Donald Trump Jr.’s June 2016 meeting with a Russian lawyer and a Russian-American Lobbyist – among others – begs the question, was this a Russian intelligence operation? If so, is this typical Russian tradecraft, or something out of the ordinary? And what should we expect in the coming years? The Cipher Brief’s Kaitlin Lavinder asked former CIA Chief of Station Daniel Hoffman, who did a tour in the Soviet Union and is a Russia expert, his thoughts on this.
The Cipher Brief: Do you think the approach made to Donald Trump Jr. was actually directed by the Kremlin? Is something like this an example of intelligence collection tradecraft?
Daniel Hoffman: I believe this was indeed a Kremlin operation. I see this more as an attempted influence operation rather than traditional intelligence collection. The Russians at the meeting were not intelligence collectors, but they were suitable, from the Kremlin’s perspective, for an influence operation.
The presence of Rinat Akhmetshin, who reportedly served in the Soviet military does not appear to be a coincidence. Akhmetshin would lend credence to the Kremlin’s strategy of creating the impression of Russian government involvement from a distance, and add a measure of intrigue, given he served in the Soviet military. President Putin and his spokespeople might deny any official Russian government involvement but with a wink and a nod. Putin really does want the trail to lead back to the Kremlin because he knows any inkling of Russian government influence or interference would soil our electoral process.
Notwithstanding Akhmetshin’s presence, I still believe this meeting was designed primarily to influence our electoral process.
TCB: Is this type of influence operation – if that is what it was – specific to Russian intelligence services, or is this something that all countries engage in?
Hoffman: This would absolutely fit with the Russian modus operandi for influence operations. They purposely arranged for this meeting and chose the participants to create maximum influence for future use. Russian intelligence routinely seeks to collect compromising material or “kompromat” on their enemies, which they weaponize at a future time of their choosing.
TCB: Are you saying that the U.S. intelligence services don’t do that?
Hoffman: This particular influence operation is straight from Russian intelligence playbook. From the days of the KGB Chekists to modern Russia, it’s simply how the Russians operate. In this case, I believe the Kremlin wanted purposely to create a compromising situation with an eye towards soiling our electoral process.
I would assess Russia developed a strategic plan to influence our electoral process months or years before this meeting took place in June 2016.
TCB: Between the cyber operations, this meeting (and any others that come to light), the proliferation of fake news, what does all of this tell us about the depth and the determination of the Russian effort?
Hoffman: The Russian government devotes the bulk of its resources to countering what they consider to be the main enemy: the United States. They use hard power – the current Zapad military exercises on the border with the Baltic states are a good recent example – they run sophisticated cyber operations, and their massive number of intelligence officers operating in the U.S. engage in an extraordinarily wide range of intelligence collection in our country.
We are their number one target, and where Russia is concerned, not much happens by accident. There is usually a hand, sometimes not so hidden, which can be traced back to the Kremlin.
TCB: Where is the line between a Russian attempt to influence the campaign and collusion?
Hoffman: From the perspective of an intelligence officer, I would assess Russia wanted to create the appearance of collusion even if there was in fact no real evidence any collusion ever took place.
I do not believe Russia required collusion with a campaign to weaponize the intelligence they stole via their cyber hacking operations directed against our electoral process. They would, however, want to induce an investigative process, media coverage, and political infighting with an eye towards negatively impacting our government’s ability to function. This is President Putin’s goal, after having tried to soil our electoral process, he is now turning his attention to interfering and damaging our governing process.
For that reason, we should be shining the spotlight on Russia and their nefarious intelligence operations.
TCB: You are saying that their main effort was to create the appearance of collusion, even if none took place. It seems, in many respects, that that effort is working in the U.S. right now. Do you think we’re going to see more Russian efforts in the coming years? Are they going to ramp up their activities here?
Hoffman: Russia is already operating at a very high operational tempo against us. The U.S. Intelligence Community has always been on the hook to collect the strategic intelligence which will inform our policymakers of Russia’s intent, modus operandi, and future plans so that we can better defend ourselves.