A devastating, complacency-shattering interview with Ilya Zaslavskiy, one of the world’s leading experts on Moscow’s overt and covert designs on the West.
This article originally appeared in The Times of Israel
WASHINGTON, United States — Despite the global headlines about Russian meddling in foreign elections, Israeli experts have thus far expressed little concern that it could happen here.
At Tel Aviv University’s CyberWeek cybersecurity conference in June, for instance, Israeli officials made light of the impact of fake news and foreign influence campaigns on Israeli society. Fake news is a “nuisance,” Eviatar Matania, head of the National Cyber Bureau in the Prime Minister’s Office, told a panel at the conference, not a major threat. Other speakers said they had seen no signs of Russian influence campaigns targeting Israel.
But the recent release by researchers at Clemenson University of three million Russian troll tweets created by Russia’s Internet Research Agency between 2012 and 2018 paints a different picture.
Reporters from Israel’s Channel 10 News found that tens of thousands of the tweets dealt with Israel and the region and some were written in Hebrew, indicating they were indeed targeting Israelis and people who care about Israel.
Ilya Zaslavskiy, a Washington, DC-based expert on Russia and head of research at the Free Russia Foundation — a nonprofit led by Russians abroad that says it “seeks to be a voice for those who can’t speak under the repression of the current Russian leadership” — told The Times of Israel that he would be extremely surprised if Russia weren’t carrying out covert influence campaigns in Israel.
“We now know for a fact that Russia has been interfering on a massive scale in US, German and UK elections and referendums,” said Zaslavskiy, who is also a member of the advisory board at the Hudson Institute’s Kleptocracy Initiative and an academy associate at Britain’s Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) think tank.
“We know that they intervened in the Catalonia referendum as well as a referendum on Ukraine in Holland. They continue to interfere in the US midterms and they have been meddling in all sorts of local elections in Eastern Europe. and the post-Soviet space,” he said. “So why wouldn’t they interfere in Israeli elections when Israel is so important to their strategic interests?”
Asked why Israel is of interest to Russia, Zaslavskiy, who is Jewish and immigrated to the United States from Russia as a young adult, said that “Israel is of strategic importance to the Kremlin — because Israel is actually one of the forces that could contain Russia, could prevent some of the abuses that Russians are carrying out.”
He cited, for instance, developments in Syria. “Israel is not a great friend of Assad, but now the Israeli government has sort of accepted that Russians uphold him and have got a foothold in Syria,” he said. Asked how things could have been different, Zaslavskiy replied “Israel could have been more vocal and critical about Russia’s role in Syria.”
More generally, “you could have expelled some of the Russian oligarchs, you could have prevented some of the money laundering,” he said. “You could actually impose some sanctions on Russia and limit their influence in your country.”
Why hadn’t that happened? During a deeply disconcerting interview in the US capital Zaslavskiy offered some insights. And as the conversation developed, he moved rapidly beyond election meddling to a wider, nightmare vision of an ascendant Russia, with Western democracies weakened and outflanked. Regarding Israel specifically, he described covert, Russian-led processes already unfolding that he believes are undermining the rule of law and democracy itself, and set out specific measures that he believes must urgently be taken if the decline is to be halted and contained.
An existential danger
Zaslavskiy believes that both Israel and the West face an existential danger from Russia unless the problem of covert and overt Russian influence is fully acknowledged and decisive measures are taken to combat it. He says most of the West fails to grasp the gravity of the threat, which includes not just efforts to meddle in elections but the exporting of corruption and criminality from post-Soviet countries to the West, thereby undermining democracy itself.
In a recent report for the Hudson Institute’s Kleptocracy Initiative entitled “How Non-State Actors Export Kleptocratic Norms to the West,” Zaslavskiy argues that the West did not in fact win the Cold War and that its norms and values, like democracy and the rule of law, are very much in peril.
“When the Soviet empire collapsed in 1991, it was widely believed that Western-style democracy and liberal capitalism based on free elections, separation of powers and the rule of law would eventually take root in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and other regions emerging from the Cold War,” he writes. “Even when ex-Communist Party leaders and representatives of Soviet security services returned to power throughout the former Soviet Union (FSU) in the late 1990s to mid-2000s, mainstream political thought never once doubted the inevitability of democracy’s march across the globe. Experts debated speed and direction, but rarely questioned the ultimate destination.”
In reality, Zaslavskiy goes on, “the West has largely failed to export its democratic norms and is instead witnessing an increasingly coordinated assault on its own value system. This destructive import of corrupt practices and norms comes not only from post-Soviet kleptocratic regimes like Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Russia, but also from China and other countries around the world whose ruling elites now possess far-reaching financial and political interests in the West.”
The new norms being exported to the West, which he dubs neo-Gulag norms, include the idea that those in power are the only real and rightful decision-makers and that the rest are ultimately “prison dust.”
Another such norm, he writes, is that “everything and everyone is for sale, or at least susceptible to manipulation or some form of control.” And finally, the Russian ruling elite believes that “individual human life does not matter anywhere, unless it is someone from their inner circle or equally as powerful as they are.”
The Times of Israel sat down with Zaslavskiy at a cafe in Washington, DC, to discuss the connections between Putin, Israel, organized crime, election meddling and the decline of democracy in the West.
The Times of Israel: There has been a lot of talk about Russian influence campaigns and Russian interference in elections. What aspect of this threat do you think people in the West are failing to grasp?
Ilya Zaslavskiy: They are failing to grasp two main things. First they think that the corruption, criminality and anti-democratic developments that happen in a place like Russia have very little to do with their own life or their own country. That’s the first delusion.
Today, everything is so much more integrated. When criminal groups supported by security services are allowed to do things in their own country, they immediately export their practices and values to the West, to safe havens where they can actually not only keep their money but can continue their activities.
The second thing people fail to realize is that, unlike during the Cold War, there are open channels of business that these kleptocrats can exploit to export their norms and practices legally.
You see a lot of money from kleptocratic countries pouring into the West and paying for lawyers, lobbyists, PR people, even journalists, as well as former security people and security companies. In Soviet times this was not possible. Today, a Russian kleptocrat can continue his criminal activities in the West in broad daylight, without being prosecuted and hardly being covered by the press.
How might this be happening in Israel, and how might Israelis not be aware of it?
There are many oligarchs of Jewish background from the post-Soviet space, from Russia, Kazakhstan and the Caucasus, who earned their money in a very dirty way in the 1990s and 2000s, and now they’ve moved to Israel.
Some have Israeli citizenship and operate abroad and some operate in Israel. It’s not only that they have a luxurious lifestyle, throw fancy parties and buy amazing real estate. That’s another delusion in the West. Many Westerners believe that oligarchs bring their dirty money to their new country but merely as consumers.
In fact, they start to invest in assets — in strategic assets, in politics and in newspapers.
The vast majority of oligarchs can be hired on an ad-hoc basis by the Russian state or Kazakh state, and can be exploited for political purposes by this kleptocratic state.
I recently co-authored a report — “How to Select Russian Oligarchs for New Sanctions?” — that explains why and under what criteria the US government should add oligarchs like the Alfa Group oligarchs to sanctions.
There are very powerful figures with lots of money, lobbyists and PR support in Israel. [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu shows up at events with some of them.
Let’s say you have an oligarch who is close to Putin. What would they be doing in Israel? Why should Israelis care?
They can do multiple things. First, they can normalize Kremlin narratives about Israeli interests.
For example, the way they present Russia’s place in the Syrian conflict, in relations with enemies of Israel like Iran, or concerning the Soviet diaspora in Israel.
I’m sure they help promote Kremlin propaganda about the Second World War and Russia’s [ostensibly] almost exclusive role defeating the Nazis. And they peddle the Jewish veterans’ theme with the orange and black St. George ribbon. It’s a ribbon that commemorates the Soviet victory over Nazism that has come to be associated with Russian propaganda against Ukraine and against the West — how the West never really stood up to the Nazis, for example. These are not just historical narratives; they are very useful for today’s politics.
But the other thing oligarchs can do in Israel is to co-opt the elite, under the guise of cultural and charity events. They can throw fancy parties with caviar and beautiful women and invite politicians. They have held these receptions around Western capitals. I have followed some of these in London, as well as here in Washington.
They may have financial interests and hope to make money but for many of them it is not done for commercial purposes. The reason is to support politicians through the media, and that allows you to get a foothold in the government. You do nice things for the government and then they do nice things for you in return. You establish a relationship and it’s a long-term thing.
It’s all very interconnected. The payback is not immediate but it’s a very solid investment.
Let’s say a Russian oligarch moves to Israel and starts investing in all kinds of businesses and giving money to charity. Why not just assume he’s retired?
No one from that world of state security or organized crime is off the hook because the Russian state has too much compromising material on them, as well as incentives. Also, if you don’t comply you can be eliminated. There is now a book on how Putin most likely ordered killings of dozens of people inside Russia and outside Russia who did not comply with his interests, including from his own security services or organized crime.
For example, he first used polonium not on Alexander Litvinenko but most likely on Roman Tsepov, who was part of the organized crime group in St. Petersburg in the 1990s that allegedly worked closely with Putin during his rise to power. It’s easier for anyone to comply. There are many oligarchs abroad that he uses on an ad-hoc basis. It’s switch on, switch off. It’s not too demanding or too crazy, and it’s actually acceptable to most of these people.
What’s the connection between the Russian state and organized crime?
In Soviet times there were three worlds that were distinct — with separate, even contradictory, goals. There was the Communist Party, the security services and organized crime. Organized crime was more or less antagonistic to the Soviet regime.
Under Putin these three worlds collided and fused and learned from each other. Security services now oversee the businesses of organized criminal groups. Organized criminal groups carry out the political building and conduct operations for the Kremlin. The ideology of the Communist Party was thrown down the drain but the cynical and pragmatic practices, like co-opting the far right, co-opting the far left, co-opting Christianity or Judaism, remained.
You co-opt whoever is important to you in any given country. You can even contradict yourself in different countries but just divide and rule through all these channels — through ideology, through organized criminal groups, through corruption. Organized crime and its networks have become part of the Kremlin’s political instruments abroad, including in Israel.
If there were a Georgian or Russian oligarch who wanted to open hundreds of call centers throughout Israel and scam people abroad out of money, is that something that co-opting the elite would allow them to do?
Yes. But compared to corruption in Russia which involves billions for a single road or pipeline, binary options and forex are a relatively small-scale fraud. Russia as a state is also involved in hacking and dodgy cryptocurrencies; we now know that for a fact from Robert Mueller’s investigation. Russia as a state, especially its security services and associated oligarchs, are involved in all sorts of dodgy things, including in the digital realm.
Someone like Putin would not follow specific criminal activities like binary options, but he sits at the top of a pyramid and there might be levies that make their way from an Israel-based criminal enterprise all the way to the top.
Why would a Georgian or Russian criminal decide to put call centers in Israel of all places?
For a variety of reasons. Corrupt Russian money penetrates any vulnerable spot in the world. The criminality has not just penetrated Israel. It’s in Europe, in Asia, the Middle East and the US.
Why do there seem to be many Jewish oligarchs?
It’s a very useful topic to anti-Semitic circles and it’s not true. Maybe in the late 80s and 90s indeed there were a lot, perhaps too many, visible Jewish oligarchs because of the legacy of the Soviet era and tsarism. Jews had been marginalized and pushed into the black market. They traditionally had math skills, due to the way they were raised, and they helped each other, as does any minority network; ethnic minorities tend to help each other.
Under Putin, I think it’s a specific propaganda tool to expose Jewish oligarchs much more than the rest of the oligarchs. “Oligarch” is actually no longer a useful term in my view, because it suggests that they still have some power. They lost all their power to Putin. Their only currency today is loyalty, it’s not dollars.
Whatever dollars they have in their accounts can be taken away from them at a snap. Yes, they can store their money offshore but they can’t stop working for the Kremlin. Most of them still own too much in Russia and there are too many hooks and levers on them.
There is no distinction between public and private property in Russia. Everything is owned in one way or another by the Kremlin. So the money that they give as donations, very often they are asked to give the donation. And they have no choice but to give it.
Actually, the Russian state tries to present some of these oligarchs as if they are no longer with the regime, as if they are now in the West. It’s all very misleading. I could count actual Russian oligarchs who are completely removed from the Russian state with one hand.
What about Leonid Nevzlin?
Well, Nevzlin is one of the exceptions. He was ousted from Russia. Mikhail Khodorkovsky too.
I don’t like the term oligarch. I prefer the term handlers, operatives, maybe agents, rich agents. Many of them are actually front men for the money that they ostensibly have. It’s not actually considered fully their money. I’m sure they’re representing some of the Kremlin money, just under the guise of it being their money.
Just to return to your question about the Jewish oligarchs. Currently there are many rich and powerful security people around Putin. They are mostly Russian or a variety of nationalities, but they are secretive and very well protected. Some of the federal ministers as well. Most of the Russian Duma and government are millionaires. They’re just officials but they have the lifestyle of a mini-oligarch.
Should we feel sorry for the oligarchs? It sounds like they can’t escape their gilded cages.
Well some of them managed to escape and these are very exceptional, but obviously at a very high cost to themselves.
There are actually many whistleblowers and refugees from the Russian regime, some of them reformed, some of them not. London has a lot of people like that. Some of them managed to take out some money while others didn’t. They lost a lot, some involuntarily because they fell out of the system. Only few deserve any kind of empathy. Otherwise it’s a very complicated and dark world.
Why do oligarchs give so much money to Jewish and Israeli charities, especially religious ones?
It’s co-option and soft power, and they may be even be using these charities to give political donations.
For themselves, it’s reputation-laundering and legitimacy. It also allows them to advance narratives that are useful to the Kremlin — like about World War II.
For instance, this whole debate about Ukraine. Russia tries to say the current government is a Nazi government, and how all of western Ukraine and their parties are anti-Semitic, how the West opened a second front in World War II at too late a stage and did not help Russia. The Kremlin can co-opt Jews to promote these narratives.
And then there are the May 9th celebrations [V-Day, commemorating the surrender of the Nazis in 1945] by Russia around the world, including in Israel on a large scale now.
Funding Jewish charities also gives them access to people. If you have a high-level event at the Metropolitan Museum or the Museum of Jewish History, you get access to politicians so you can co-opt them. If you look at the list of art galleries, museums, and all sorts of Jewish organizations, in New York, Europe and Israel that are associated with Putin’s oligarchs, you will be absolutely amazed and stunned. MOMA, the Metropolitan Museum, operas, Carnegie Hall, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Tate Gallery. The list is endless.
Half of the major Jewish events that I see here in Washington, the fancy ones where you can co-opt elites, are co-sponsored by Russian oligarchs.
I’m sure that Russian oligarchs have managed to co-opt many politicians in Israel.
Look at [the rise in Russia of] Chabad. People in Chabad say, “We are just promoting the Jewish legacy. At least there is no anti-Semitism under Putin.” They find all sorts of excuses [to be supportive of Putin]. Before Putin, Chabad was a marginal group, at least in the former Soviet Union.
What is the Russian ruling class’s goal in Israel?
To create an environment — a political environment and economic environment — where it’s too difficult for Israel to resist some of the strategic interests of the Kremlin in the region. Not to oppose Russia’s interests.
But they’re also interested in subverting democracy. A strategic goal for the next few years is to subvert democracy in the West. In some ways they have already succeeded, and the appetite comes with food, as they say. So once they subvert democracy, the goal is to advance more corruption, more vested interests and then just turn the whole West into a corrupt world.
Why do they want to turn the West into a corrupt world?
Because then you can engage in what Russians love, which is realpolitik. Whoever is strong gets his own zone of influence and no one else can interfere. Russia would like to divide the world into zones of interest.
Look at what they did with influencing the American elections and possibly Brexit.
By the time of the 2016 elections in the United States, Russians already had all sorts of Putin understanders and supporters in the press, in the lobbying groups, in business circles, in chambers of commerce, among politicians, even in Congress. They have all these people who are associated with Russia through attending events at the Russian Embassy, going to conferences in Russia and Europe, sitting on boards of Russian companies or galleries associated with Russian money. It’s all done through open channels.
They also influence think tanks and their debates and narratives about Russia. There are several think tanks in Washington, for example, which are completely subverted by Russians and that put forward narratives useful to the Kremlin about everything — from Ukraine, to Israel, to corruption — and that acts as a force against an independent press, independent thinking, because you can pollute the whole policymaking and debating environment.
Why does Putin want to destroy democracy? Because it competes with his patronage system?
Yes. If I had to judge, I think it’s just his enormous lust for power and he’s a control freak. He just can’t get enough. But maybe, some people suggest that his circle pressures him. I would imagine they pressure each other and it’s a constant game of power, so he has to stay afloat and show benefits.
You’ve said you think journalists are not writing enough about Putin and his oligarchs?
I see it as a huge problem that the Western press is just incapable of covering many of these topics. The press has been marginalized by the internet, so it’s a global trend. Newspapers have lower budgets, they struggle more for advertising, there is much more private and partisan ownership of media outlets. These are all global trends but they influence coverage on Russia also.
Even high-level, big outlets like The New York Times and Guardian face extremely aggressive, litigious teams of lawyers and lobbyists of these oligarchs who have infinite pockets and can afford long legal fights.
Many newspapers don’t have proper foreign country correspondents. If they do, they have to write quick articles, like one per week without delving into difficult topics. Then there is a vicious cycle where complicated cases about Russia are not covered in the West and so there is no interest about them. And since there is no interest there is no coverage.
Very often I found that I wasn’t able to put important topics out there just because it was too complicated for the journalist to write. Not even because of libel issues or because of time constraints. He or she would say, “My editor will not take it through because it’s too complicated. It delves too much into Russian detail.”
Most amazingly, most major media outlets do not have a full-time Russian translator and researcher who can fully devote his or her time to the most basic background research for the few investigative journalists that these outlets struggle to support.
What will happen to Israel if it does nothing about the corrupt kleptocratic influence you describe?
The first stage is that you lose transparency, democracy and good governance. Israel is already losing that. There is no longer separation of powers. There is prevalence of the executive. There is organized crime and no one takes action against it. The police do nothing. This is the first step.
Israel may give up many of its positions in Syria very soon. I can’t exclude that.
What definitely will happen if we continue on the current trajectory is that the entire West will turn into some kind of Hong Kong. where superficially it is democracy. It has some kind of elections, it looks capitalist and there is modern technology, but in reality a corrupt, non-democratic government actually runs it.
For the average person what does that mean? That you’re either a criminal or you’re poor?
Exactly, if you don’t become part of the corrupt network, you’re much worse off. You’ll be on the sidelines, as happens now in post-Soviet states. There will be growing income inequality, shady deals, no social mobility and all these problems that are associated with semi-corrupt authoritarian states.
There may still be some semblance of democracy. The press will do fewer and fewer investigations and more entertainment and brainwashing. It will be much more partisan — so the only differences of opinion you can get is from vested interests, not from independent and objective civil society.
What can be done?
It’s a very harsh, difficult choice. The first step is acknowledgement of what is going on, followed by investigations and revelations of all these things.
I am not even sure what can trigger such acknowledgement and exposure. Even the meddling in US elections has not triggered the United States enough, although at least something is happening.
After this acknowledgement happens, you need a very robust policy of containment. There is no other choice.
Some money flows have to be stopped; some people have to be kicked out of your country, or even stripped of their Western citizenship. There must be much stricter anti-money laundering and due diligence of companies, and auditors should hire Russian or Georgian or Chinese translators to look into the background of people trying to buy assets in the West.
Security services have to have a major say in any strategic purchase related to security, defense or the national interest.
And then obviously there should be more funds for independent investigative reporters. I am friends with an organization called the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). They tell me that to train one proper investigative journalist and to keep him safe and to keep him protected from libel suits, you have to have a budget of about $300,000 a year, maybe $400,000.
When societies start investing in investigative journalism like that, that’s when the job will be done. And it can’t be one investigative journalist. You have to have dozens.
If your readers care about Israel, about keeping it democratic, there should definitely be some civil society efforts, some donations, some Kickstarters. Ultimately people should understand that this will hit them back in terms of their own welfare and their access to democratic institutions, but ultimately even economically.
It could happen in very unexpected ways. Your child could end up in a war with Syria, or some conflict instigated by Russia somewhere in the world. In a way this is a repetition of the 1930s. No one thought that events in Nazi Germany would have any repercussions for the United States. But then the country ended up fighting the Germans when it was too late.
Could this covert Russian influence constitute a factor in a future Israeli war?
What people in general in the West should understand is that the West and NATO are now becoming a minority force in the world; the power of the United States is declining. These large authoritarian states are taking over if not the world then at least Eurasia, countries like China and Malaysia that are not going to become democratic any time soon. The richer they get, the more authoritarian and the more aggressive and expansionist they become.
Democratic countries are becoming like an oasis in the desert. A better metaphor is that the West is like a small clean lake, or relatively clean lake, in the middle of a swamp. And the floodgates have been opened. It’s not like the small lake will clean up the swamp. It’s the other way around. So unless you close the doors and put some filters in place, you will be taken over as a swamp as well.
It won’t be easy. Consumption in the West will have to be scaled back from those money flows from Eurasia. Some industries will have to suffer, especially those that benefit from gas and oil contracts, as well as lobbyists, PR people, lawyers, all offshore accountants and real estate people. They will have to suffer; they will not make as much money.
But the society as a whole will benefit and be able to hold on to its values, like due diligence and good governance.
In terms of Israel specifically, if this does not happen, then I think the NATO alliance will be marginalized and might have to be involved in conflicts it doesn’t want. And then Israel will be much more on its own against its foes, and might not receive as much American help as it might hope to in such circumstances.
So all this has direct security implications for Israel as a society, and Israel as a state, unfortunately.
The main photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting in Moscow on September 22, 2015. (Kremlin.ru)