Doug Schoen discussed his timely new book, Putin on the March, with our own Ben Weingarten. What follows is a full transcript of their discussion, slightly modified for clarity.
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Ben Weingarten: You’ve been writing a lot about Russia over the last several years. Why Putin on the March at this time?
Doug Schoen: Well, I have felt for a long time that commentators had really mischaracterized what Putin was doing in the  U.S. [presidential] election. The initial assessment by Democrats was, “Oh, Putin elected Trump,” and the Republicans saying, “No, Putin didn’t elect Trump.” What I believe Putin was trying to do was less elect one candidate or another, though I believe he did want Trump to win, but rather to pit Americans against Americans, to polarize, to divide, and ultimately to weaken our nation. The title of my new book, as you know, is Putin on the March, and what I’m suggesting is that this was part of a global plan that Putin has been implementing to basically insert Russian influence around the world. And I would say the American project has been an unqualified success.
Ben Weingarten: And Russia has always sought to sew discord among those who it views as adversaries or competitors in the global struggle for hegemony. It’s always acted in accordance with its national self-interest. It’s always engaged in nefarious activities, including the creation itself of disinformatzia, disinformation. And it’s always sought to expand its sphere of influence when it was strong enough to do so. What is it that makes Putin’s Russia different from Russian regimes in the past?
Doug Schoen: Their effectiveness, I think stated simply. The fact that they were able to penetrate American social media and American politics, as they have done. To use another word, they have engaged in also kompromat, where they have been able, wittingly and unwittingly, to compromise America. And more substantially, they’ve taken this project around the world and have been able to sow discord in Europe, in Asia, and Latin America, working hand-in-hand in many instances with the Chinese, who are their allies — occasional adversaries, but mostly allies.
What I believe Putin was trying to do was less elect one candidate or another, though I believe he did want Trump to win, but rather to pit Americans against Americans, to polarize, to divide, and ultimately to weaken our nation.
Ben Weingarten: Let’s move to the Middle East, and where we see risk, it often times appears that Russia sees opportunity. We see a Middle East in the midst of, if you want to look at it at the highest level, a Sunni versus Shia civil war writ large that is burning, and Russia has sought to fill a vacuum while, in some respects, the U.S. has sought to step back and, in a sense, invest less blood and treasure in the region given how poorly it’s gone for us in the last 16 years. What does Russia want in the Middle East?
Doug Schoen: They want expanded influence, Ben, and they appear with the Syrian project to have gotten it. The so-called peace conference with Iran, Turkey, and Russia is, I think, designed to memorialize their influence and their ability to basically establish, in large measure, hegemony over the nation. Now, that’s an expansive statement, but to the extent that Bashar al-Assad has managed to consolidate power, the Russians and their Iranian proxies are in really almost total control of those parts of the country not held by the rebels.
Ben Weingarten: And Russia of course has developed this tacit…at the very least tacit alliance with Iran through helping them develop their nuclear facilities, as well as you just alluded to, the project in Syria and the negotiation of these agreements that have effectively, in bolstering Assad, also bolstered Iran. Russia also makes entreaties to the various Sunni powers in the region and in some respects, plays all sides against the middle. Do you think that the U.S. and Russia are ultimately on a collision course over Iran, given that the Trump administration has stated that it seeks to implement a comprehensive plan to constrain Iranian activities?
Doug Schoen: I think it is possible, but what has happened is Putin has managed to, basically through flattery, through power politics, and potentially what I alluded to before, compromise, to hold Donald Trump at bay. We looked at what he said about Putin and the Russians. He has been much more understanding and tolerant of their activities than certainly I would or pretty much anyone else in American political life would be, and I take that as an unqualified win and an advantage for the Russians. So it looks to me like there could be conflict and confrontations between the U.S. and Iran, but the Russians, I think, if anything, are helping to ameliorate, from their perspective, the possibility of full-on conflict.
I believe we need to be on the offensive because we're in a war and if we don't acknowledge that we're in a war, we will lose the war.
Ben Weingarten: On September 11, 2001, one of the first, if not the first, foreign leaders to call President Bush and extend his “condolences” was Vladimir Putin, which I don’t think was any accident, but rather, in some respects, an opportunistic attempt to reach out a helping hand and “coordinate with the U.S.” And there was talk of Russia working with the U.S. in the “Global War on Terror.” Do you think that Russia can ever be a reliable partner against jihadists?
Doug Schoen: I don’t think they can be because I don’t think they want to be a reliable partner, and the whole point of Putin on the March and Putin’s Master Plan and The Russia-China Axis is to say that the Russians have bad intentions. They may well be against jihad, but they’re also not against letting jihadists do their business where that is in their interest.
If you take, for example, North Korea, there are credible reports that their weapons program has been enhanced and supported by the Russians, and that they’ve been training with the North Koreans. And certainly, there’s been no effort to…real effort by the Russians to coordinate with the United States to reign in Islamic State, which has been a largely successful, though unreported project of the Trump administration.
So I wouldn’t trust the Russians. I don’t trust the Russians. And I think most experts at this point view them as skeptically as I do.
It looks to me like there could be conflict and confrontations between the U.S. and Iran, but the Russians, I think, if anything, are helping to ameliorate, from their perspective, the possibility of full-on conflict.
Ben Weingarten: Earlier you mentioned the Russia-China detente, and now actually an alliance where they work with each other in a variety of strategic spheres to strengthen each other mutually…Can you lay out the size, scope, and nature of their relationship today, and what the aims of that relationship are?
Doug Schoen: Well, there are basically two arguments in the global political world that are conflicted. One is ours, to simplify, which is support liberal democracy and freedom, and liberal social values of the type that you and I hold dear. The other is non-interference, the passive argument that democracy has failed and that we have to support autocrats around the world and extend our influence through economic means, political means, and military means, which is the Chinese-Russian position. And they coordinate at the UN, and they coordinate diplomatically and they coordinate in terms of their global political efforts. The Chinese did not really object to the Russian incursion into Eastern Ukraine and into Georgia, and you certainly haven’t seen, as I suggested before, the Russians seeking to come to the aid of the United States to reign in the greatest and most serious terrorist threat we face now, which is that from North Korea. So they work together. They work, as I said, economically, politically, diplomatically, and militarily. And we are at risk. And I make the argument that…where conflict could come, if it comes, would be in Europe if the Russians seek to test [NATO] Article 5 through an incursion like they did in Ukraine in the Baltics.
Ben Weingarten: And before we turn to Russia’s efforts in Europe to expand its sphere of influence, if you were developing a grand U.S. strategy, would you advocate seeking to scuttle, through measures overt and covert, the Russia-China relationship? And if so, how would you go about creating a wedge?
They may well be against jihad, but they're also not against letting jihadists do their business where that is in their interest.
Doug Schoen: Well, that’s a very good question and I don’t have an easy answer. I’d say the first thing I would say is we have to acknowledge that it exists. Many serious people that I have dealt with for the last few years first have not acknowledged that it exists, or said that they’re really adversaries or said that they don’t work together consistently. And I believe, as we have discussed many times, they’re working together systematically and in a variety of different spheres. I think we have to acknowledge it exists. I think we have to acknowledge the expansionist nature of what they’re doing, and speak out and be prepared in a variety of different theaters to assert ourselves. But economically, in Africa and Latin America, the Chinese, and in some instances the Russians, countries like Venezuela have expanded their influence and we don’t have…there is no peep out of the United States. We used to have things like the Alliance for Progress in Latin America. Right now, our policy is basically non-intervention.
Ben Weingarten: Now to the EU. You’ve noted that Russia has sought to destabilize various governments there through hacking and other efforts to influence elections. And there’s also kind of a broader narrative where Russia has sought to portray itself — and this is ironic given its Communist past — as the leader of Christendom in the world, and traditional values. We could argue this is probably a disinformation campaign in some respects, but Russia has held itself up as the great protector of Christianity. And then on the other hand, in the EU, you have this current of Islamization — so growing Islamic populations cordoned off in “no-go zones” and the like, and the threat of Islamic terror grows and grows. Do you see a situation ultimately where the EU looks to Russia as a potential protector against this Islamization, and is that what Russia is ultimately getting at?
Doug Schoen: I think first, what they’re getting at, is they want to destabilize the EU and NATO. Part of it is through the alliance that the Russians have built with the Turks, who are a NATO member, not an EU member. Second, I think it is through meddling in elections, supporting the far right and the far left, and even if they don’t win, if they influence the right or the left to take policies that are supportive of Russian interests, so much the better. And to the extent, as you point out, that immigration undermines the stability of the EU and perhaps individual nations like Germany, I think that works to the benefit of the Russians and I think of many nations — indeed the Germans are part of this — say “Why should we confront the Russians? We do a lot of businesses with them. They can help us stabilize, and they will destabilize us if we fight with them.” So I think it is all of those, all of the above, and I think that the Russians are seeking, at this point, without challenging Article Five, to try to weaken the NATO alliance and the European Union. So I think it’s a multi-faceted strategy, which by and large has worked, and worked better than I think most people have acknowledged because they are driving the agenda, the Russians — certainly not us and certainly not the voices of liberal democracy.
Ben Weingarten: Energy has been one of Russia’s greatest levers, including developing pipelines with neighboring states through which energy is pumped, and then shutting off those pipelines when it’s in its strategic interest to do so. It’s been an asset for Russia to date, but you assert that based upon fracking and other technological advances, energy could become a liability for Putin. Explain that.
Doug Schoen: Well, we need to become completely energy independent, as your question suggests. If we frack and if we drill in the Arctic Basin, we have a chance that we will not need anything other than domestic sources of energy. That’s hugely beneficial. It will drive down the price of oil. The Russian economy to a very large extent is based on oil, and if we drive down the price and the Russian economy suffers as a result…Only…the anti-fracking, anti-Arctic Basin drilling voices in America would weaken us and make us more dependent on foreign oil, which strengthens the hands of the Russians.
Ben Weingarten: What actions from America do you think Putin would respond to, or would change his behavior or calculations significantly about the U.S. will to counter his efforts to across the world?
Doug Schoen: Well, first of all, we have to do what Donald Trump has done, which is we need to increase our military budget. We need to substantially upgrade our cache of weapons. And we need to upgrade our nuclear arsenal. Plus, we need to make it very clear that we stand behind Article Five, we stand behind our allies, and that we will not…kowtow to the Russians, and where appropriate the Chinese. And I think it’s fair to say whether it be President Obama or President Trump, neither has been as assertive as I think we should be, and arguably circumstances require us to be.
The Russians are seeking, at this point, without challenging Article Five, to try to weaken the NATO alliance and the European Union.
Ben Weingarten: And you’ve noted the importance of NATO and also the relationship between Russia and Turkey, who…have a fraught history and they’ve even almost come to blows quite recently. But now they, it appears, are coordinating. Would you recommend booting Turkey out from NATO given its own internal politics and the alliances that it’s made around the world that are detrimental to NATO’s mission?
Doug Schoen: I wish it were possible to do that. I worry that if we did it, it would send a very, very negative message to the Muslim world about our values and alliances. I think what we haven’t done is we haven’t worked closely enough with the Turkish government to try to provide an alternative source of pressure to that which the Russians have exerted. There are two issues I see now with the Turks: There’s the issue of the indictments against the security forces in Washington that came down. There is the gold trader [Reza Zarrab] who remains, I believe, incarcerated or under house arrest here. And the big deal for them is [Fethullah] Gulen, who they want extradited, and we haven’t. Now I’m not for abrogating…I’m not for, in any way, unilaterally making concessions to the Turks. But certainly with the gold trader…and the security guards, those are steps that we could take in good faith as bargaining chips with the Turks to try to help get them out of the Russian orbit.
Ben Weingarten: In Putin on the March, you speak a bit about the importance of our cyber capabilities and our intelligence capabilities more broadly. As you know, those intelligence capabilities have been abridged or shrunk to some degree in the post ’70s United States, where there’s been a pendulum swinging back to some degree, some would argue, between civil liberties and national security interests. Do you believe that within the law we have the tools necessary to adequately counter foes, whether it be Russia, China, or others, in the clandestine sphere?
Doug Schoen: My best estimate, and it’s only an estimate, is that we don’t. I worry that we are losing the cyber war to Russia and China. It’s one of those things you can’t quite pick up a newspaper or go to a library and read about it, but to the extent that the Chinese, through their military and their state, and the Russians through hackers who appear to be, if not state-sponsored, but state-tolerated, have wreaked havoc on our business, and our military and our most of all intelligence capabilities. I worry we’re behind the eight ball. And since we’re behind the eight ball in terms of intelligence, and there have been more than a few efforts successfully to compromise the NSA and individual companies like Sony, I worry that we are completely in a weakened position, much weaker than we should be…
Ben Weingarten: And would you advocate that we shift from a posture of defense to offense in the cyber sphere and in terms of intelligence actions more broadly?
Doug Schoen: Absolutely. We had some success with the Stuxnet virus, with Iran, destabilizing their weapons program for a year, year-and-a-half, and I believe we need to be on the offensive because we’re in a war and if we don’t acknowledge that we’re in a war, we will lose the war.