Note: This is a post I wrote back on Feb 19. I thought I had posted it, but I guess I didn’t press the right combination of buttons. In light of recent developments, I thought I would post it despite the long delay. The only changes I made today (Aug 1) were to add this comment and to correct two typos that I saw. (Sadly, everything I do has typos.)
The conventional wisdom among many analysts not happy with the direction of President Trump’s administration is that Russian President Vladimir Putin supported candidate (now President) Donald Trump because Putin expected that Mr. Trump would follow more “Moscow friendly” policies that Hillary Clinton would. While that explanation might have a grain of truth, I do not believe that it is correct since it misses the primary reason why Putin behaved the way he did and, more importantly, why the Putin-Trump “bromance” is destined to end acrimoniously.
Early in the primary season, before Donald Trump had emerged as the front-runner for the Republican nomination, Moscow was already following its well-established policy of attempting to undermine faith in the American electoral system and the American system of government in general. Moscow followed these decades-old policy initiatives with a modern twist, supplementing traditional propaganda tools such as fabricated anti-American rumors and news with an aggressive social media campaign backed by a veritable army of human and robotic “trolls” to help ensure that Moscow-created and Moscow-approved propaganda reached the maximum number of Americans as well as others around the world. After all, the traditional target of anti-American propaganda is not just American citizens but pro-democracy activists around the world – and particularly those in Russia or in its sphere of influence. In Putin’s world view, making Russia great involves making America weak since the world is a zero sum game.
As the primary season progressed, not only did Mr. Trump emerge as the front runner, he emerged as the perfect example of what Russian intelligence services have referred to for decades as the “useful idiot” – the individual who willingly and without payment spouts the exact false propaganda that Russian intelligence agencies devised in Moscow. Given that Moscow’s traditional role was to “throw bombs” in an ongoing attempt to undermine faith in American democracy, the Kremlin’s attraction to a political “bomb thrower” such as Mr. Trump who cast aspersions on both parties and on U.S. government as a whole was clear. The repeated assertions that American cities are collapsing under the weight of an unprecedented crime wave, that patriotism is under siege, that American government institutions are actively working to take away American’s basic rights and freedoms were right out of Moscow’s playbook.
Certain elements in the Kremlin may have also believed that Mr. Trump would pursue more “Russian friendly” policies than would Ms. Clinton, but that was secondary. The main rationale for supporting Mr. Trump was almost certainly to support the person whose stump speeches denigrated American democratic institutions as vociferously as the Kremlin’s paid propagandists did.
It is alleged, but not proven, that Russian intelligence agencies have additional compromising information, or kompromat, on Mr. Trump and his inner circle. While I have no inside knowledge, even if the dossier complied by former MI6 agent Christopher Steele is wildly inaccurate it is highly unlikely that Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort and Carter Page were the only three Trump insiders in touch with Moscow and that no one else in the entire Trump campaign organization and administration knew anything about those contacts.
Even if such kompromat exists in Kremlin vaults, however, that does not mean that Putin ever intended to use the material to blackmail or manipulate the White House into adopting pro-Moscow policies that are antithetical to American interests, whether those policies involve ceding Ukraine to Russia or turning a blind eye to Russian violations of treaties limiting intermediate nuclear forces. Neither Mr. Putin nor his top propaganda experts are stupid. They understand that the American “establishment” – the Congress, the courts, public opinion, the media and even President Trump’s own party – would have very limited patience for abrupt changes in U.S. policy that favored Russian actions at the expense of American interests.
Putin’s motive was never to control the White House. Instead, he was always playing (quite effectively) an old game to undermine faith in the U.S. government and thereby to weaken the U.S. government’s ability to act to check Russian expansionism. Until very late in the campaign – likely on Election Day itself – Putin did not even expect Trump to win. Putin supported Trump solely to give more voice to Trump’s almost apocalyptic view of American society and government. When Trump actually won the election, Mr. Putin and his intelligence/propaganda services were almost certainly as surprised as anyone.
While I certainly do not rule out that President Putin will take a few stabs at coercing the Trump Administration into adopting policies that favor Russia’s drive to recreate an empire, I seriously doubt he anticipates a continued string of successes. Instead, each attempt to manipulate the Trump Administration will simply add to the Kremlin’s stockpile of kompromat that will eventually be utilized to undermine both Americans’ and the world’s faith in American democracy.
According to this theory of Russian actions, it has always been a given that Russian President Putin would not only cease supporting Donald Trump once he became President but Putin would use all of his intelligence assets to actively undermine the newly-inaugurated President. This is because the goal has never been to support a “Russia friendly” President of the USA but to undermine the very basis of American democracy such as respect for the rule of law, the separation of powers and equality under the constitution.
If this view is correct, the only reason Putin has not yet begun to dole out kompromat against President Trump and his inner circle is that U.S. media, law enforcement and intelligence have already been highlighting the grievous shortcomings of both the President and his inner circle. Should U.S. domestic criticism of President Trump being to die down – either due to fatigue or an active anti-media, anti-dissent campaign orchestrated by the White House – President Putin is waiting to fill in the gap because, in Putin’s world view, there is no better way to advance his desire to create a new Russian empire than to undermine faith in American democracy and to render the American government so internally conflicted that it is unable to take meaningful again against Russian aggression.
In this view, the only real question is when, not if, President Putin will turn against President Trump.