Anti-Russian hysteria has hit a new peak, with the political establishment and corporate media jointly accusing Russia of interfering in the recent US election.
While some politicians have gone so far as to treat the alleged hack as an act of war, this fear-mongering doesn’t engage with the actual history of US-Russia relations. Beyond just influencing elections in Russia, the US––along with Western capitalist institutions––set the stage for the entire system they now condemn.
To learn more about US interference in Russia’s political and economic affairs, I spoke with American journalist Mark Ames, who reported for nearly a decade in Boris Yeltsin’s Moscow.
Ames co-founded The Exile in 1998, an english-language newspaper critical of the Russian state. Putin’s government shut it down in 2008. Ames remains a prominent author, journalist, and eminent voice on Russian politics.
Post-Soviet Russia, Made in the U.S.A.
ABBY MARTIN: So you said that you don’t necessarily rule out Russia’s role in the hack of Podesta and the DNC, but every time the establishment presents evidence, it feels like we’re just being conned.
MARK AMES: It’s certainly plausible. Russia has motive, which is everything we’ve done to that country since the late 1980. Meddling in their democracy is putting it very mildly. We basically restructured their entire political economy, and then left it in a complete shambles. And then we’ve meddled in other ways since then, funding opposition groups and so on and so forth, so they certainly have the motive. Putin and the Kremlin are not Quakers. There’s no reason why they wouldn’t. They have the means. The reasons they wouldn’t do it would be for practical reasons, right? Practically, it would create these kinds of problems if they got caught, and so on and so forth. What has really been strange to me has been the awful reporting, and the atrocious intelligence reports. You can’t really describe them as anything but a sort of disinformation campaign on us, on the domestic public. And the other thing is that Obama, and the Democrats, and the centrist Republicans who are pushing this story also have motive, which is to indemnify themselves from the fact that they have been completely rejected by the public. They lost the elections, and they have the means, which is friends in the CIA and all these intelligence agencies, to create these reports, as we’re seeing. It’s a really dark joke—the whole thing so far.
AM: But of course the most absurd point of this whole thing is how much the US has interfered in every country’s election and government in the last century, as you mentioned, and I want you to go more into this: interference in what you call the 1996 stolen election where Yeltsin took power. Talk about what the US did in that election.
MA: Yeah, so I actually interviewed… I did the reporting on this. I interviewed, with Alex Zaitchik, the head of the OSCE mission, which is the election observer mission, which is basically a Western European-led body. He was a British MP, and he straight up said the election was stolen. It was fraudulent and “the OSCE did everything to wash my report,” and so it was officially known as free and fair. There was fraud in every single Russian election. I mean it was fairly significant fraud by our standards, not hugely significant, let’s say, by some hardcore dictatorial standards, but certainly three, four, five percent was often stolen and the template was really set in the 1996 elections that got Boris Yeltsin from about a 3% [approval] rating.
Boris Yeltsin in his five years in office dragged Russia into a war in which about 100,000 people were killed, and they lost. The average life expectancy of a Russian male plummeted from 68 years to 56 years. It had a death to birth ratio perhaps never seen in the 20th century, even during war times. People were just dying like flies everywhere. There was no state support, just pure banditry starting with Yeltsin at the top, all the way down. So he had actually… unlike Putin—say what you will about him—but I think even his enemies agree he is very popular. They might blame it on the propaganda, but he is popular. His ratings are still in the 80th percentile range, and he’s always been popular. With Yeltsin you had to perform a miracle. This guy was absolutely hated and is still one of the probably two or three most hated Russians in modern history for what he did to the country. And so it was a tough job, and Clinton was also running for re-election that year , and Clinton did not want to be known as the president who “lost Russia” if Yeltsin’s communist opponent won.
Among other things there were American advisers, of course, advising them, but the Treasury Department—we found out about this when we were reporting on this— the Treasury Department was actually drafting decrees on the creation of capital markets, on the legal structure of the economy. 1996 also was the year that we introduced the new 100-dollar bill for the first time and Yeltsin’s two top campaign managers were caught by police during the campaign, about a month or two before the election, carrying giant boxes, Xerox boxes full of new hundred-dollar bill notes when we were flying them in, and the Russian media was reporting it at the time. And the top journalists, liberal journalists, were reporting that. We knew that stacks and stacks of hundred-dollar bills would be flown in, brought to the US Embassy, and then presumably from there to the central bank, but this was during the election. Anyway, the Russians believe, and that’s what matters the most, even the liberal Russians believe that we financed covertly in that way. We financed very overtly by approving more World Bank and IMF loans for Russia than any country in history at that time. We bankrolled the whole thing and then in the end they still had to steal the election. In Chechnya where—again between 50 and a 100 thousand people were killed there—villages which had been wiped out voted 90, voted actually probably 150% for Yeltsin. This was in Chechnya and no one wanted to hear it. No one reported it. There was some election theft in 1999-2000 when Putin won, but Putin again was Yeltsin’s appointed successor. The people who he was running against were more overtly nationalist, more virulently anti-Western, and then when Putin started… Basically, the first big sin that Putin committed was he didn’t support the invasion of Iraq, and suddenly that’s when we started to notice election fraud is a problem there.
AM: Before 1996 there was 1993 when you mentioned that The New York Times, as well as Bill Clinton, actually helped subvert the first democratically elected parliament.
MA: There were basically two rival bodies that were both elected democratically in Soviet times. This is Yeltsin in the executive branch and the Supreme Soviet which was the Parliament which was very powerful up until October 1993. Yeltsin had his idea of how they wanted to do privatization which was like shock therapy, mass privatization. Yeltsin’s people were directly funded by, trained by and advised by USAID [United States Agency for International Development] and by Harvard. Harvard basically ran Russia’s privatization program, and then it turned out that the top Harvard people under Andrei Shleifer and Jonathan Hay who ran the whole [project] setting up their capital markets, setting up their privatization programs, both of them wound up eventually being prosecuted by the Department of Justice for insider dealing. They would set up rules for the mutual fund market and then they would give no-bid tenders to their wives to start up a fund that would get all this Russian state money, and they did all kinds of insider dealing. Again, all this stuff we’ve forgotten because it didn’t hurt us, but none of these people have forgotten—people that are in power in Russia now—what we did.
So Yeltsin and the young reformers, as they were called, that were backed by Americans, had their ideas and the Supreme Soviet had its ideas, which were probably more egalitarian. They all kind of agreed that they needed to bring in some market forces and some privatization, and break up the state monopolies, but they weren’t sure how. Yeltsin then decided that he didn’t want to fight it out with the Parliament anymore, so he just unilaterally and illegally abolished the Parliament, and eventually sent in tanks and helicopters, and about 500 to 1,000 people were killed. We completely backed it up —the New York Times editorials and Clinton openly backed him up, immediately sent him 10 billion dollars more of IMF aid when they did this. That was right when I moved to Russia. I moved a couple weeks before into the same district. Bullets were flying everywhere, and it was pretty crazy. I watched tanks fire into the Parliament building and saw a huge explosion go out and Americans cheered it on, and in fact, a couple Americans were killed watching that. They were shooting everybody, and after Yeltsin succeeded in that, his forces succeeded in subduing the Parliament. Again, we backed them up, and then he had an election a couple months later. They created a new constitution, and—this is also really important—created a new constitution which vested really all power in the presidency, which is what allowed for Putin to become as powerful as he is today. Again, we backed that up, and USAID paid PR agencies like Burson-Marsteller to help promote these referendums on that, and on the privatization vouchers. We were behind everything. It was essentially a colony. There is no other way to put it. It was like a colony, a defeated power, and we screwed it up hugely.
AM: Let’s talk more about the economic structure. You lived under Yeltsin for years, since right after the fall of the Soviet Union. You describe these years as a neo-liberal fire sale when Russia was essentially colonized by foreign capital. Talk specifically about what that means.
MA: In one specific way you had all these very valuable assets as we now know, state oil companies, some of the largest in the world. Russia has the number one or two largest oil reserves in the world, a third of the world’s natural gas, 70% of the world’s palladium, I think. 1/3 of the world’s nickel—all this stuff. And all of these industries were auctioned off in rigged auctions which were advised by and backed by the US Treasury Department, so this is one way all of these state enterprises, which employed a lot of people, were sold to a handful of oligarchs. Sometimes they didn’t really even pay for them. The way they paid for them was these oligarchs owned banks which became Finance Ministry or treasury vehicles, so if you needed to pay teachers and doctors, the treasury didn’t have a way of disseminating it, so they disseminated it through an oligarch’s bank network. The oligarchs would take the money and hold up paying teachers. There were teachers and workers who weren’t paid for 2 or 3 years at a time while the oligarchs took the money, and spun it around, and our advice always while this was happening was Russia needs to tighten its belt more. It can’t pay its teachers because it needs tighten its belt more. Well, in fact we were creating a class of international capitalists in the belief that if we could restructure the economy along the kind of oligarchical lines we would bring them into our system. They would be subordinate to us and their natural resources would become basically an appendage of the Western economy. That was the hope, and it did kind of go that way for a while, but it was devastating. It was absolutely devastating, and we may want to roll our eyes at the 90s because, again, we didn’t suffer, but Russians suffered enormously then, and honestly I’m surprised they’re not more angry with us about that.
I didn’t see the anger really explode until we bombed Kosovo in 1999. Then suddenly all these Russians turned against us, and it all kind of started make sense to them, but before then you had the most equal society where the privileged people had a somewhat nicer dacha or the really privileged ones maybe had a car, or the super, super privileged had a car and a driver, but no one was a billionaire, and there certainly weren’t millions and millions of people starving in the streets or half starving in the streets. So you went from the world’s most equal society to the world’s most unequal society in a very short period of time. It was incredibly traumatic, and so Putin was brought in. When he first appeared there was this great relief, I think, for a lot of Russians because he was a guy who a) didn’t drink, and b) seemed serious, and he seemed like somebody who was more seriously interested in not doing any more experiments on the country. The Russians kept saying, “We don’t want to be experimented on anymore,” and the American attitude was: “OK we experimented on you, and you died on the operating table. Clearly it’s your fault. We need a better patient than you.” Certainly by the end of the 1990s democracy was a bad word in Russia. It was just equated with stealing from everybody.
AM: Paint the picture for us at the end of the 90s. What did life look like then?
MA: Yeah, so at the end of the 90s, look, you had the Americans and the international credit institutions like the World Bank and IMF running everything. All the newspapers, all the Western media constantly cheering on Russia: It’s doing great. It’s doing great. It’s going do better. It’s going to overcome all of its problems, and it was clearly not. The Russian press kind of knew it wasn’t, and then at the end of 1998 the entire house of cards collapsed. It was at the time the greatest financial collapse, financial markets collapse in history. The stock market fell 95%-98%—something like that. The ruble completely collapsed. Nobody could even get money anymore. There was talk about food shortages. I think there was a time in 98-99 when something like one third of the country lived on subsistence farming. Now this is a northern country where there’s not much farmland. What it means is in their dachas they grew food and they needed it to supplement whatever diets they had to live. This was the end result of 10 years of us influencing, guiding, advising, and manipulating the Russian political economy. So they were looking for something else, and then, as I said, in 1999 we unilaterally went ahead to bomb Kosovo in Yugoslavia. I guess you could say the emerging pro-Western middle-class types even sort of said, “Wow. Maybe those cranky old communist and nationalists were actually right about you guys all along. We’re next, aren’t we?” They got very freaked out by that. It was coming out that IMF money was going directly into secret bank accounts and then being kicked back to even Michel Camdessus who was the head of the IMF. He was implicated in getting kickbacks of money he approved to Yeltsin. It was the craziest time. Everything was stolen.
AM: I wanted to briefly talk about why Yeltsin chose Putin. What did he do to protect the oligarchy?
MA: Yeltsin was desperate. He was sick. He’d been pretty sick since probably 1995-96. He was surrounded by what they called the Yeltsin family clan, which were a lot of oligarchs, and even his own family members, actually. And they were all worried that should Yeltsin die, somebody that they couldn’t rely on may come and take power, and prosecute them, so this was the atmosphere that Yeltsin was in in 1999. There was also going to be an election in 1999, and they were starting to worry that if they were to lose the election, or they didn’t have a strong successor to Yeltsin, or even prime minister, that they were all going to go down, and it was a legitimate worry. The mayor of Moscow was turned against them. Parts of the of the deep state we’re turning against Yeltsin, and Yeltsin had named Vladimir Putin as his head of the FSB, the Intelligence Agency, in late 1998. I think it was in mid-1998, and he was proving very trustworthy and loyal. As head of the FSB he was starting to do what he could to protect Yeltsin, and when the general prosecutor started opening up cases against Yeltsin family clan members for theft of state property, Putin arranged filming of the general prosecutor—he would be like our attorney general—having sex with two prostitutes. He put it on television. Yeltsin saw that and said, “This is my man, and he’s going to protect me.”
AM: During the Yeltsin era there were countless assassinations of journalists, of political dissidents. This was going on in conjunction with this horrific time of inequality and joblessness, and everything like that. Why didn’t the US care about press freedoms in Russia then, like it does now?
MA: Again, because it was a vassal state. It wasn’t a threat. It was a vassal state and what we really cared about was keeping Russia as weak as possible and getting access to the resources, and enormous resources, not just in Russia but in the Caspian Sea countries: Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. We wanted those resources, so we could give him a free pass as long as we could get ahold of the loot there.
It’s a good point. Look, when I got there, shortly after I got there, one of the most popular young Russian journalists, Dmitry Kholodov—this was 1994—and he was investigating Yeltsin’s really powerful defense minister for one of the big Russian dailies, Moscow Komsomolets, and he was publishing some pretty sensational stuff about really appalling corruption that was going on that the defense minister was responsible for. Yeltsin knew about it, and so they set him up. They said there’s a briefcase full of sensational documents and with this you’re going to be an even bigger star. They had a very, very vibrant, open, wild press at this time, way freer than ours in terms of the range and the aggressiveness of the media towards power. Kholodov got the briefcase, opened it up, and it killed him, blew him up. Everybody in the media called out Yeltsin: “How could you not fire your defense minister?” Everybody knew what happened, but again this is a question of heating rods. We kept saying, “Well, if we weaken Yeltsin in any way, the Communists could come to power, so we’ve got to keep our criticism quiet.” And we did this over and over and over—journalist after journalist, opposition figure after opposition figure—people being killed left and right. We just said, “No, to talk about it is to destabilize Yeltsin. To destabilize Yeltsin means bringing back the Communists. And so we have to keep our mouths shut.”
By the time I started The Exile in 1997 with Matt Taibbi, the Russian media had been through its first consolidation. Basically, it was all pretty free before, and very wild and unruly. During the election that was stolen by Yeltsin 1996, the American advisers advised Yeltsin to consolidate all the television media under his own wing so that it became one state media, including what people thought was the independent media, and to hand out favors to these people and advise them to lie. So they created this reality during the 1996 campaign creating fear of a Communists win. It was propaganda nonstop on television showing people hanging from lamp posts and people in gulags. And then after Yeltsin won, the complete oligarch-ization of Russia meant that the entire media after that was one of the favors handed out. So this oligarch had this newspaper, this television network and this whatever, and then all journalists at that point suddenly worked for oligarchs, and again, remember Russia at this time was the focus of the empire. It was our number one colony, and it was the project of the century for the American empire.
AM: Right, it’s like the Red Scare, except there are no Reds. Russia is capitalist. It’s an oligarchy. We collaborated on that front. What is the threat today that Russia poses to the US Empire that is causing this insane hysteria and aggression?
MA: We got very used, after the end of the Cold War, to being able to do whatever we wanted wherever we wanted, and the only thing holding us back was our own amazing sense of justice or whatever, but there was no countervailing power. We’ve seen in Syria where Russia went in and succeeded with actually a much more strategically coherent objective, which was to back the government and their forces. And just that alone is very deeply threatening to people who are used to having their own way. It’s a threat to full spectrum dominance, so I guess it’s a threat on that level.
AM: Mark, you have many contacts still on the ground in Russia. What is their reaction to this?
MA: Yeah, I’m noticing not only my contacts, but regular people, and Russian opposition to Putin are all very weirded out by this. At first I think they were sort of amused, and as it has gone on and on, they’re realizing we’re trying to expel [diplomats]. We’re not releasing any intelligence, and there’s clearly so much BS around this whole Russia scare. They’re going more silent now. They’re genuinely weirded out. There was schadenfreude there for a while, but I think the schadenfreude is kind of turning into a dread of what this really means. How crazy are we, and how far are we going to go? Trump’s coming to power. I think people have a far too rosy, hopeful view of how much things might change under him. I would imagine relations are not going to be as hostile for at least six months, but God knows after that.
AM: Let’s talk about Trump because everyone paints Trump as best friends with Putin, right? But given Trump’s fragile ego and the people he’s surrounding himself with that all want war with Iran, how quickly could this change?
MA: It could change easily, and I would like to add too that I think if you look at it, Trump is Trump. I’m sure he probably does like some things about Putin. He’s a mensch, whatever, a tough guy. But let’s not assume he’s a complete loony idiot. Let’s assume that he actually is fairly smart and won the presidency, and he knew what he was doing by baiting the Hillary Democrats, and baiting journalists by playing around with how much of a friend he might have been with Putin because what did that do during the election? It got everybody chasing Kremlin phantoms into a cul-de-sac when you know this guy has more skeletons in his closet than anybody in history. I mean he’s a mobster… the bigotry… With everything that Trump has on his record, everybody decided “let’s run against Putin.”
So I think, again, the danger is really on our side, and I can easily imagine a lot of dangers—for example, not just if Putin does something that crosses Trump, and crosses Trump’s ego, but more like since Trump has kind of populist instincts, and his instincts also go towards what’s going to make him more powerful, and what’s going to make him popular, and if he realizes, working in that [Washington] DC bubble, that actually being the guy who used to be… So imagine the credibility in the PR world: “I was the guy who was most friendly with him [Putin], and he still turned against me.” Imagine what a mouthpiece he could be for a new Cold War. It’s very easy to imagine things getting hostile again between the Trump administration and the Kremlin, and heating up in crazy ways that we probably don’t want to think about.