Earlier this week, Russia’s Vladimir Putin began his fourth term. Ambassador William B. Taylor explains that Putin’s political longevity is a combination of Russia’s desire to feel important in the world again, Putin’s power over the media, and the support of powerful, wealthy friends. Nevertheless, Taylor says harsh U.S. sanctions combined with those from the international community have isolated and punished Russia for Putin’s provocations in Ukraine and elsewhere, meddling in elections, and cyberwarfare.
This transcript has been slightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Tim Farley (host): If you didn't know it, once again, Vladimir Putin is the President of Russia. His fourth term and he has been the only man in charge, either as Prime Minister or as President, since the beginning of the century. He, once again, will have six years to do what he wants to do. We want to put in perspective his accession or re-accession to power. Bill Taylor is with us. William B. Taylor U.S. Institute of Peace Executive Vice President, former ambassador to the Ukraine, is with us tweeting at @USIP. Bill, welcome back. Thank you for being here today.
Bill Taylor: Thank you Tim. It's great to be back.
Tim Farley (host): So it seems that Mister Putin, in his address, focused mostly on the economy. He wants to be top five. What is his status right now? He was reelected, obviously, but give us a sense of where he is in the minds of the Russian people.
Bill Taylor: He clearly pretty high in the minds of the Russian people, however his economy is nowhere near the top five, if anything, it's probably declining. He's about number 11, down there with Italy, and Portugal. So his economy is not doing well. The reason the economy ... There are a bunch of reasons the economy is not doing well, but one of them is that he has outlawed himself. He's isolated himself by his various actions. By, in particular, the invasion of Ukraine, the war in Ukraine and the subsequent sanctions, the resulting sanctions that the International Community, by and large, overall has imposed on him. He's isolated himself. I can understand his need to say to the Russian people, "Okay, I get it. We're now going to focus on your welfare." Because Russian welfare is not doing so well, the sanctions are hurting them.
Tim Farley (host): I wonder where his power comes from. I asked that question in the sense that we see protests, although they're not seen on Russian television, we see protests against his presidency, against the way he runs things. And I just ... Where does his support come from? Is there some structural ... Is it former KGB people who are helping him? Is it the Army that's behind him? Where does he get his power from?
Bill Taylor: It's all behind him Tim. It is all behind him, in particular, the media. While you can find a lot of different outlets and newspapers, the major source of information coming to the Russian people is dominated by the Kremlin, is dominated by the Russian Government. There is that and, of course, he is photogenic. He is dramatic. He takes risks. He makes Russians feel like they are strong and important again, even if their economic situation, as we were just talking, is declining. Their economic welfare is going down, nonetheless, they feel like they are important again in the world. Even though they see, to the extent that Russian media will allow them, they see that they're not integrated in. They're not part of the world. They're kind of isolated from the world, but that even further reinforces their support for Putin. Because they're saying, "Everybody else is against us, so we're with him."
Tim Farley (host): I just was struck by the idea about the media and the KGB, the Kremlin, news services were like fake news is the dominant force. It's news that comes just from the government, as opposed to news that some people characterize as fake, which criticizes the government. We can leave that for another time. I did want to ask, how would you characterize the relationship between the United States and Russia? I think more specifically between Vladimir Putin and President Donald Trump.
Bill Taylor: Hard to say. The actions of this administration, of the Trump Administration, have been very strong against the encroachment by Russia on their borders. That is, this administration has put on very hard sanctions. The last administration put on sanctions against Russia for their invasion of, an annexation of Crimea, attempted annexation of Crimea, their aggression in Donbass, mild sanctions on their meddling in our election. But this administration has gone beyond that and has really put harsh sanctions on people around Mister Putin. Those sanctions are actually really hurting. One of the people that this administration sanctioned is Oleg Deripaska, the owner the largest aluminum manufacturing conglomerate, Rusal, in Russia. The day after Deripaska was sanctioned, the Rusal value dropped in half. These sanctions that this administration are putting on are very tough. The president signed, President Trump signed, very strong sanctions legislation.
Bill Taylor: This administration has also done something that the previous administration hadn't done, which was to arm the Ukrainians with lethal defensive weapons. The previous administration hesitated and refrained, did not arm the Ukrainians in the face of Russian aggression, but this administration has. That's why I say it's hard to be clear on where the ... Because we got other messages coming out of the White House, which makes it hard to understand exactly the policy.
Tim Farley (host): I wonder if you have any insight into all the news we hear about these oligarchs? Oligarchs that may have ties to Michael Cohen, the president's personal attorney. Oligarchs who may have tried to influence the elections in 2016. How should we process this? Who do we believe? Who has the right information on these people, so we can make a judgment as to how much they are trying to influence the US? How much of it is backed by Vladimir Putin?
Bill Taylor: We have to believe that most, or all of it, is backed by Vladimir Putin. The Russian Government, under Mister Putin, clearly the single decision maker, has a policy of putting out messages through oligarchs, as you say, through the media, as you say, through information technologies that come through non-governmental organizations that are dominated by the government across Europe and into the United States. We saw a very sophisticated attack on the US political system in 2016. We anticipate that, that will happen again, because it's not just 2016. It's not just the United States. That sophisticated attack has taken place, again, it has to be with the direction of the Kremlin across Europe. The Brexit Referendum, the attempt, unsuccessful thankfully in Germany and France to influence those elections. This is a major effort across the geography of the world and it is likely to continue. And they're good at it.
Bill Taylor: The thing about the Russians is they can use this technology at a very low cost. We already talked about their economic problems. They've got economic problems, but it doesn't cost them much to undertake this very successful, so far, information policy, cyber warfare, information warfare, cyber warfare. They do this pretty well. It doesn't cost them very much and we are only slowly responding.
Tim Farley (host): Bill Taylor, I appreciate you spending time with us on POTUS today. Thanks for the perspective.
Bill Taylor: Thank you Tim, great to be here.
Tim Farley (host): William B. Taylor, US Institute of Peace Executive Vice President, former ambassador to the Ukraine joining us. Giving us his insight on, yet, another term in office for Vladimir Putin. He is tweeting at @USIP.