The Russian liberal, who has managed anti-Putin campaigns, warns of the dangers of anti-Russian animosity and offers alternatives.
A high-level adviser and operative for the 2016 Sanders campaign was Vitali Shkliarov, a Soviet-born citizen of Belarus. Shkliarov, who had previously worked on the 2012 Obama re-election campaign and for several other successful Democratic Party campaigns, has also become increasingly in demand as a political adviser and campaign manager in Russia, working for liberal candidates in opposition to President Vladimir Putin.
Possessing a unique background and vantage point, Shkliarov, now that the 2016 election is over, has many interesting observations to express on the state of American politics, the Democratic Party, U.S.-Russian relations, and the impact of rising anti-Russian sentiment in the United States.
To say that Shkliarov’s background is unusual for U.S. political advisers is an understatement. The 4o-year-old, for whom English is a fourth language, has a Ph.D. in political and social sciences from Universität Vechta in Germany. Having spent the 1990s working with various German music industry startups, he was first infected with political passion as a volunteer youth organizer for Germany’s Left Party. Shkliarov’s wife is a U.S. State Department consular officer who, after serving years in Asia and Europe, is now based in Brazil, where they live with their 5-year-old son.
Shkliarov’s first significant position with U.S. political campaigns was his overseeing the get-out-the-vote operation in Wisconsin for Obama’s 2012 re-election bid, as well as consulting work that year for Tammy Baldwin’s successful Senate run in that state. In 2015, Shkliarov was recruited to work for the Sanders campaign by colleagues he knew from his prior work on behalf of Democratic candidates.
He began by working on the Sanders campaign’s get-out-the-vote effort for Nevada. After Nevada, he became Sanders’s deputy state director for Washington, and then moved to the national team, where he worked as a deputy to the political outreach director through the end of the campaign.
His 2012 work with the Obama campaign, and his activism within the community of Russian liberals working in opposition to the Kremlin, has made him a highly sought-after campaign manager in Russia on behalf of anti-Putin candidates. In 2014, he managed the mayoral campaign of one of the leaders of the anti-Putin opposition, Ilya Ponomarev, the only member of the Russian Parliament to vote against the Russian annexation of Crimea, who now lives in exile. Shkliarov also ran the re-election campaign of one of the Kremlin’s most outspoken opponents in the Russian Parliament, Dmitry Gudkov, a campaign whose ads and messaging just won multiple top awards from the American Association of Political Consultants.
Shkliarov’s anti-Putin bona fides, and his now-entrenched status in both the Russian and American community of liberal and leftist political consultants, makes him a unique voice on a wide range of issues of current prominence, particularly the state of U.S.-Russia relations and the impact of anti-Russian discourse in the U.S. Last week in Rio de Janeiro, I spoke with him about his experiences with the Sanders campaign, his views on Trump’s victory, the dangers posed by rising tensions between Moscow and Washington, and what it’s like now to be a Russian who works in U.S. politics.
Of particular interest is Shkliarov’s analysis of — and his warnings about — the dangers posed from escalating U.S.-Russia tensions (on Tuesday night, the U.S. scrambled jets in response to Russian warplanes flying 100 miles off the coast of Alaska for the first time since Trump became president).
Especially noteworthy are Shkliarov’s concerns about how intensifying anti-Russian sentiment in U.S. discourse is alienating Russian liberals from the U.S. and uniting them behind their own government — as happens in most countries when people, even those who loathe their own government, perceive that their nation is being demonized and targeted by a foreign power.
The transcript of our discussion, edited for length and clarity, is below, along with several video clips:
Glenn Greenwald: Let’s start by talking about the work that you did with the Sanders campaign, specifically, how — as a Russian who comes from Belarus — you ended up working pretty high up at this campaign and what you did as part of that.
Vitali Shkliarov: Well, I started with the first or second, second caucus state, Nevada. We started, there was a huge ground operation, and as a director for get out the vote, we needed to hire 5,000 people, precinct captains, as we called them. We ended up actually being four points down. Like we did a good job.
GG: How did you even end up in a position to work in the Sanders campaign? Did you know someone, and what was your entry into that?
VS: A couple of progressive consultants that worked for progressive campaigns that I used to work for, they knew me, they knew my skill set, and I got a call from a friend of mine who has been working for Bernie’s campaign already and who has been really high up.
I knew them from the 2012 Obama campaign — I was actually working for two campaigns back then — for Tammy Baldwin, running for Senate in Wisconsin. And together for a big get-out-the-vote campaign operation in Milwaukee for President Obama.
GG: The Sanders campaign surprised pretty much everybody in terms of the challenge imposed and the excitement that it created, especially among young voters, and its ability to sustain itself for so long, with almost no establishment support. What was it like to work in a campaign like that? What was your experience? The feeling that it gave?
VS: It’s amazing, because Bernie was, from beginning, an underdog, and he always had this startup state of mind fever, like, oh, working really hard, like 15, 17 hours, we were all excited, it was like no fatigue, whatever. And all of those progressively minded people were totally excited about his agenda.
People came as families, they camped, they had fun, they listened to messages, they listened to bands, to music, so we created as a huge gathering of people, and he had up to 35,000 people, 30,000 people events. Free events every day. So it was like just this excitement. First of all, the agenda was appealing to me, appealing to my background, to my view of the world, of life.
GG: What about the agenda was so appealing?
VS: Well, his views of education, reform of political campaign finances. His ideas about or a vision about foreign policy in America, I liked a lot. And it hit me personally, when I moved to the U.S. and when my wife got pregnant with my first baby — that American women don’t have paid maternity leave. That’s so normal for someone who is from Europe, you can as a dad have like up to a year, 70 percent paid maternity leave or paternity leave.
I wasn’t even aware of that: The richest nation on Earth doesn’t have this. And it was like, wow, I didn’t know that actually. And I believe Bernie vocalized it for the first time, like in this manner that everybody heard it. And I believe it was so authentic, so true, and I believe people were thirsty for this type of voice, this type of truth.
And I believe exactly that he gave them, and especially why so many people asks why he was so successful among young people, because my theory is that young people have less tolerance for bullshit, that’s exactly the age when the people, the whole social network, the whole life is based around social connections, and the key is if you’re true or not, if you’re legitimate or not, if you’re telling the truth, if you’re a credible or not person.
GG: So you went from this really exciting, energizing political event, the Sanders campaign, to this shocking outcome for a lot of people — which is still very disorienting: the victory of Donald Trump.
There’s a lot of debate about why Trump won, how could somebody like this, just so retrograde and seemingly from another decade and political culture, win, especially after two terms of President Obama. And there’s a lot of debate about what the causes were, and why that happened.
What is your view on that question?
VS: Well, I believe there’s a lot of arrogance on the side of the Democratic Party, first of all. I believe disengagement, the fact that the Democratic Party, regardless of analytical data, regardless of all perception, regardless of all polls and excitement over Bernie, still chose to nominate Hillary, was one of the mistakes.
Moreover, actually even if they ran the Hillary campaign differently, better, she could have won, she actually won the popular vote. But I believe they were killing themselves by being a little bit arrogant and just dismissing what the American people were looking for.
The Trump campaign used the rhetorical tactics of Sanders, which galvanized him, energized a lot of people. Trump used it on a different spectrum of the political aisle, but he used pretty much the same rhetoric as Sanders. He used, he told —
GG: About inequality, about trade?
VS: Inequality, jobs, and so on, about rich, about foreign policy and wars. So I believe they took Sanders’s approach in a smart way.
GG: Let me ask you about what has happened after the election — particularly the constant focus in the United States on Russia and on Vladimir Putin and the relationship of both the U.S. and the Trump campaign to Russia.
First of all, can you just talk a little bit about the work, the political work you’ve done in Russia? Was it on behalf of Putin? Was it against Putin? And what’s your overall view of the political situation in Russia as it pertains to Putin’s future role in the political process?
VS: Sure. So I was helping Russian candidates, all liberals, to run campaigns in Russia. Even though we lost the campaign — have to mention that it’s fairly difficult to win a campaign against the regime, against Putin, against Kremlin candidates, and against money — but still I don’t think with winning one campaign you will change something. I see my approach and my mission in Russia and working in Russia as being more educational.
We said, “Look, where is the country right now.” Look at the economic situation. And we explained, with infographics, with easy language, people on the street every day can understand, we have 251 events with, with pretty much like we did with Bernie, like, we did five events a day, reaching a broad audience, explaining what is the status quo of the country, of the economy, of the rate of growth in the country, of the house budget. And so on.
And as a second step of the campaign, we tried to show that there are tools how to get out of this misery, like by reforming this and that, by setting foreign policy a different way, and so on, talking about politics in Russia, I’m not saying that the change is going to happen as soon as Putin’s gone.
But the problem is also in hands of people, the people who has been ruled for 70 years, in a particular manner. So I believe you have to start to talk about Russian politics with an educational approach towards all the Russian people. And I believe the future of activism in Russia lies in this approach, like teaching young people.
GG: As a Russian liberal or somebody in the circles of Russian liberalism, and somebody who has worked against the Kremlin and the Putin government, for their opposition, what is your view of what has happened in the United States as it concerns Russia? The way Russia has sort of taken center stage in American discourse, the focus on Putin and the Kremlin as kind of the cause or explanation behind many bad things, including the election of Trump?
As somebody who has been in the United States for a while, has focused on U.S. politics, what has this change been, and how do you view it?
VS: I believe it’s really bad right now. It’s the whole hysteria in the media. Partly it’s the media’s fault — just like in order to get a lot of views, a lot of attention and audience, like trying to ride this horse and trying to play this card.
Partly I believe the Democratic establishment is a little bit at fault, has fault in all this rhetoric. I mean, it’s true that probably — even though it’s not, there’s no like real facts on the table — but partly the media says that Russian intervention in the highest of American culture, in the American elections, and that this is a bad thing. Sure.
But, for instance, America does the same. Every country does the same. Like, we all know from the latest from Snowden that everybody does the espionage and it’s part of the job. So let’s not go crazy about it. To use Russia as a justification for bad and misery in election, from the Democratic side, I believe it’s really dangerous, because what’s happened if you’re starting to shake this board, like, you can shake it to a certain degree and and at some point it’s going to turn around, and you’re going to sink.
GG: What do you mean by that?
VS: I believe that — look, the situation with Russia is really dangerous, first of all. So we kind of are like in the Cold War 2.0 or 3.0 right now, because neither of the sides trust each other, so we don’t communicate. I mean like, Americans and Russians do not communicate anymore. So we cannot get rid of this 60, 70-years-old politics of, like, that mutual deterrence, you know? That started actually with Truman, and it was probably really important back then, in ’48 or like in ’5os, but I will be living in the 21st century right now, and then so much has changed.
And I believe, instead of having, continuing trying to establish the politics of distrust, and this mutual deterrence, Russia and America should calm down and start to talk, because those are two major nations in the world. Sure, America has 27 percent of world GDP, and Russia has just, fairly 2 percent. Sure, they’re economically unequal, but based on nuclear weapons, based on ego alone, politically, those are two major countries, and I believe if this hysteria doesn’t stop, it’s going to lead to some bad events.
Partly because Russia is in the corner. Partly because Russia is economically, because of sanctions, because of political instability, in a country, on the knees, and in the corner, and Russia doesn’t have much to lose, and that’s what the American politicians underestimate: I believe the Russian mentality, when you look throughout the history, is shaped by all these losses, all these wars. And they are like more capable of taking a lot of pain, and a lot of sacrifice, and once, even as a little, teeny tiny cute dog, if you push them in the corner, you gonna start to bark and you gonna start to bite back, you know?
And I believe, like, economically, in the media, and in the perception, Russia is pushed in the corner right now.
GG: But are there opportunities that you see for the U.S. and Russia to work more constructively, together — ?
VS: In 1948 with the Marshall Plan, the U.S. saw the opportunities, the tourists, to restore Europe, easily, even though the distress with Hitler and then Germany was huge. They saw the opportunity to put a lot of money in the economy [to rebuild German and Europe].
Sure, they tried to get their own products — they had all personal reasons for, like political reasons for it — but still, that helped, that made Germany, Germany. That helped England, that helped later Japan and so on.
Why doesn’t same strategy apply to Russia? Why not helping, why not creating like a partner?
So what happens with Russia right now, it doesn’t matter if you have five icebreakers in the pocket or just one. It’s still dangerous. They have a lot of missiles. They have nothing to lose. And they could easily, easily, I believe, they could start the war just to cover up the misery, what’s happening in the country. Just to cover up, just to shift the attention, like so many presidents do, also in America, throughout the history.
GG: I’m really interested in this dynamic in particular, which is that there is a fairly vibrant sector of the Russian intelligentsia that is opposed to Putin, Russian liberals. We’ve seen signs that it’s getting increasingly vibrant, protests, the opposition’s getting a little bit stronger. And yet, one of the things that happens in every country is when people in a country feel like they’re being attacked from the outside, or vilified by an outside power —
VS: They unify.
GG: They unify. Like Iran, right? There was this growing movement against the conservative mullahs, and yet the idea was if the U.S. gets too antagonistic to Iran, they’re going to unite behind the government that they hate.
GG: Do you think there’s a danger of that happening with Russian liberals or is that already happening, that this kind of hysteria, this very anti-Russian strain in U.S. discourse, is starting to alienate Russian liberals and drive them to move away from the U.S.?
VS: Absolutely, I mean, we see it, like all the time. We see it in the media, we see it in everyday life. We see it with the war in Ukraine, we see that Putin is hard, or like, he is trying hard, maybe now less than before, but he’s been trying hard to get to find the love, the appreciation, the recognition invest. He wanted, I believe, deep down, something good for Russia. It didn’t happen. I believe partly because of the misery of foreign policy of America. I believe it truly.
But partly because Russian corruption as well. And once you try and try and try, and you get always portrayed as a dumb idiot, and some conspiracy theories tell us that he is getting paranoid, that the West is trying, like, to putsch him, like they did in Ukraine with Orange Revolution, so of course you are going to try to do whatever it takes, whatever is possibly to protect yourself, and your country.
I believe the problem is partly of course in Putin, because the president determines the course of the country. But even if Putin’s gone tomorrow, nothing is going to change that quick, believe me, because the country is corrupt, the infrastructure is dead.
So that’s why I’m saying, when we talk about Marshall Plan, that’s how the Americans helped, first of all to establish, to recover the economy in Europe: that people became monied, the middle class grew, and that people started to live a normal life, and that’s how people change. And that’s how systems change.
People don’t change by getting beaten up. Getting to starve. People doesn’t change by putting some labels on them. People do not change when they are being pushed in a corner, so I believe — everybody knows that America is so strong economically. We know that America, if tomorrow is a war, nobody is going to survive. So why don’t we just stop for a second and be a little bit smarter with the first step?
GG: There was an article in the Washington Post, maybe two or three weeks ago, about how Russians who are either Americans, who became Americans, or who worked in America for a long time, are starting to become really worried about the climate, how they feel personally stigmatized and almost as though people are afraid to even interact with Russians, because of the perception that has been created.
Do you sense that? Have you had any kind of personal experiences with this changing climate, as a Russian?
VS: I totally sense that. I sense it every day by watching the news and feeling sorry for Russians and for Americans as well, because so many companies suffer. I feel it pretty much every day while talking to people.
I recently tried to open a bank account, for my company. I was denied because it’s a Russian entity. If you talk to people, and try to talk about politics, it’s so toxic. Russia became so toxic that nobody want to touch it.
So many colleagues of mine from D.C., like really smart people, are looking for jobs and having hard time to find a job because nobody all of a sudden needs any Russian experts, or like any Russian people.
GG: Or is almost afraid to interact with Russians?
VS: Afraid. Absolutely afraid. It’s just crazy. Recently when I was receiving those prizes in LA, for the campaign, from the American Association of Political Consultants, I was talking to a couple of people and tried to help my colleagues from the European Association of Political Consultants to get speakers, to the conference in Moscow, and people from the Trump administration said, like, “No, we can’t. We just, we going to be tomorrow on the news [if we do that]. Done!”
Like, instead of learning from mistakes and move on. Come, the election is over, move on guys. Learn. Like, Russia, sure, maybe they did it. Who cares right now? It’s done already. We have a different president, Trump is the president, the same because they push this president in a corner to be distanced from Russia.
So he cannot change. Everybody from both sides of the ocean, we are like hoping with a new administration, it’s going to be a new era of Russian-American relations. And it looked like it’s gonna happen. But now they push him so far in the media, so far to have distance to Russia and to any Russian topic, that it’s getting actually worse. And I believe the media is partly responsible for that.
GG: What about this idea of being cornered, and what are the dangers of continuing to ratchet up tensions between these two countries. What are the real dangers?
VS: Well the big danger is to get — like, there’s a couple of dangers. One is to get a new war that could happen because of isolating of this —
GG: Is that a cold war or a hot war?
VS: Hot war.
Second danger is: People make mistakes. We already have situations when they fly jets over navy ships or, like, some bombs firing in Syria — maybe the next attack could hit a couple of Russian planes, hurt a couple of Russian citizens. Maybe not, but they’re going to claim that, and bang you have a problem!
So I believe that’s a really, really hot iron right now, so you cannot drop a lot of water on it.
And I mean, just imagine: In 2002, there are interviews with Putin, who was like back then on the pinnacle of Russian development. He was giving speeches in the Bundestag, in Germany, and he was thinking, he was talking about maybe Russia becoming part of NATO.
So we were that far, and now we are where we are right now.
And I believe for Russia it’s getting existentially dangerous. Not just because of Syria. Partly because of economical sanctions, partly because of infrastructural problems, partly because of the perception of Russia as a son that nobody wants. I believe Russia struggles and Putin personally struggles with that perception, and instead of fighting this, I believe the West should really approach and be wise, you know, like, if two parties, if a couple fights at home, someone has to be wise and stop first and say, “I’m sorry.”
Even if it’s not his or her fault. But that’s the only way to solve the problem and to start the peace, otherwise you’re gonna get the wars. And that’s what we’re doing right now, and the media unfortunately does the same, just keeping putting oil in the fire, instead of saying, like, “Come on. It’s enough.”
Even if Russia did the election hacking, it’s not about that. Like, nobody is sane. Both parties are hiding some skeletons. But the problem is actually the point, my point is, Glenn: not the problem of mistakes that characterize a state or a smart person or a smart government, it is the reaction to the mistakes.
And what I see is the reaction to mistakes made on both sides of the aisle that are just terrible, and that’s how we should judge our politics.