On 17 May 2017, veteran journalist, academic, and expert on Russia Jill Dougherty spoke at Town Hall Seattle about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strategy and objectives with respect to the United States. Dougherty, who has been covering Russia for decades, was not there to discuss any smoking guns or speculation about alleged interactions between President Trump’s campaign and Russia. Instead, she focused her talk on providing context about Vladimir Putin’s thinking, viewpoints, and strategic circumstances. The event was titled Putin’s Diplomatic Poker Game.
Ms. Dougherty opened by joking that she might have to update her presentation as she went because of the constant stream of tweets and breaking news related to President Trump, Russia, and the 2016 election. She then discussed her assessment of Putin’s worldview with respect to the U.S. Government, Hillary Clinton, and the 2016 election. According to Ms. Dougherty, Putin believes that Clinton actively worked toward regime change in Russia during her time as Secretary of State. His primary objective, at least initially, during Clinton’s campaign was to portray her as damaged goods. That is not to say that Putin and Russia didn’t like what Trump was saying. They did. For example, the Russians interpreted “America First” as an indication that the United States intended to pull back and stop “mucking about” on the world stage.
Ms. Dougherty explained that Moscow experienced a surge of pro-Trump sentiment during the 2016 election, juxtaposed against coverage of Clinton that portrayed her as being unhinged. However, Ms. Dougherty asserted that the Russian Government and the media miscalculated by arguing that the U.S. system was completely rigged and would not allow Trump to win. When Trump did win, the Russian media modified its message, suggesting that there was an intense internal political struggle in the U.S. Government. It was schizophrenic, and the bureaucracy included a cabal of Obama-Clinton deep staters who wanted to bring Trump down and who would not allow Trump to improve relations between the United States and Russia.
Ms. Dougherty then turned to strategy and policy. In her view, the Trump Administration has not got a clear policy or strategy for dealing with Russia. Putin, however, has got a policy, one he has been refining throughout his 18 years in power. His policy is based on the following principles: Russia is a Great Power and always has been; its Great Power status affords it privileged areas and interests; it deserves respect and a place at the table; and the United States has demonstrated its intent to foment revolution in Russia.
Listening to the U.S. media, elected representatives, and national security officials, it often sounds like the consensus is that a savvy, focused Putin is consistently getting the upper hand. However, Ms. Dougherty believes that Putin is smart and understands the realities at play. More specifically, Russia is not in the same league as the United States when it comes to population, gross domestic product, defense spending (approximately $60 billion vs. $600 billion), and economic diversity. Trade has almost no bearing on the relationship between the United States and Russia, and the Russian economy is dangerously dependent on energy resources. Putin talks a good game about achieving a modern, diversified economy, but Russia is not making significant progress on that front.
Finally, Ms. Dougherty turned to what I thought was the most interesting portion of the discussion. How is Putin viewed in Russia? Ms. Dougherty pointed out that a lot of Russians have never known anything other than Putin, and that Putin is popular with the younger generation. Take Moscow University for example. In many ways, its students are similar to U.S. university students. On campus, there is the feeling that Russia was kicked in its teeth by the international community after it fell apart, and that Russia has a strong president who commands respect and ensures that Russia plays a prominent role in international affairs. According to Ms. Dougherty, relations between the United States and Russia are not necessarily going to improve with the younger Russian generation, and the relations could get much worse after Putin.
Ms. Dougherty closed her presentation by discussing the most effective ways of dealing with Putin, who she describes as smart and deliberate. Ms. Dougherty emphasized the need to remove the emotion from the interaction and deal with Putin strongly and deliberately, understanding his objectives and interpretation of Russian interests.
Side Notes: A person associated with the LaRouche PAC was outside of Town Hall Seattle protesting Jill Dougherty’s presentation. He mentioned that Dougherty and people like her wanted to start more wars. I took a double-sided handout.
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When I arrived at the presentation I had my camera set to black and white JPEGs. After the first few shots I switched it to color. I have included a black and white photo here, and it is the only black and white image. There is no implied meaning for the image, just the result of not switching the camera settings from the outset.