by Hannah Gais
On Monday, news of president-elect Donald Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin’s first telephone chat set the political world ablaze for a few hours or so. The two emphasized “mutual respect and non-interference in each other’s domestic affairs”—a policy that Russia has, for what it’s worth, broken repeatedly this campaign cycle. In a throwback to U.S.-Russian relations in the Bush era, both agreed to work in concert against their “number one common enemy—international terrorism and extremism”—a reference, in part, to the Syrian civil war.
Combined with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov’s assertion that certain members of the Trump campaign had been in communication with senior Russian officials, these developments appear to confirm Trump’s cozy relationship to the Kremlin. Hillary Clinton, who went so far as to say during one debate that Trump—if elected—would be Putin’s “puppet,” could have been right.
Although Trump isn’t the Kremlin’s “puppet,” the argument put forward by Clinton and others about the president-elect’s questionable dealings with a U.S. adversary still deserves attention, if only because the nature of this relationship could shed light on Russia’s goals and expectations for the new administration.
Clinton’s accusations weren’t pulled out of thin air. Trump has complimented Putin for the better part of a decade. During the election cycle, Trump’s general attitude was best captured in his comments to Matt Lauer during a September “Commander-in-Chief” forum. Putin, Trump said, “has very strong control over a country. It’s a very different system and I don’t happen to like the system, but certainly, in that system, he’s been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader.”
For both the media and the Clinton campaign, Trump’s off-putting statements were an invitation to dig in. In August, Clinton ran an ad reviewing Trump’s past pro-Putin statements, his various business ties to Russia, and his appeal to Russian hackers to find Clinton’s missing emails. The roughly two-minute-long ad ended on an ominous note: “We don’t know what’s going on here, and Donald won’t tell us. We’ll let you guess.”
Although Trump’s business and financial ties to the country had been a subject of inquiry for some time, a series of anonymously sourced scoops released a week before the election by NBC, Mother Jones, and Slate ostensibly bolstered what some pundits, analysts, and government officials had been saying for months. NBC described the FBI’s preliminary investigation of Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager who resigned shortly after news broke of his ties to Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs. Mother Jones reported that a veteran spy had gathered information on Russian efforts to “cultivate” Trump as an asset. At Slate, a now-debunked tale described a “secret server” belonging to Trump that communicated with a bank in Moscow. (The server turned out to have been set up for marketing purposes, and the bank in question, Alfa Bank, has even had its own share of head–butting with the Kremlin.)
Close But Not That Close
The argument for framing Trump as a witting or unwitting Kremlin asset is a weak one. For one, it doesn’t entirely align with recent events or statements from Russian officials. Nor, for that matter, does it make sense in terms of Russian strategy.
Take, for instance, Ryabkov’s statement about meeting with the campaign. If NBC, Mother Jones, and Slate were correct, such a story would be a blockbuster. There’s just one kicker: such meetings were offered to Clinton and her campaign as well. She, however, refused.
Then there’s the apparent Russian-led hack of the Democratic National Committee. By the time news broke in July that government officials knew with some certainty that Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear, the two groups blamed for the DNC hacks, were Russian, Trump was the Republican nominee. At that juncture, if smearing Clinton directly benefited anyone, it would be him. Yet, as Reuters reported in August, not only did the attacks take place before Trump’s rise became apparent, but U.S. intelligence officials had already briefed top-level congressional members on the matter. Were Russia’s efforts meant to singularly benefit Trump—as opposed to merely causing chaos—it would’ve had to foresee his rise before most pundits and Republican Party officials. Moreover, there was no apparent communication or coordination between Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear (each assumed to be GRU and FSB, respectively).
The relationship between the two leaders is complicated, too. Although a not-insignificant portion of the Russian people—especially its nationalistic far-right—have made their affinity for the Donald known, the message coming out of the Kremlin has been more nuanced. “The idea peddled by American news media that Mr. Putin supports Mr. Trump is far removed from reality,” wrote Ruslan Pukhov, a defense analyst based in Moscow, in The New York Times three days after the election. “Russian analysts,” Pukhov continues, “have never been particularly enthusiastic about Mr. Trump.”
There is some overlap in objectives between Trump and Putin. The president-elect has stated—repeatedly—that he’s opposed to arming the Ukrainian opposition. He has also offered to “review” the need for sanctions imposed after Russia’s invasion of Crimea—a position that would likely make some Western European states happy as well. Statements made throughout the campaign indicate that Trump would also be willing to cooperate with Russia on Syria—a drastic shift from the no-fly zone that Clinton and D.C. think tanks have put forward for the past year. He’s also been adamant about walking back the U.S. commitment to its NATO allies in Eastern Europe if the American military wasn’t “properly reimbursed” for the effort and materiel involved in protecting these states. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov went so far as to argue that “they (Putin and Trump) set out the same main foreign policy principles and that is incredible.”
Yet with lawmakers and allies from his own party pushing for a harder line against Russia, Trump’s plan for a “reset” could be left floundering. The House has already voted to implement mandatory sanctions on anyone who provides support to the Syrian government in its civil war. Even possible administration members and Trump allies, such as Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, have actively broken with the president-elect by stating their intention to be “aggressive” on Russia in the year to come.
An Unpredictable Leader
Although Clinton and others latched onto those comments, Russian politicians and analysts hesitate to get their hopes up. “Trump has not made any particular proposals to improve relations with Russia,” noted analyst Andrey Sushentsov in an article for the Valdai Club a day before the election. In late October, during an annual meeting at the club, Putin similarly stressed that: “We do not know what Mr. Trump would do if he wins, and we do not know what Ms. Clinton would do, what would go ahead or not go ahead.”
Russia does, however, see Trump as a paradigm shift in American politics—a cataclysmic force in the American political order that could change U.S.-Russia relations for the better (in their view. At Russia in Global Affairs, a Russian foreign policy publication, Dmitry Suslov of Moscow’s National Research University writes:
It is hard to tell exactly how, but Trump, if elected, will make a major move away from the foreign policy paradigm that has been dominant in the United States over the past 70 years. . . . Most likely, there will be an attempt to once again reset U.S.-Russia relations, this time on a new realistic basis of an informal “exchange of interests.”
From Moscow’s perspective, this outcome is neutral. Given that Trump has been out of line with the rest of his party—not to mention his vice president—he is unlikely to shift the United States from a stance of confrontation to cooperation with Russia within four years. These upheavals are hardly immediate, and much depends on Trump’s cabinet. Even Peskov, for all his bravado about Trump’s foreign policy principles, noted that “it’s not possible to just declare that there is an atmosphere of mutual trust, especially after such serious damage was done in the last few years to our relations.”
A true puppet would show more promise. For the time being, Trump offers Russia little more than disorder and vague opportunities.
Image by Donkey Hotey via Flickr