Much fuss was raised when it was revealed that top Russian intelligence officials visited Washington in January to discuss counterterrorism with the heads of the CIA and the National Intelligence directorate.
Chuck Schumer, the Senate’s top Democrat, wrote in a letter that the meeting, which took place “a little more than a year after our Intelligence Community unanimously concluded that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. election, raises a number of important questions.”
Indeed, it does, especially since one of the visitors, Sergei Naryshkin, the head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, was on the list of sanctions, drawn up in the Obama administration’s final days, which blocked him from entering the country without a waiver.
Still, too much is being made of this meeting. Yes, Russia meddled in our 2016 election in an attempt to throw our democracy into chaos and help elect Donald Trump. Given how close the contest was (Hillary Clinton would have won with just 70,000 more votes in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan), the attempt almost certainly succeeded. Washington and Moscow also stand on opposing sides of the civil war in Syria (or in at least one of its many civil wars). And Russia violated international law with its annexation of Crimea.
Still, the United States and Russia do have common or converging interests on many issues. The two nations have long actively cooperated on thwarting the spread of nuclear weapons. If the wars in Syria are ever settled, Russia will have to be part of the settlement. The same is probably true of any potential diplomatic easing of the threat from North Korea’s nuclear missiles.
The point is, you don’t have to be a cynic or the most amoral adherent of Realpolitik to recognize that it’s sometimes necessary to talk and deal with unpleasant, even otherwise hostile, players—for reasons of national security and morality. (Counterterrorism can be a moral pursuit if it winds up saving lives.)
During World War II, the United States and Britain allied with the Soviet Union, well aware of Stalin’s perfidies; if they hadn’t done so, out of some desire for moral purity, Hitler probably would have won the war. Through most of the Cold War, American and Russian generals, diplomats, and intelligence chiefs met often to discuss common interests—even as they waged proxy wars and otherwise connived to savage each other in realms where their interests conflicted.
Loch Johnson, a professor at the University of Georgia and a prominent intelligence historian, wrote in an email about the recent rendezvous in Washington, “These meetings occur with some regularity, alternately between Moscow and Langley, and they are widely considered useful on the U.S. side. The theory is that the world is large, and not even wealthy nations can cover it all from an intelligence perspective. Therefore, intelligence liaison is vital.”
The Washington Post’s Shane Harris reported that some U.S. intelligence officials are nonetheless worried about the meeting because, as he put it, “Moscow could interpret the encounter as a sign the Trump administration is willing to move beyond the issue of election interference.”
Certainly Moscow wants the world to interpret it this way. Almost without exception, these meetings are kept secret on both sides, but this meeting was first reported in Russia’s state-run TASS news agency. In other words, top Kremlin officials wanted it publicized. As one U.S. intelligence official said to Reuters reporter Jonathan Landay, this disclosure seemed to be “a calculated effort” that “sowed discord in the United States” and “reinforced the notion that they [the Russians] are not isolated internationally.”
This is a valid worry, and one can only hope that CIA director Mike Pompeo and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, who attended the meeting, made it very clear that their effort would fail, that we are not ready to move beyond the great hack of 2016. Certainly Pompeo has made this point publicly in many forums.
What’s extraordinary, then, isn’t the meeting but rather that the Russians can sow confusion about its meaning. They’re able to do this, with an ease that must astound them, because the Trump administration is a maelstrom of mixed messages. Pompeo and all the other national security officials endorse the intelligence community’s finding that the Kremlin interfered with the election; Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, recently said that Robert Mueller’s indictment of 13 Russians renders the finding “incontrovertible.” But Trump himself has never said as much; on many occasions, he’s loudly disputed the finding; faced with Mueller’s indictment, he hurled blame at Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, the FBI—almost everyone except the Russians.
The intelligence officials quoted in the Post story worry that hosting Russian spies, at this delicate time, might send the wrong message. The real problem is that this administration has so much trouble sending any one message on a vast span of issues that could tilt toward war or peace.