How Russia Used An Overt Agent To Attack Joe Biden In The 2020 Election
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Last week, The New York Times reported that federal prosecutors in Brooklyn are investigating whether former and current Ukrainian officials tried to interfere in the 2020 election, including by funneling misleading information through Rudy Giuliani. At the time, Giuliani was President Trump's personal attorney. One of the Ukrainian officials under investigation is Andrii Derkach, who was described as an active Russian agent by officials in both the Trump and Biden administrations. Derkach and his contacts with Giuliani are the subject of a new article by my guest Simon Shuster, a Time magazine investigative correspondent who worked out of Moscow for many years and has reported extensively on Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs and connections between those oligarchs and Trump allies.
Giuliani is not a subject of the Brooklyn investigation, although some of his contacts are. But federal prosecutors in Manhattan are investigating whether Giuliani illegally lobbied on behalf of Ukrainian officials without registering with the Department of Justice, which would be a violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
Simon Shuster, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Thanks for joining us again.
SIMON SHUSTER: Thank you. Nice to be with you.
GROSS: So let's get to Andrii Derkach, who's being investigated by Brooklyn prosecutors. He's the subject of your new article. Just explain a little why he's being investigated by Brooklyn prosecutors - federal prosecutors.
SHUSTER: It seems to be in connection to election interference. Now, it's not at all clear really what laws he would have violated, but they're looking at his communications with Rudy Giuliani and his attempts to influence the 2020 elections to help then-President Trump win a second term. Again, we don't quite know what laws he might have violated, so I'm going by the witnesses in the case who have spoken to federal investigators. And they then told me what questions the investigators were asking. And those questions centered around election interference.
GROSS: So Derkach is a seven-term member of Ukrainian Parliament. He's still in Parliament?
SHUSTER: That's right, yeah.
GROSS: And he owned, like, a TV station and a bunch of radio stations. Does he still own them? Is he officially an oligarch?
SHUSTER: Those stations have had to shut down because both - the U.S. government sanctioned them as sort of tools of Derkach's broad election interference strategy. So those stations are no longer on air, as far as I understand.
GROSS: So when Giuliani met with Derkach in Ukraine, did Giuliani or did anyone in the Trump administration know that Derkach was a Russian agent?
SHUSTER: He was certainly suspected of that. And it wasn't a big secret. It's kind of an open secret, certainly in Ukraine and for officials who worked in the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine. You know, Andrii Derkach studied at the KGB academy in Moscow. This is a well-known fact. It's in his Wikipedia page. So even if the U.S. government had not yet at that point, when Derkach met with Giuliani, the U.S. government had not yet officially identified him in public statements as an active of Russian agent - it wouldn't have taken much to learn about his background and his connections to Russian intelligence agencies. And indeed, some of Giuliani's close associates warned him. And they told me about this. They said, you know, when Derkach kind of appeared on the scene and reaching out to Giuliani directly and indirectly, when they began talking to each other, some of Giuliani's associates told him, hey, be careful. This guy is a Russian asset. He's connected to Russia. And any information he gives you is going to be tainted by Russian security services, so don't work with him. One of the incredible things is that Giuliani appears to have continued working with Derkach despite that advice.
GROSS: What did Derkach give him, what disinformation?
SHUSTER: Yeah, that was kind of one of the most interesting things of reporting this out. So I got to spend about two hours with Derkach, and he essentially gave me the spiel, the lecture, that he gave Giuliani, including some of the same documents. You know, he had it all prepared in a little manila folder. And it essentially lays out this kind of false narrative that we've been hearing if you, you know, followed the presidential campaign last year - the false narrative around Hunter Biden, Joe Biden's son, and his work for a Ukrainian gas company as a board member. And there are just - there's sort of a whole host of corruption allegations swirling around that. And the allegations are that Joe Biden used the power of his office as vice president to help his son, to help further his son's financial interests in Ukraine and elsewhere. Now, again, this has been thoroughly investigated by journalists, by the Senate, by Republicans in the Senate, and there's no evidence that this is true. But this is the narrative that Derkach was supporting, promoting, popularizing. And the documents and materials that he provided to Giuliani were largely connected to that narrative.
GROSS: He gave Giuliani tapes, right?
SHUSTER: A little bit more complicated than that - or sneaky. He released the tapes publicly on YouTube. He released them in press conferences that he would hold in Kyiv in the months leading up to the election four times, four separate installments. And then once these were out in the public, Giuliani, then-President Trump, then-President Trump's son Donald Jr., the QAnon forums would just amplify it so that it reached, you know, a very broad cross-section of American voters. So it wasn't like he was secretly and clandestinely handing tapes to Giuliani. No, this was all done right out in the open.
GROSS: So what are these tapes? Who made them? Who's on them?
SHUSTER: Who made them is kind of a big mystery and something that the Ukrainian authorities are especially keen to figure out because it's quite embarrassing for them. They appear to have been made inside the office of the Ukrainian president.
GROSS: Which president (laughter) are we talking about?
SHUSTER: President Petro Poroshenko.
GROSS: So which president was he? Was he Russian-backed?
SHUSTER: No, not at all - not at all. He was, in fact, leading Ukraine throughout the most intense periods of armed conflict with Russia, so he was not. But the tapes - the tapes involve President Poroshenko, the former president of Ukraine, talking to then-Vice President Joe Biden about a variety of issues, mostly connected to Joe Biden's pushing Ukraine to do more to fight corruption in Ukraine. You know, the U.S. was providing a great deal of aid, financial assistance, military assistance and, therefore, had a very serious stake in making sure that Ukraine cleaned up its corruption and - partly because it wanted Ukraine to succeed and also because it didn't want the aid that the U.S. was providing to be stolen by corrupt officials.
So the tapes are essentially, you know, official conversations between the president of - then-president of Ukraine, vice president of the U.S. about corruption. And these are the tapes that leaked out through their Derkach. The tapes don't include anything that's obviously incriminating or even really embarrassing for Joe Biden, but they were used as a kind of evidence of the claims that Derkach and Giuliani were making. And they were used - they said, aha, look, we have you on tape, you know, talking about corruption. And it created the kind of aura of graft or wrongdoing that Giuliani and Derkach were trying to create around Joe Biden.
GROSS: When, in fact, what Biden was asking for was kind of the official policy of the Obama administration - and the European Union was on the same page with Biden. So it's not like he was, you know...
GROSS: ...Stepping out and being personally corrupt or anything like that.
SHUSTER: Yeah, yeah.
GROSS: So you said that there's nothing really incriminating or even embarrassing in the tapes of Biden that Derkach made public. So how was it used in such a way so that it could make Biden appear to be guilty of something?
SHUSTER: The allegation is essentially that - so on the tape, you hear Biden, you know, telling the president of Ukraine that the chief prosecutor is not doing enough to combat corruption. Indeed, you know, that's - that is true according to various European officials and Ukrainian officials that I've talked to that this chief prosecutor was not doing enough to fight corruption. The allegation that you have from Trump, Giuliani, Derkach and their various allies is that Biden, then-Vice President Biden, had an ulterior motive for asking to remove that prosecutor.
The allegation is that Biden wanted to remove that prosecutor because that prosecutor was investigating the company where Hunter Biden worked at the time. That's the kind of somewhat confusing allegation that Joe Biden wasn't trying to help Ukraine defeat corruption, he was trying to help his son avoid an investigation. That's the claim. That's the allegation.
Now, again, Republican senators in the Senate investigated this for a year. They investigated this particular allegation at great length. And they found last year, I believe, in September, they released a long report saying that, no, Joe Biden does not appear to have used the power of his office to help his son. There's no evidence of that. Indeed, you know, my own journalistic investigations, many other journalistic investigations have looked in great detail at this allegation. You know, did Joe Biden have some ulterior motive to go against this prosecutor? And we've consistently found that there's just nothing to support. That's the case.
GROSS: So Giuliani gets this information, puts his own spin on it to try to discredit Biden. When you were talking to Derkach, he offered you a thumb drive over the whole thing. And he also had like a whiteboard. And he outlined this, like, huge conspiracy theory that he has. Would you describe this conspiracy theory and what his, like, flowchart looked like?
SHUSTER: Yeah. So he drew out some of the stuff on a whiteboard. He also had this really kind of fancy poster that he'd printed out and was distributing in digital form and in paper form. And it had - it's like a pyramid. And it has Joe Biden at the top right next to this Western billionaire, George Soros, a big kind of Republican boogeyman. And underneath them, like, all these kind of other Ukrainian and U.S. officials, diplomats, spies, you know, a whole kind of panoply of different figures in Ukrainian and American society. And the chart essentially alleges that all of them are sort of mixed up in this grand scheme, conspiracy to enrich themselves at the expense of Ukraine.
Yeah, that's the conspiracy theory. Again, you know, no evidence to support it, but it's a sort of very professionally presented narrative, a false narrative. But it's - a lot of work went into making it look legit. And some of that work was, yeah, the kind of the sleek websites the Derkach created, these posters, you know, handing the stuff around on thumb drives and, again, doing this right out in the open.
GROSS: He has a name for this conspiracy theory - DemoCorruption. Like, can you talk about that a little?
SHUSTER: Yeah. So the term that - the shorthand he uses is DemoCorruption because he insists that not only President Biden is involved in this, but according to this conspiracy theory, the entire Democratic Party is sort of infused with this conspiracy and profiting from it, and all of its kind of financial backers of the Democratic Party are involved. So I think what that does, this narrative that Derkach and allegedly the Russian security services are promoting, gives it a bit more longevity and breadth, right? It's not only focused on Joe Biden. It's focused on the entire Democratic Party. That's - the target is not just Biden.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Simon Shuster His new article in Time magazine is titled "How An Accused Russian Agent Worked With Rudy Giuliani In A Plot Against The 2020 Election." We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Simon Shuster, an investigative reporter for Time magazine. He was based in Russia for years. During the Trump administration, he reported extensively on connections between Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs and Trump allies. His new article is about how Ukrainian oligarch and seven-term member of Parliament Andrii Derkach gave disinformation to Rudy Giuliani to discredit Biden during the 2020 election.
You say that the Trump-Biden presidential debates may have been the first time that foreign disinformation made its way into a presidential debate. Which part of the disinformation are you talking about?
SHUSTER: Yeah. I mean, to my mind, as I argue in the story, that was the culmination of the Russian disinformation campaign in 2020. That was the culmination of the election interference operation. During the debate, President Trump repeatedly hurled these accusations of corruption at Joe Biden on the debate stage. It was a fairly confused debate. If you remember, it was the first one, and there was so much crosstalk. And then President Trump interrupted Joe Biden so many times that the moderator was just, you know, incensed and almost had to stop the process. But in there, President Trump makes clear reference to a tape. And he tells Joe Biden - you know, he talks about the sort of - the conversation that Joe Biden had with the Ukrainian president, Poroshenko. And he says, you know, you're on tape doing it. You're on tape doing it. And this appears to be a clear reference to the tape that Derkach released, the tape of Joe Biden talking to the then-president of Ukraine.
And I think - you know, I spoke to a former KGB spy who now lives outside Washington. And I got his opinion on, like, you know, what do you think was the main climax of the operation, the point when - the point toward which it was leading? And he's the one who sort of pointed me to this moment in the debate. And he said, look; this is the moment when Trump had the opportunity to, quote, "fire the political weapon" that Derkach and Giuliani had loaded for him. And I think that's right. Trump missed. He misfired because there was so much crosstalk because the moderator, you know, kept asking him to stop interrupting and also because I think the American public wasn't really primed or aware enough of these allegations to get what Trump was even talking about.
You know, I think most Americans hadn't heard about these tapes. Like, it didn't reach a broad enough audience for American voters to really pick up on what Trump was trying to signal from the stage. But nevertheless, he took - he referred to the tape, you know, from the debate stage. And as this former KGB officer that I quote in the story told me, you know, this was the moment. You know, they would've been popping Champagne, he said, in Moscow over this.
GROSS: So let's talk a little bit more about who Derkach is and what his connections are to Russian intelligence. Let's start with his father 'cause his father was very important in Russian intelligence back in the days of the Soviet Union.
SHUSTER: Yeah, I'd say that's fair. He was a KGB officer, a career KGB officer. He started earlier in his career as one of the KGB officers in charge of protecting this top-secret factory in eastern Ukraine that produced the Soviet Union's most advanced ballistic missiles. You know, these were the rockets that were designed to carry nuclear warheads and - during the Cold War. So he was - he worked at that factory for some years. And then he proceeded to - he moved to Moscow to study at a very elite - the most elite KGB academy for KGB officers in Moscow, graduated from there.
And then, indeed, his son, the main subject of my story, followed in his father's footsteps pretty much exactly. So he gained admission at the same KGB academy in Moscow in 1990 and graduated from there a few years later. Yeah. One of the things he studied there, he told me, was how to organize meetings with secret agents, you know? So this was kind of, at least partly, a clear education of a spy. And he doesn't dispute that. That's his background, and he's not ashamed of it.
GROSS: Is he overt about saying, yeah, I used to be associated with the KGB? Like, when you talked to him, did you ask him about his ties to the KGB?
SHUSTER: Repeatedly. Of course, yeah. Yeah, he's totally open about that. We talked about, you know, his time studying there. We talked about what it was like. His studies at the KGB academy in Moscow coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union. And we talked about what that was like, you know, to - the empire that he was studying to serve collapsed as he was, you know, two years away from graduation. So, yeah, he's very open about this. And again, a simple Google search - you know, if Rudy Giuliani had Googled Derkach, he would've learned about the fact that he studied at the KGB academy. This is not a secret.
GROSS: When you ask him if he's still connected to Russian intelligence, what does he say?
SHUSTER: He's quite evasive. And I was surprised by that because, you know, it was my responsibility and one of my goals in the interview to give him an opportunity to respond directly to the allegations of the U.S. government that he is an active Russian agent, essentially a Russian spy. And I repeatedly asked him to address that, and he just kept dodging. At one point he was like, let's talk about your president instead, changing the subject completely back to his narrative about DemoCorruption, about Joe Biden and all that.
He was very evasive about his personal ties to Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, because the U.S. government has alleged that this operation, this influence campaign in 2020 surrounding the presidential race was, quote, "probably directed" by and authorized by Putin. And the U.S. intelligence community has indeed concluded that Putin, quote, "had purview over the activities of Andriy Derkach." So, again, quite an allegation that Derkach was taking orders essentially from Putin last year. And I asked him about this. You know, have you ever met with Putin? And he said things like, yeah, I probably met with him at certain kind of social functions and negotiations, but let's not go into that, you know? And he would just dodge, you know? But he would sort of - nondenial denials throughout.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here 'cause it's time for another break. My guest is Time magazine investigative correspondent Simon Shuster. His new article is titled "How An Accused Russian Agent Worked With Rudy Giuliani In A Plot Against The 2020 Election." We'll be right back. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: Let's get back to my interview with Time magazine investigative correspondent Simon Shuster, who spent years reporting from Russia. During the Trump presidency, he reported extensively on ties between Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs and Trump allies. Shuster's new article is titled "How An Accused Russian Agent Worked With Rudy Giuliani In A Plot Against The 2020 Election." Federal prosecutors in Manhattan are investigating whether Giuliani illegally lobbied on behalf of Ukrainian officials without registering with the Department of Justice, which would be a violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Last week, The New York Times reported that federal prosecutors in Brooklyn are investigating whether former and current Ukrainian officials tried to interfere in the 2020 election, including by funneling misleading information through Giuliani. Andriy Derkach is one of the Ukrainian officials under investigation in Brooklyn.
So the way you've described your meeting with Andriy Derkach is that, you know, he sets up a meeting in his office. You're not meeting in a secret location where no one, you know, can see you. You're in his office. He's just handing you over information. It's not in this, like, secretly decoded thing. He's giving you like a file. He's offering you a thumb drive. That's not exactly the kind of, like, spy craft that we're used to hearing. So is this, like, a new approach?
SHUSTER: Yeah. It feels pretty new, especially if you compare it to the Russian election interference operation in 2016. At that time, if you remember, you know, the main thrust of the Russian operation was to have military hackers steal and leak emails from the Hillary Clinton campaign. And they did this throughout by trying to hide their identity through proxy servers, through fake personas online. And they were trying to sort of keep Russia's fingerprints off of it as much as possible. In 2020, as you say, the tactics seem to change. It was much more overt. And it seems to be that, you know, a calculation was made that you don't really need to hide behind all this cloak-and-dagger stuff. And, indeed, maybe it hurts you to do that. So they decided that it's fine to just go ahead and be a lot more overt - instead of covert operatives, overt operatives.
GROSS: Do you think part of the goal of Derkach meeting with you was to say, look; if I was a spy, I wouldn't be meeting with you? That would be ridiculous. I would just be exposing myself. I'm not a spy. I just believe this. I believe I'm right. And I believe people in America should know it. I'm not guilty of anything. I may be being investigated. I didn't do anything. I'm just following what I believe is the truth.
SHUSTER: Yeah. And you just paraphrased his message very clearly. That is what he says.
GROSS: (Laughter) Great.
SHUSTER: So he says that he went after Joe Biden as a way of exposing corruption not only in the U.S., but, first and foremost, in Ukraine, because, again, this conspiracy theory of DemoCorruption that Derkach invented holds that Ukrainian officials and American officials were kind of colluding - right? - in this cabal. So he says, you know, yes, I went after Joe Biden. But I went after him because he was the sort of figurehead of this grand conspiracy that also involved Ukrainian officials. And, Derkach says, as a member of the Ukrainian parliament, it's incumbent upon me to investigate the misdeeds of those Ukrainian officials. I wouldn't say that's particularly convincing. But that is the story he sticks to. Yeah.
GROSS: In terms of Derkach being overt - when Derkach met with Giuliani, Derkach took a photo of them together and posted it on Facebook. And Derkach told you when you met with him that he didn't like secret meetings. Why do you think he posted that photograph?
SHUSTER: Yeah. So I reported quite extensively on that particular meeting. It was their first in-person meeting. And I spoke to multiple people who were there, including Derkach. And it was fascinating to hear that he went in there. The setting for the meeting had a kind of cloak-and-dagger aspect about it. It was way out in the outskirts of Kyiv in this hotel that nobody would think to look for Giuliani there. And it was out of the way. It was sort of, you know, it felt secretive to Derkach. So when he arrived for the meeting, he said, I don't like this. This is his recollection. He told Giuliani, I don't like secret meetings. I would like this to be an official conversation. So do you mind if I take a photo? And Giuliani apparently agreed.
And there's this photo that Derkach posted that same night on Facebook showing them sitting together in this hotel on the southern outskirts of Kiev as they exchange a sheaf of papers, some documents. And it's remarkable, you know? It's - at the time when that photo came out, it blew my mind because, you know, I knew already then who Derkach was and his connections to - historical connections to the Russian intelligence agencies. And just to see that posted on Facebook, you know, the lawyer of the U.S. president - then-U.S. president - receiving a sheaf of papers from a suspected Russian agent was just remarkable. And it was the - one of the most incredible examples of this overt operative idea that we've been talking about.
GROSS: Derkach told you that he has more Biden tapes, five more hours of Biden tapes. Did he tell you what is on those tapes? Did he give you any clues about that?
SHUSTER: No. And he actually announced that a couple days after our interview. But it was clear when we met that he intended to continue his, yeah, you know, propaganda war against the Bidens. He had been doing it a week before our meeting. He had released, you know, another kind of long text on his website with documents kind of connected to his theory of DemoCorruption. So he was continuing to do this. And he still is continuing to do this. And one of the things that I kept asking him is, you know, why he's doing it despite the very harsh sanctions that he's faced. You know, he's now under criminal investigation, reportedly, in Brooklyn, right? But even before that, starting in the fall of 2020 last year, he's been under very intense American sanctions that have really hurt him and his family.
So his daughter, who went to school in California, she went to university in California, she had her visa revoked. Derkach told me that his 10-year-old son, who goes to a private school - or went to a private school in Kyiv that is affiliated with the U.S. embassy, that that school asked Derkach to take his son out. The school declined my requests for comment on that. But when I was talking to Derkach about it, it was clear that this was very painful for him personally, for his family. You know, what he's doing and the blowback from the American government has been very painful for him and his family. And I asked him, so why are you still doing this? And he didn't give a clear response. You know, he expressed a great deal of anger at the sanctions, and he conceded that they've caused him a lot of pain. But he just said, you know, I'm going to keep doing this because, you know, it's my - I see it as my job to expose corruption. And I'm not going to stop.
GROSS: Do you think the conspiracy theories that Derkach has been spreading, including, you know, the false information that Biden worked to further his son Hunter's financial interests in Ukraine, do you think all this still has legs? I mean, so much of this information was brought out during the impeachment hearings in the House, and Trump was impeached in the House.
SHUSTER: Yeah, I think it does very much still have legs. I think it's still a very influential narrative. And the reason I say that is, you know, there's a large - former President Trump still has a very large base of supporters. And, you know, among the news media and the online forums that his really devoted supporters use, this narrative that Derkach promoted and fueled is basically part of reality. It has been thoroughly incorporated into the perceptions of Joe Biden within Trump's base.
And I think one of the most interesting things I learned while reporting the story is how much QAnon, the online conspiracy theory kind of cult-like movement of Trump devotees, how much they promoted the Derkach material. It was a remarkable thing. You can go back and read all of the statements from Q, the kind of anonymous profit of this movement. And, you know, at a very crucial moment in this movement - this movement is quite obsessed with numerology and, you know, the meaning of numbers and all that - dates, numbers. And there's - a lot of the people in that movement were expecting, what is Q going to post - post No. 4,500 because in kind of numerological thinking, 4,500, the 45th president, right? This should be an important post from Q.
And what did Q post in No. 4,500? A link to a YouTube video, 1 1/2 hours long, of Andrii Derkach. And he says, worth reading, listening. So the promotion on the QAnon forums. To me, is very clear indication that, yes, the things that Derkach is pushing and promoting has made it very deep into the bloodstream of a large portion of former President Trump's base. And it's going to continue to be part of the lore of that group of American voters, which is very large.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Simon Shuster. He's an investigative reporter for Time magazine. And his new article is titled "How An Accused Russian Agent Worked With Rudy Giuliani In A Plot Against The 2020 Election." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Simon Shuster, a reporter for Time magazine. He was based in Russia for years during the Trump administration. He reported extensively on connections between Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs and Trump allies. His new article is about how Ukrainian oligarch and seven-term member of Parliament Andrii Derkach gave disinformation to Rudy Giuliani to discredit Biden during the 2012 election.
For your article in Time magazine about Andrii Derkach, there was supposed to be a photoshoot of Derkach. And then Derkach contacted you at the last minute and said he had to leave Ukraine and couldn't do the photoshoot. What happened to your knowledge?
SHUSTER: I don't know, but it was very, very surprising that he suddenly pulled out really at the last minute. He said he had to leave Ukraine in a hurry. He's very sorry. And I didn't think much of it at the time. But when The New York Times reported that he was under investigation in Brooklyn, it crossed my mind. Was he trying to get to safer ground to avoid possible arrest? You know, if this investigation was real, if it was reaching some point of, you know, getting close to an indictment, would he have sought to, you know, get out of Dodge?
And I asked him about this. He said, no, that's a ridiculous, provocative question. He said he did not go to Russia. But we don't know. I mean, one thing I can tell you is that I spoke to the president of Ukraine about Derkach and his case. And the president of Ukraine told me on the record that he is very keen to work with the American authorities to investigate any wrongdoing on the part of Derkach. And he emphasized that under his administration, members of the Ukrainian Parliament have been stripped of their legal immunity, so they can now be charged with crimes while serving in Parliament.
So he said that, you know, we want to work with the Americans on this case, we're eager to. And he said that his investigators - not his, but the Ukrainian law enforcement - is currently focused on figuring out how Derkach got his hands on those tapes of Biden, because, again, to Ukraine, that was extremely embarrassing that tapes that were apparently made in the office of the former president of Ukraine managed to get into the hands of someone else, Derkach. They don't know how that happened. And President Zelenskyy told me that they're doing everything they can to figure that out. But, you know, the point is that, even in Ukraine, his home country, Derkach seems to be in some potential legal jeopardy.
GROSS: Biden and Putin will soon be meeting for the first time since Biden became president. What are you expecting out of this meeting?
SHUSTER: Not much. It's not much - a lot of theatrics. And I think, you know, the way that this meeting came to be was quite a victory for Vladimir Putin, you know, in my view and in my understanding of his approach to foreign policy. You know, the way it happened was in the context of a dramatic escalation of the conflict in east Ukraine, a conflict between Ukraine and Russia. And what Putin did is he brought tens of thousands of troops right up to the border of Ukraine. And the world was kept guessing for several days whether Russia was about to invade. And that's quite some brinkmanship there from Putin. And in the context of that, you know, kind of threatened invasion, President Biden reached out to Putin and said, let's meet and talk one on one, you know? And I think this - from people I've talked to in Russia, in Ukraine, this was clearly one of the goals that Putin was pursuing with this escalation of the conflict. He always wants to be treated by the United States as an equal partner, as someone who can, should and must sit down directly with the American president and talk eye to eye.
You know, that relationship doesn't really match Russia's economic or political power in the world anymore. We're not talking about the Soviet Union. They're - Russia is no longer, you know, a superpower in the way that it was during the Cold War. But Russia and Putin very much want to maintain that status. And part of - one of the ways that you maintain that status is by holding one-on-one meetings with the president of a superpower, in this case, the United States. So I think, you know, whatever comes out of that meeting - and I don't think it will be very much. You know, it's going to be theatrical. But just the image of Putin standing next to Biden after everything, you know, Russia has done with, you know, needling the United States, challenging the United States, making trouble for the United States around the world, to still be on that stage next to Biden, talking one on one is going to be a propaganda victory for Putin.
And, you know, we've seen the Biden administration kind of trying to preempt that criticism. That criticism has been quite loud from various corners in Washington and, indeed, Russia among the opposition movement there. And, you know, they're saying that, look; we need to talk one on one. This is the only way you make foreign policy. This is the way - you know, personal relationships are crucial. And that's all true. You know, I agree with that. And it has been one of Biden's most consistent positions in foreign policy that foreign policy is made on personal relationships. And he has a lot of those relationships. He's been dealing with Putin, you know, at various meetings and summits for years. So, you know, I think it's consistent with Biden's approach. But I think it's also important to keep in mind, you know, how this meeting came about, that it came about by Putin making a direct threat to Ukraine, threat of another invasion, and the U.S. stepping in to sort of - into the breach there to invite Putin to a summit.
GROSS: Well, let's take another short break. If you're just joining us, my guest is Simon Shuster. His new article in Time magazine is titled "How An Accused Russian Agent Worked With Rudy Giuliani In A Plot Against The 2020 Election." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Simon Shuster, an investigative reporter for Time magazine. His new article is titled "How An Accused Russian Agent Worked With Rudy Giuliani In A Plot Against The 2020 Election."
Russia might not be the superpower that the Soviet Union was, but Russia is still kind of a superpower when it comes to spreading disinformation, when it comes to hacking and ransomware. So they're still causing, like, really serious problems. And it's not the threat of trouble, like nuclear weapons were. Nuclear weapons were a threat, but they weren't happening. Whereas the hacking, the disinformation, the ransomware - that's really happening. And whether it's happening - whether the ransomware is happening from hackers or from the government - and Russia - the Russian government does seem to be implicated in some of the hacking. So, I mean, they're still, like, really influential in terms of causing trouble - serious trouble.
SHUSTER: Yeah. I agree with that. And the way that, you know, you - the smartest people who study Russia, the way they think of it is that Putin has been playing a weak hand very well. And he's doing it, you know, with the know-how that comes with a career in the KGB, through kind of semi-clandestine operations that allow him to maintain an air of deniability to always say, no, it wasn't us; it was these hackers over here or this member of the Ukrainian parliament over there. That's one thing. So the deniability is kind of a key aspect of the Russian approach to this kind of low-level conflict that it sees with the West constantly, that it pursues with the West constantly.
And another aspect of it is it's very cheap. It's very easy. You know, these operations that we're talking about - hacking, disinformation - this doesn't cost very much. So you know, Russia isn't an economic powerhouse the way that it was in Soviet times. And the kind of, you know, what experts often call hybrid warfare, kind of clandestine warfare that Russia is waging against the West often relies on these very cheap technologies, cheap approaches, operations. You know, you don't need to spend a ton of money to deploy military bases around the world. You can just deploy smartly, cleverly at the right moment, disinformation actors and find enough allies - kind of worm your way deep enough into the American administration or elite circles in Washington to get your message to the right people and to enough American voters. And I think that's destabilizing. But it's done in a pretty clever way. And I think, you know - giving credit where credit is due - Russia has played a weak hand very well.
GROSS: Do you have any idea what the Ukrainian and Russian oligarchs who've been in touch with people in Trump's circle and who have disseminated false information given to them by oligarchs, do you know what the oligarchs think of those people from the Trump circle that they've been in touch with? Do you know what they think of Trump or Giuliani?
SHUSTER: Let me stick to Derkach - right? - the focus of my most recent report. I certainly talked to him a great deal about what he thinks of Giuliani. And he was quite complimentary. He said Giuliani is a very capable lawyer. And he said that it was very useful for him, for Derkach, meeting with him because Giuliani writes everything down, takes careful notes, never relaxes, never loses attention. And this is what Derkach was telling me about Giuliani. So he was quite supportive. He didn't have anything negative to say about former President Trump either. So on that front, you know, their message is that we very much liked working with Giuliani.
You know, more broadly, it's harder to say, you know, what they make of him. The general sense that I get from my sources in Moscow is that Russia was broadly disappointed with the Trump presidency. They felt that he made a lot of promises to improve relations with Russia and to, indeed, forge a stronger relationship personally with Putin. But he was prevented from doing that by various investigations, the Mueller investigation. And he never managed to deliver on the, you know, improved friendly relationship between the U.S. and Russia that Russia was really hoping to see from him. So I think, you know, on the kind of official level in Moscow, there's quite a bit of disappointment.
GROSS: So finally - but continuing to examine the relationship between Ukrainian, Russian oligarchs and members of Trump's inner circle, his allies, are we looking backwards? Or are we also looking forwards, because, you know, the kind of meddling and interference that we've seen from Russia and from Ukrainian oligarchs, that's not over, is it?
SHUSTER: Yeah. It's not over. And I think it's been very frustrating for a lot of U.S. diplomats and investigators because the kind of overt operation that we saw in 2020, it's very hard to point to a crime, point to a law that it violated. So I think a lot of officials in the U.S. government are concerned that, you know, this sets a precedent that, you know, if there isn't a punishment that fits the crime as the U.S. perceives it, that could send a signal to other countries, to Russia and to other countries that this kind of meddling is somehow OK. Or you can sort of foresee the risk in terms of sanctions to running an operation like this. And you can calculate, is it worth it? Is it not? And the U.S. certainly has an interest at this point in raising the cost. You know, Biden has said this repeatedly, that he wants to raise the cost or impose costs on Russia for its, quote, "malign activities." And the reason is deterrence, right? They want to prevent Russia from doing this in the future. And they want to prevent other countries from taking this playbook and running it in 2022, 2024 and on into the future.
GROSS: Well, Simon Shuster, thank you so much for talking with us. And thank you for your reporting.
SHUSTER: Thank you so much.
GROSS: Simon Shuster is an investigative reporter at Time magazine. His new article is titled "How An Accused Russian Agent Worked With Rudy Giuliani In A Plot Against The 2020 Election." If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed - like our recent interview with Clint Smith about reckoning with the history of slavery in America or with Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed about the history of Juneteenth - check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
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