Let us assume that the allegations of links between Russia and the Trump campaign are nonsense. Grant that all that Donald Trump and his campaign have been doing are wholly motivated by Trump’s own plans and interests. Can we then come up with some explanation or strategy behind Trump’s actions?
Let’s begin by being clear about Vladimir Putin’s world-view. Putin’s chief strategic problem is that Russia is pinned between two giant militaries: China and NATO. The latter is an alliance extending to Russia’s borders that combines the strength of Europe with the U.S. — the nation with the world’s largest and most technologically advanced military, and which is about to embark on a $1 trillion modernization of its nuclear arsenal. Putin’s chief aim has therefore been to weaken or dissolve NATO by creating divisions within Europe and between Europe and the U.S. For years, Putin has pressed the case that because the Cold War is over and Russia has no designs on Europe, NATO is now obsolete and should be ended, just as the Warsaw Pact has been. His main goal is to sow distrust between the U.S. and its NATO partners and to destroy European unity. If possible, it would also be helpful if the U.S. would back off its plans to update its nuclear arsenal and the extremely expensive competition that would trigger.
What else could Putin wish for to improve Russia’s geopolitical situation? First would be for the U.S. to lose interest in the Ukraine, accepting the validity of Russia’s claims and actions there. Second would be for the U.S. to pick a fight with China in the Pacific, to distract both the U.S. and China from Russia’s sphere of interest in the former U.S.S.R and the Middle East. This is especially important as China’s “new silk road” investments in the Indian Ocean and Central Asia would impinge on Russia’s historical sphere of influence. Finally, the icing on the cake – though long out of reach – would be if in the Middle East the U.S. would accept Russia’s position that all that matters is stabilizing governments, even if they are authoritarian, corrupt, and criminal human rights violators, and if the U.S. and Israel together would become so blatantly aggressive against Palestinians that it would stir up Arab nations and the U.N. against both Israel and the U.S., giving Russia a situation that it could leverage to gain influence throughout the region.
For its economy, Russia’s major problems are that American and European sanctions are biting, that its energy industries desperately need external financial and technological investments, and that it is being overtaken by the rapid rise of China, which is gaining international influence by its increased investments and trade throughout the world. The solutions that Putin desperately desires are to have sanctions lifted without having to give up any important strategic or geopolitical gains, and also to get foreign investment to help grow and modernize its oil and gas industry. Weakening or breaking up the European Union would help to undermine sanctions and weaken the European economy; and if the U.S. and China engaged in a trade war, that would weaken both of their economies as well.
Of course the U.S. remains Putin’s most significant adversary. It is the richest and most powerful, and its institutions and history – in support of democracy, human rights, political freedoms, leaders accountable to law, an independent press and judiciary – stand in opposition to everything that Putin maintains to remain in power. Thus Putin needs to weaken the U.S. and undermine its institutions to achieve his goals. To that end, Putin would like to see disunity among America’s political leaders, its intelligence agencies undermined, and its free media lose their legitimacy and credibility as a source of factual information. Ideally, the U.S. would adopt policies toward Russia that ignore Russia’s actions toward other nations and the conflict between American values and the Russian political system, and simply seek cooperation on bilateral issues.
Now that we know Putin’s goals, we can look more clearly at Trump’s actions and see how they differ from Putin’s agenda. Since last summer, when Trump had clinched the Republican nomination, here are some of his statements and actions. To review:
- Last summer, while the Trump campaign generally stayed out of the drafting of the Republican party platform, they intervened strongly on one and only one issue – they “steam rolled” an attempt to put language in the platform criticizing Russian actions in Ukraine and promising aid to Ukraine’s military. Evidently, getting any mention of Ukraine out of the Republican platform was more important to the campaign than language on taxes, education, or health care.
- In August, when questioned about Putin’s intentions in Ukraine by George Stephanopoulos, Trump’s response was hyperbolic: “He’s not going into Ukraine, OK, just so you understand. He’s not going to go into Ukraine, all right? You can mark it down. You can put it down. You can take it anywhere you want.” Why would Trump make such an extreme and wholly inaccurate defense of Putin’s Ukraine policies?
- In choosing his foreign policy team, Trump picked a Secretary of State with no prior government or diplomatic experience but whose most notable accomplishments include negotiating energy deals with Russia, and who has long-established relationships with Putin and Igor Sechin, the current CEO of the giant Russian oil firm Rosneft. Trump also chose a national security advisor who was paid to appear on Russia’s propaganda TV network and who has fixated on Islamic terrorism to the exclusion of any wider strategic view. That advisor’s first policy-related call was to Russia’s ambassador to exchange Christmas greetings and plan a meeting for Trump with Putin. Trump could hardly have made two major foreign policy appointments more pleasing to Putin if Putin had picked them himself.
- Trump has repeatedly praised the United Kingdom for its vote to exit the European Union, calling it a great move and saying that he expects other countries to exit as well. Trump has met with and lauded Brexit leader Nigel Farage, and promised to fast-track a US-British trade pact to facilitate a “hard” exit.
- Trump has sharply criticized the EU as a vehicle for Germany and attacked Germany’s chancellor, calling her policies on refugees a great mistake. He has even said there is no difference in his trust in the leader of Germany – the lynchpin of our NATO alliance – and Putin, and that his trust in the former might not last. He has called NATO “obsolete” and said the U.S. should not honor its NATO obligations since some NATO members are not paying their fair share.
- Trump has challenged the one-China policy, which has been the foundation of Sino-U.S. relations for decades. He has also talked about starting a trade war with China, calling them the worst cheaters and threatening massive tariffs, even raising the idea of using Taiwan as a bargaining chip in trade negotiations, something that China rejects as an existential threat.
- Trump has refrained from any criticism of Russian actions in Ukraine, Syria, the Balkans, or eastern Europe. His nominee for Secretary of State, in his confirmation hearings, said that Trump had not even discussed Russia policy with him.
- Trump has defended Russia against the conclusions of all U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia meddled in U.S. elections. In doing so, he has impugned and criticized the credibility and objectivity of U.S. intelligence agencies, and has attacked political leaders on both sides of the aisle.
- Trump and his team have repeatedly criticized mainstream U.S. media, calling them purveyors of fake news, while accepting as truth the propaganda on Clinton and himself put out by the National Enquirer, Breitbart, and other highly politicized media. They have thus undermined the idea that there is any difference between objective reporting and political propaganda, and that the U.S. has any reporting that can be regarded as objective and conveying factual news.
- Trump appears to be planning a meeting with Putin as one of his first meetings with foreign leaders, with the goal of a deal in which the U.S. would drop sanctions in return for an agreement on reducing nuclear weapons. Such a deal is remarkable in that it would give Putin two things he desperately wants – ending sanctions for his interventions in Ukraine and the U.S. elections, and ending the prospect of competition with an upgraded U.S. nuclear arsenal. In return, Russia would have to give up nothing at all on Ukraine, Syria, cybersecurity or any other issue that it cares about. One might say that it appears as if the goal of a nuclear pact – which is something that Putin desires for his own purposes – is being used as a pretext for the lifting of sanctions.
- In regard to Israel, Trump has proposed moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and has chosen an ambassador to Israel who supports increasing settlements in Palestinian areas and is skeptical of any peace agreement or two-state solution. These policies promise to escalate Israeli-Palestinian tensions, distracting attention in the Middle East from Russian support for Syria’s dictator Hafez al-Assad, and inviting further condemnations of the U.S. in the United Nations and the Middle East.
We should dismiss the notion that Trump or his campaign had links to Russia or any financial or other motivations for his actions. We are then left with just the list of Trump’s statements and actions to speak for themselves.
The problem then is that Trump’s actions, even before taking office, appear like the fulfillment of a long wish list of Vladimir’s Putin’s most desired goals. Even Trump’s continued refusal to release his tax returns – which might have made sense during a campaign when his opponents might seek to use them – seems pointless now that he is the President-elect. Why not end suspicion and criticism by releasing them now, when there is no longer anything to lose?
Unless, of course, there is. For as Trump’s actions and statements continue, it is harder and harder to see them as anything but the fulfillment of a very lengthy wish list for the Kremlin. On a wide range of issues, Trump has so far given Putin everything he could have dreamed of. Trump may be wholly innocent of any links or pressure from Russia. But it is becoming devilishly difficult to find any explanation of the actions listed above in which such actions are primarily a defense of America’s strategic interests and support American values and goals.