Interview by Thomas Kirchner

"I Think the Russians Were Surprised at How Cheap and Easy We Were to Buy."

April 01, 2022
9 min read
Photo Credit: Asatur Yesayants /
US expert Heather Conley was quick to warn about Putin's strategy in Europe—and his manipulation. A conversation about economic influence, the West's mistakes, and the most important task in Ukraine.

They were there, the early warnings of malicious Russian influence in Europe. One of the warners was Heather Conley. In 2016, she wrote an analysis called "The Kremlin Playbook" that received a lot of attention. The West, she argues, has overlooked the fundamental shift in Russian politics.

SZ: Ms. Conley, back in 2016 you spoke of the Kremlin's "playbook" or script—and meant it as a reminder.

Heather Conley: I used the word because we had uncovered a method. And because we wanted to explain how malign economic influence plays out, in many countries. In each case, we looked at the historical-cultural and economic conditions: the weaknesses, the vulnerable spots that Russia exploited. It happened differently in each country, but with the same method.

SZ: How did you discover this method?

HC: The real trigger for the script analyses was a letter that senior Central and Eastern European politicians, friends of the United States, wrote to Barack Obama in 2009. It was an open letter, which is unusual, which is another reason why it caught my eye. They spoke of a “Russian economic war” to change the transatlantic orientation of their countries. As a researcher, I asked: Is that true? Can economic influence literally change a country’s entire political orientation? So for me it was a hypothesis. We then tested that, as best we could, with open-source material. And yes, there was indeed this effect on the politics of the countries involved.

SZ: And this economic war is still affecting other countries?

HC: No, in a second study we looked at the Netherlands, Italy, and others. We could also write this about the United States. Central Europe has been like a laboratory, for 20 years, because the economic links and energy dependence were so strong there.

SZ: How did this war work?

HC: When Russia made a major investment in a country, it needed government approval, large state revenue was typically involved. The politicians then took care of making sure that no one could stop the project. The stronger the political influence became, the larger the investments became, and the dependence grew.

SZ: An example?

HC: Take Hungary, which initially had no extensive economic ties with Russia, only strong political ties, which over time led to a high level of energy dependence. It’s a vicious circle that keeps getting bigger. The lubricant of this cycle is corruption, illegal financing. The Russians have been keen to disguise their investments because they knew they would raise concerns. Why is the Netherlands the largest foreign direct investor in Bulgaria? Because Russian energy companies are incorporated there. That also helps in dealing with EU law. When that was discovered, the Russians shifted their activities even more to the local level. This then becomes more and more difficult to stop because local and national political figures are involved who have invested a lot in making this happen. This has striking similarities with Nord Stream.

SZ: Which sectors of the economy were hit hardest?

HC: Energy, above all, because of Russia’s monopoly power. But also the financial sector: if you control a bank, you can control where that bank invests in the country. The targeted takeover of media to stop investigative journalism or questions about projects in general. The real estate sector was also important: partly to hide funds, partly to influence local politicians who relied on local taxes. Such influences had the strongest impact in smaller economies, such as Montenegro or Bulgaria. In larger ones, it is somewhat less obvious. But there are also the enabler states. In the UK and in the Netherlands, entire industries have sprung up that thrive on managing dubious money flows from Russia. So everybody is responsible for that.

SZ: Russian influence goes even further: disinforming, deepening divisions, supporting national populists, influencing elections, financing criminal organizations—also part of the script?

HC: Absolutely. It’s about buying political influence, at all levels. Let’s go back to Bulgaria. They were looking for pro-Russian deputies who would pass laws against the EU or NATO. Ideally, such a person would then become, as in Bulgaria, minister of the interior, controlling security-related secret matters. That’s a huge gain for Russia. But typically it was about funding political parties that were working to protect and promote certain investments. And about increasing frictions between those countries and the rest of Europe and the United States. Preventing all of this became increasingly difficult, even when governments wanted to. The media was pro-Russian, the Russians were mobilizing fake NGOs against reform, and eventually the state is captured. That’s why it was so important for us to provide a comprehensive picture.

SZ: What is the goal behind all this?

HC: From 2004 to 2008, after the Central and Eastern Europeans joined NATO and the EU, the Russians or simply seized the economic opportunities that were available to them. From 2008 to 2014, they apparently sought to use that influence to undermine the Western narrative, to punish those who favored Westernization.

SZ: That is, Putin wrote his “script” sometime before 2008?

HC: Most analysts say that from 2000 to 2007, there was a Putin who flirted with Russia’s membership in NATO, who wanted to work with the United States on a global counterterrorism program after September 11, 2001. That all changed after the Munich speech in 2007. When he declared that a new era was beginning. We simply did not want to believe it. After all, the West had tried to integrate Russia into its system, to anchor it in a norms-based approach. In 2008, Moscow reversed itself: From then on, it used economic integration not only for its own enrichment, but also to harm the West and democracy. We did not acknowledge this change.

SZ: How much of this has to do with Putin as a person?

HC: We’re talking about Putinism that goes back to his beginnings as deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, Catherine Belton describes that in the book “Putin’s Web.” Later, he did it on a larger European scale. It involves an interplay of intelligence and security services with state and economic instruments to exploit weaknesses in the system. Which is essentially the same as the Soviets’ “active measures.” None of this is new. Our mistake was thinking that the Russians would become more or less like us. That didn’t happen; instead we imported their kleptocracy as well. And everyone was happy with it, the banks, the tax lawyers, the managers. Now we have Londongrad. I think the Russians were surprised at how cheap and easy we were to buy.

SZ: Is it capitalism that made us so weak?

HC: It was totally understandable to try to bring Russia in. We just didn’t switch when Russia was no longer interested, when Putin said: We are no longer a normal European country. That was exactly what we wanted to achieve. And now we didn’t want to take the money out of our system again either. And the dependence had become too great. We have the right laws for it, but we didn’t enforce them. Now, apart from the acute case of Ukraine, that becomes the most important task for the West: to get rid of this dependence, to get all these things completely out of our system. If that succeeds, it would be the path to our own democratic health. That will mean sacrifice.

SZ: In Germany, a whole generation of politicians has clearly miscalculated Russia. How could that have happened?

HC: This is a complex historical and cultural problem that cannot be explained so easily. It has to do with Germans’ myths about themselves. As I said, there is nothing wrong with trying to build a normal relationship with Russia. But hope is not a strategy. For an American, it was painful to hear what Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock just said about the German “miscalculation.” After all, we had warned about it so many times, decades ago. Remember the “friendship pipeline” in 1982? Don’t become too dependent on Russian energy supplies! we had shouted. At some point, Germany will have to come to terms with that. That it was so willfully blind. There is no excuse for the fact that Germany increased its dependence on Russia after 2014. People just don’t want to admit it because, unfortunately, Germany’s economic model is very dependent on energy imports from Russia and goods exports to China. Changing that is going to be extremely painful.

SZ: So “change through trade” doesn’t make sense to you?

HC: I understand the principle, but the policy has to match reality. And when you see that change through trade is actually negative change—which is what we’ve been seeing since 2000—then you have to reevaluate trade patterns. Instead, the more it went wrong with change through trade, the more intensively it was tried. And that was never questioned, by several German governments. I hope this is seen more clearly now. We don’t want to point the finger at Germany; the history of the United States is full of political mistakes and strategic misjudgments for which we have paid dearly. But it is important for democracy to understand why the signs were not recognized—politics, media, the whole society.

SZ: Not even the United States is immune to the virus, if we think about Donald Trump.

HC: We are trying to study and understand Europe in order to understand ourselves. This real estate business in Montenegro is like Miami; this banking structure, this kind of corruption, it could be with us. No, it could be exactly the same with us. Trump is still enthusiastic about Russia, and now when American voters see the destruction of Mariupol, they will be able to make a decision.

SZ: What role did European anti-Americanism play in this whole development?

HC: After NATO and EU enlargement, US policymakers congratulated themselves on achieving their goal of a free and peaceful Europe. After that, the US focus turned to the Middle East, Asia, and other parts of the world. Now we are paying the price for not being more engaged in Europe. We left the space, and others filled the vacuum. And now we have to go back to doing very basic things, like Radio Free Europe in Hungary. I say this to the Biden administration as well: we have to make big investments in US relations with our European partners, and that’s not going to be easy.

SZ: That means all this misery could have positive consequences, too?

HC: We now understand what is important. The unfathomable tragedy is that it took the biggest land war in Europe since World War II and the biggest migration crisis since World War II for us to slowly understand this. I say slowly because there is still so much rot in our system. It is not something we should be happy about. Let’s never make those mistakes again. Let’s never get into such dependencies again.

This piece was originally published by Süddeutsche Zeitung in German.