Volte-face: Trump's Putin policy lets Russia 'punch above its weight'
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US President Donald Trump faced a deluge of criticism for siding with Vladimir Putin against his own intelligence agencies on Monday before backtracking. After a week of US diplomatic missteps and reversals, only the Russian leader emerged unscathed.
Trump confounded both his backers and his critics on Monday by standing beside Russian President Vladimir Putin and announcing that Putin’s “powerful” denials of election meddling had convinced him, despite the US intelligence community’s assessment that Russia sought to influence the 2016 vote.
“I have great confidence in my intelligence people,” Trump told a joint press conference in Helsinki. “But I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.”
The US president offered a clear juxtaposition between what his administration has told him and what Putin said privately in their one-on-one meeting in the Finnish capital.
“[Director of National Intelligence] Dan Coats came to me, and some others. They said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin. He just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be,” Trump said.
His announcement ignited a firestorm of criticism from both Republicans and Democrats, including accusations of “treason”.
Republican Senator John McCain said the statement was “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory”.
“The damage inflicted by President Trump’s naiveté, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate,” McCain said in a statement, adding: “No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant.”
Former director of national intelligence James Clapper called Trump’s statement “an incredible capitulation" while former CIA director John Brennan said on Twitter that it was "nothing short of treasonous".
Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of “high crimes & misdemeanors.” It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you???John O. Brennan (@JohnBrennan) July 16, 2018
But Trump wasn’t done yet. Putin told the Helsinki press conference that he would allow US investigators probing allegations of Russian election interference under Special Counsel Robert Mueller to question 12 Russian intelligence officers indicted in the case last week. But in exchange, Putin wanted Russian officials to interrogate those Americans whom he accuses of involvement in unspecified “illegal actions” on Russian territory, notably prominent Putin critic Bill Browder and former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul.
“I think that’s an incredible offer,” Trump said, sparking a new round of widespread and bipartisan outrage that Trump would even consider turning Americans – including former diplomats – over to a foreign power for questioning.
By Tuesday the White House was in full defence mode, with Trump telling the press he misspoke in Helsinki regarding Russia’s election interference. When he said, “I don’t see any reason why it would be” Russia, he had actually meant “wouldn’t”.
“The sentence should have been, ‘I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia',” Trump said. “Sort of a double negative.”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders also later backtracked on Putin’s proposal to swap citizens for questioning, saying Thursday that Trump “disagreed” with the plan.
Hours later, Trump risked courting controversy anew by asking staff to invite Putin to Washington in the autumn.
Making Russia great again
Trump’s week of diplomatic U-turns left many observers scratching their heads, wondering if he had an overall strategy for dealing with the Kremlin. Some attributed his compliance to a personal history of relying on Russian money for many of his business ventures. Others have suggested, more darkly, that Trump’s obeisance is linked to Russian kompromat or is quid pro quo for Moscow's efforts to swing the 2016 election in his favour.
Whatever the reason, Trump’s amenable stance on Russia is at odds with the rest of the US establishment, rendering it difficult for the United States to pursue a consistent, coherent policy towards Moscow.
“Most of the US government is hawkish and suspicious of Russia,” observed Dr Jacob Parakilas, deputy head of the US and the Americas Programme at Chatham House. “Congress, which can barely agree on anything across party lines these days, has repeatedly passed sanctions against Russia and other related measures by overwhelming, veto-proof margins. There is little to no support for what Trump might call a ‘good relationship’ with Putin in the US military, the intelligence community, or the diplomatic corps.”
And yet Trump, as the head of state, “sees things quite differently and is willing to disregard the advice of virtually everyone in the government he leads”, Parakilas said. “But his power is far from absolute, and he can’t compel them to take his view. That inevitably stands in the way of [policy] coherence.”
Parakilas said that while Trump might not have an overarching plan for his Kremlin policy, “instinctually he wants to lower tensions with Russia and focus on creating a more adversarial economic relationship with the EU and China”.
Such goals may be impossible to realise, however. “Given what’s arrayed against him internally and externally, I think there’s very little chance of that happening, and I don’t think he has a backup plan,” Parakilas said.
“So he’ll keep trying to find opportunities to ingratiate himself with Putin where he can, but those [efforts] will contribute to growing political blowback at home.”
Playing a weak hand
Putin, for his part, has proved his expertise in parlaying relative weakness into strength.
According to James Nixey, head of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, the announcement that Putin has been invited to the White House in the autumn is “another win for Kremlin”.
“[I]t once again sets Russia up as a major league power – above and beyond all others really,” Nixey said in an email. “This is in direct contrast to Russia’s direction of travel. It is NOT a modernising, economically improving power. So Russia, once again, punches above its weight.”
As other foreign policy observers have noted, Trump’s seeming acquiescence to the Kremlin is baffling given Russia’s geostrategic importance. The United States has by far the world’s strongest military and the largest GDP, while Russia does not even crack the world’s top 10 economies, according to the World Bank. And yet Trump appears keen to grant Moscow international footing equal to that of Washington.
“Russia is geographically sprawling and has a lot of Soviet legacy relationships…” noted political science professor Robert E. Kelly in a Twitter post. “[B]ut it's actually rather sluggish and being surpassed by cleaner, more globalized states you wouldn't think of as out-running Moscow.”
Russia's GDP is smaller than that of either Brazil, Italy or Canada, he noted. So for all its nuclear “bluster” and “fatiguing trouble-making” along its perimeter, Russia is "basically a stagnant, over-sized middle power”.
“It's amazing how well Putin plays a weaker hand than most people recognize,” Kelly wrote.
As Trump rushes to build a Russo-US "special responsibility for maintaining international security," recall that Russia's GDP is now smaller than that of Brazil, Italy, Canada, and S Korea, states we normally think of as middle powers. I'm not sure most people realize this; /1Robert E Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly) July 17, 2018
Putin scored points domestically while in Helsinki "as any autocrat would do in a photo-op with the US president", said Olga Khvostunova, a political analyst and researcher at the Institute of Modern Russia public policy think tank. However, in terms of Putin's real priorities – including sanctions relief and official recognition of Crimea – "he is not getting anything", she said.
But Russia seems to be taking a long-term view, willing to bide its time to reap any benefits. Moscow is hoping to amass what Nixey called “mini victories” from the US president, always “with the possibility of more substantial victories down the line”.
“The Russians are patient with Trump,” he said, “as they spot opportunity in his weakness and vanity.”
In an analysis for Chatham House, Keir Giles, a senior consulting fellow at the Russia and Eurasia Programme, said that for all the surprises on offer in Helsinki, Trump’s Putin meeting could have turned out much worse for America’s European allies.
Trump “demonstrated his willingness to make sudden unilateral concessions that compromise the security of his allies” at the June summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un – notably by announcing the suspension of joint military exercises with South Korea, long a point of contention with Pyongyang.
Against this backdrop, there was a real danger that, “left to his own devices, he might have been persuaded by President Putin to do the same in the Baltic states and Poland”, Giles said. And such a move “would have provoked an immediate crisis between the United States and its NATO allies”.
Despite the consternation that followed the Helsinki summit, he wrote, “both the United States and its European allies may have got off lightly”.