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Ivan Timofeev

PhD in Political Science, RIAC Director of Programs, RIAC Member, Head of "Contemporary State" program at Valdai Discussion Club

The investigation into U.S. President Donald Trump’s “Russian ties” led to the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC). American media reported that RIAC had attempted to set up a meeting between Trump and Vladimir Putin during the U.S. election campaign. RIAC Director of Programs Ivan Timofeev, who had communicated with Trump’s campaign headquarters, spoke to about how this dialogue actually unfolded and whether this can be regarded as “Russian interference.” Interview by Igor Kryuchkov. 

The investigation into U.S. President Donald Trump’s “Russian ties” led to the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC). American media reported that RIAC had attempted to set up a meeting between Trump and Vladimir Putin during the U.S. election campaign. RIAC Director of Programs Ivan Timofeev, who had communicated with Trump’s campaign headquarters, spoke to about how this dialogue actually unfolded and whether this can be regarded as “Russian interference.” Interview by Igor Kryuchkov.

— Your organization and you personally were depicted in the U.S. media as someone attempting to establish contact with Donald Trump during the U.S. election campaign. Tell us what really happened.

— In order to do that, I would first need to explain the specifics of how RIAC works. After the U.S. media reports, one might almost get the impression that the RIAC was established to meddle in foreign political processes. RIAC engages in track one and a half diplomacy, i.e. in dialogue with foreign diplomats, eminent scholars and scientists, experts, members of the business community, and public figures in key international problems.

This format has long since become an established practice throughout the world, and it is of particular importance today, especially regarding Americans, when the official dialogue is rather tense. Our public activities are accompanied by serious expert and analytical work. RIAC is, if you will, a Think Tank, a Talk Tank, and a Do Tank.

Unofficial channels, such as RIAC and its counterpart organizations in the U.S. itself are an important instrument for building confidence and testing stances on bilateral issues.

In fact, the RIAC has always been open to Americans; we’ve had many joint programs, initiatives, and discussions. American politicians and experts have often spoken at the RIAC, and members of Russian state agencies are often present at such meetings. Americans also value this format since serious issues may be discussed unofficially, yet openly and transparently.

We never disregard any request that is sent to us. We never shut our doors in anyone’s face. This is why an unofficial request I received from George Papadopoulos by email was a routine matter for us.

Papadopoulos introduced himself as a member of Donald Trump’s campaign team. In addition, we had mutual academic acquaintances.

How long did you correspond and what did you talk about?

Our correspondence started in the spring of 2016 and continued for a few months. After Trump won the election, everything stopped.

The gist of George Papadopoulos' proposal was organizing a visit to Russia either for Trump himself or for a member of his team 'to discuss Russia-U.S. relations.’ The possibility of a meeting somewhere abroad was also discussed.

Papadopoulos himself also expressed a desire either to come to Russia or to meet with me abroad. We exchanged letters and even talked several times over Skype, but we never got into any specifics. My requests to be more specific concerning the agenda for a further dialogue never resulted in anything concrete.

We treated his ideas reasonably. We never shut our door in his face, but I suggested that he shift our discussion into a more formal vein by preparing an official letter or a letter expounding upon his ideas and proposals. In general, an official note injected into any conversation always allows us to sift out the serious suggestions from the frivolous ones.

All those requests in unofficial letters are good and well, but if we are talking about a visit by Trump or any other dignitaries, there is always an official letter written on behalf of the head of the organization or any other person in charge.

The letter should state the visit’s specific purpose. If George wanted to set up an academic or expert visit, the letter should have been addressed to the RIAC. If it would have been a political visit, the letter should have been addressed to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for instance, or the Russian Embassy in the U.S. There were various options there, but they all boil down to institutionalizing interaction.

I stated that to George several times, especially when he suggested a meeting between Trump or a campaign member with Russian politicians. Naturally, though, he did not do it.

— Did Papadopoulos specify which politicians he would like to set up a meeting with?

— No. At some point, he started asking whether it would be possible to set up a meeting between Trump and Putin ‘or some other high-ranking Russian politicians.’ Our conversations made it clear that George was not well acquainted with the Russian foreign political landscape. You obviously can’t just go and set up a meeting with the president, for instance. Things just aren’t done that way.

As I understood later, Papadopoulos was most likely acting on his own initiative. It was not originally approved either by the campaign headquarters or by Trump himself.

Apparently, he was an enthusiast with little experience. George was very interested in the essence of the Russia–U.S. relations. I recommended certain reports and analytical materials for him to read, but it was communication without any practical outcome.

In summer, George gave up on the idea of Trump coming to Russia. Around that time, he also voiced the idea of his own personal visit to Russia. Later, that idea vanished as well.

— According to The Washington Post, the RIAC sought contacts with other U.S. presidential candidates. Is that true?

— When I was interviewed by The Washington Post’s journalists, I asked them to stress that the initiative concerning Trump’s visit to Russia had come from the U.S. The RIAC had never proposed anything of the sort.

We did not propose anything of the sort regarding other presidential candidates, either. In that interview, I also said that in principle, we are always ready for cooperation with all the participants of the American political process regardless of their political views. If members of other campaign headquarters had applied to us, they would have received the same polite, open, and tactful answer.

— When you corresponded with Papadopoulos, did you and your colleagues discuss the potential image consequences? After all, Trump’s tense relations with the U.S. media became apparent long before he won the primaries and was elected U.S. President.

— We did not take the proposal itself too seriously. There were no signs that Trump would pay a pre-election visit to Russia. As I said, George would get in touch with us, and each time he would pull up short when asked to make the process official or at least to make his ideas and proposals more specific.

We also did not think it would be detrimental to our image.

The RIAC keeps in touch with the U.S. expert community and with academic and political circles, and we have never had such problems before. We are well-known in the U.S., and there are counterpart organizations involved in similar activities in the U.S. itself.

Besides, hardly any of our colleagues or even any of us expected Trump to win. I have a feeling that it was a surprise for our political community.

No one thought Trump would win. He was a dark horse, a charismatic and unusual person whom anyone would hardly bet on since he was not part of the U.S. political establishment.

Thus, Trump’s subsequent conflict with the establishment became a surprise for us in Russia as did the ‘Russian trail’ scandal.

— What other damage to bilateral relations could the ‘Russian meddling’ scandal cause?

— I think that the crucial problem today is that the U.S. media tailors facts to make them fit with the Russian meddling story. I do not want to exaggerate grievances against The Washington Post as I understand that they had limited time to write the article in a short newspaper form, and they could not fit all of my comments into their text. At least, David Filippov, their Moscow Bureau correspondent, demonstrated consummate professionalism. Yet it should be kept in mind that there is a treacherous psychological effect resulting from a group tailoring the information it receives to fit its original ideas and rejecting all other facts that do not fit in with that picture.

That trap should be avoided. The story with the ‘Russian meddling’ has already played its role in the approval of a new set of anti-Russian sanctions. The U.S. authorities have already begun an investigation that will continue for a long time and keep adding fuel to the ‘Russian trail’ scandal.

There is much interaction between Russia and the U.S.; fortunately, communication exists. But the problem is that should you wish to do so, you may tailor every instance of this communication to fit the ‘meddling’ claim.

The hope is that the subject will gradually become marginalized. It is already moving to the backburner with the ultra-right protests following the removal of monuments in Virginia.

I certainly hope that a sober dialogue between the U.S. and Russia will continue. It is much-needed today.

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