LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Of course, you can't say election interference without thinking Russia these days. But what does Russia's President Vladimir Putin really want? We're joined now by Angela Stent who is the author of the new book "Putin's World: Russia Against The West And With The Rest." She is a professor at Georgetown University.
Welcome to WEEKEND EDITION.
ANGELA STENT: Great to be back.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. Let's start with what's in the news - the Mueller investigation, Russia's involvement in the 2016 election. As an expert on Russia, what is your estimation of what we learned so far about Russian interference and the president?
STENT: Well, we've learned an enormous amount, and sometimes it's hard to disentangle all of it. So we know that the Trump campaign - there were various operatives. They had a wide variety of contacts with different Russian operatives - former intelligence officials, business people, politicians. Then we know that there was a meeting between Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and a Russian lawyer in 2016 who was supposed to give them "dirt," quote, unquote, on Hillary Clinton. But she didn't have much. Then we know that the Trump Organization - again, from Donald Trump - told us this - had extensive financial contacts with different Russian banks who, quote, unquote, "saved the organization" after 2008. So we have this web of connections here between different operatives, between members of President Trump's family. What we don't know is the issue of collusion. I don't know whether we will know that after the Mueller report comes out. We just know that the tentacles of these ties between different people in the Trump Organization and the campaign to Russia reach quite far.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Are you convinced that President Putin interfered in the 2016 election?
STENT: Well, certainly, we know that the Russians interfered via social media and via cyber means in the 2016 election. It's highly unlikely that something like that would have occurred unless it had been ordered by President Putin himself. This is not the kind of thing that you do in a freelance way.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right, which brings us to the broader point of your book - how we got to a place where Russia is ascendant. You begin your book by saying that we often describe Russians as playing chess. But Putin's sport is judo, and that lets us understand him.
STENT: It definitely does. In 1976, he became the judo champion in Leningrad. Judo was what enabled him to get out of a hard, difficult childhood as a small child that was bullied. Now, what do you do in judo even if you're physically weaker, maybe, than your opponent? You look for his weaknesses, his vulnerabilities, his distraction. And then you just move in. And I think, if you look on a larger scale, you can ask how does Russia, a country with a GDP smaller than that of Italy - how has it managed to reestablish itself on the world stage? And I think you go back to Putin's judo training and, of course, his training as a KGB officer.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right. And leveraging Russia's power has been helped by fractures in the West, you argue.
STENT: It definitely has. I mean, even before Donald Trump, those fractures were there. They've been exacerbated since he came to power. We argue with our European allies all the time. And then within the United States and within every single European country, you have the same kind of polarization between populists, left-wing, right-wing people. And the Russians are very good at honing in on that and exacerbating divisions that existed before they ever came in.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: They've been involved with right-wing groups now in the U.K. with Brexit - Italy, France. The list goes on. Why?
STENT: Because the weaker the European Union, the better; the weaker the West, the better - that enables Putin to reassert Russia on the world stage. Russia looks like a reliable partner; you don't see those kind of divisions there. So it's in his interest to see a weak West.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's look at Russia and the Middle East. It's an interesting part of your book, and it provides the case that, you know, Russia really is ascendant. Russia backed Syria's Assad, and Assad has prevailed.
STENT: Exactly. A senior Israeli official described the Russian policy in the Middle East as aggressive, flexible and cognizant of its limits. Russia's never going to replace the U.S. there, but it has moved in to support Assad. And now it appears to be an honest broker. It talks to all sides in the Middle East - the Sunni states, the Shia states, Israel - and the different groups - Hamas, Hezbollah. And no other power plays that role.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: How has it managed to insert itself, as you say, in being sort of viewed as an honest broker in a way that the United States has been unable to?
STENT: Because it's now seen - unlike the Soviet days when the Soviet Union only supported certain ideological groups, Russia will talk to and support any group there or be available as a broker to any group. And the United States, of course, is seen as taking sides on different issues in a way that Russia doesn't anymore.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to look ahead to the U.S.-North Korea summit because that's also an interesting test case. What is Russia's interest there? There are reports that Russians have offered the North Koreans a nuclear power plant in exchange for disarmament. Would Trump be open to Russian involvement?
STENT: I mean, he might be. The Russians would like to see the North Korean peninsula nuclear-free. They would actually like to see the U.S. get out of that area, South Korea. But that's not going to happen. They've offered to build this nuclear plant and take back the spent fuel. It's possible that that could figure into the broader plans, such as they might be, after President Trump has had this summit.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The subtitle of your book suggests that Russia's making all these other alliances. It's improved its relationship with China, too. It's involved in North Korea, the Middle East. And it's the West that will be left out in the cold. Is Putin outmaneuvering the United States?
STENT: I mean, at the moment, Russia looks as if it is. Again, it's very - he's playing this role as a disruptor very well. Russia's much weaker than the United States - no doubt. But because of the fissures within the West exacerbated by the Trump presidency, this has given Russia opportunities that I think it couldn't have dreamed of before. And it will continue seizing on these opportunities unless the West becomes more united and decides what it is that it wants to do vis-a-vis Russia.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Angela Stent is the author of the new book "Putin's World: Russia Against The West And With The Rest."
Thank you so much.
STENT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.