Reporters in Moscow usually hear the same brush-off a few times a week: Send us your request in writing, and we’ll deal with it as we see fit. But when President Vladimir Putin urged Special Counsel Robert Mueller to “send a formal and official request to us” about the indictment he brought on Friday, it was not the lazy reflex of a Russian bureaucrat who doesn’t want to answer questions. It was a calculated attempt to pull the Mueller investigation onto a playing field that Putin can control.
Here’s roughly how the Russian leader would like things to unfold: Now that the Special Counsel has indicted a group of 12 Russian intelligence officers for interfering in the U.S. elections, Putin wants to see the evidence, ideally translated into Russian and sent to the authorities in Moscow, all in accordance with an obscure law-enforcement treaty that the U.S. and Russia signed nearly two decades ago.
Russian investigators would then take the evidence, question the accused and send Mueller back a report, which he can go and stick right up his file cabinet. This, at least, is the roadmap Putin laid out during his press conference on Monday with President Donald Trump, who referred to it as an “incredible offer.”
Incredible or not, it was calibrated not only to taunt the Special Counsel –“What’s his name again,” Putin asked at one point, as though this fact was not entirely worthy of his attention, “Mister Myuler? Miller?” – but also to leave U.S. investigators with no good options.
If Mueller and his team take the obvious step and ignore this invitation to question the suspects, they allow both Trump and Putin to accuse him of failing to consider all the evidence, thus giving a shot in the arm to Trump’s incessant claims that the investigation is a “hoax.” Yet if he agrees to pursue the opportunity that Putin has dangled in front of him, Mueller would give the Russians a chance to stall the investigation, discredit the evidence and otherwise shape the narrative around the case. So far, the special counsel has declined to respond to the offer.
The second trap door in Putin’s remarks was a bit more complex. The U.S. investigators would be welcome to interrogate the accused themselves in Moscow if they chose to do so, Putin said, but with some preconditions. First, they would have to do it in collaboration with their Russian counterparts. And second, the U.S. would have to agree to a quid pro quo: You question our spies, we question the American ones whom, as Putin put it, “we suspect of breaking the law on the territory of the Russian Federation.”
Let’s start with the meaning of that first condition, seemingly the more reasonable of the two. In the spring of 2013, when FBI agents came to Russia to question relatives of the Boston Marathon bombers, they did so in collaboration with local security agents and investigators, as is standard practice when working on foreign soil.
But the idea of having Mueller’s investigators working in tandem with anyone from Russian law enforcement would, in this case, shore up a key part of the narrative that Putin presented on Monday. Toward the end of the press conference, he said that he “could imagine” some Russian individuals meddling in the U.S. elections. “And so what?” Putin demanded. “They do not represent the Russian state.”
If the Special Counsel really wants to get to the bottom of this, Putin went on, he should team up with Russian law enforcement to catch these hypothetical meddlers. Such scapegoats could wind up proving useful both to Putin and to Trump. The Russian President would be able to shift blame away from the state. Both leaders could tout this as proof that the hacking of Hillary Clinton’s campaign was a rogue operation — and not a reason to be angry at the Kremlin.
And finally, with the tone of a car dealer dismayed at his own generosity for offering you those leather seats for free, Putin came to the last point in his response to the Mueller probe. If Russia agrees to grant the Special Counsel access to the suspects, then Russia will demand the right to question those Americans “whom we consider agents of the special services.”
The suggestion was, as Trump put it, incredible — though mostly for its cynicism. It would create acres of space for Russia to utilize its favored tactic of whataboutism, by which the accused deflects accusations by accusing the accuser of a crime. Putin even named two individuals whom Russia may want to question in this regard. One was the British-American investor William Browder. The other was the Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros.
But from the way Putin worded this precondition, it seems to be entirely open-ended. Russia could ask to question any American whose work in Russia made it into the files of the Kremlin’s spy agencies, thus drudging up an inexhaustible pool of sculduggery going back to the days of the old Cold War. Any time the Mueller probe produced evidence of Russian interference in the U.S. election, the Kremlin would be able to counter with a story of U.S. interference in Russian affairs, and demand to know why the U.S. has not yet provided access to any American meddlers and spies.
As the Mueller investigation unfolds in the coming weeks and months, you can expect Russia to do exactly that, regardless of whether the Special Counsel accepts any part of Putin’s offer. He almost certainly won’t.
But for anyone who wants to brush aside the details of Mueller’s indictments, Putin has now spelled out a strategy — and his defenders were quick to run with it on Monday night. During a talk show aired on Russian state TV after the talks in Helsinki concluded, the Russian Senator Konstantin Kosachev, who is on a U.S. blacklist of Russian officials tied to interference in the 2016 elections, made clear that Putin had presented Mueller with a choice: either continue “airing dirty laundry” or start working on the “legal technicalities” the Russian President had outlined. “It’s very good that we now have a roadmap for one way — in Russia’s view the only realistic way — for this situation to develop.”