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Putin and Trump: anatomy of a bromance

11 February 2018

A compromising relationship continues to define the US presidency

Right:

Undisclosed power? Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump arrive with other leaders for the “family photo” at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Da Nang, Vietnam, on 11 November last year. Alex Ellinghausen/Fairfax/AAP Image

Undisclosed power? Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump arrive with other leaders for the “family photo” at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Da Nang, Vietnam, on 11 November last year. Alex Ellinghausen/Fairfax/AAP Image


In a history studded with confrontations, Russia’s relations with the West, and with the United States in particular, have reached a unique stand-off. Perhaps for the first time ever, the Kremlin leadership has helped install its preferred candidate in the White House — and not just any candidate, but one who seems to love Russia, and in some sense seems under the Russian president’s thumb. And yet, despite his constant display of respect and even reverence for his opposite number, Donald Trump is having great difficulty in delivering the close and warm bilateral relationship he keeps calling for.

Trump’s deference to Putin, his frequent words of praise and his desire to talk by phone and, when possible, have unmonitored one-on-one meetings suggest that the relationship is based in some measure on an awareness by Trump that Putin has some publicly undisclosed power over him.

James Clapper, the former head of the US Defense Intelligence Agency and director of national intelligence between 2010 and 2017, believes that the relationship shows how well Putin “handles” Trump. “I think this past weekend is illustrative of what a great case officer Vladimir Putin is,” he told CNN on 18 December. “He knows how to handle an asset and that’s what he’s doing with the president. You have to remember Putin’s background. He’s a KGB officer. That’s what they do. They recruit assets. And I think some of that experience and the instincts of Putin have come into play here in his managing of a pretty important account for him, if I could use that term, with our president.”

Clapper was referring to Trump’s very warm words about a phone conversation he’d had with Putin the day before, in which Putin had thanked him for valuable intelligence that forestalled a terror attack in Putin’s home city, St Petersburg. He probably also had in mind Putin’s comments during his annual marathon Q&A session a few days earlier, where he had warmly praised Trump’s performance and rejected allegations of collusion as “spymania” designed to damage the president and prevent him from developing better cooperation with Russia. Not immune to flattery, Trump immediately responded by seeking a phone audience with President Putin, which was granted.

When pressed for further elucidation, Clapper said he was speaking figuratively, but most people following the Trump–Putin relationship closely would have assumed he meant to convey a literal truth.

The exact nature of the relationship and its impact on Trump’s campaign and the formation of his leadership team remain the subject of three dedicated investigations by congressional committees, as well as the occasional interest of some other committees — and, above all, the investigation by special prosecutor Robert Mueller, which the president and his supporters have been doing their best to hamper or derail.

The signs that the president wants to sack Mueller were given greater specificity on 26 January when the New York Times reported that last June Trump directed his White House counsel, Donald McGahn, to have the Justice Department sack Mueller. McGahn refused, saying such a move would have a catastrophic effect on the presidency and he would resign rather than carry it out. After the president’s earlier and highly controversial dismissal of FBI director James Comey for pursuing the Russian trail, McGahn probably feared that a second unjustifiable dismissal would have led to impeachment.

There is a view, however, that while Mueller’s investigation is well advanced into the territory of possible obstruction of justice and money laundering, the prosecutor’s personality and respect for institutions could lead him away from indicting the president.

Trump and his loyal Republican followers have not given up. Having a majority in both houses of Congress, and with so dominant a position in congressional committees, they have sought to block or reshape investigations to protect the president and discredit his “adversaries,” above all the special prosecutor. In one case, the Republican leadership of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee failed to sign on to a report prepared by the committee’s staff on Putin’s attacks on democracy in the West, probably because of the negative light it cast obliquely on the president and the vigorous actions against Russia it calls on the president to undertake. The ranking Democrat on the committee released the text of the report anyway.

Republicans follow the president in raising ostensibly parallel issues about Hillary Clinton, but the parallels seldom look convincing; indeed they sometimes have an eerie similarity to the familiar Russian tactic of “whataboutism.”

The various investigations are still in progress. And yet the heart of the matter already seemed clear enough more than a year ago, on the basis of Trump’s strange pronouncements and appointments, and the sometimes bizarre behaviour of some in his entourage. The much- maligned Steele dossier was not the first cab off the rank in this debate, but the public discussion it generated did a great deal to set the debate’s parameters. Though much of it was not verified or indeed readily verifiable, the dossier rang true in many of its details. And material appearing since then has tended to strengthen the case it makes, regardless of legitimate differences of opinion about particular details.

It is perhaps a tribute to its insight that the Republicans in Congress still have their knives out for the dossier and its author Christopher Steele, as for Mueller himself. They seem to believe that if these two individuals can be eliminated the problem will go away. But the evidence in the public domain is copious and highly suggestive, and informal enquiries and exposures would be very likely to continue until such time as a credible and uninhibited investigation exonerated the president and the stranger members of his entourage, which seems unlikely to happen.

Perhaps the most egregiously Russia-linked of Trump’s intimates was general Michael Flynn. Flynn had been director of the US Defense Intelligence Agency until he was in effect dismissed — in itself, a good reason not to have cultivated him. He threw himself into Trump’s campaign in a raucously partisan way, publicly calling for Hillary Clinton to be jailed. Having set himself up as a consultant after his departure from DIA, he accepted a US$33,750 fee to be interviewed on RT (formerly Russia Today), Russia’s main external propaganda outlet. He also appeared at the high table of a glamorous celebratory dinner in Moscow in honour of RT, where among his neighbours were RT’s very skilful director, Margarita Simonyan, and her star guest of honour, Vladimir Putin.

According to Luke Harding’s fine new book, Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win, Flynn met and became friendly with a young Moscow-born woman at a Cambridge seminar on Russian espionage, where he had been invited to speak. He struck up a conversation with her about her graduate dissertation on the Cheka, the original Bolshevik secret police set up by Lenin. She drew his attention to some of the interesting discoveries she had made in the Russian archives while researching a book on the role of Russian military intelligence agents in infiltrating the US nuclear program in its earliest stages.

He was so struck by her that he invited her to accompany him as his official interpreter on a visit he was planning to Moscow as DIA director. She declined, but did subsequently conduct an unclassified email correspondence with him about Russian history, in which he signed off his emails as “General Misha” (Misha is the familiar diminutive from the Russian name Mikhail). Apparently Flynn didn’t report these contacts. Shortly after the Cambridge seminar, Putin annexed Crimea, and that particular trip to Moscow by General Misha failed to eventuate.

Flynn’s overall view was clearly that Russia represented no threat to US interests, and that Iran and Islamic terrorism were far and away the greatest threat to the United States and the world. This skewed perception would have predisposed him to accept the Russian propaganda line that the United States should abandon its sanctions against Russia, respect its sphere of influence in much of its former domain, and join with it in the struggle against “terrorism,” as defined by the Kremlin. In his post-DIA role as a consultant, he also accepted work from Turkey, despite that country’s increasingly hostile attitude towards NATO, the European Union and the United States.

Despite this erratic career path, Trump appointed Flynn as his national security advisor and only reluctantly relinquished him when it was clear that he was in trouble for lying about his contacts with the Russian ambassador to the United States during the presidential campaign. It had not taken this development — or revelations from the Steele dossier, or leaks from official investigations — for many people observing Flynn’s publicly known dealings with Russia to find his appointment as national security advisor astonishing and deeply dismaying. Yet even after accepting Flynn’s resignation, Trump tried to lean on FBI director James Comey not to pursue Flynn any further.

There were other curious figures in Trump’s inner circle. To take one more conspicuous example, Paul Manafort, an American salesman of PR and lobbying services, mainly to distasteful foreign dictatorships, became the de facto head of Trump’s campaign team for six months during 2016. During this time, he is widely believed to have engineered a mysterious pro-Russian change to the Republican platform on policy towards Ukraine.

Manafort had worked for years in support of the pro-Russian Yanukovych regime, and even lent support to the successor party to Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, the so-called Opposition Bloc, after the Maidan revolution had resulted in Yanukovych’s fleeing Kiev for Russia. For these and other services contrary to settled US bipartisan policy towards Ukraine and Russia, Manafort seems to have received large and dubious payments. He was also involved in some of the suspect dealings of Trump associates with Russian emissaries. As a result, he became the subject of the intense media publicity that led to his resignation. He has since become a person of interest to investigators regarding other dubious dealings involving Russia. Together with his close colleague Rick Gates, he is now under indictment by the FBI.

In addition to cosseting people with dubious Russian connections, Trump himself had contacts over the years with numerous Russian associates, including some very funny money people. In Collusion, Harding, a former Moscow correspondent for the Guardian, has assembled a mass of evidence on various aspects of the links with Russia, maintained sometimes over a long period, by Trump, his family and his dodgier associates (some of whom now face charges). Again, there may be reasonable differences of opinion about the weight of the evidence in this or that case, but the overall picture he presents is eloquent. In fact, Harding’s book should be compulsory reading for all involved in the current US debate.

(Michael Wolff’s instant bestseller, Fire and Fury, certainly provides a vivid and entertaining picture of the intimate politics of the White House, but is less illuminating on the Russian connections, the meaning and importance of which Wolff seems not quite to grasp.)


And so, for most long-time observers of the Russian scene, it seems clear that Trump is somehow in debt or even in thrall to Putin, as Harding puts it. But for some Westerners who welcome Trump’s economic policies or his robust positions on immigration, for example, the whole subject of his possible connections with Russia is just an unwelcome distraction they would prefer not to write, think or even hear about. For others it all still seems more like an overwritten spy novel.

Such people find it inherently implausible that Russian agencies could have bothered to assemble a thick dossier of compromising material (kompromat) on Trump with which they can now hold him to ransom. How could the Russians have possibly anticipated that this errant and in Russia not particularly successful businessman would ever end up as the president of the United States of America? And why should people like Manafort, Flynn, or Carter Page, another erstwhile member of the Trump team again in the news, be regarded as suspect simply because they liked Russia and Russians, enjoyed visiting the country, and tried to turn a buck there?

This is the natural perspective of people who’ve had the good fortune to live in relatively open societies. Russia has only briefly and very imperfectly been one of those. Tsarist Russia had a considerable penchant for close surveillance of suspect individuals, and their Bolshevik successors left them far behind in this and other techniques of oppressive rule. Putin’s Russia, some dissenting Western academics and broadcasters notwithstanding, is a KGB state in a very meaningful sense and, under the present leadership, bureaucracy generally and expenditure on the military and “security” in particular has expanded greatly. The appetite for kompromat has always been voracious in the Kremlin, and now is greater, thanks to the exponential growth of the technological means for collecting and exploiting it.

In the 1970s as a graduate student, I visited Moscow on a study trip funded by my university to collect materials not available in Australia. On my first day after arriving, I was sitting in a modest Moscow hotel hoping to be fed when a shabby-looking middle-aged man approached me and asked if he might join me. (Tables were often scarce in the under-resourced Soviet catering system, and this was standard practice.) Having quickly established I was a foreigner, he began asking questions: who was I; where was I from; what was the subject of my thesis; what was I doing in Russia; who had paid for me to come; where was I working the next day? When I said I’d be going to the Lenin Library, he immediately announced that he had a flat nearby and that I must visit him as he had some very interesting documents there which he was sure would be very helpful to me in my research.

By this time I was desperately trying to catch a waiter’s eye to pay and leave as soon as possible. Noting my haste, my interrogator began withdrawing what looked like identity cards or workplace passes from the inside pocket of his jacket, flashing them at me like naughty postcards. Averting my eyes, I paid and left.

Any visitors to the Soviet Union who struck the organs as interesting or untypical in any way would be given the treatment. And, as Luke Harding comments, Trump already looked extremely interesting to the KGB on the first of his several visits to the Soviet Union/Russia in 1987, much more so than an impecunious antipodean student.

Trump’s triumph in the presidential election was a delightful surprise for the Kremlin establishment. But not long after their first euphoric champagne cork-popping reactions, they began to feel disappointed, as media discussions and official enquiries into team Trump’s links with Russia multiplied and some of the most Kremlin-friendly in Trump’s entourage had to be jettisoned.

It’s often said that Putin is a master tactician, but a poor strategist. Some might reasonably object that his recent manoeuvres in the Middle East and North Africa demonstrate that he is quite capable of strategically outmanoeuvring the crumbly Western alliance under its current leadership. But in an important sense Putin, who never served west of Dresden in his KGB career, doesn’t “get” Western societies. He has learnt to plumb their growing weaknesses skilfully, but he has a poorer grasp of their complexity and their sometimes less than obvious resilience.

Having always existed in or presided over a top-down autocracy, it’s difficult for him to grasp that installing or helping to install someone at the apex of government in a pluralist society does not necessarily ensure radical and congenial changes in that government’s policies. Specifically, he didn’t reckon sufficiently with the US system’s checks and balances and the free media, and the limits that they place on the CEO.

Such pressures led President Trump to accept the replacement of Michael Flynn as national security advisor by the conservative general H.R. McMaster (whom, according to Wolff, he doesn’t even like).

Trump’s preference for military figures in key security roles may reflect, as Wolff also observes, Trump’s personal weakness for officers with plenty of “fruit salad” on their uniforms. But he would have sensed, given his domestic political vulnerability on Russia, that the nomination of the tough general Jim Mattis to the key defence portfolio would be a wise move also for him personally. On 19 January, this year, for example, Mattis restated US defence concerns forthrightly, highlighting China and Russia as the main potential threats to US interests, and relatively downplaying the significance of terrorism, which is neither Trump’s nor Putin’s preferred take on the international environment for bilateral purposes.

Trump also chose, first as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, and later as his own chief of staff in the White House, another general, John Kelly. Kelly’s main aim in his present role seems to be to introduce order and decorum into the chronically chaotic scene that is the Trump entourage, as well as to smooth over the many rough edges introduced by the president’s ill-considered tweets and public statements. Kelly has not yet taken strong public positions on the bilateral relationship with Russia. But he seems unlikely to become another General Flynn.

What this illustrates is that Trump’s appointments to key security roles have been creating a circle of strong, traditionalist advisers who will not be easily persuaded to change US policy sharply in a pro-Russian direction. This phenomenon has been ironically labelled in the US media by terms like “adults in the room” and “adult supervision.” As used by the media, these terms do not apply only or even primarily to the Russian issue, but do include it, and are, perhaps, particularly applicable to it.

Two recent articles in particular, James Mann’s “The Adults in the Room” and Charlie Savage’s “Controlling the Chief,” both in recent editions of the New York Review of Books, take a broad and measured approach to their topic, focusing on such important issues as the future of civilian control of the military in the US and the possibility of an increased risk of ill-conceived foreign entanglements. They also provide much interesting detail about the “adults” themselves and some of their predecessors with similar roles and backgrounds. Surprisingly, however, they mention Russia relatively infrequently.

Other senior officials are also active on the Russia account. At Treasury, the new secretary, Steve Mnuchin, has been presiding over the implementation of what looked like some forceful policies. One that has riveted the attention of the Moscow elite is the preparation of a list of Russian oligarchs and siloviki with close ties to Putin, slated to be sanctioned as a response to Russia’s illegitimate meddling in the US election. This action was mandated by Congress in legislation, passed overwhelmingly in late July last year, that seemingly left President Trump with very little wiggle room.

Daniel Fried, a senior State Department official coordinating sanctions policy under Barack Obama, was reported on 19 January to be very enthusiastic about the Treasury-led process of formulating the list. As he put it, “It’s not been farmed out to some cabal of political employees who used to work with Mike Flynn and take money from RT… The pros are running with this. Straight, flat-out, serious pros.”

Treasury has also been pursuing intrusive inquiries into suspect bank transfers by US-based Russian diplomatic personnel that were identified as irregular and reported to Treasury. Until recent days, this all suggested that Secretary Mnuchin was not likely to give Putin a free pass.

Among other figures in key positions who are clearly sceptical about Russia’s intentions are general Joseph Dunford, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Nikki Haley, the US permanent representative to the United Nations in New York; and the experienced diplomat Kurt Volker, appointed special envoy to negotiate with Russia on advancing a settlement in Ukraine.

Even Rex Tillerson, Trump’s choice for secretary of state — undoubtedly in large part because of his long and successful experience of dealing with the Russian leadership on energy deals (and his Order of Friendship from Putin!) — has been doing his best to sound and act more or less like a senior American diplomat. At the launch on 23 January of a new organisation set up to identify and punish those who use chemical weapons, Tillerson roundly criticised Russia for its support of the Assad regime, its vetoing of UN resolutions on the use by Syria of chemical weapons, and its breach of an agreement with the United States on the removal of chemical weapons from Syria. He summed up the situation by saying that “Russia’s failure to resolve the chemical weapons issue in Syria calls into question its relevance to the resolution of the overall crisis.”

This sharper tone reflects the tougher approach that President Trump himself has adopted on Syria since the air strikes last April on the airfield in Khan Sheikhoun, which had been implicated in chemical weapons use.

Unlike Trump, though, Tillerson has severed his formal links with his previous high-profile role in business (as CEO of Exxon-Mobil), where he would have had, and may still have, huge potential conflicts of interest. People still worry, for example, about situations in which Tillerson is the only US official present at one of the president’s encounters in person or by phone with Putin, and perhaps rightly so.

Despite having installed his own man at its head, Trump is seemingly determined to destroy the State Department by huge cuts to its funding. He even actually applauded Putin for expelling 755 US diplomats in response to Congress’s passage of sanctions legislation last July, proclaiming it a valuable contribution to US budgetary savings.

Tillerson is seen as bearing full responsibility for this policy, having failed to stand up for his department and having left a large number of senior diplomatic positions vacant. He has also been criticised for not responding to Putin’s “hybrid warfare” on the West. Broadly, though, he does seem to be trying to hold the line against Russia’s policy overtures and manoeuvres while from time to time reiterating Trump’s message that a better relationship with Russia is what the United States would ideally like. So not an adult supervisor exactly, but perhaps not a pushover for Moscow either.


All in all, in fact, the Kremlin seemed to have relatively little to show for all its hybrid warfare efforts at the end of the first year of the Trump presidency. Not only were the key appointments often unpromising, the decisions taken and defended by those appointees seemed far from encouraging.

Disillusionment had set in early for Moscow. In March last year, the Kremlin launched its first big try-on, when a Russian diplomat reportedly presented the State Department with a comprehensive proposal for a total reset of bilateral relations across all areas in dispute. This démarche, which has never been publicly acknowledged by either side, but reports of which have not been categorically denied by Washington, looked very much like an attempt to take advantage of the fact that the Kremlin now thought it had a friend in the White House (and in the State Department) with whom it could surely do business.

Since soon after Moscow’s aggression in Crimea and East Ukraine, and in particular after the imposition of sanctions in the wake of the shooting down of MH17, Putin’s regime has been engaged in a peace offensive aimed at repairing relations sufficiently and for long enough to secure the easing or even lifting of sanctions, and to gain de facto Western acceptance of the annexation of Crimea and “autonomy” for Russia’s proxy regimes in Donetsk and Luhansk. This pitch called nostalgically for a renewed coalition as during the second world war. Moscow even began to speak positively about the one-sided Yalta settlement, which facilitated Stalin’s communisation of Eastern Europe.

These formulations betrayed Moscow’s hope that it could exploit any such grand coalition deal to regain as much as possible of its old sphere of privileged interests in Central and Eastern Europe. With President Trump in the White House, the collective Putin must have felt that a golden geopolitical opportunity had dawned.

Putin’s secret initiative went nowhere, Trump’s oft-repeated hopes for a good relationship with Russia and a great deal with Putin notwithstanding. As former US diplomat Steven Pifer of Brookings and others have argued, this was a classic case of “mirror-imaging,” when the leaders of one country project their own domestic understanding of how things work onto a country where that logic does not apply. Putin seemingly thought that Trump was now in a position comparable to his own, where he could make most things happen from the top down. But the US system is different.

President Trump was already surrounded by a network of senior officials who try to repair some of the damage caused by his impulsive tweets and the public insults he aims at countries and leaders around the world, especially key allies. They have also worked hard, and with considerable success so far, to hold in check his amorous impulses towards Russia and its president. While the Republican Party has begun to circle the wagons around the president, some Republicans, particularly in the Senate, have also acknowledged the need for adult supervision. Bob Corker, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and once a strong supporter of Trump as a candidate, declared last October that the White House had become “an adult day care centre.”

As a result of those efforts, Trump has found himself assenting to a series of key decisions and policy doctrines emerging from his administration that identify Russia as a major threat to US interests. Yet as a candidate, and even well into his first year in office, Trump had repeatedly cast doubt on article 5 of NATO’s Washington Treaty, spoken contemptuously of the European Union and asked aloud which other countries would follow Britain’s Brexit lead. Not only did he praise Putin repeatedly, at one point he seemed to be inclined to consider whether or not to accept Moscow’s annexation of Crimea. Against that backdrop, the actual outcomes, particularly in the latter part of 2017, have been reassuringly benign for the Western alliance.

Thus, for example, the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act was passed by the Senate with an overwhelming ninety-eight votes to two, a veto-proof majority. (There had only been three votes against the bill in the House.) This emphatic result left President Trump with no option but to reluctantly accept it. Mooring sanctions in legislation makes it difficult for the measures it prescribes, primarily against Russian targets, to be modified by the executive, or repealed by the legislature. Moscow was furious, and many in Russia’s elite feared the possible consequences for themselves. As a result, capital flight from Russia increased sharply, leading to a run on Maltese and Cyprus passports and significant expatriation of Russian wealth.

As mentioned earlier, the US Treasury has also been examining financial records of transactions undertaken by Russian diplomatic staff in the United States. In accordance with US law, suspect records had been forwarded to the area of Treasury responsible for handling cases of money laundering and other financial misconduct. Treasury in turn had forwarded them to the FBI for consideration as possible evidence of Russian meddling in the presidential election. These activities and the documents themselves somehow found their way into the public domain via BuzzFeed.

Moscow has reacted indignantly to these leaks, describing BuzzFeed as a tool of US intelligence and demanding that Washington desist immediately. Disregarding for the moment the question of whether these accusations are well-founded, it is of course the case that sequences of events not dissimilar to those just described are typical of what Russia has itself been doing in recent times on a very large scale towards many of its Western adversaries, if with a thin veneer of deniability. Such tactics form an integral part of its hybrid warfare. Now it believes that the United States is turning these tactics against their originators; so the biter bit, it would seem, with BuzzFeed cast in the role of WikiLeaks. But maybe the Kremlin is mirror-imaging again.


So too for Europe and NATO. Despite Trump’s negative comments about NATO and collective defence, especially during his visit on 25 May to NATO headquarters in Brussels, just two months after that visit vice-president Mike Pence travelled to the Estonian capital, Tallinn, where he emphatically confirmed US commitment to both.

Moreover, the Trump administration has continued to implement and bolster the measures agreed upon at the Warsaw NATO Summit in 2016 to strengthen NATO’s defences in the east, and thus provide greater security for the new member states. The deployment of multinational battle groups to all three Baltic states and Poland, staffed on a rotating but ongoing basis, involves US forces as well as leading European militaries in key roles.

Despite its invasions of Georgia and Ukraine in 2008 and 2014, its hybrid war against Estonia in 2007, and its threatening posture in the region overall, Moscow professed to find this deployment aggressive and unprovoked. It argues that the deployments are a breach of the NATO–Russia Founding Act, whereby it was agreed that NATO would not deploy any significant forces to the new member states. Some Western member states, including Germany, were inclined to respect this provision, despite the clear evidence of Russian aggression inconsistent with the Act and in breach of other international legal instruments, in particular the Budapest Memorandum. But sustained pleas from the new members and Russia’s own aggressive posture finally produced a consensus in NATO.

On 17 December last year, the Trump administration released a National Security Strategy that identified Russia and China as the main disruptive powers in the world, repressing their own populations, building up their militaries and pursuing revisionist, imperialist policies abroad. Trump had obviously been persuaded to accept the document, but his public comments about its contents touched on none of the formulations to which Moscow had objected.

On the contrary, he used his speech on the new doctrine’s release to speak warmly about a phone conversation he’d had the day before with Putin, in which the Russian president had thanked him for intelligence provided by the CIA that helped avert a terrorist attack in St Petersburg. This played perfectly into Moscow’s current mantra that instead of objecting to its defence of vital security interests in Ukraine, Georgia, Syria, Venezuela and so on, the United States should join with Russia to combat terrorism. But while it contained a few relatively moderate Trumpist accents, the National Security Strategy was basically “sound” on Russia and related issues, so seemingly another win for the supervisors’ panel.

And finally, reluctantly and under sustained pressure from his advisers and Congress, Trump decided on 22 December to approve weapons sales to Ukraine that would include Javelin anti-tank missiles, which Kiev has been begging for since soon after the Russian invasion began. On at least two occasions (at Ilovaisk and Debaltseve), proxy forces in eastern Ukraine under pressure from Ukrainian forces were suddenly able to dramatically reverse the trend of events, win decisive strategic victories and inflict severe casualties, thanks to major cross-border reinforcements of personnel and heavy weaponry from the Russian regular army. Had the Ukrainians then been equipped with Javelins the outcomes might have been very different

Some Western commentators argue that the decision to supply the Javelins will inevitably “cause” a disastrous Russian response, making a “tragic” situation even worse. This is certainly a difficult and complex issue. But the alternative of maintaining an embargo that prevents Ukraine from obtaining the weapons it needs to defend itself, while Russia continues to arm its illegal proxies to the teeth, is unsatisfactory. Such a policy will encourage further Russian military aggression in breach of the post-1990 liberal international order. The West would essentially be left only with the option of accepting Moscow’s “escalatory dominance” as a given and seeking an opportunity to discuss with it the terms and conditions under which Russia would resume full control of whichever former vassal it was laying claim to.

Even without delivering on key bilateral issues, Trump has done a great deal, no doubt often unintentionally, to deliver on Moscow’s investment. The manifest unfitness for presidential office reflected in his tweets, his insults, his lies and his racist utterances has severely damaged his country’s reputation in many parts of the world. Although, in the opinion of many, he sometimes punctures political correctness or diplomatic niceties with robust common sense on particular issues, he usually spoils the effect almost immediately with a grossly misjudged comment or tweet. It’s not that his instincts are necessarily always wrong, but that his conversion of them into coherent, diplomatic and sustained policy is often woefully inadequate.

His alienation of many important allies will still be causing satisfied hand-rubbing in the Kremlin. Likewise, his heavy-handed attacks on selected countries and policies — Iran and its allies in the Middle East, for instance, or Chinese trading policies — can often help Russia to consolidate key alliances and pursue important strategic objectives. At the same time, though, thanks to the determined efforts of the adults in the room, Trump’s policy towards Russia and its region is gradually acquiring a certain predictability and solidity along traditional lines. And Moscow is finding it all frustrating and difficult to deal with.

Will the system of checks and balances be sustained? Or will President Trump break free and try to strike a grand deal with Russia? Of course, there is also the prior question of whether he will remain in office, as controversy and various investigations continue to swirl around him.

Will the Republicans continue to cover for him despite the scandals and the growing evidence of his entourage’s dubious links with Russia? Will they support him all the way in any attempts he makes to discredit and dismiss Robert Mueller or any others who appear to threaten his position? This coming year should give us the answers.


So far, the signs are not good. The 30 January decision by the Republican majority in the House Intelligence Committee to force through publication of the highly questionable memo prepared by committee chair Devin Nunes suggests that many of them will fight dirty and fight long. In this endeavour, it seems likely that they will enjoy the direct support of the Kremlin’s troll factories, who have already been hard at work whipping up support for the “Release the memo” cause.

President Trump obligingly declassified the memo, despite the pleas against release from his own recent appointee at the head of the FBI, Christopher Wray. Reportedly, there were dissenters in Trump’s White House staff, but General Kelly supported the president’s action — though, as chief of staff, he could hardly do otherwise.

Virtually simultaneously, the administration gutted the list of oligarchs and Putin’s complicit cronies that had been in preparation at Treasury, and instead published a roll-call of Russian elite luminaries derived from familiar public sources. Absent were the foreshadowed details about their kleptocratic wealth and their closeness to Putin and to the Kremlin’s recent decisions to attack neighbours and subvert democratic elections in the West. The defanged document came out from Treasury with Secretary Mnuchin’s formal endorsement. It is not clear who in the administration took the decision to change course on sanctions and the Kremlin List, but clearly it was an accurate expression of the president’s wishes.

It’s true that a classified document was attached to the package, but a central objective of the operation had been to name and shame publicly, and to impose sanctions provided for by the July 2017 legislation. And the administration also announced that no sanctions were being put in place at that point. There were ritual statements of indignation at the list in Moscow at various levels, but the relief in elite circles was palpable. Putin staged another of his displays of conspicuous moderation, saying there would be no response from Moscow for the time being. His wobbly asset had delivered.

Once the elite had taken in that the threat had been revoked, they began to cautiously exult. A hashtag proclaiming “Trump is ours” (#TrumpNash), a conscious echo of the euphoric KrymNash (Crimea is Ours) of 2014, began trending strongly.

To make matters worse, and raise suspicions even higher, it became known that the leaders of Russia’s three key intelligence agencies, the FSB (Putin’s former bailiwick, and the nearest thing to a successor organisation to the KGB), the SVR (external intelligence) and the GRU (military intelligence) had visited Washington a few days earlier for discussions with US counterparts. Whatever the reasons for, or the content of, this extraordinary visit, the optics quite clearly flew against the trend of what appeared to have become settled US policy, and would have dismayed many in both countries.

Enough Republicans, particularly in the Senate, seem sufficiently worried about these latest trends to allow one to hope that they will not cohesively support further reckless actions by the president. The House Intelligence Committee has voted unanimously to publish the Democratic counter-memo, subject to the president’s declassifying its contents, which looks like a conciliatory gesture.

But Trump has been furiously tweeting that the ranking Democrat who prepared the counter-memo, Adam Schiff, is “one of the biggest liars and leakers in Washington… who must be stopped.” If he were to block the document’s release or, even worse, if he were to sack deputy attorney-general Rosenstein in order to replace him with someone who would accept direction to dismiss Robert Mueller, this could trigger a major constitutional crisis. And if, at this point, the Republicans decided to support their president through thick and thin in spite of their misgivings, it is possible the precarious system of adults in the room on external policy issues might in turn come under pressure. And the future of US domestic politics might similarly look uncertain, with the pub test and social media beginning to challenge the rule of law. •

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In Batman, the known unknowns provide plenty of uncertainty

8 February 2018

The battle for the inner-Melbourne seat is no ordinary by-election for Labor

Right:

Letting Ged be Ged? Labor candidate for Batman, Ged Kearney (left), with party leader Bill Shorten last Friday. David Crosling/AAP Image

Letting Ged be Ged? Labor candidate for Batman, Ged Kearney (left), with party leader Bill Shorten last Friday. David Crosling/AAP Image