I have been trying to write this post for two weeks now, but the issue seems to morph and expand on a daily basis. I did not want to write a ‘hot take’ that characterizes the majority of campaign coverage in the United States. Most of these pieces come to firm conclusions as to whether or not Trump is a covert Russian agent based on his muddled and contradictory utterances. Probably the best piece on the issue was by Russian journalist Mikhail Zygar. But if you want one Trump statement that encapsulates the precise nature of his relationship with Putin, it comes from this tweet three years ago:
You see, as someone likely suffering from narcissistic personality disorder, Trump wildly overestimates his own skills and importance and yet constantly craves the admiration and approval of others. And Putin – wittingly or unwittingly – fueled this need in December 2015 when he called Trump “very bright and talented.” The statement was made offhand in response to, it seems, an American journalist’s question:
Putin’s status as number 1 bogey man in the United States meant the comment was picked up in all major media outlets and, over time, ‘very bright’ became ‘brilliant’ and ‘a genius’. Regardless of what version he heard, Putin’s comments tickled Trump in his favorite spot, and his views on Russia very likely stem from those comments alone…kind of. He did still advocate shooting down Russian fighters that ‘buzz’ NATO warships and has flirted with a policy of using nuclear weapons in Europe.
But Trump’s whole appeal to Putin – if it does exist – reminds me of an appearance Mark Ames made on the Dylan Ratigan Show in 2009, during Obama’s first trip to Russia as President. Asked what, in Putin’s view, would be the ‘perfect relationship’ with the United States, Ames replied, “Basically, that we would be stupid and weak.” Although true at the time, I am not convinced that the same analysis applies today. Nevertheless, if it did Trump would represent the ideal U.S. candidate of stupidity and weakness for Russia. Stupid because Trump is uninformed and too inattentive to handle the intensity U.S.-Russian relations; and weak because (i) if Trump won, a near-majority of the country would hate him, and (ii) simple appeals to Trump’s vanity – e.g., quoting The Art of the Deal in the middle of a nuclear forces reduction negotiation – would trump the Donald’s understanding of the national interest. So, yes, in a way Trump is a Putin candidate. And there are also the personal, stylistic similarities between the two that Zygar described. But, to quote Trump, “There’s something going on.”
Recent Development in U.S.-Russian Relations
You can pinpoint the exact date of the nadir of post-Soviet U.S.-Russian relations: July 17, 2014, when MH-17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine (likely by Russian-backed separatists, but who really knows). The tragic downing of the airliner followed Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and U.S. sanctions on Russia in response. The second round of sanctions – announced the week of March 17, 2014 – were hastily thrown together by the State Department using Google the weekend before. The resulting need of U.S. companies to evaluate whether they were doing business with Gennady Timchenko or the Brothers Rotenburg was like a full-employment act for all Russian-speaking attorneys in the U.S.
But in the two plus years that have followed, the pieces have fallen back into place and the Obama Administration’s policy has reflected as much. A few examples:
- Iran Nuclear Agreement – the Obama Administration relied on Putin to cajole Iran into coming to the bargaining table for what has become one of the signature foreign policy achievements of Obama’s second term.
- Syria Conflict – after some initial bitching about Russia’s support of Assad, the Obama Administration has started cooperating with the Russians in the effort to take out ISIS, and abandoned the dangerous and unworkable ‘no-fly zone’.
- Ukraine Conflict – although the official U.S. position has not changed, the Obama Administration has not pushed for Ukraine membership in NATO, nor has it supported sending lethal military aid to the Ukrainian government (notably, it is this policy position in the GOP platform that led the mainstream media to conclude Trump is a Putin agent).
- NATO Generally – in my previous post I outline some of NATO’s recent moves in the Baltics and Eastern Europe in response to Russian ‘aggression’. But the limited nature of the forces deployed there imply a signal to Russia that the forces are a symbolic effort useful to both sides: the U.S. can show how it’s ‘countering’ Russian aggression, and Russia, though building up retaliatory deployments on the border, can argue that any game playing in the Baltics would be risking WWIII.
All told, I think Obama has made the best of a bad situation and rescued U.S.-Russian relations from the brink…and we all know what is over that brink.
Likely Developments in U.S.-Russian Relations under Clinton
That brings us to the reason why Russia, and NATO for that matter, has now been mentioned more times in the 2016 election, than any previous presidential election since the fall of the Soviet Union. The reason is a well-established fact: Hillary Clinton is much more of a ‘hawk’ – arguably a neoconservative – than Obama. (Full disclosure: I supported Sen. Sanders in the primary, but am supporting Sec’y Clinton in the general election.)
Hillary’s hawkishness has led to barely-concealed mouth-frothing and transition planning by some of the more unhinged members of the U.S. foreign policy establishment. These groups – I’ll focus on the Russia-related ones – all have clear goals, which Clinton may or may not support. But the intersection of Trump and Putin, both in terms of policy goals and political expediency, has made the Clinton camp increasingly susceptible to the more anti-Russian members of the neoconservative claque in D.C. Moreover, the mainstream media – which spent the preceding year building Trump’s poll numbers through non-stop coverage – has now decided he must be defeated at any cost. And that cost appears to be Red Scare 2.0, with open and unfounded accusations of Trump as Putin agent, and a Russia policy that is reactionary in the extreme.
Some of these D.C. ghouls just want a job, like former Acting Director of the CIA, Michael Morell, who recently penned an op-ed in the New York Times endorsing Clinton and naming Trump as a Putin agent. Morell resigned from the CIA in 2013, joining Beacon Global Strategies, a D.C.-based ‘consulting’ firm co-founded by Philippe Reines, a longtime Clinton confidante. In the initial launch of Beacon, Reines openly admitted to reporters that Beacon would serve as an incubator for intelligence officials waiting to reenter government service in a Clinton administration. For his part, Morell has stated his belief that Putin is trying to “recreate the Russian empire,” one of the more laughably absurd Russia tropes commonly believed in D.C. foreign policy circles.
The more dangerous neocon types are those who really want to “take on” Russia in places like Ukraine and Georgia, and think the concomitant risk of WWIII is worth the benefit of gaining a foothold in…those countries. One of these figures – Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland – is most-well-known in Russia for her involvement in the aftermath of the overthrow of the Yanukovych government. Nuland is rumored to be Clinton’s Secretary of State and, if so, would be the most overtly anti-Russian SoS since the end of the Cold War. Another is Former NATO Supreme Commander Philip Breedlove, whose emails were hacked and released in June. The emails revealed that Gen. Breedlove was advocating for a more confrontational posture vis-a-vis Russia in Ukraine. Similar to Nuland, there are rumors in D.C. that Breedlove is a would-be candidate for Clinton’s Secretary of Defense.
The 2016 Campaign and U.S.-Russian Relations
Modern U.S.politics, particularly during presidential campaigns, are shaped by extreme polarization and hence political competition, non-stop media coverage that elevates decisive messaging over nuance, and a cynical manipulation of events and the competition’s behaviors in order to achieve short-term political gain. The degradation of our electoral politics and consequent failure of traditional political elites to solve the problems faced by working and lower class Americans are the proximate causes of Trump’s success. But that’s a topic for another blog.
The coming storm for U.S.-Russia relations arises out of the confluence of several developments: (i) the dubious yet politically viable allegation that Trump is a Putin agent based on the DNC hack, connections between Trump’s campaign adviser and Yanukovych, etc.; (ii) an organized cadre of foreign policy ‘elites’ supporting Clinton, which advocates a much more belligerent line against Russia; and (iii) the collective decision of the mainstream media to defeat Trump at any cost, after propping up his primary campaign with free coverage for the past year. The political gain of attacking Trump as a Putin agent enables the anti-Russian foreign policy elites to push their agenda to the Clinton campaign. Once the Clinton campaign was willing to pursue this line of attack, the now anti-Trump media was more than willing to push it as established fact because defeating Trump is the great moral prerogative of our generation.
The problem is that there is a real, influential constituency behind the anti-Russian rhetoric, which means Red Scare hysteria of the campaign is more likely to be translated into actual policy, backed by Americans who have been whipped up by said hysteria. That is why Obama, although denouncing Putin’s purported ‘meddling’ in the election, is frantically trying to reach an agreement with Russia on cooperation in Syria. Aside from recognizing the reality that Russia can undermine U.S. efforts to undermine Assad, Obama knows that a Clinton Administration will take a much harder line (e.g., suspend cooperation with Russia, impose a no-fly zone) that will in turn raise the risk of U.S.-Russia confrontation.
Anti-Russian elements currently in government service are hard at work to undermine Obama’s efforts. First, the draft of SoS Kerry’s Syria plan was leaked to the Washington Post in advance of his last trip to Moscow. Notably, the reporter to whom it was leaked – Josh Rogin – is one of the more reliably anti-Russian journalists on the foreign policy beat. The dramatic act of leaking the plan prior to any agreement can be interpreted as an attempt by anti-Russian elements in the U.S. government to undermine any likelihood of the plan’s success. Further attempts to undermine the agreement can be seen in a WSJ report days after Kerry’s Moscow trip, which described a Russian air attack on a rebel outpost used by American and British special forces. The bombing took place on June 16 – no American or British forces were present at the time – but was not reported until July 22. The timing of the leak to the WSJ suggests it was intended to influence the ongoing talks with the Russians.
It seems increasingly unlikely that President Obama will be able to fundamentally alter the U.S.-Russian relationship with respect to Syria before he leaves office. If that is the case, we will be in very dangerous territory indeed. On January 20, 2017, we will most likely have a more hawkish, anti-Russian President, backed by the most anti-Russian elements of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, voted into office during a campaign in which her competitor was widely accused of being a Russian ‘Manchurian Candidate’. These factors will enable and encourage Clinton’s worst instincts when it comes to her Russia policy and, I believe, will push us further down the path to direct confrontation outlined in my previous post.