MICHAEL KIRK - When do you know it’s the Russians spying around the DNC [Democratic
National Committee] hack and around the [Clinton campaign chair John] Podesta hack?
DAVID E. HOFFMAN - I think we know in the summer 2016.
But what we know traces—but we don’t really know who or where.
There are little fingerprints and traces.
The report that CrowdStrike did looking into those DNC servers found software patterns
that match patterns of malware they’d seen elsewhere.
It’s sort of a puzzle; it’s a detective game, trying to say, “Well, this matches
that,” or, “This thing has some Cyrillic letters in it.
Where did it come from?
Which IP address?”
But there's some assumptions in this kind of work, like all detective work.
MICHAEL KIRK - Once it seems to be clear that it might be Russia, what are you saying to
yourself about the likelihood of it being something initiated by Vladimir Putin?
DAVID E. HOFFMAN - Putin spent his entire career in an institution that used deception
and subversion as tools of the state, and he spent 17 years studying those methods before
he came into the political arena and left that behind.
But he didn't leave behind those lessons.
I think a lot of what we've seen about Putin in real warfare in Chechnya and Ukraine and
information warfare and in cyberwarfare, in almost every form, Putin knows that he is
the head of a state that's weak.
By his own statements, he took over a state that was nearly broken.
If you think about where he’s coming from to try and assert strength, it isn't possible
to compete with huge, rich countries in the world.
He doesn't have the resources, so he’s got to think about ways to leverage his weakness.
He's got to think about ways to appear to be stronger using asymmetric methods, and
cyber is one of those asymmetric methods.
It is something that does not require massive resources of a state.
In many ways, the expertise can be private hackers.
I think a lot of what I thought about when this first started to crest was that this
is the perfect asymmetric weapon, information.
MICHAEL KIRK - So you’ve given us the entrée.
It's the end of the Soviet Union.
It’s—the Wall is down; he’s in Dresden.
Who is that man?
DAVID E. HOFFMAN - This time period, 1989, 1990, to understand it, you really have to
understand the enormous empire that was cracking up all around him.
This empire was artifice.
It was a lot of things that in the Russian imperial history had been conquered and added
on and then solidified.
The Soviet Union was really an enormous agglomeration of nationalities, some of which were breaking
off of the Warsaw Pact, of captive nations in Eastern Europe that were restive.
When this whole thing, the bonds of it start to loosen largely because of the efforts of
Mikhail Gorbachev, and Gorbachev starts a revolution from above, he essentially encourages
people to see him as a moment in which the totalitarian system is ending and he's giving
people freedoms, maybe not complete freedom, but Gorbachev is an essential player here,
even in Germany.
In 1989, when Gorbachev came to East Germany, where Vladimir Putin was in Dresden, Gorbachev
came, and he walked a sort of standard party parade.
It was a big day, and the crowds were out, and the Communist Youth League kids were in
Gorbachev is parading with the leader of Eastern Europe, and as he passes the stands, the young
kids say, “Mikhail Sergeyevich, help us.”
Gorbachev is essentially unleashing the bonds, and if you give people a little bit of freedom,
they take it.
And people were taking more and more freedom.
First of all, in the Eastern European countries, they were all basically told, the leaders
were told, part of the Warsaw Pact, were all told: “Go your own way.
You guys are on your own.
Moscow is not coming this time.
There won't be another Soviet invasion like the Prague Spring.”
You have to understand—this is critically important—that the Prague Spring in 1968,
the Soviet invasion, was a thing that left a deep impression on Gorbachev, because about
a year afterward, after the Soviet tanks had rolled in, Gorbachev was sent as a young party
official to Prague as part of a goodwill mission.
He went to a factory there, and instead of seeing a lot of smiling Czech workers, or
even a Potemkin village of workers, the workers in this factory turned their backs on the
visiting Soviet delegation, on Mikhail Gorbachev.
And when he saw that, he realized there was no way the Soviet Union could hold this whole
thing together, that the use of force was futile.
Taking that lesson into 1989, Gorbachev was a force for a lot of the places, including
in Germany, in East Germany, for people to begin to taste and smell and think about freedom.
It didn't only sit in Moscow where, of course, the center of Gorbachev's reforms were unfolding;
it flooded the entire empire.
So Vladimir Putin is a junior officer in the KGB in Dresden, which Dresden’s big claim
to fame was that it had the one sort of high-tech factory in the Eastern bloc.
Robotron was in Dresden, and it was not really nearly as high-tech as the factories in the
West, but they made some integrated circuits and some computers and so on.
But Dresden wasn’t even really the center of anything, and it was a backwater assignment.
He was one of a couple of KGB officers in a small rezidentura in Dresden, and probably
what his activities were every day, day to day there, was not very exciting.
This is not James Bond.
This is administrative work.
If a professor from East Germany was maybe making a trip into the West, you had to brief
him and tell him what to look for, especially if somebody was traveling and going near a
NATO base or a place of interest, what to look for, what kinds of things to bring back.
Somebody needed maybe a phony driver’s license or a disguise.
But it was still administrative work.
And this little office that Putin worked in in this sort of backwater place was right
by the bigger headquarters of the East German secret police, the Stasi.
He could even see from his little window that the Stasi guys in their own place and time
lived bigger and better than he did.
I think that this was, certainly for a guy like Putin, who had always wanted to work
in the KGB and was accepted and trained as an officer and then sent aboard, it probably
was not stimulating every day to have to run these minor agents and do all this administrative
work in a kind of dreary East German backwater.
The KGB's mission was to protect this great empire, this great party state that Putin
Certainly in his lifetime, he had been trained and come to believe that the Soviet Union
was a superpower, a global power, a respected power around the world.
There was a Cold War confrontation.
For whatever you can say about the Soviet Union, it was half of that confrontation,
and it was a very, very big, powerful country that had enormous impact on that second half
of that century.
And by 1989 and 1990, Putin sees that this thing that had always seemed to be glued together
well, seemed to be impervious, that had gone from generation to generation of change in
the top party officials, seemed to be a rock, it was starting to crumble before his eyes.
And this crumbling was not something that he was part of.
It was happening, starting, with that guy Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow who was loosening
the reins, who was telling people: “You can vote.
We can have some democracy.
We can have some socialism and democracy.”
Gorbachev was letting this happen.
And by the way, in Moscow and in the Soviet Union, this was a life-changing event for
the people who lived through it.
For the adults and even young people who were part of those glasnost and perestroika years,
this was something that was completely different in their entire lives, and in many, many ways
was just a revolution beyond expectations that, for example, the press which had been
so stilted in communist times suddenly becomes partially free and in some cases almost completely
And people would line up to read newspapers.
They had never paid them much attention before.
Similarly, people began to discover that long-held dark secrets of their history, that the state
had never let out, were suddenly coming out, including the truth about the Stalin-Hitler
pact of World War II, which had been kept a secret for many, many years until Gorbachev's
time inside the Soviet Union.
So for many people, this was a time of great excitement and enablement and experimentation
Probably the peak of this, the zenith of it, came when Gorbachev permitted limited free
elections for the new parliament, the Congress of People’s Deputies.
This was a moment in which people were not voting in some kind of pro forma election
where every party member raised their hand yes, but where people actually had choices
and where they actually chose who they thought would be the best candidates.
When this parliament then convened with Andrei Sakharov, the great physicist and human rights
advocate and dissident elected to the parliament, the entire country stopped for a day.
People stopped working.
They stood in front of their televisions mesmerized by this limited freedom that was on display.
MICHAEL KIRK - But our guy Putin sitting in Dresden misses it all.
DAVID E. HOFFMAN - Vladimir Putin missed this.
Vladimir Putin missed this wave of excitement.
He missed this life-transformation—years [of it]—the years that this happened he
was in East Germany, and he was watching it from afar.
He was not part of it.
He didn't really believe in it; he didn't subscribe to these ideas.
And it all happened far away until it finally reached him when the Wall came down.
The year after the Wall came down, he returned in 1990 to a Soviet Union that was spinning
That winter of 1990 was probably the worst.
The shortages were horrible; there were really bad bread shortages.
Even, I recall, one of those winters, a huge convoy of coal train cars froze, just froze,
and they couldn’t get the coal to the heating plants.
Everything seemed to be going wrong in that winter.
Of course Gorbachev at that time had forsaken some of his earlier hopes for democracy and
was trying to tack back to authoritarianism.
It wasn't working.
Everything was in a sort of suspended state of great uncertainty.
And the Soviet Union that Vladimir Putin came back to in 1990 was no more within a year.
MICHAEL KIRK - ... We heard there were 800,000 KGB officers at the end of the Soviet Union.
Let’s take it back.
As a little boy, the way the story goes, at 16 he walks in and tries to volunteer into
Take me on that young-man trajectory and how the preparation to be a KGB officer might
yield the Vladimir Putin who becomes president.
DAVID E. HOFFMAN - Putin was only—I don’t want to say only child.
He had a brother who died before he was born.
Putin came from a sort of hardscrabble and hard-luck story.
His father had been a wounded war veteran.
Once the war was over, they lived in what we would think of as poverty, although for
them it probably was a cut above.
And, you know, his courtyard was his world.
People remember him as a very scrappy, sort of a slight young kid, smaller than you would
expect, but definitely somebody who would fight you no matter how big you were.
Putin was a product of this period after World War II of rebuilding in the Soviet Union when
people actually had very, very little.
They had come out of the war, especially [St.] Petersburg, just devastated.
I think for Putin, this sort of courtyard, hardscrabble life was formative.
He writes in his own memoirs, and he says over and over again in times of duress, that
one of his great life lessons is never show weakness because the weak are always defeated.
The KGB as an organization that he aspired to, for him it was probably a good career
People aspired to join the party or the KGB because, you have to remember, there wasn’t
For somebody that wanted some kind of interesting career, there were not a lot of opportunities
in business in the Soviet Union, because private profit and entrepreneurship were prohibited.
This was a paternalistic state that provided, supposedly, everything cradle to grave.
Opportunities for creativity were limited, and I think that Putin somehow had in his
mind that he would earn respect by this career choice; that he liked the idea, basically,
of being a cop, whether it was the KGB or something like that.
It was appealing to him because of his scrappy nature.
The KGB was many, many things in the Soviet Union.
It was both a foreign intelligence-gathering organization that carried out the active measures
abroad to try and influence overseas affairs.
But also it was the secret police.
It was the organization that protected the great party state, the Communist Party and
the government that it oversaw.
It had a lot of power inside the Soviet Union, and it was seriously feared by people.
I think that the fear of the Great Terror of the late 1930s, the sacrifices of World
War II, the thaw of the Khrushchev years, all those phases had passed by the time Vladimir
Putin—and by the time Putin enters the KGB, it’s really on the cusp of this period in
the whole country, this period known as stagnation.
The Brezhnev years were coming, and this was a period where people were sort of tired of
the great upheavals.
Brezhnev’s calling card in this period was he would bring “stability of the cadres.”
In other words, he wasn’t going to be firing and executing and mixing it all up, everything.
But everything got to be so stable that it started to stagnate.
The Soviet economic system started to go into a long, slow decline.
Because of the demands of the Cold War, the demands of the budget for Cold War weaponry
and militarization were huge.
Some people think that in this time period, 40 percent of Soviet Union GDP went basically
to military goods and things involved in the Cold War.
The country really couldn’t provide much for consumers.
And frankly, they didn’t think much about providing items for consumers.
But consumers were somewhat aware of what was happening in the world, so there was always
this tension of could you get a television for your family?
Where would you get the television?
Did the Soviet system make them?
Yes, in limited numbers.
Could you get a car?
A car was a dear thing to have in your family, and many, many people longed for consumer
goods that the Soviet system didn't provide.
There was not a sense of crass consumerism because socialism had sort of pushed that
Little kids are taught from the very beginning that profit was evil and wrong, and this was
going to be an egalitarian utopia.
But by the ’70s, it’s no longer really a utopia, and the KGB also, although feared,
it’s not the same KGB, or its predecessor, the NKVD, in the 1930s.
I think for Putin in some ways this is a good career choice and may make him feel good.
He’s trained by the KGB in all their long history of things.
And I'll give you an example.
We think it very natural to go to a photocopier and copy a document.
But the Soviet party state, the Communist Party, was deathly afraid of photocopiers.
Because they controlled information.
There were literal censors in this system.
The news was censored, literature.
There was lots of different ways that information was controlled.
Even in a factory, a normal factory making widgets or ball bearings or pipes or something,
of course, there might be one Xerox machine.
But the Xerox machines were usually kept under lock and key because the Soviet system did
not want people to have the power to share information.
Information in the Soviet system was controlled by the state, and that's what the KGB was
partly involved in.
Some of these factories, in all of these factories, there would be a KGB officer or somebody reporting
to the KGB.
It was called the regime, and the regime would always be able to blow the whistle on somebody
if they were passing around information that wasn't authorized by the state.
To me, the image of the locked-up Xerox machine as a threat to the state has always been very
That's the kind of thing that the KGB was involved in.
How do we keep control of information?
And the KGB's job was enforcing it.
They chased dissidents.
They pursued Sakharov mercilessly and also [Aleksandr] Solzhenitsyn, you know.
We now have the transcripts of these wiretaps they put in, Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn, to
try and listen to what they were doing.
Why was the KGB afraid of these guys?
They were afraid because Solzhenitsyn was writing novels exposing the Gulag, exposing
the prison camps of an earlier period, and they didn't want that.
And Sakharov was arguing for a different kind of a Soviet Union, that it face its problems
more openly, and they didn't want that.
So the KGB was an instrument of control.
Putin tells a story.
When he was just in the KGB before he was sent to Dresden, he says, “I had to do a
couple of cases here and there,” and he talks some about things he did.
And he tells the story about how some dissidents were going to come, and they were going to
make a small little demonstration at some monument in Leningrad, and KGB got wind of
So what did the KGB do?
They hired a little band.
They put on the band uniforms themselves.
They got their own wreaths, and they went, and they had their own little tribute at this
statue before the dissidents got there.
They blocked them.
And they didn't even reveal that they were KGB.
They just impersonated some people, and they completely forced the dissidents out of their
That was a typical sort of small little trick of how the KGB operated, which was deception
and subversion and protection and control of the Soviet state, were the things that
Putin learned about, even if the state was tottering and beginning to stagnate and it
was not the Great Terror.
The mass repressions of Stalin were a memory.
MICHAEL KIRK - He, by all accounts, does not rise through the ranks as a superstar by any
stretch of the imagination.
As you described his life in Dresden, it’s pretty mundane as a young KGB officer.
DAVID E. HOFFMAN - Yeah, the reality of life in the KGB for Vladimir Putin was actually
He believed in the mission, but the work wasn't all that exciting all the time.
I think that the state that he was trying to defend and the events around him, especially
at the end, really came crashing down.
He was never more than a lieutenant colonel in 17 years in the service.
MICHAEL KIRK - The stories of the stoking of the furnace with the papers to save KGB
information from KGB headquarters from a mob, the walking out, calling Moscow, Moscow was
silent: Those stories sound a little bit like something that was invented later.
Does it ring true to you?
DAVID E. HOFFMAN - I don't know about the truth of these stories, but I think that what
does ring true is the idea of this KGB officer on sort of the edge of the empire in a small
backwater, in an outpost, feeling overwhelmed that the great state that he admired, the
mission that had been really his life’s ambition, was falling apart, and he felt helpless
He was not involved in the great changes that had come about, and he didn't even understand
them; he was far removed from them.
And I think that there was a great sense on his part of just absolute helplessness there.
MICHAEL KIRK - ... You used a word to describe—when we had a meeting a week ago, you used a word
to describe what happens to those 800,000 KGB people.
DAVID E. HOFFMAN - When he gets back, right.
MICHAEL KIRK - Yeah.
And the word you used was “shipwrecked.”
DAVID E. HOFFMAN - When the Soviet Union collapses in 1991, and Putin is back in Leningrad, and
he’s trying to find his way, but the whole structure of the KGB really begins to crack
up—now, there was a foreign intelligence collection part that was hived off or separated
into a new thing.
And actually, Boris Yeltsin broke the KGB up into nine different organizations at one
Border guards were given their own thing.
Also, some of the domestic law enforcement functions were also given into new, different
But the truth is that their very top guys in the KGB got good jobs with these new oligarchs
who were rising in the 1990s.
A few of the top KGB guys just simply moved into the oligarchy capitalism and got good
jobs, but a lot of the people that had worked in the KGB at Putin’s level were shipwrecked.
They didn't know what to do in this new society.
The revolution that had taken place in Gorbachev's time and the collapse of the Soviet Union,
which for so many people was like a breath of fresh air, for them it was suffocating,
because the values that they had stood for, the whole ideal of the Soviet Union, of this
utopia, had collapsed in utter disappointment for most people.
They were seen as sort of leftovers from an earlier time.
It was hard for them to find a place in a new society.
It was hard for them to find something to believe in.
It was hard for them to see these values of entrepreneurship and capitalism and business
springing up all around them when this had always, in their training, been something
that was shunned.
Remember, the Soviet socialism was a place where entrepreneurship and business was prohibited.
The state ran everything.
I think for KGB officers in this environment, it was a very forbidding time.
And I think part of it was mindset: Where do they fit in?
What kind of work do they do?
Part of it was very practical.
What would they actually do with themselves, some of them in the middle of their career?
You think about Putin.
He’s basically in the middle of his career.
How does he start over if his skill set is, you know, running low-level agents in Dresden?
MICHAEL KIRK - So what does he actually do?
And in the doing of it, he and lots of people like him, are they carrying a hope that the
thing they don’t understand and don't really believe in will eventually collapse on its
Do they have a view of the Russian people as needing strong authority, having had it
all for thousands of years?
DAVID E. HOFFMAN - You know, for a guy in Putin’s shoes in this period of time, it
must have been terribly disorienting.
But I also think that he had a real streak of pragmatism and realism.
There wasn't much use spending your days putting your toes in the lake and wondering what had
happened to the great Soviet Union.
It was time to get out there and find a place in this new society.
It was a real thing that was happening around him.
There wasn't any denying it, and I don't think Putin had any illusions at that time that
gee, if he just waited a year, the Soviet Union would come back.
It wasn't coming back.
Putin then essentially tried to look around to find some particular piece of driftwood
he could grab onto to keep afloat in this new society that was turbulent and uncertain.
There's a period in the late Gorbachev years when cities, especially Moscow and St. Petersburg
and Nizhny Novgorod, were also cauldrons for the new democracy and where leaders of cities
grew up as powerful voices like Gorbachev for the values of freedom and liberty and
In Moscow, there was really kind of a salt-and-pepper-haired professor named Gavriil Popov, who was a champion
of the new democrats.
And in Nizhny Novgorod, there was this young physics professor named Boris Nemtsov who
got a lot of attention and became to lead the city.
And in St. Petersburg, there was Anatoly Sobchak, who was in that early period—and I remember
meeting him once when I was covering Secretary of State [James] Baker, and we visited [St.]
These people were leaders by dint of their inspiring speeches, by their voice, by the
way they could articulate what freedom would be like.
But all of these young, new democrats in the cities had a big, big problem and a big flaw,
many of them, and that is they didn't know how to run anything.
Many of them had been professors or something like that, but they had never run anything.
And in Moscow, of course, the man who rescues Popov is Yury Luzhkov, who was a factory director
and knew how to run things.
I think in Petersburg, I think when Putin was looking for something to do, helping Sobchak,
who he knew and had studied with, helping him run that city at a time when Sobchak was
giving the speeches was something he could do.
Putin was a guy in that environment with a rambunctious—with a raucous city council
and with Sobchak, who was the sort of voice but didn't really know how to run the city.
Putin filled the gap of trying to get some things done.
What do I mean by getting things done?
One of the biggest problems of these cities in this really tumultuous period, the bonds
that had sort of held the Soviet Union together broke, so there was a real problem of getting
food to the cities.
The food was in the countryside.
There was no longer a command economy.
There was no longer just pick up the phone and order the food to be brought; you had
to get the food.
And this was an acute problem in St. Petersburg, was food.
People were hungry.
Putin got deeply involved in a deal in which resources, raw materials, metals and other
things that were in the St. Petersburg port were traded with 19 companies, and it was
a very complex scheme.
But the essence of it was that the raw materials would be traded for food and that the money
involved in selling these raw materials would be used to buy the food, and the food would
come to St. Petersburg and help the people.
Well, the raw materials disappeared, the money came in and disappeared, and the food never
This scandal has been talked about a lot; it’s not a new thing.
But this whole machination of dealing with overseas companies, of money going into mysterious
bank accounts, of a deal that was supposed to bring some benefit that didn't come through
was Putin’s first experience with this wild capitalism of the new Russia.
I think that this experience must have left him with the impression that some of the capitalism—it
must have left him with this impression, that capitalism was a really bizarre and wild place,
maybe more arbitrary and maybe actually more manipulable than a lot of people understood
in Soviet times.
In other words, this was not a capitalism of rules; this was not the kind of—let me
think of a way to say this.
This was a capitalism of deals, of machinations of power, and of enrichment.
That food deal in St. Petersburg is still a big mystery, but we know that Putin was
at the center of trying to deal with foreign banks and foreign companies, and he did have
some exposure to this wild capitalism of the new Russia in that period.
Sobchak didn't last as a politician, and by 1996, he lost a bid for re-election [as mayor
of St. Petersburg].
Putin remained loyal to him up to the very end, but he also had to think of himself,
and he was looking for a job, and he essentially started to look to Moscow.
And he was brought to Moscow not because he had any public persona.
This was a guy who had never run for public office.
He was shy as can be, but he was known as a guy who was kind of a bureaucrat who could
get something done, you know?
He had done that for Sobchak.
He had at least tried to get some things done.
He was brought into some minor positions in the Kremlin in a department in the Kremlin
that had dealt with things like the motor pool and renovations of the Kremlin buildings
and so on.
Putin, step by step, worked his way up, a little bit because he was faceless.
The thing about Putin in this time that I think is true is people sort of wrote upon
him what they wanted.
He was such a man without a face that people could say: “Oh, he’s a former KGB guy,
and he also manages to get things done.
Let’s give this job to him.”
After having done a couple of these jobs, he was named head of the FSB.
The FSB was the successor agency at home inside the country to the KGB.
There was another agency that took care of things abroad, and there was still some other
different broken bits of the KGB.
But the FSB became sort of the central successor.
Putin was head of the FSB for about a year.
But at this time, again in Yeltsin’s presidency, you have to understand something about Yeltsin
and Yeltsin’s presidency.
Boris Yeltsin decided to break totalitarianism, to crush what was left of communism with a
simple idea, which is maximum freedom first.
Yeltsin never got around to the important rule of law that comes with a modern, healthy
He did the first part.
By bringing out maximum freedom first, what do I mean?
I mean that he essentially enabled people to do almost anything, and people did a lot
of wild things in those times, in the economy, but if there were disputes, if two businessmen
got into a dispute because they had started a business in this environment of freedom,
there weren't really courts they could rely on to resolve the dispute.
There was violence.
Violence was a way to resolve disputes because the rule-of-law system and the courts didn't
function very well.
All through this period, Yeltsin sort of pushed forward this idea of maximum freedom first.
As a philosophy, the idea was being that eventually when you free people to do these things, to
make these choices, they’ll want rules, and they’ll come around and they’ll create
But it’s Yeltsin’s great failure that in this period, the rule of law never took
He really didn't pay it enough attention, because Yeltsin was a guy who tore things
It was dramatic flourish, and people cheered.
But he was not a guy who understood how to build things up.
The point at which Putin becomes director of the FSB, this point in the 1990s, we're
in a period of maximum freedom freefall.
The country essentially is experimenting on every street corner with all kinds of new
ideas, including super wealth.
The oligarchs are beginning to rise as a power in the country, a group of five or six of
them becoming billionaires in the country and running things.
So this whole idea that we think of as a rule-of-law society, where you have an SEC [Securities
and Exchange Commission] and where you have markets that are regulated, was just beginning
to dawn in Russia.
Again, Putin becomes in charge of this agency, the Federal Security Service, but at a time
when the whole idea of the rule of law hasn’t really been established.
There are oligarchs and there are little baby oligarchs, and there are all kinds of people
in business who are far more powerful than the state.
And this really bugs Putin, again, because he was a product of a big, unitary state that
seemed powerful, the Soviet Union.
When he sees this, it’s often described as chaos in Yeltsin’s time.
But I think “chaos” is a word that even Putin himself has applied to it.
But I lived there, and in that period of time, I think it’s much better to think of [it]
as completely unbridled freedom, and for a people that had been in the prison of totalitarianism
for 70 years, completely unbridled freedom was an experience.
It wasn't entirely bad.
And Yeltsin never, never closed down a newspaper in his time.
He believed in freedom like he breathed the air.
But Yeltsin also just could not understand that you had to have rules.
And for Putin, who comes in and is put in charge of a law enforcement agency at a time
when nobody understands the rules, it must have been very, very bewildering.
So, after the collapse of the Russian economy in 1998, Boris Yeltsin had a problem, which
was he’d gone through several prime ministers, appointing them, firing them, and the point
came in 1999 when he needed a new prime minister.
I think Vladimir Putin was chosen because, again, looking at Putin at the time, the people
around Yeltsin sort of imprinted upon him what they liked to see, which is he gets things
done; he’ll be loyal; he has connections to the security services, but he also believes
in the new system.
Frankly, I don't think they thought it through very much.
The presidency in Russia was a super presidency, OK?
The president of Russia had a lot of power and a completely separate structure to run
things, the presidential administration.
The prime minister was the head of the government that implemented things and head of the ministries.
But when they named Putin prime minister, it just seemed like another faceless person
in a string of prime ministers, and it sort of suggested that Yeltsin didn't really get,
after almost nine years in power, have any idea about how to build a modern state.
He was just reveling in freedom.
I think there's a thing about Yeltsin you just have to understand at this time, which
is that his entire persona was that of a bear, and a bear who would hibernate and then at
the last minute, starving, desperate, maybe on the edge of survival, a bear that would
come out with a huge great surge of energy and recover.
Yeltsin had always gone through these great hibernations and then surges.
Now, we now know that some of the hibernation was because he drank a lot, like almost all
men did in his country.
But he also had a very serious heart problem, and he had heart surgery in 1996.
But the critical thing about his character, the important thing, is that he operated this
His life was sort of to hibernate and to surge.
And there were periods, especially in 1999, after that ruble crash in Russia after the
1998 crisis, there was a period of terrible vacuum and volatility, and Yeltsin wasn’t
really running the country.
It seemed to me at the time that the oligarchs were actually running the country behind the
So Putin was picked in this vacuum, in this environment when rule of law hadn’t been
brought about, when Yeltsin’s long experiment in freedom first seemed to be producing a
society in which essentially a bunch of rich oligarchs were working behind the scenes.
Yeltsin also sometimes would rally, and he was trying to, but [when] he picked Putin
in August of 1999, I think maybe there was a hope that Putin would be like him.
But I don't think that at that time he actually picked Putin to be his successor.
He was just picking another prime minister.
But events then came along to change the course of history really quickly.
In September, just a month after Putin became prime minister, there were a series of horrible
bombings of apartment buildings in the middle of Moscow.
You can't imagine what a terrible moment this was for people in Moscow.
This was their 9/11.
This was a time when these big, tall, seven-story apartment buildings built in the 1950s out
of stone and brick just blew up all in the middle of the night.
People were killed in the middle of the night when the apartment blew up.
It happened in Moscow; it happened in two other cities over a period of two weeks or
so, and more than 300 people died, and 1,000 people were injured.
And nobody knew where this was coming from.
It created a great sense of anxiety and panic.
Who would be next?
Where would be next?
Why was this happening?
Of course, at the time, Putin blamed this on the Chechen rebels.
The Chechen war, there had been a war fought in the ’90s when Chechnya wanted to secede,
and it had been fought to a draw, only to a cease-fire.
The rebellion had continued in Chechnya in a sort of low-grade way, and Putin said that
these apartment buildings had been blown up and vowed to suppress this.
He vowed to suppress this rebellion in Chechnya once and for all.
He launched a military operation against Chechnya unlike anything Russia had seen in a long
It was a very, very brutal and fast military operation to try and roll through Chechnya
and crush the rebellion.
One of the things that happened is that the nature of what was going on in Chechnya was
such that there were new forces.
The Chechen rebels themselves had morphed a little bit, and just before this happened,
rebels in Chechnya had broken out from the Chechen Republic into Dagestan.
Dagestan is a neighboring republic that was multiethnic.
There were more than 30 nationalities.
It’s an amazing quilt, a crazy quilt of nationalities.
But this was very alarming in Moscow, because if the rebels were going to move into essentially
another big area of Russia and stir foment and trouble, Putin believed at the time, and
said: “We face a problem of the Russian state holding together.
If this goes on, Russia could become Yugoslavia.”
And that image of a Yugoslav-style breakup was on his mind as he launched that offensive
and as those apartment houses were blowing up, that if we don’t stop this now, Russia
could break up like Yugoslavia.
It was that close.
He felt, and at least he felt, at least, that the Russian state was at risk, and the only
way to save it was a show of strength.
Remember his own statements [that] to show weakness is to invite defeat, so this military
offensive that he launched—and now he’s still prime minister, and Yeltsin is still
the president—this military offensive in the autumn of 1999 mesmerized Russian society,
galvanized the people.
The Russian people at this point had been beaten down, not by the chaos but just by
the upheaval of the freedom revolution of Yeltsin.
I mean, they were just so free and so surprising all the time in the ’90s, I think people
People were exhausted from change.
Many Russians, to try and stay afloat, were working three jobs.
People were trying to save, then there’d be a crash, and their currency would be devalued.
People were enjoying the idea of the ’90s that you could go abroad.
Russians went abroad for vacations in droves.
Huge 747s flew out of Moscow’s airports full of school kids.
Their parents had never been given the right to go on a holiday to Paris or to London.
But seeing the rest of the wider world in the 1990s opened a lot of people’s eyes.
And then they came home.
They came home to this country that Yeltsin was running like a sandbox of tantrums all
It was a place of just wild freedom, and I think they were tired.
When Putin launches this military offensive, he became really an overnight sensation.
Russians watched him on TV, and they said: “You know what?
This guy, he's a cougar.
He is tough and fast and svelte.”
They loved it.
And you have to see from the feelings they had toward Yeltsin of, especially in his long
periods of hibernation, from the feeling of drift and the feeling of uncertainty that
the freedom had brought, Putin provided the salve of some kind of strength and stability
that was extremely appealing.
Putin’s popularity rocketed like nothing I had ever seen in the 1990s.
He was not one of the whole flanks of politicians who might have risen to the top to be Yeltsin's
There were plenty of them, and they had all been tried and tested in the ’90s, and none
of them achieved this kind of sudden and very, very evident, televised charisma that Putin
showed by going after—he said of those Chechens, he said, “We’ll rub them out in the outhouse.”
People loved it because that's how they felt.
You know, they knew people that had died and those apartment buildings collapsed at 3:00
in the morning.
They were mad and angry.
He capitalized on that; he exploited it.
It became more clear in the late autumn that, I think to Yeltsin, that he wasn't going to
make it to the next presidential election, which was the following year in March.
So Yeltsin and the people around him, which included some of the oligarchs and his daughter
Tatyana, began to essentially look for a successor, a handpicked successor.
This was an incredibly important moment for Russia, because the way Russian democracy
was set up and the way the constitution was written was there was supposed to be an election,
and people were going to vote for a parliament in December, and they were going to vote in
the following spring for a president.
But Yeltsin himself, the great champion of democracy, essentially began to look for a
I think that this is an incredibly important moment for the future of the country, because
had he left it to democratic choice, we don’t really know who might have come out on top.
It's quite possible at that time—Putin was far more popular than anybody else; it’s
quite possible it would have come out the same way, but it also was Yeltsin’s desire.
I think he was in a period of great hibernation.
I mean, I think he was in just one of those periods where he couldn't see the future and
he decided to retire, to announce to the country he was going to leave at New Year’s.
In the weeks and months before that, somebody had to be found to kind of be his handpicked
successor, because he’d have to name an acting president.
And that was the mantle of the future.
Putin, having done so well, Putin having galvanized the society and having rocketed to the top,
seemed to be the obvious choice.
This was not an easy choice.
I think that in the back of Yeltsin’s mind, he had to answer for himself the question,
will this guy continue the things I care about, at least in a big way?
Maybe he looked at the blank screen, he looked at Putin and said yes.
Maybe he didn't know.
Maybe the oligarchs looked at Putin, and what they saw in him was a puppet, somebody they
could manipulate, ... and maybe the Yeltsin family looked at Putin and thought, here's
a guy who won't hurt us, because every outgoing Russian leader worries that he’s going to
be prosecuted or maybe worse.
I think there was a certainly a desire to find somebody that would leave Yeltsin and
the family alone, and again, Putin fit the bill.
Putin was told by Yeltsin of this.
Yeltsin said, “I'm going to give you this,” and Putin said, “No, I'm not ready.”
Yeltsin said: “Look, I wasn’t ready either.
This is just the way it is.
You have to do it.”
I think it’s very telling, what Putin said when he said, “I'm not ready,” because
really, Putin only three or four years sooner had been a nobody who came into Moscow looking
for a job, and he had certainly now been working at the highest levels.
He had been head of the FSB.
He also was on the Russian Security Council.
Then he was prime minister.
But I think that this is a moment where the Putin that is coming to power has never, ever
faced an election in his life.
Democracy, which was really the coin of the realm for Yeltsin's Russia, it didn't mean
anything to him.
He had never participated in it in any way.
He never had to ask a voter, ever, for a vote.
And he actually didn't like electioneering and democracy.
He hadn’t come from that world.
He’d come from the world of control, from a party state that had a monopoly on power.
The Soviet Communist Party had no competition.
It's an important thing to remember in the future.
On Dec. 29, 1999, Putin had published and issued a manifesto.
It's sometimes called the “Millennium Manifesto,” because if you remember that week, we were
all worried about the millennium, the Y2K bug.
And this “Millennium Manifesto” is a really interesting document.
I think it’s worth just mentioning for a second because this question of who is Mr.
Putin was unanswered.
Sure, the Russian people saw this cougar, you know, this guy who was cracking down on
Chechnya and showing strength and popularity.
But what did he really care about?
What were his values?
They didn’t really know.
… This long essay reflects, I think, again, Putin’s sense of telling people what they
want to hear.
He addresses in this essay the need to rebuild the Russian state, and he addresses some of
the things that we're going to see later that he feels Russia’s weak.
We missed the boat in the world economy; we've got to get going.
But there's also a part of this thing that is very modern.
If you remember that Russia at this time, its biggest, biggest problem is that it was
a backward country.
What was inherited from the Soviet Union were old, tired factories that weren't working,
desperate need in all the country for modernization.
And for modernization, you need capital.
And for capital, Russia didn't have any.
It needed foreign capitalists to invest; it needed foreign investors desperately.
The whole ’90s was an effort to see if you could free markets and bring that investment,
because there were things to be done.
Putin strikes a tone in this manifesto that persuades a lot of people that he’s a modernizer.
He believes in a strong state, but also that he believes in this market experiment that's
been going on almost, at that point, for a decade.
I think the very, very interesting thing about this is that many Westerners studied this
and concluded that Putin was going to be basically a younger, stronger Yeltsin, and they were
MICHAEL KIRK - So, it’s New Year’s Eve.
Set the scene.
Be as graphic as you can about the surroundings and the circumstances where Yeltsin names
DAVID E. HOFFMAN - Yeltsin’s decision took the country by surprise, and me.
I had actually started to work on a book about the oligarchs, and I cleared my desk the day
before New Year’s Eve and said: “I'm not to be bothered.
I'm going to be working on this book project.
Don’t even bother me.”
And somebody knocks on the door and says, “There are rumors Yeltsin’s resigning
So all during that afternoon, the wires, Interfax and TASS were going crazy because the rumor’s
starting to spill out in the afternoon before the announcement.
Then it was confirmed Yeltsin would go on television that night.
Boris Yeltsin goes on television to make a speech that is terribly, deeply melancholy
because the great bear, the surging hero, the guy who’d stood on the tank, confesses
to Russians that he wasn't able to accomplish all he wanted to.
And boy, do they know it, because they know from all these years of struggle with democracy
and free markets that you can't eat democracy, and the disenchantment with a lot of what
Yeltsin stood for is palatable in the Russian people.
For all of his great strengths in doing these things and really burying communism, and for
all of the fact that he stood for freedom to the end and never tried to impose censorship
again, by the time Yeltsin says, “I failed,” people all agreed with him.
The thing about Putin, who was named his successor, is that he had the promise, the vigor, the
It was a question of comparing these two.
Yeltsin was old and spent and tired, and Putin was active and vibrant and virile and pursuing
real policies of strength.
There seemed to be at least some hope for another phase.
MICHAEL KIRK - When Putin gets it, how quickly, David, do you know we're not in Kansas anymore?
DAVID E. HOFFMAN - Putin’s manifesto, which had caused a lot of people to chew it over
and think what does this guy stand for, was a placeholder for a while.
I myself as a correspondent for The Washington Post and many other newspaper correspondents
and television correspondents and foreign investors were puzzling over who is Mr. Putin.
It was a very common question in the first period.
And Putin began to act rather quickly.
One of the first things he did was to take control of television.
One of the first things he did was to take control of television, because more than 90
percent of Russians got all their news from television.
But in Yeltsin’s time, the big television stations had fallen into the hands of the
oligarchs who were improving them in some ways.
NTV television was very independent and certainly had a big following among people that had
hopes for democracy in Russia.
And Channel One, which was the biggest television station, spanning all the time zones of Russia,
which reached the most people, was in the hands of Boris Berezovsky, one of the most
ambitious of the Yeltsin oligarchs and the one personally closest to the Yeltsin family.
Putin faced down Berezovsky very soon in that first year and basically said, “I want Channel
And you know, that's all he had to say.
He got it.
With [NTV founder Vladimir] Gusinsky, it was a little more difficult.
He pressured him.
At one point, he threw him in a horrible prison for a little while to sit and think and then
forced him also to give up his television station to a subsidiary of Gazprom, the huge
state natural gas monopoly.
By taking over this means of communication, Putin began to immediately shape what he wanted
to tell people about the Russia that he would have and about the kind of things he wanted
He also was the star, and people, even in other television and other people in the media,
got the idea that Vladimir Putin cared a lot about what was said in the public-political
space, in the information space, which is television and newspapers and so on.
People began to get the message that he was going to act and that he cared about control
of the media.
At the time, some of the newspapers were still quite independent, but taking television was
It was followed very soon after that by a campaign against the oligarchs, and Putin’s
message to these oligarchs, who had become powerful in Yeltsin’s time and [during]
Yeltsin’s flowering of freedom, Putin’s message was: “Look, we're going to have
The terms are I'm going to run the state, not you.
If you want to cooperate with me, if you want to follow my rules, you can stay here and
make some money.
But if you don’t, I can't live with it.
I can't tolerate it.”
This bargain, which was hammered out in secret, I've never actually seen it if it was written
down, but it was a tacit bargain.
Gusinsky and Berezovsky both left the country.
[Oil company Yukos head] Mikhail Khodorkovsky thought he could work with Putin for a while,
and he stayed inside, and some of the others did, too.
This increasingly was a focus of Putin because the oligarchs had held the power, and he wanted
to consolidate the power.
He wanted to get the power of the state back in his own hands.
In the manifesto.
At the time he even became prime minister, back when he worried about Yugoslavia, Putin’s
thinking, how do I rebuild the Russian state?
I have to tell you that this may sound odd to people, that Putin is wondering, how do
I make a big, powerful country?
People might be thinking, well, isn't he worried about health care or education or things like
But remember the environment here.
The Soviet Union, this giant thing, just collapsed overnight.
And communism, which was deeply, deeply ingrained in minds of people for decades, was replaced
by some ideals of freedom and of democracy and markets that weren't even very well explained
or understood by people.
So when the ’90s become this cauldron where people struggle with this, for Putin, the
number one issue that he has to deal with is the fact that the Russian state might become
a Yugoslavia and break up and the whole idea of it might disappear.
So he’s thinking often about how to reassert control.
Another thing he begins to do is to rebuild the security services and particularly the
FSB, again, thinking that a strong state needs a strong security service.
But this is not the Soviet Union.
The Soviet Union was the state with an ideology, with a point of view about the world and about
Putin is trying to build a strong state in a kind of wild version of capitalism.
He actually understood that Yeltsin had failed to build a rule of law, and Putin very quickly
early in his term brought in some important legislation, laws to update the way corporations
functioned, laws to govern the sale of land.
He started to work on this, and at one point he said he wanted to impose diktatura zakon,
the “dictatorship of law.”
I asked myself, which part of that phrase does he really understand?
In a rule-of-law state, there is no dictatorship.
But this is how he thought about it.
He said, “I want to liquidate the oligarchs as a class,” but by 2003, he internally
began to liquidate the oligarchs that existed from Yeltsin’s time and replaced them with
his own pals.
MICHAEL KIRK - Also in this time, George W. Bush is elected president of the United States.
His feeling as he goes to that first meeting with George W. Bush, his feeling about America
in those early days of his presidency, those first couple of years?
DAVID E. HOFFMAN - Just let me finish one thought, though.
In that first Putin term, which runs to 2004, at which time he’s trying to rebuild the
state, he is faced with some real gut punches that he didn't expect that made it harder.
Twice there were Chechen terrorist attacks: in 2004 in a theater in—I mean, in 2002
in a theater in Moscow, and in 2004 in [a school in] Beslan.
These two attacks were particularly vicious.
Hundreds of people died, and many Russians sort of began to wonder, do we still have
that Putin that showed such great strength in 1999 and early 2000?
I think for Putin, these terrorist attacks also slowed down the process.
For Putin, these terrorist attacks were something he had to face and confront.
It was a really difficult time, and he answered the challenge of this by essentially beginning
to impose more authoritarianism and rolling back Boris Yeltsin’s democracy.
After the Beslan attack in 2004, he switched the election of governors to make them appointed
The rules of election to the parliament were fiddled with and manipulated.
So you see in this period, even by 2004, after that particular attack, that Putin is rolling
back the maximum freedom that Yeltsin had created.
I think Putin wanted some breathing room with the United States at the beginning, and he
thought up some idea that he would pitch to the new president in the United States, George
Bush, for a compromise of some kind on missile defense.
It was kind of an elaborate idea of a compromise, and he presented it once to Bush.
Then a little bit later, Bush, absolutely unilaterally and without telling Putin, simply
abrogated the missile defense treaty, the ABM [Anti-Ballistic Missile] Treaty, which
dated from 1972.
This was kind of a rude shock for Putin because in his mind, at least, maybe he could be seen
as an equal.
The Soviet Union was always an equal to the United States in the Cold War.
Maybe he felt that even if Russia was weak, if he showed some flexibility and compromise,
he could have a kind of a period of detente again, or at least respect, that the United
States would deal with him.
When Bush abrogated the treaty, especially in the way that he did, I think Putin was
at least internally shocked and a little bit set back and beginning to wonder.
This also was followed by the Iraq War, which also shocked him.
The use of raw military force to overthrow somebody quickly without—it was just something—Putin
is beginning to get shocks from the United States rather than cooperation.
MICHAEL KIRK - Right.
… For the United States to step generally in the sphere of the Middle East, generally
in the sphere of Russia, knock off a leader, a despot, whatever, certainly might have started
or rung some bells in a leader who felt he was potentially similarly vulnerable.
DAVID E. HOFFMAN - Think about where Putin’s sitting, right?
To him, he’s had two major terrorist attacks in 2002 and 2004 from Chechen rebels.
Meanwhile in Georgia, in 2003, there's a color revolution, the Rose Revolution, that throws
out Eduard Shevardnadze, and a new guy, [Mikheil] Saakashvili, rises up on the shoulders of
people [in] protest.
In 2004, in nearby Ukraine, which he sees as really part of a smaller Russia, a country
that's been very, very close to Russia for centuries, there's another color revolution,
the Orange Revolution, and again, popular unrest throws somebody out.
Then he’s also seeing the United States acting as a hyperpower, acting in his view,
if you're watching it from his point of view, without listening to him and certainly without
giving him the kind of respect that he thinks Russia should get.
Now, it is also true that in this time, Putin didn't have a lot of cards to play with.
This was no longer the Cold War between two huge blocs.
In fact, NATO had already been expanded some and was going to expand more—another shock
to Putin in this time period.
I think all the period that Putin is governing in the first two terms, there is a mixture
of his effort to sort of control things at home and keep the kettle lid on, and coping
with these shocks from abroad, both the near abroad and the far abroad; that these were
the kind of shocks that he has to question, “Are they going to come for me?”
These are moments where he’s going to wonder, “What is happening in the world when such
things can be done so arbitrarily and suddenly?”
Nothing in his preparation for politics, nothing in his 17 years of the KGB, prepares him to
understand that when people head to the streets in protest that they have a legitimate claim.
People power scares him terribly, and he doesn't see any legitimacy in it.
He thinks that legitimacy is the kind of power that he knew from the Soviet times, which
was from the top, from a party, from a party state.
You know, I think that this is a kind of thing where Putin himself understood the importance
to maintain kind of a patina of democracy.
But he also wanted to create a state where there would be no competition to him.
This you see from the beginning and certainly through the 2000s.
He wanted to create a state where he would be the unchallenged leader.
That meant he did not want to have competition in elections.
Competition is the oxygen of democracy, and he was gradually sucking it out.
After Beslan, taking it away and certainly after Beslan, there is a speech that he gave
where he talked about his fear that the outside world was trying to break up Russia some more.
He says, “Somebody out there”—he doesn't name—“would like to tear off a juicy bit
of pie from Russia,” and you see this deep-seated fear and paranoia that maybe outside powers
are coming for Russia, too.
MICHAEL KIRK - But wait a minute.
We've had a parade of ambassadors walk in here and say, "We wanted to work with him.
We offered him this; we offered that; we did this.
… We were there for him.
We wanted to help them.”
Clean that up for me, will you?
DAVID E. HOFFMAN - I've puzzled about this a lot.
The first thing is that Putin already understood, I think, that NATO expansion was a fait accompli,
at least the first round, and that the old Warsaw Pact and the Soviet bloc itself was
never going to—but there was the issue of what was once part of the Soviet Union.
This is much more near and dear to him.
The near abroad—and especially I think the Central Asia part of it was of less concern,
and the Baltics, of course were already gone.
But Ukraine and Georgia were touchstones of this, because both of them had been important
parts of the Soviet Union, and people forget now, but Georgia in the post-Soviet years
was a mess.
Parts of the country were hived off in small little wars, and Russians themselves maintained
bases in Georgia through part of the 1990s, just open military bases.
So there was a lot of confusion about what this Georgia would be.
And Shevardnadze was, even though sort of a hero of the Gorbachev era, by this period,
Shevardnadze was seen as old and tired, and that's what the Rose Revolution was about.
It was about a new order.
But for Putin, that was something of his immediate concern.
This was not something he had given up on, the idea that Russia would have a sphere of
influence that incorporated some parts of the former Soviet Union.
MICHAEL KIRK - And they become hot buttons for him.
I mean, “You touched that.
You're in my neighborhood.”
DAVID E. HOFFMAN - They become hot buttons for him, and this is someplace where the West
was actively involved.
There is no question.
I think to even put it in a larger way, there was no question that in democracy promotion
and in talking with the near abroad, the West, Europe and the United States were extremely
active, and this activity should be seen for what it was, because many, many times in the
West, people thought after so many years of totalitarianism, after the Soviet collapse
that we paid for in blood and treasure over the long four decades of the Cold War, we
ought to essentially help these lands become part of the global economy that's now globalizing
rapidly, that is becoming democratic rapidly.
Let's give them the knowhow.
Billions of dollars were spent by the United States and other countries, the Europeans
in particular, to go to these places, to show how democracy markets worked, how the free
A lot of this training about democracy was viewed with suspicion by Putin, because he
thought maybe it was a cover for some kind of subversion.
He had a complete misunderstanding and misconception.
But this isn't the only thing that was going on.
You know, we spent billions of dollars trying to help Russia in these years cope with the
legacy of the Soviet nuclear weapons program.
This is a country that had fissile material, uranium and plutonium laying in warehouses
across 11 time zones.
We built for $300 million a Fort Knox in the middle of Russia that stands there today to
put some of that stuff away and lock it up safely.
Thank you very much.
It was always going to be very, very difficult for Russia, a weak state, to accept the hand
of a rich United States after the Cold War.
There's no question that there was an asymmetry here in feelings.
We felt we sort of came out on top, and we’d like to help you.
And Russians felt: “We are weak; we are down on our heels; we're on our backs.
And yet we want to feel strong.
If you're offering us a hand of help with democracy and you're offering us how to build
capital markets and you're building warehouses to store our nuclear weapons, then what are
Is this charity?
Are we children?
You know, we want to be grown up with you.”
I met Russian scientists who were very grateful that George Soros had provided them very tiny
subsistence grants for buying food in the early years, but they ultimately said to me:
“You know, we're very grateful that you want to do projects with us, but we want to
We would like respect.”
It wasn't only Putin.
A lot of people in the country, they had trouble accepting the extended hand of the United
I think many Americans extended the hand with good basic ideals but without understanding
that it might be humiliating; it might be hard.
Putin himself could not understand that all this activity, both NATO expansion, democracy
promotion, everything going on around him, wasn’t intended to overthrow him.
It wasn’t intended to tear Russia to pieces.
MICHAEL KIRK - But if you're canny like Putin obviously is, and kind of street-smart, you
know the outside enemy is valuable to you as you promise security, growth, respect to
a population that feels just as you've described them.
DAVID E. HOFFMAN - But here's the thing.
Putin was delivering on growth, and he was delivering on the economic promise in his
first two terms.
MICHAEL KIRK - Because of the oil?
DAVID E. HOFFMAN - Oil prices went up and up and up.
Real wages went up 400 percent.
The oil price went up 10 times over a decade.
So in many ways at home, Putin was delivering the economic part of that promise.
To some people, that felt like stability compared to the wild freedom of the Yeltsin years.
And Putin created a promise.
Putin created a kind of tacit pact with his people.
It went like this: “I will provide prosperity.
You see it all around you.
Wages are rising; everybody’s going to work now.
You will stay out of politics.
You will not vote for people that will compete with me.
There will not be any competition to me.”
This was a tacit understanding.
And there's another part of it.
He said, “I will stay out of your personal lives.”
And this was a very important part of the Soviet KGB repression.
MICHAEL KIRK - And now, this is where I want to go next, is—
DAVID E. HOFFMAN - Is Munich?
MICHAEL KIRK - Munich, exactly.
So that’s where we go.
So he’s got it kind of calmed down at home now.
It’s taken him seven years to do it, but he’s got it, more or less, thanks to oil
and lots of other things.
What is the meaning of him stepping up on that stage?
First, why does he go?
It’s rare that a leader goes, but why does he go, and what is that about?
DAVID E. HOFFMAN - I don't know why he went.
But if you read the Munich speech, it was shocking to everybody.
The speech in Munich was a cry, and I think there are signs of this percolating in the
2000s, maybe signs that were missed.
After Beslan, when he gave that speech worrying about parts of Russia being torn off, there
is a way in which Putin exploits and takes advantage of the disenchantment by Russians
about the West, about democracy.
He plays on it.
And this is a speech that really says to the United States, “You are messing up as the
It’s a very, very pained complaint about the actions of what he sees as a global superpower.
He wants to create a world in which there will be multiple powers, multiple poles of
power, multiple centers in which Russia will be one of them.
It’s not at the time, but the Iraq War and certainly the things that Putin had been seeing
going on in the former Soviet Union and the outlying republics, the color revolutions,
had just caused him so much anxiety that it boiled over in this speech that was very vaguely
sort of paranoia.
You know, it was worry about the fact that this Goliath was tromping around the globe.
It was way over the top.
It didn't track at all with the reality of that period.
The United States actually had suffered a lot of difficulties in Iraq, and it was still
a period when the war was very intense.
But in this, you see Putin’s deep-seated fear of the United States and his feeling
that the United States is a global hyperpower that can do anything it wants.
That's what he most despises.
MICHAEL KIRK - It feels also to me … like the period you've described up to this moment,
and now talking to the ambassadors and the State Department people and others who know,
they say it’s almost like a declaration of war, overstating it.
But the next period, many of the things that he does—changing his military, strengthening
certain parts of it, the Estonia moment, the next go-around with the color revolutions—all
of it is like in a way he’s practicing for this asymmetrical different kind of war.
DAVID E. HOFFMAN - This Putin is becoming a very, very deeply suspicious and angry guy
that's thinking about asymmetric measures he can use to carry out some of that pent-up
And the cyberattack on Estonia, the short, brief war with Georgia, the Munich speech,
all come together, and he’s testing.
Also with the oil revenues, starting to build and investing and starting to think about
what we need as a new military if we're going to continue to exert ourselves and if we're
going to continue to try and push back.
MICHAEL KIRK - Great.
And into that world walks Barack Hussein Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton with a reset in
Do they have any idea, in the first place, what he’s doing?
Do they have a real sense, do you think, these ambassadors and others who have been watching
it all, of just how pernicious things could get and what he’s really thinking about?
DAVID E. HOFFMAN - You know, I don't know for sure.
But I think that by 2008, when Bush leaves office, he and Putin have exhausted the relationship.
Putin’s fed up with him.
He felt like Bush didn't listen to him.
And frankly, Bush sort of saw Putin as a nuisance by that time.
The entire history of our relations with Russia have been these cycles of distrust, cycles
of mistrust and misperception.
It happens throughout the Cold War.
I think to some extent, the people who came in with Obama thought some of this isn't really
We have things we want to do with Russia, and if we can just get to some of the things
we need to do, maybe we can engage them.
Obama was very committed to reducing nuclear weapons.
Obama was very committed to trying to reduce nuclear weapons, and he felt like that was
an important piece of business he could do with Putin.
So the Obama people came in, and the idea of the reset was let’s see if there are
a few places where we can engage.
I think that they felt confident in their own abilities to do that, that maybe what
had gone wrong was just that Bush and Putin had exhausted each other in mistrust and they
could start over to find some places where they could get a deal.
Putin was leaving office.
Putin decided not to break the Russian constitution, and he turned it over to this younger guy,
a guy who seemed more progressive, Dmitry Medvedev.
And Medvedev gave off a vibe of really getting the modernization thing, so Obama’s calculations
that maybe we can do some business with Russia were fueled by the hope that Medvedev would
be a partner.
Now, there was a lot of uncertainty about whether Medvedev and Putin were in a tandem.
I mean, were these guys riding the same bicycle, or were they actually riding separate bicycles?
Was it possible that Putin would fade and Medvedev would be a guy that the United States
could do a lot of business with?
I think that people forget that nuclear arms treaty that was negotiated in that time successfully
with Russia and with Medvedev and [was] signed.
There were things that could be done.
But the Medvedev illusion was something that was hard for a lot of people to see, that
he was actually the front man for Putin.
I think there was a lot of debate in that time, including in the Intelligence Community
and in the White House, about who was really pulling the strings.
The hope was that it was Medvedev, and the fear was that it was Putin.
MICHAEL KIRK - And into this world of uncertainty, things begin to happen in the world: Arab
Spring; another ruler thrown under the bus, or falls out; Libya.
DAVID E. HOFFMAN - Also there's one other thing.
Obama’s trying to work this, and the nuclear arms agreement is a high priority, and he
gets it done, and Medvedev’s there.
Medvedev also is again showing signs of being the not-Putin.
He begins to make some changes to the hard-edged things that Putin had done.
Medvedev comes to Palo Alto.
He goes to Silicon Valley.
He talks about high tech; he plays with an iPad; he wears jeans.
There was also a very quiet Obama imperative, which is that we were winding down in Afghanistan,
and the United States had a desperate need for a way to get all the gear and stuff out
of Afghanistan and couldn’t take it through Pakistan.
They negotiated with Russia a rail line called the Northern Distribution Network, which was
a vital way, which Russia proved for many years.
It was kept very quiet, but huge trains rolled through the Russian countryside to help us
get out of Afghanistan.
You know, it wasn't the kind of thing that at the time people boasted about, but Obama
felt if we can just laser-like choose a few things we want to get done, and if we deal
with this guy, Medvedev, who seems pretty normal, things are going to be OK.
MICHAEL KIRK - Of course it wasn’t going to last.
DAVID E. HOFFMAN - That's 2010.
MICHAEL KIRK - Yeah, ’10 and ’11.
DAVID E. HOFFMAN - So what happens in 2011 is that the ancient regime in the Middle East
I mean, from Tahrir Square to when the Arab Spring breaks out echoes across the world
and especially in Russia, because, again, Putin has already seen color revolutions within
the former Soviet Union; he’s seen the power of these massive crowds.
He missed the entire period like this in the Soviet Union when Gorbachev was loosening
For him, this was an existential kind of a moment.
And somebody like Hosni Mubarak [of Egypt] who was overthrown at the first start of that,
was not too much different than Vladimir Putin in the sense of a soft authoritarianism, a
very, very complex society where the leader is trying to keep the lid on everything.
I think that particularly for Putin, what happened in Egypt was something that really
went right to his heart.
And I think Russians spend a lot of time traveling to Egypt, and certainly what happened in Iraq—then
to see it spread like this, I think Putin must always be asking himself: “Where does
And what is the legitimacy of these people?”
He has no understanding that democracy and people—that people sort of exerting their
own will in the rule of a country is important.
… So the Arab Spring in the first half of 2011 unsettles him, and also Medvedev’s
term is ending.
In late 2011, they’ve got to decide, really, will Medvedev run for president again?
He could have another term, or will Putin return?
And of course this is a guessing game that preoccupied Moscow for that period of middle
There was a lot of open speculation in the press.
People were weighing up each camp, each side.
It almost sort of felt normal, but there was a great deal of uncertainty.
People really—no one had an inside bead about how this was going to unfold.
So there was a very, very big meeting of the United Russia Party.
This party is the party that Putin created.
It’s a party that's filled with bureaucrats.
Everybody who’s gotten a good job in the Putin years is part of this party.
And they have an enormous rally.
It's in a sports stadium, Luzhniki Stadium, the biggest stadium in Moscow, and there's
a sort of gentle breeze rolling across, and people are basically holding their breath
as this moment nears when the announcement is made.
Medvedev, looking rather tired and a strangely not very perky Medvedev, basically announces
that Putin is going to return to the presidency, that they're going to swap jobs, and Medvedev
will go back to being prime minister.
Of course this is greeted with the requisite sort of clapping and so on from their people,
because these are the people they’ve brought, but I think at that moment, there was a complete
lack of realization by Putin about what was going to happen next.
MICHAEL KIRK - Are people watching it on TV and bars and stuff?
DAVID E. HOFFMAN - David Hoffman was live on Ekho Moskvy Radio at that very moment when
the guy who’s the founder of Ekho Moskvy was interviewing me.
Then he saw the announcement, and he goes like this and pushed me off to the side and
said, “I've got to go live,” And he starts his commentary.
I mean, people thought it was just going to be another boring United Russia convention,
and this thing riveted everybody, but in a way that Putin and Medvedev didn’t understand.
The reaction to this was quiet at first, but a lot of people, especially millennials and
the Moscow, the urban elite, the people that had done very well in Putin’s time—this
You know, there's been 11 years of this.
There was a few speed bumps with the recession and so on, but still people have done well.
There was a feeling that they were cheated.
People began to ask themselves in the kitchen: “This is a democracy.
Aren’t we supposed to decide?”
There was a way in which the job trade sort of irritated people, and it got worse, because
both Putin and Medvedev said shortly thereafter, “Here's how it came down.”
And one of them, I forgot which one of them, said, “Yeah, we just were talking last night,
and we decided.”
And the other said, “We've been planning it this way for years.”
The fact that they couldn’t even get their story straight on having cheated the electorate
began to really piss people off.
Coming shortly after this in December was a parliamentary election.
In the parliamentary election, at this point, the voter monitoring had really zoomed ahead
First of all, there was a group called GOLOS, which was beneficiary of grants from the United
States, which was involved with essentially making sure that elections were free and fair.
This is the kind of thing the United States did everywhere, grants to help these election-monitoring
groups because we felt free and fair elections are part of our value set.
We had no reluctance to push this idea of free and fair elections everywhere.
But it also turned out that there's huge change in the way people monitored elections because
of the digital revolution.
Smartphones had created a device that could capture anything happening in public spaces
and share it almost instantly.
Moscow and Russia has become very wired.
It’s very easy to share photographs.
What happened in that period, in the run-up to the parliamentary election, was that people
had set out to start monitoring elections, and certainly as the election happened on
that day discovered that there was an enormous amount of fraud.
One of the most obvious frauds was using this thing called a carousel in which basically
voters are driven in a school bus from voting place to voting place to stuff the ballot
box over and over again.
This was caught by people holding their smartphones.
This video began to circulate.
The idea that they cheated again, that they cheated us, that they not only decided who’s
going to run the country but that they're stuffing the ballot boxes, set off a conflagration.
It was a match that changed the world.
It hit the floor, and by the next day, demonstrations began.
The first demonstration was thought up by a couple of guys who were really angry about
this, young people who had come to Moscow looking for better fortune.
And they were sitting around thinking, how are we going to express this?
And they said, “We’ve got to do something; we’ve got to protest.”
So, opening their MacBook Pros on kitchen counter they had bought from Ikea in Moscow,
they went on to Facebook, and they put up an RSVP button for a demonstration.
And this kind of thing, that RSVP button, gave rise to one of the biggest protests,
and then another one, and finally, the huge protest in Bolotnaya right outside the walls
of the Kremlin in December.
This really shook Putin to his roots.
People were standing out there.
The really best of his years, people that had prospered, people that had come into Moscow
for good jobs, the urban elite, and they're holding signs that say “Russia without Putin.”
JIM GILMORE - Sochi.
Talk a little bit about what it represented for Putin and the fact that lurking in the
background was Ukraine.
DAVID E. HOFFMAN - Sochi was a huge triumph for Putin.
There had been a lot of tension around the Winter Games because they were held in a part
of Russia in the south, near restive republics like Chechnya.
There was a great deal of worry that there might be a terrorist attack.
The games came off, and they were peaceful.
Also, for Putin, it was a huge demonstration that Russia was a normal country.
He had all the world’s leaders there.
Everything happened like it should in Olympic Games.
It was a real moment of triumph for Putin.
Before Sochi, the president of Ukraine, [Viktor] Yanukovych, was planning to sign an agreement
with the European Union, an association agreement.
This would give Ukraine access to huge markets in Europe, fresh foreign investment, and it
would essentially bring Ukraine toward Europe.
But Putin did not want to see this happen.
He met with Yanukovych in November.
They had a secret meeting at the airport.
A short while later, Yanukovych put the European agreement on ice.
A few weeks after that, Putin dangled a real big aid package for Ukraine, $15 billion,
a big cut in natural gas prices, which was really important for Ukraine.
Putin was holding out the idea that Yanukovych could join this Eurasian Economic Union that
was a real goal of Putin, that he had talked about often, the idea that these Eurasian
countries, former Soviet Republics, would all bond together.
This switch that Yanukovych made, putting the Europeans on ice and considering this
offer of a big aid package from Russia, really enraged the Ukrainian street, and really,
only a short while after Yanukovych indicated that he might sign that deal, might approve
that deal, that protests began.
The first Sunday afterward, 100,000 people were out in the streets of Kiev, and soon
protests got bigger and bigger.
By the time that the Olympics were nearing an end in February, huge demonstrations were
taking place in Ukraine against this move to make a deal with Russia and not with Europe.
I think this speaks first of all to the fact that a lot of people in Ukraine saw their
future with Europe and not with Russia.
But it hadn’t really been a burning issue until this choice had been made between European
agreement, access to these huge European markets and foreign investment, and the Russia offer
of an aid package.
And Yanukovych was a friend of the Kremlin.
He was a pro-Russian leader of pro-Russian groups.
He had been a provincial leader in Donetsk, the part of Ukraine with a big Russian-speaking
He considered himself an ally of Putin and the Kremlin.
And as these demonstrations grew in the streets of Ukraine, in Independence Square, the Maidan
movement was born in reaction to this switch he wanted to make, and as these demonstrations
grew, he couldn’t manage them.
There was violence.
Finally, when Yanukovych fled his country, he just up and left amid all of this violence.
He abandoned Ukraine.
So Putin, right after Sochi, right as the games were concluding, suddenly has a crisis
on his hands.
He’s just come off such a sweet triumph of the Olympics, and now he’s looking just
beyond the horizon, and there is a boiling cauldron in Ukraine.
His guy, who was the president of Ukraine, has fled, and it looks like Ukraine might
be lost to him.
That would be a terrible, terrible setback for Putin, because he believed that Ukraine
was part of a sphere of influence that was rightly Russia’s.
… For Putin, this thing is a real threat on several levels, OK?
On the big level, Putin still is bitter about the enlargement of NATO in the 1990s.
He is still bitter about the idea that Ukraine is having a dalliance with Europe, with the
So, on a large level, conceptual level, this is taking an apple right out of his mouth.
But it’s also very, very tactical and very specific.
After his ally Yanukovych flees the country, a new leadership takes charge in Ukraine,
and they're very pro-European.
They don’t want to make the deal with Putin.
They don’t want the $15 billion aid package.
They want to make that agreement with the European Union, the association agreement
that was set aside.
Putin sees a possibility that Ukraine may suddenly be led by forces that are going the
other way, that he could lose control of Ukraine, and that would mean losing a piece of his
sphere of influence, a sphere that the President Medvedev, a few years earlier, had described
as part of Russia’s particular interest.
I think that Putin felt that this part of the former Soviet Union was being pulled away
from him, and that was a real threat.
JIM GILMORE - So Crimea.
How do we get to the attack on Crimea, and why?
DAVID E. HOFFMAN - In the middle of this crisis, I think Putin had very, very little time to
make decisions about how to respond to what had happened in the Maidan movement, the huge
demonstrations, the loss of a pro-Russian president of Ukraine.
And I think that in the moment, when he had to decide what to do, Crimea looked like a
quick way that he could reassert some authority over Ukraine.
Crimea had once been part of Russia.
It was moved to Ukraine in Soviet times.
There was a big Russian-speaking population there, a big naval base there, and I think
that what Putin thought was, if we can just grab Crimea, maybe we’ll shock some of those
people; maybe we’ll set some chills go running through the backbone of the people in Ukraine
and show them that we haven't given up.
So he organized an effort to seize Crimea from Ukraine using soldiers without markings
on their uniforms, the so-called little green men.
It happened very swiftly.
And these special operations forces moved in with—there was no bloodshed—and essentially
seized Crimea from Ukraine at the time of all this chaos.
Of course this was very, very popular inside of Russia.
Again, Putin was reacting to a crisis that threatened him, a crisis that threatened Russia
in Ukraine, with losing a really important part of their sphere of influence.
So essentially, it was a counterpoint, a brief one.
JIM GILMORE - Essentially was what?
And explain what you mean.
DAVID E. HOFFMAN - It was a brief way, tactically, to change the dynamics of the crisis, because
by seizing Crimea, there was a real surge of popular support inside of Russia.
And Putin, instead of looking like a loser who was losing Ukraine, would look like a
winner who had just brought Crimea, historically part of Russia, back to the fold.
One of the really notable things about the seizure and annexation of Crimea was that
the Russian media staged a really fierce propaganda campaign to reinforce how this was a great
triumph for Russia.
This kind of propaganda, using television, social media, not only had a big impact inside
of Russia, but also showed how Putin could begin to blend various methods of unmarked
special operations forces and social media and television broadcasts to create this new
thing, this hybrid warfare.
JIM GILMORE - Great.
The [Victoria] Nuland phone hack, and using it, and using her, and how Putin manipulates
that or why he uses that tactic, instead of just, as in the past, gathering intelligence.
Now they were leaking the intelligence as well.
DAVID E. HOFFMAN - … In the thick of this crisis, the assistant secretary of state for
Europe, Victoria Nuland, had a telephone conversation with the American ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey
Pyatt was apparently using a normal cell phone.
It wasn’t encrypted, so the conversation was recorded, and in the conversation Nuland
expressed real frustration with Europe over the whole crisis with—she curses the European
… That certainly reflected the deep frustrations that she felt.
But the other thing that happened in the phone call is that she and the ambassador had a
discussion about who would be best to serve in this new government in Ukraine.
They had a discussion about specific ministries and who should be in what ministry.
So when the phone call was monitored or taped or surveilled by somebody, and we don’t
know who, it was incendiary, because obviously, when Putin saw that the Americans were having
this discussion about who should be what minister in Ukraine, it may well have confirmed to
him his deep-seated paranoia that the Americans were actually behind the whole revolt in the
Maidan, that the whole thing was a Western plot, that it was another color revolution
that was really being manipulated behind the scenes by the Americans.
So the phone call, which had been recorded surreptitiously, was suddenly appearing twice
It was just uploaded there.
Not too many people saw it for the first few days, and then a certain blogger put it up,
and it just went viral.
It just took off like wildfire.
People started downloading it, listening, discussing it.
This was a way, without any fingerprints, for Putin to sort of weaponize the information
he had gotten from this wiretap.
Somebody, we don’t know who, without any fingerprints, uploaded this information—uploaded
this phone call to YouTube, and suddenly it went viral.
Millions and millions of people heard this phone conversation.
Then the Russian media began to carry this everywhere, saying: “You see?
It’s proof the Maidan movement, it’s not an independence movement.
It’s the Americans.
They're running the show behind the scenes.
This is the Americans behind the scenes, causing the whole thing to happen.”
It was an example of weaponizing information.
JIM GILMORE - Talk a little bit about the way Putin lies about the little green men
in Crimea, how he is able to accomplish his goals and then hide the facts, and why would
he do that.
DAVID E. HOFFMAN - The Crimea operation was very swift.
And the special forces that were sent in, the soldiers without insignia, allowed Russia
to sort of say, “Who, me?”
The soldiers were sent in without insignia, silently, to take control, to seize control
of this territory; were able to do so by creating confusion.
People didn’t know at first glance who they were.
What did they represent?
What power was taking over?
And this, of course, was deceptive and subversive and allowed Russia to get away with this for
a while, before anyone could object.
By the time it was discovered who was really behind it, which was not many days later,
Crimea had already been seized.
This was the use of deception in order to accomplish a military goal, and it’s another
example of what is being called hybrid warfare, which is to use all the things at your disposal,
both real military force and information warfare, to accomplish your goals.
JIM GILMORE - ... The fact that the world was being lied to about what was actually
taking place, how did it stymie Obama in a way in acting?
DAVID E. HOFFMAN - If it was murky about who were these little green men, it would be lot
harder to protest.
It would be a lot harder to stage a swift response.
It would certainly make it much more difficult for the West to put their arms around the
nature of the problem.
It would make it much more difficult for the West to react quickly.
It would make it a lot harder for the White House and for the West to react quickly if
it was murky who was carrying out the invasion.
JIM GILMORE - And that’s—for Obama, he’s sort of in a quandary of how to act?
DAVID E. HOFFMAN - You know, Jim, I just don’t know the answer to this question.
I just—I mean, it’s just not something that I'm up on.
JIM GILMORE - So the taking of Crimea without being stopped by the West, without the West
sort of raising the red flags in some way, how did that embolden Putin?
DAVID E. HOFFMAN - I think what the taking of Crimea did was to lead to the very next
First of all, when Crimea was taken, the Maidan movement didn’t stop.
The movement in Ukraine, the demonstrations and the movement toward Europe was not arrested.
It was not stopped all of a sudden.
Putin still had a very big problem, which is that, by taking Ukraine, he’d even pissed
off the Ukrainians even more.
The movement toward Europe was accelerating, so he had to do something else.
I think Putin then reached into a toolbox that had been used elsewhere, and that toolbox
partially was reflected in the Crimea operation, which was to try and create a military conflict
or ethnic or civil conflict, and create just enough of it to cause everybody to gasp and
to stop and to freeze.
I think that Putin created a war in southeastern Ukraine in two provinces by stirring it up,
by importing fighters, by essentially challenging Ukraine militarily, and he did that in order
to undermine what he saw happening in the capital, the movement toward Europe.
He did it to sort of challenge Ukraine’s sovereignty, and for a while, even to threaten
it, because he also massed regular forces on the border with Ukraine, massing them inside
Russia, on the border with Ukraine.
He sent irregular fighters in to start an insurrection in Ukraine.
You know, this tactic of using these irregular fighters and separatists had been done elsewhere
to create frozen conflicts in which Putin had tried to accomplish goals, and frankly,
it had even been done before his time.
But if you look at Transnistria and South Ossetia, and Abkhazia, each of these conflicts
was similar, frozen conflict, unresolved, but a way for Russia to continue to have a
little bit of influence.
I think that what we saw in Ukraine was, Putin seized Crimea, but the crisis continued, so
he decided to roll the dice on an even bigger intervention, this time to start a war in
This war, again, at first, people said—Putin said this war was being started by indigenous
separatists, by people who were there, who wanted to be free of this new Ukraine.
He talked about—Russia created this narrative that the revolt in the Maidan was actually
being fueled by the West or by, you know, crazy Ukrainian nationalists or by fascists.
They created a whole story about it.
But in fact, this was the revolt of people who, on the street, who wanted an association,
wanted to be part of Europe.
Putin, in starting this war in Ukraine, didn’t fess up to what he was doing.
He used deception.
He used subversion again and didn’t admit, at first, that these people who were shooting
their way into Ukraine were actually being paid for and instigated by him.
JIM GILMORE - ... What is hybrid war?
DAVID E. HOFFMAN - In 2013, the chief of the Russian military’s general staff, Gen. [Valery]