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It has all the hallmarks of a compelling thriller.
A U.S. president willing to put his reputation on the line in the interests of peace and prosperity prepares to reach out to Russia. The Kremlin shows some cautious interest. But before the president can propose anything substantial, his opponents do everything possible to derail his efforts.
Worse, this “deep state” of operatives within government — and political actors on the outside — leverages a full range of false accusations to smother the administration in the fog of scandal.
Maybe Tom Clancy could have done something with this. But as presented by Donald Trump and his defenders, this plot was never particularly convincing, even going back to its origin myth in the presidential primaries in early 2016. As a candidate, Donald Trump’s admiration for Vladimir Putin and his desire to improve relations with Russia seemed an unbelievable plot twist.
After all, anti-Russian sentiment has always run strong within the Republican Party (remember Mitt Romney’s assertion that Russia was America’s “number one geopolitical foe”). Making nice with the Kremlin wasn’t a position that could appeal necessarily to independents. And Putin was known in America largely for getting rid of his rivals and threatening countries bordering his country.
Even following the money didn’t produce much of a rationale, since Trump didn’t have any substantial investments in Russia (though Russia apparently invested in him).
Sure, a certain far-right constituency in the United States, which has seen Russia as a valuable partner in the fight against Islam, immigrants, and “permissive” culture like gay marriage, warmed to Trump’s approach. And if you dug deep enough, maybe you could find a few outliers on the left who imagined, foolishly, that Trump would push a reset button on relations with Russia that could result in nuclear disarmament, a negotiated end to the war in Syria, and free Matryoshka dolls for everyone.
But none of this should have been sufficient reason for Trump to reverse his own negotiating principles by glad-handing the leader of a country with whom he’d be negotiating hard as president.
Then came the WikiLeaks that hobbled the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton in particular, which Trump welcomed even as evidence mounted that the hacking of the Democratic National Committee, and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, had Russian fingerprints all over them.
Next up: revelations from a former British spy of more serious allegations that Russia had a file of compromising information about Trump, including tapes of a sexual nature from the future president’s 2013 visit to Moscow. And now come even more tantalizing clues that the U.S. intelligence community was on the trail of a Russian transfer of funds to Trump’s election campaign back in summer 2016. Since Donald Trump has never cared a whit about détente or disarmament, this emerging narrative of various quid pro quos makes much more sense.
So far, Russiagate has forced National Security Adviser Michael Flynn to resign because he lied about his discussions with Russian ambassador Sergei Kisalyov. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also lied about his meetings with Russians, but so far he’s merely recused himself from any investigation into the allegations of Russian involvement in the election campaign. No one within the Trump administration, including Trump himself, has yet been saddled with more serious impeachable offenses.
The Trump administration and its followers on the right continue to push the notion that Russia has done nothing wrong. So, strangely, have some people on the left — including Stephen Cohen, most recently in The Nation. Glenn Greenwald, Robert Parry of Consortium News, and Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity all question whether Russia was behind the DNC hack. It’s a “witch-hunt,” they say, and the Kremlin agrees.
The counter-evidence? Julian Assange of WikiLeaks says that Russia was not the source of the hacked materials, and the Obama administration has a “reputation for manipulating intelligence for political purposes.”
Well, I wouldn’t count Assange as a particularly reliable witness. And if the Obama administration was so good at manipulating intelligence for political purposes, why was it so slow off the mark in providing any of this supposedly doctored information before the election, when it would have actually counted for something politically?
Then there’s the argument that the NCCIC joint analysis report released at the end of December doesn’t contain a smoking gun. Okay, perhaps — I’m no cyber expert. But if it wasn’t the Russians, as the government analysis claims, then who had a motive to deep-six the Dems other than the Republicans and Russia? The skeptics are left with little more than Trump’s 400-pound hacker sitting on a couch. They might as well blame gremlins or extraterrestrials.
And please: a witch-hunt? Sorry, wrong era.
This isn’t a McCarthyite smear campaign of a handful of radicals but an effort to get to the heart of an intervention into politics by some very powerful actors. As in the Watergate scandal, the Democratic Party suffered a break-in. WikiLeaks successfully used the pilfered materials to influence the election. Russian hackers have been involved in countless hacking operations, and it goes beyond interfering only in the U.S. elections.
Journalists have been trying to piece together a story that provides an explanation more convincing than the narrative that Trump and Putin have put out there. Sure, many people desperately want to believe that some evidence will come to light that can end the Trump nightmare. But even those who are skeptical of the stories leaked to the press so far should support an impartial investigation with real subpoena power. Better a proper investigation than continued innuendo.
In the meantime, forget about that reset with Russia. There never was much of a chance of a Trump-led détente in the first place. Russia played the United States. The Kremlin got what it wanted — an America paralyzed by an incompetent administration at odds with more than half the country’s population. And it cost a mere fraction of the price of a single nuclear warhead.
What Russia Wants
First of all, Russia isn’t interested in taking over the world.
Vladimir Putin isn’t even interested in reconstituting the Soviet Union.
Administering a lot of new territory is more of a headache than it’s worth. The only spit of land that Russia has actually absorbed, the Crimean peninsula, has been a drain on the Russian budget, and the exclave has seen very little of the prosperity Russia promised. The other parts of the near abroad locked in “frozen conflicts” — South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transnistria — are no great shakes economically either.
The Kremlin is content to have a secure perimeter free from NATO interference. Of course, given NATO’s perennial interest in expanding eastward, a basic conflict lies at the heart of East-West relations. Until the two sides come up with a disengagement agreement, Eastern Europe will continue to be a zone of contention, with poor Ukraine split in half like a cheap piñata.
Putin is really more concerned about economic matters.
When oil prices dropped, the Russian economy quickly went south as the GDP per capita suffered an astounding drop from $15,000 in 2014 to only $9,000 one year later. U.S. sanctions, imposed after Russia seized Crimea in 2014, certainly didn’t help matters. Since then, Russia has boosted oil production and taken advantage of a rise in prices. Modest growth has returned. Lifting U.S. sanctions would add as much as .2 percent to Russian growth in 2017 and .5 percent in 2018. That’s actually a lot of rubles.
Putin no doubt welcomed Trump’s hints that he would lift sanctions, cooperate with Russia against the Islamic State, and downplay U.S. concerns for human rights around the world. But Trump was never a reliable patsy.
For one thing, he wasn’t reliable, period. For another, he backed positions that would ultimately conflict with Russia, such as his promise to undo the nuclear agreement with Iran. If Russia were indeed behind the hack of the DNC — even if it’s proved to have funneled money into the election on Trump’s side — I’m not convinced that Putin ever expected Trump to win. As a canny politician, the Russian leader also would have anticipated that if Trump did manage to beat the odds, he would have to contend with a foreign policy establishment that is far from Russia-friendly.
So, more likely, Putin simply wanted to throw the American political system into turmoil. He was hoping for, at best, a legitimation crisis that would hobble any incoming administration and make it that much more difficult for the United States to act in the world.
As it happened, Trump won on a long shot, and the American political system has indeed been thrown into turmoil as a result of it. U.S. policy toward Russia hasn’t really changed. The sanctions remain in place, Washington still expects Russia to pull out of eastern Ukraine and give back Crimea, and the usual criticisms of Russian conduct prevail at the United Nations. As with everything to do with policy, Trump was winging it. Once in power, he has fallen back on the status quo ante.
But here’s the interesting part. There’s good reason to believe that, despite all the hoopla in Moscow over Trump’s victory, Russia took the first steps to begin to undermine the new administration. It was only two days after the election, after all, that the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov contradicted the claim of the Trump campaign that it hadn’t maintained contact with Russian officials.
Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak also confirmed that meetings took place, though he also sought to normalize them by saying that they happen all the time with political figures. That’s true, of course, but the Trump campaign was busy denying that they’d transpired in the first place.
So, perhaps Russia didn’t really expect that Trump would keep his word. Confirming that the meetings did in fact take place helped fulfill the underlying objective of destabilizing the American political system.
And now, what can Trump do? Admitting that he’s been played by Moscow would bring his administration crashing down around his head (not to mention damaging his ego). He can continue to lie, and ask his team to do the same, but only so many loyal adjutants can fall on their swords before all the blood on the floor makes governance impossible.
So, Trump did the only thing he knew how to do: make things up. His claim that the Obama administration was spying on him — a Watergate-sized accusation — suddenly had the media in a tizzy trying to find substantiation. In a reasonable world, Trump’s latest tweets would be his “Milo moment” when everyone realizes that, like the ludicrous pundit Milo Yiannopoulos, Trump is truly unhinged. Milo’s book contract can be rescinded, but it’s not so easy to take away Trump’s presidency.
The Future Impact of Russiagate
Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was plagued by one scandal after another. But none of the gaffes and revelations and embarrassments seemed to end Trump’s political career.
Russiagate is different. First of all, Trump is now an elected figure, not just a cartoonish candidate. Second, this scandal involves much higher stakes than insulting John McCain’s war record or mocking a disabled reporter. Laws might have been broken; national security might have been breached; an election might have been compromised.
Pursuing an investigation into Trump’s possible misdeeds may have any number of unanticipated consequences. But it is not likely to precipitate a new Cold War with Russia. Such a development depends more on NATO policy in Eastern Europe, Russian actions in its near abroad, and imponderables such as the course of the war in Syria and petropolitics in Europe.
I have lots of reasons to criticize Vladimir Putin and his attempt to push a far right-wing agenda at home and abroad. But it’s absolutely critical to separate one’s views about Putin and Kremlin policies from an investigation into Donald Trump’s misconduct. Let me repeat: This is no witch-hunt. This is democracy in action in an effort to discover abuse of power.
If the appointment of a special prosecutor doesn’t attract bipartisan support, I will be unhappy but unsurprised. But everyone to the left of Ann Coulter should be on board. If ever there were a time for unity, it is now.
John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus and the author of the dystopian novel Splinterlands.