Sergei Naryshkin is not a familiar name outside of Moscow. The director of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service remains in the background, as most spy chiefs do. In a rare interview with BBC, however, Naryshkin rationalized the Kremlin’s view of the West, explaining some of the bad blood between them. 

Naryshkin, who also serves as the chairman of the Russian Historical Society, blamed the US for the rising tension between Washington and Moscow. 

America First

“I think some politicians in the West had false expectations,” Naryshkin said. “They felt that the world could be ruled from one center. This center is Washington.” 

America, he said, should take a lesson from the past and realize that a single state cannot have that kind of supremacy without inviting disaster. In a broad sense, it is true that America has become self-centered under President Donald Trump. After all, his campaign slogan is ‘Make America Great Again’ and he pledged to ‘put America first’ when executing foreign policy.

This is plainly evident in his deal-making strategies, which consist of claiming America is getting a raw deal, throw out the old one, and never put another in place. The situation played out with Iran, North Korea, China, Mexico, and even Canada. With Trump in charge, Washington truly does intend to be the de facto center of the world. What Trump misses, however, is that US leadership gained prominence from a position of diplomacy, not stubborn strength.

Naryshkin also heavily criticized America for taking credit for the World War II victory over Nazi Germany.

“Many people in the West and Eastern Europe think it was the USA alone that defeated Nazi German and liberated Europe,” he said. “Such ignorance is not accidental. It’s deliberate. To create the impression that everything good in the past and the present is connected with one country. America.”

When Trump laid a wreath at a World War II memorial in May, the inscription read that America and British forces defeated Germany, with no mention of the Soviet Union, state-owed Russian News Agency reported.

Modern Warfare Tactics

Naryshkin was asked about American allegations that the Kremlin is conducting a disinformation campaign and using cyber warfare against the US. He declined to adequately respond to those charges, instead using part of his five-minute interview to express shock that the accusations would even be leveraged and pivot the conversation to COVID-19.

“How can they say disinformation? The facts Russia sincerely offered to help Italy fight coronavirus,” Naryshkin said. Russia provided medical equipment and hundreds of military doctors.

The answer failed to sufficiently counter mounting evidence that Moscow is using cyber warfare tactics and disinformation campaigns to sow havoc in the West. Last month, the US National Security Agency blamed Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) for targeting email servers, not only in the US, but worldwide.

This was the same hacker team that successfully infiltrated the Democratic National Committee’s server in the run up to the 2016 US election. Although Trump has brushed off concerns that Russia is actively trying to exploit network weaknesses, US agencies are on high alert for unusual Russian activity, with US Cyber Command even assuming a more proactive role in deterring would-be hackers.

Russia also leveraged the power of social media to spread fake news in 2016 and it is employing the same tactic today. Their campaigns weren’t limited to America, but targeted 300 social media platforms with seven languages, NPR reported on June 16.

Trust Works Both Ways

Naryshkin was asked about the erosion of trust between Moscow and the West, particularly how the 2018 poisoning of an ex-Russian spy in Salisbury, UK, affected it. 

There’s a lack of trust on both sides. We don’t trust what British government officials have been saying about Salisbury,” Naryshkin said. “I’m not convinced when they say it’s “highly likely” Russia is at fault.”

Germany also accused Moscow of ordering the 2019 assassination of a former Chechen militia leader in Berlin. This year, Germany apprehended another alleged assassin who was carrying ricin and was allegedly planning to murder local German politicians.

For Naryshkin, these incidents are not the reason the relationship is strained. Instead, he pointed to the US withdrawal of the Open Skies treaty. 

“In terms of trust, I’d say that we regret that trust is diminishing as a result of what’s happening today. The treaty is a key part of what we call trust. Is it really possible to tear up this treaty?”

The US also withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty and is expected to not renew the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty as it expires in February.

Decisions to withdraw from unilateral treaties cannot be expected to engender trust, but neither can conducting assassination plots in foreign states. When asked again about Salisbury, the spy chief ended the interview saying, “I am sorry. I have no more time.”

It's a tough moment
LET'S STAY TOGETHER