Professor Konstantin Sonin

As the 2020 election approaches, Russia is back in the headlines.

Last week, the FBI announced that Russian intelligence services are intent on disrupting our democracy yet again—and have the capacity to do so. Questions abound: What shape will that interference take? What are their objectives? Does Vladimir Putin prefer one U.S. presidential candidate over the other? What should US foreign policy be vis-a-vis its longtime adversary?

University of Chicago scholar Konstantin Sonin, the John Dewey Distinguished Service Professor at the Harris School of Public Policy, answers some of these questions. A leading scholar of Russia whose research focus includes development economics, political theory and political economy, Sonin is a native Russian who regularly comments on Russian politics and economy both in U.S. and Russian media.

What is motivating the Russian government to meddle in U.S. elections, and what does Russian president Vladimir Putin have to gain by doing so?

You need to understand the mindset of Russian government leaders, and realize that it starts from a place of insecurity. To this day, Russia perceives itself to be under attack, a country continually undermined by adversaries, if not on the verge of invasion. Through that lens, they view the United States, and not themselves, as the aggressor. Russian leadership believes the U.S. to be behind anti-government protests in their country, as well as other subversive activities within its borders and in neighboring countries, such as Georgia and Ukraine. Putin also sees the U.S. pursuing adversarial policies, checking Russia’s foreign policy and economic ambitions. To Russian leadership, some meddling in a U.S. election might seem like a   symmetrical response. 

What do you think about their efforts to disrupt U.S. elections in 2016?

Despite the widely held belief in the US that there was substantial Russian interference, it’s not clear to me—particularly after reading the Mueller Report—that the effort was all that significant or sophisticated. Russian intelligence agencies have substantial resources to devote to cyber warfare and other efforts to destabilize foes. Had meddling in our election been a major priority, they would have invested more than the estimated $10-15 million they spent on the operation. The perception in the U.S. that the interference was more significant likely stems from President Trump’s cozy public statements about Putin, his campaign’s clumsy engagements with Russia, and America’s increased levels of partisanship and polarization. 

What do you expect to see from their efforts in 2020?

Over the years, the Russian intelligence services seem to have experimented, trying small, disruptive things against adversaries to see what works, what doesn’t work, and what holds promise for the future. A good illustration can be found in a 2015 The New York Times story chronicling how an army of Russian “trolls” was seeking to wreak havoc in communities all around the world. Their reporting pointed to one example of how Russian actors fabricated a chemical explosion in a small Louisiana town—which got widespread attention before being disproved. Russia learned from this operation, just as they did their foray into the 2016 election.  I suspect you’ll see a similar trend of fairly similar disruptive activity this time around as the 2020 election nears, based on what their intelligence services have gleaned to be most effective tactics, yet I do not think it makes much sense for Russian leadership to take sides in the US elections 

Does Putin have a stake in who wins the U.S. presidential election?

Putin distrusts all American political leaders. He may have certain American politicians that he distrusts or dislikes more than others – President Obama is an example, but, like previous Russian and Soviet leaders always have, Putin sees all America leaders as adversaries. Even if the current occupant of the White House publicly suggests otherwise on Twitter, the bipartisan consensus that has defined U.S. foreign policy toward Russia has continued to focus on keeping Russia in check. Throughout the Trump administration, the U.S. has continued to pursue sanctions, policies across the Middle and Near East, as well as energy initiatives—among other efforts—that Russia views as antagonistic to its national interests. 

You’ve written that the Russian diaspora in America is largely pro-Trump.  Why is that?

The Russian diaspora is not a new phenomenon. Although certain periods have witnessed larger spikes, the flow of migrants from Russia  to the U.S. has been significant for a century and a half. What makes it somewhat unique is that unlike many other national or ethnic groups in the U.S., Russian Americans lack a cohesive identity and political organization. For many others—such as the Jewish, Polish or Ukrainian diaspora (with the majority of initial emigrants in each case coming from the Russian Empire or Soviet Russia), for instance—their collective identity and the ability to affect political action in the U.S. is much stronger. As a result, I suspect that Trump’s appeal for many Russians Americans is rooted in the fact that they see themselves among the “forgotten elements” of Americans society who believe Trump is their champion.

Have authoritarian governments failed in responding to the pandemic?

It’s very unclear to me whether particular forms of government have been more effective than others. Take the Czech Republic, for example. During the initial COVID-19 outbreak, the Czech government was viewed as quite successful, a poster child for successful management of the pandemic that took all the right steps. Flash forward a few months, however, and the country is now being severely impacted by a second wave, despite efforts to slow its spread.  In Belarus, a strong authoritarian regime in Europe, the government response was disastrous – for months, president Lukashenko ignored the pandemics.  The response was so bad, that Lukashenko lost the elections in which he faced only nominal opponents, and now clings to power by killing, torturing and harassing his opponents. On the other hand, look at the US, which despite Trump’s impulses is far from an authoritarian society, and whose struggles to contain the virus are well chronicled. Some of the problem here clearly lies in the country’s polarization, which my Harris colleague Austin Wright and I explore in our new working paper about partisanship and mask-wearing.  The bottom line though is that it’s really hard at this point to conclusively say that one kind of government has been more effective than others. 

What’s your analysis of the Russian response to the pandemic?    

The government’s instinct was to respond the way you might expect of such a closed, autocratic society.  Although some preparations were made, the virus was downplayed and communication both within and outside of the country was less than forthcoming.  The good news is that Russian civil society, in effect the opposition to Putin, despite not holding seats in parliament and lacking official power, was able to force the government to respond to the pandemic in full.  The opposition successfully forced the government to take important steps to protect public health, support the poor, and to communicate more transparently, including more accurate reporting of infection rates and the like. It’s a good example of how citizens, even when they don’t have official power, have the capacity to influence events.  

Are you teaching this quarter? How has the experience been? Are you doing things differently to accommodate students given the challenge of remote learning?

I am teaching a PhD class on game theory. Of course, the class is very different – I pre-record lectures and then meet students for a live class. I hope they have good experience – even if it is not the same way we learn on campus.