Remember that time Vladimir Putin won the Syrian civil war?

It was the spring of 2016, and on a visit to the war-torn country, the Russian president told his troops: “I believe that the task put before the defense ministry and Russian armed forces has, on the whole, been fulfilled. With the participation of the Russian military … the Syrian armed forces and patriotic Syrian forces have been able to achieve a fundamental turnaround in the fight against international terrorism and have taken the initiative in almost all respects.”

So to the casual observer, if not to the average Russian tank commander, it must have come as quite a surprise last December when Putin needed to repeat himself: “The task of combating the armed groups here in Syria, the goal that needed to be addressed with the help of the large-scale use of the armed forces, has been largely resolved — and brilliantly resolved. Congratulations!”

Well, second time’s a charm, right? Or maybe not: the U.S. military now tells us that earlier this month a combined force of Russian “mercenaries” and Assad regime loyalists attacked a base at Deir Azzor populated by American-backed rebels and a contingent of U.S. special forces. The result was not pretty for the attackers: up to 200 of the Russians perished.

Now who exactly were those mercenaries? They worked for a Russian firm called Wagner, whose leadership is tightly connected to the Kremlin. And while Putin may pretend they were nothing but rent-a-troops out for fun and profit in the desert, it’s pretty suspicious that, as Bloomberg News reported, the wounded among them were airlifted to military hospitals in Russia.

The whole thing was, to quote my colleague Eli Lake, perplexing. But then, Putin (like another world leader closer to home) likes to keep ‘em guessing about his motivations and intentions. So to get a better picture of what he is up to in Syria, Europe and at home, I talked to somebody who’s been watching the Kremlin for years: Eugene Rumer. Now the director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Rumer was the national intelligence officer for Russia at the U.S. National Intelligence Council from 2010 to 2014. He’s also co-authored a detailed and astute history of Russia’s most aggressive move under Putin: “Conflict in Ukraine: The Unwinding of the Post-Cold War Order.” Here is a lightly edited transcript of our discussion:

Tobin Harshaw: Let’s start with the latest news. We found out last week that perhaps 200 so-called mercenaries from Russia were killed after attempting to attack U.S. forces and their rebel allies at Deir Azzour, Syria. What do we know about them and the company that apparently employs them, Wagner?

Eugene Rumer
Rumer, a former national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the U.S. National Intelligence Council, is a senior fellow and the director of Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program.
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Eugene Rumer: We have some reporting about the soldiers or mercenaries employed by these companies, but we don’t truly have a very good picture of what transpired. I think Bloomberg's was one of the better stories that appeared on the subject. I think to some extent they're taking a page from our playbook -- using private security companies creates a degree of plausible deniability when it comes to sticky situations like this.

TH: You mean like the Pentagon’s use of the company formerly known as Blackwater and other firms?

ER: Yes. I'm not very familiar with what Blackwater did, but my sense is that the Russians tend to use their private security companies more in combat roles rather than in support situations. They're not just providing security at an installation. They can be employed as basically front line troops, by the sounds of it. We tend not to employ Blackwater-like companies in combat, although there have been proposals as we now know, based on media reporting, to privatize the actual combat functions of our military and turn it over to Blackwater-type firms, a plan that apparently was promoted by the founder of Blackwater.

TH: Erik Prince’s nutty dream of becoming viceroy of Afghanistan.

ER: Right. The Russians apparently are employed more as the proverbial “Dogs of War,” if you remember that book. It has a twofold benefit. One, it's a force multiplier in the situations where the Russian military may not want to send their troops, and it gives them the deniability that they need and supports the overall claim that their numbers are down in Syria.

TH: At the end of last year, it looked like Putin was doing his victory lap in Syria. But he doesn’t seem to have been able to disengage quite so easily as one might have thought. What's going wrong for them? 

ER: Putin wanted to demonstrate that they had achieved very significant results and won a victory in Syria. And they have to a large extent. But what constitutes a victory in those circumstances? He managed to change the course of the civil war. He saved the client regime and he managed to establish Russia as a major presence in that part of the world, which it hadn't been for many years.

TH: And the show of Russian high-tech weaponry that they put on has certainly appealed to foreign buyers.

ER: Yes, for sure. For a military and a defense industry that for a long time felt like they did not quite have the same cutting edge weaponry as the U.S. for all these years, they have been able to demonstrate new capabilities. They were able to launch missiles from the Caspian Sea and strike targets hundreds of miles away.

That was a major accomplishment.

It’s an advertisement for their weaponry to sell to other countries. But it's also a test of various operational concepts that is important for any military. They gained valuable experience.

But I don't think that they judge their success or failure by their ability to end the civil war and restore peace, at least at this stage. They’re pursuing a diplomatic solution, where they’ve been much less successful. I think they're perfectly content with the situation as it is, and the fact that no solution to the Syrian civil war can be reached without them. And, by the way, this was not the first time Putin declared an end to combat operations in Syria. 

TH: The Munich Security Conference is going on now. In the past, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said notable and news-making things there. What message do you think Russia would want to send to the U.S. and NATO at this point?

ER: I think the message is: Look, we are an integral part of the European security system. You cannot decide major European security issues solely within NATO and just present them to us as a fait accompli. We have a seat at the table, we have a voice, a veto over every decision NATO makes. We have successfully stopped NATO enlargement as it was conceived 20 years ago. We're a major global power, so ignore us at your own peril.

This is a message that resonates. I think that is part of Putin's 2018 electoral campaign, to the extent that he's conducting that electoral campaign.

TH: Putin often decries NATO's efforts and the addition of new members and the shifting of more rotating troops to Eastern Europe as “aggressive” acts and an effort to try and surround him. Do you think he actually believes that, or is he acting provoked so he can do the things he wants like in Ukraine?

ER: The Russian security establishment has a pretty clear sense of what those new deployments — in particular in Poland and in the Baltic states — represent. NATO is not going to march into St. Petersburg from the foothold that it has in Estonia.

But if you look at the security situation, let's say in 1985 in Europe and now, the difference is striking. Just look at the map. The physical buffer that is very significant to Russian thinking about national security is gone. As Newt Gingrich said during the campaign of 2016, Estonia is in the suburbs of St. Petersburg. Russian vulnerabilities are that much greater in a time of crisis. The sense of safety the Soviet Union derived from that physical buffer is no more, now that not just the outer empire but the inner empire has gone.

TH: The one obvious gain they have made is in Crimea. But since that successful annexation, the fighting in Donbas and Eastern Ukraine — where clearly the Russians are deeply involved, even if they deny it — that's been kind of a stalemate. Kind of like Syria. Do you think they are perfectly happy to have this sort of frozen conflict on their border?

ER: I don't think they're happy, but I don't think it is a situation that is particularly troublesome for them. Crimea is significant in many respects, as well as from the military point of view. They have reportedly deployed some anti-access/area denial (A2AD) capabilities there that make them a very troubling presence in the Black Sea region where we have three NATO allies -- Turkey, Romania, and Bulgaria. So this is nothing to sneeze at. Eastern Ukraine and Donbas have become a kind of a bleeding wound in Ukraine’s side that enables Moscow to apply more or less pressure on Kiev, depending on their calculation of the situation there. I think in their minds the Russians have accomplished what they wanted—to prevent Ukraine from joining the West.

Now the flip side of course is that they've also achieved what was once unthinkable: very negative attitudes among the Ukrainian public toward Russia. But their long game is that Ukraine will revert to its crony capitalist ways of the past 25 years, which impeded its progress toward European integration.

In purely military terms, the situation in eastern Ukraine appears to be quite satisfactory for the Russians. The Russian army most likely could push deeper into Ukraine. But what is the goal then? Do they go all the way to Kiev? Do they really want an all-out war with a full-scale military occupation of the country? I think that's just not something that the Russians ever felt they needed or wanted to do.

TH: The U.S, has finally decided it will send Ukraine “lethal defensive arms.” Is that going to change anything at all? Do you think it was a smart move for a dumb move?

ER: I was not a proponent early on of that move. I think that far more important for the Ukrainian military is to continue with the process of very significant reforms that they need to undertake, not just to get some anti-tank weapons. I don't think that the delivery of these weapons is really going to change the military situation on the ground. It was maybe a moral and psychological victory for Ukraine and perhaps it paves the way for future deliveries of other weapons. I think it also was a victory for those who advocated for it here in the United States.

TH: Given the giant Russian Zapad military exercise last fall, how worried should the Eastern European NATO members be about experiencing something like what happened in Crimea and Ukraine? Some sort of sub-war level, hybrid effort to undermine them?

ER: Well, it's always a concern. Russia’s ability to foment unrest always has to be on the mind of the Baltic States, in particular Latvia and Estonia, which are more vulnerable, at least perceptually, because of the very significant Russians populations there. And I think the Ukrainian experience sensitized these countries and NATO in general to this threat even more, demonstrated the danger of this weapon in the Russian toolkit, and they have certainly been vigilant and taken steps to make themselves more resilient to it. And by the way, ethnic Russians living in Latvia and Estonia don’t seem to be so unhappy with their situation there as to want to emigrate to Russia. These hybrid warfare tools are not anything that anybody can write off and say, well, they are not a problem. But I also think that the fact that these countries do have NATO’s Article Five guarantee of mutual defense is extremely important.

TH: Back to the Russian election. Lots of people have been talking about how Putin has been making decisions based on shoring up his reputation with voters. That seems kind of absurd to me. Does he really have to worry about any sort of domestic opposition?

ER: The picture's mixed. He probably wouldn’t like to be seen as one of those Soviet officials who got re-elected with 99.98 percent of the vote. He would like to be seen as a genuinely popular leader of the Russian people who is returned for a fourth term by a significant majority. It's more than just vanity. It serves as a source of legitimacy and an important indicator of domestic political stability in the country.

And there is opposition. It's not easy for us to gauge how significant it is. But when last spring Alexei Navalny, the famous anti-corruption activist called for a demonstration against corruption, suddenly we saw hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of people going out into the street in almost 100 cities across Russia. That suggests that there is something there.

And Russian attitudes toward change are complicated. It's common at least among Western Russia-watchers to assume on the basis of videos from Navalny’s protests that it’s the young people who want change. Indeed, there are many young people in those videos. But we just had a very interesting study done by our colleagues in Carnegie’s Moscow Center, based on public opinion data, that suggests that most young Russians are not at all interested in major changes in their country and that those who want such changes tend to be older, poorer and less educated, and just want a better life. The results run counter to stereotypes.

TH: Let's go broader again. Putin and President Xi Jinping of China seem to be best pals when they're together. How would you describe the relationship between China and Russia? Are they allies or friends or frenemies or rivals? Or all the above?

ER: Well, they're not allies. But I do think that they are partners. I'm not a China expert, so I can't really speak very intelligently on drivers on the Chinese side …

TH: One would be Russian natural gas, I'm assuming

ER: Yes, but we're finding out that there's plenty of gas elsewhere. And I have heard many times Russian businessmen complain that there are few fates that are worse than negotiating with a Chinese partner. But even so, I think the sense of partnership transcends the gas relationship or other economic relations. They share a desire to oppose what they see as a unipolar world led by the United States. Bringing down the United States a peg or two serves both their interests and they have used their comparative advantages rather skillfully. Most vividly, we saw it for the first time during the Syria crisis where they, especially in the earlier phases of the crisis, successfully blocked the United States in the UN Security Council. With Russia in the lead and China in the background, they prevented the U.S. from getting any meaningful Security Council resolution.

I think they're both deeply, fundamentally opposed to U.S. efforts to promote democracy beyond our shores -- democracy promotion is a shared irritant for them, in part because they see it as an intrusion in their own domestic affairs and in part because they think that, for example, in places like Central Asia or parts of Eastern Europe, U.S. efforts to promote democracy lead to instability.

And then there's a great deal of complementarity between their economies. China is a manufacturing powerhouse, Russia is incredibly rich in raw materials. So, the Russians themselves complain about being China's gas tank but go along with it. It is a relationship that is quite comfortable for Russian elites, because economic diversification and competitiveness requires significant changes that they're not prepared to contemplate, perhaps for political more than any other reasons.

TH: Go back to taking the U.S. down a peg. We think we know a good deal about some of their efforts to de-legitimize the 2016 presidential campaign. Some European countries think that the Russians have done the same to their democracy. What is the real goal here? Um, Assuming that they're not going to change who wins an election, what's the purpose of trying to denigrate them?

ER: Let’s be clear about drawing conclusions about the effect their meddling had on the outcome of the election: I am not in a position to say that they changed the outcome of our election. A number of people have claimed that considering the very low margins in critical states, their interference in our election may have been decisive. I don't think we'll ever find out. But I think in 2016 there was clearly a candidate the Russians did not like: Mrs. Clinton. And now that we have seen the indictment issued by Robert Mueller against 13 Russians accused of meddling in the 2016 campaign, we can say that there was one candidate they liked: Mr. Trump. They resorted to a tool that is very popular in Russia. It's called Kompromat or compromising materials, and it was used by the KGB in the old days and has been used widely in the post-Soviet period. The KGB was infamous for its disinformation campaigns. It appears they wanted to promote the Trump candidacy, and were intent on discrediting Mrs. Clinton.

With Mrs. Clinton as the odds-on favorite throughout the campaign, the thinking in the Kremlin must have been: Well, even if Trump doesn’t get elected and she will, she’ll have a huge stain on her reputation thanks to our efforts; and for our propaganda purposes, we will be able to say, look, their democracy is no better than our political system. 

TH: Clearly they disliked Hillary. Let’s say that they actively wanted Trump to win, assuming from his campaign rhetoric that he was going to be far less anti-Russia and easier to deal with. If so, do you think they have any buyer's remorse?

ER: No, I don't think so. I believe their expectations of having a friendly partner in the White House have not materialized. But at the same time, they have accomplished something that is more significant. They have induced paralysis in our political system. The election has resulted in probably the worst political crisis in this country since Watergate.

TH: OK. We can stop there or you can answer one last speculative question for me: Do you think the Kremlin really has anything on Trump?

ER: One of the things I was told when I joined the NIC was never to say: We can't rule it out. Just put it this way: When I read that dossier published by BuzzFeed, I felt that it’s not something that I could just throw into the wastebasket and say, Hey, forget it. I thought that there are some things here that could be true, and some that are probably not true. But that doesn't mean that all of it is not true. It’s really something that needs to be investigated and I hope that Mr. Mueller continues his investigation. 

This article was originally published by Bloomberg.