nash,” Crimea is ours, all this rhetorical stuff. What they care about are their yachts, their mistresses, their super planes, their villas, their Corsican holidays. If you separate them from the pleasures of being part of the international jet set, that really hurts.
Bill Browder: The weaknesses are that … Putin is a very rich man and he keeps of all of his money in the West. And that’s our leverage.
Paul Martin: Without any question, money. Without any question, travel. I mean, really this is a big party that these oligarchs are having. This is all about sex, drugs and rock and roll at the end of the day. I hate to say it, it’s all about exposure to nice toys, nice locations and money. And by freezing the assets, by restricting visas, suddenly, what’s the motive anymore? So sanctions on these oligarchs is the answer, and on Putin as well. And freezing accounts.
Thor Halvorssen: It’s not a question of his weaknesses, it’s a question of understanding how to address and deal with them. Vladimir Putin is a psychopath. Psychopaths do not respond to incentives. We have it all upside down. We shouldn’t be trying to see if he’s going to be good or nice. We should, in fact, be dealing with him the way a psychopath is dealt with, which is through punishment. Disincentives, not through incentives. Incentives is a game where the psychopath in power is able to gain a little bit more every day. Disincentives, punishment is what they answer to, because they believe in survival for themselves. And so what I believe is we’ve been approaching him the incorrect way. Unfortunately, the last government was all about “let’s reach out and extend our outstretched hand.” That didn’t turn out very well anywhere. In Cuba. In Venezuela. In Syria. In Russia. Everywhere that tactic was attempted, it failed miserably. It should not be that. The outstretched hands should be to the civil society groups, to the population of each country. To break the monopoly of information that the government has, to break the perception that we are against Russians. We’re not. We’re against Putin. There’s a huge difference between the two.
James Fallon, neuroscientist, professor in the University of California, Irvine School of Medicine: This is basically a mafia thug, right? […] He plays to people’s weaknesses. He is a predator. He finds out where you’re weak and how you can be had and then tries to offer you that or con you. Now that doesn’t work, a combination with just threats that he will be happy to carry out. And if you don’t play with him, he’ll kill you.
And this is basically a mafioso guy. If you want to know how to get to him, look throughout history of how they got mafioso on technicalities.
Karina Orlova: What personal weaknesses in Vladimir Putin’s character, his personality, can you see?
James Fallon: Nobody has really tested it, because he’s secretive. But he’s done such obvious things. And he does things that most psychopaths do. Now whether he’s a psychopath or a sociopath, it matters greatly. One of the key things is that if you’re a primary psychopath, that’s what [we] usually think of as a psychopath: They do not have emotional apathy, and they do not have moral reasoning, because that area of the brain that has to do with morality, [the] orbital cortex, is way underdeveloped early on, suppressed. Because of that they don’t understand morality, but they study other people’s morality. And they can learn by mirroring other people’s morality even though they don’t feel it.
Imagine being in a world where the worst thing you can do is take somebody’s parking space, that’s murder. We’d laugh at that, and he’d get mad. But he’s like somebody who thinks that stealing a parking place is the worst thing you can do, but in killing somebody there’s no problem. There’s no morality there. You see? Because they’re predators.
But a secondary psychopath, also known as a sociopath, is usually somebody abused later than two or three, four years old, who’s maybe bullied when they’re eight, nine, ten. In that case they understand morality. Because that part of the brain has already developed a full sense of morality, so they know what they’re doing is wrong. Also they have a normal sense of anxiety, whereas a primary psychopath does not feel anxiety. And when psychopaths are caught doing something, they can lie, they don’t have any tells of liars, because it doesn’t matter to them. So they have no neural responses that show nervousness. Since they don’t act guilty, they get away with everything.
And the question is whether you have moral reasoning, a sense of anxiety and remorse. If you have that, that’s a sociopath, not a psychopath. In that case, a sociopath can be cornered.
Whereas psychopaths till the end will just blow it off. The sociopaths, if you corner them, they’ll go crazy. Those are two different things. In the case of a primary psychopath, there is nothing you can do to intimidate them, to retrain them. They’re wired that way, and you basically have to eliminate them. You [have] either got to run, you go away from them, you don’t interact with them, or you have to kill them. There’s no rehabilitation, there’s no sense you can talk into them, there’s no way of talking him out of that trait. And that’s what makes them very unique. And so in one case you have to eliminate them.
With sociopaths, you corner them. So these are two fundamentals.