Gennady Gudkov, a retired KGB colonel, peered at me across his dark, vaulted office in an old Moscow manor house.
“I’m going to tell you something that I’ve never told anyone before,” he said. “About 10 years ago, Russia had the opportunity to seriously influence election results in France.”
Gudkov, then a Russian lawmaker for a pro-government party, says he was given damaging material on a French presidential candidate that could have tipped the election. Gudkov says he passed the information to the Russian Foreign Ministry, which told him that if the material leaked out, it would pose an “enormous, insane risk” for future relations with Paris.
There was no leak.
Today Gudkov is an opposition politician, who broke with the Kremlin during a wave of anti-government protests six years ago. But like President Vladimir Putin, Gudkov, 61, spent the dying days of the Soviet Union serving in the powerful Committee for State Security, better known by its Russian abbreviation KGB.
Even as the Kremlin categorically denies trying to influence the U.S. presidential election last year, Gudkov says he believes there were attempts to do so.
“Of course, the people who organized them did everything to hide the traces of such interference – and exclude the chance that the government’s role would be discovered,” Gudkov said.
He calls the influence campaign unprecedented and, citing his own experience, a dramatic change in Russian policy from just a decade ago.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union did try to influence politics in less developed countries, Gudkov says, but not in rival powers such as the United States, France or Great Britain.
So what changed?
“It was the fear that Hillary Clinton would come and take an even tougher stance toward Russia,” said Gudkov.
In particular, the personalized sanctions implemented after Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea were starting to squeeze the Russian elite.
“What we’re talking about is the new concept of so-called hybrid war, which a government wages but won’t admit to,” he said. “It’s extremely hard to prove.”
Alexander Lebedev, another KGB veteran, takes a different view.
From the 11th floor of his corporate headquarters in Moscow, Lebedev, 57, runs a business empire that includes Russia’s independent Novaya Gazeta and two London newspapers.
He smirked when I asked him if Russia is fighting a “hybrid war.”
“This is a John le Carré-type of invention: hybrid war. What kind of hybrid war is that? I mean, everybody is carrying on and exercising influence the way they can,” he said.
The technology may be new, Lebedev says, but Russia is only doing what all great powers have always done.
“It’s only fair to treat it as a phenomenon where all the major countries are using all the resources they can to influence others to follow their goals,” he said. “So why should it be one-sided – that the Americans are always right, and the Russians are always wrong?”
Russia’s involvement in the U.S. elections had three parts, according to Moscow political analyst Vladimir Frolov.
The first part was “legitimate hacking” — the electronic monitoring of foreign political actors that any intelligence agency engages in.
The second part had to do with leaking that information.
“When intelligence-gathering went to an influence operation, that was crossing the red line,” said Frolov. “Whether the release of data influenced the election is open. But it contributed to negative news.”
The third part was the use of Internet trolls on social media to sow confusion.
“It was about discrediting Hillary and creating chaos. Nobody expected Trump to win,” Frolov said. “It’s funny for Russians that 500-ruble ads on Facebook are being examined by Congress and that the U.S. is attaching so much value to amateurish trolling.”
A so-called “troll factory” in St. Petersburg wasn’t an intelligence operation or even a Kremlin project, said Frolov. Russian journalists believe the agency is funded by a local businessman with connections to Putin.
“It probably had no effect on the outcome of the U.S. elections, but made the people doing it seem important,” he said. “It was an initiative to curry favor [with the Kremlin]. The last thing they thought about was the impact it would have in the United States.”
Even if the influence on the election results was negligible, the collateral damage has been huge, with multiple U.S. investigations into Russian interference dragging relations to a new low.
Gudkov says the Kremlin is actually not seeking conflict with the West.
“In fact, Putin and his entourage are absolutely not interested in bad relations with America. They’re scared of that,” Gudkov said. “But the circumstances are such that they can’t help but use anti-Americanism to strengthen their grip on power.”
The blowback for Russia’s influence campaign may make even greater antagonism a self-fulfilling prophecy.