Russia’s prime minister said of the newly-elected American president, he is “an honest person who really wants to change much for the better.” His praise did not end there. He said he was an “understandable and predictable partner.” Russia’s foreign minister also showered praised on the victor and expressed hope for the future. “We are prepared to go as far as the U.S. Administration is prepared to go on the basis of equality, mutual benefit and mutual respect.” And it isn’t just Russian leaders who were pleased with the outcome of the U.S. election. One media report said, “A group of young pro-Putin Russians who attended an election party at the U.S. ambassador’s house Tuesday night agreed” that the election outcome would be better for Russia. The article went on to say, “They only smiled when reminded that being ‘good for Russia’ probably would not win a presidential candidate any points among U.S. voters.”
The year of all this Russian adulation for the leader of the free world was of course 2012, and it was in response to the re-election of President Barack Obama. And all this happened after a four-year term of capitulation to Russian demands on the part of the President Obama, who, in 2009, praised Russia’s Putin by telling him, “I am aware of not only the extraordinary work that you’ve done on behalf of the Russian people in your previous role as prime minis-, uh, as president, but in your current role as prime minister.”
But you could be excused if you missed all of this cozy U.S.-Russia talk. For there were no accusations that President Obama was a stooge for the Russian government. There was hardly media coverage when President Obama crooned, “Russia was a help with this,” when celebrating the completion of the infamous Iran deal, let alone a media frenzy.
No, this is 2017, when all the media and commentary is centered on the question, “to what degree is the incoming 45th President of the United States a witting or unwitting stooge of the Russian government?”
Support for the theory that Donald Trump will cozy up with the Russians to the detriment and shame of the United States comes from three sources. One, the president-elect’s statements about or directed toward the Russian leader; two, previous business ties to investors with ties to the Russian government, including those of Trump’s pick for secretary of state; and three, the Russian hacking into the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and other Democrat operatives.
Let’s put the first one, Trump’s rhetoric, aside for a moment, especially since we have already established that President Obama swapped his fair share of sweet-nothings with Moscow.
Business dealings are driven by profit margins (e.g. American and European companies do not want to support the Iranian terrorist state, they wants to sell airplanes). Executives look out for the financial interests of their companies. Does this excuse them from ethical or moral considerations? Certainly not. But it does explain why some of the country’s most patriotic, well-meaning businessmen have no qualms making a buck off shady characters or outright dictators. Point is, Trump looked out for the benefit of his company and was duly attentive to and acted in accordance with the laws governing such business dealings. One might disagree with his partnerships and investments, but they are hardly enough to indict a man for conspiring with a U.S. adversary to harm the United States. One point of evidence that shows previous positive business affairs do not necessarily mean a failure to see the Russians as they are: Rex Tillerson, the Exxon Mobile giant known for his success in dealing with the Russians, is indicating in private meetings with members of Congress he will not be doing Russians’ bidding as the U.S. secretary of state. His confirmation hearings will provide greater insight into the way he views the Russians and America’s role in the world, more generally.
Let’s address the Russian hacking matter. First, the recent intelligence community report concluded that Russia was, in fact, behind the cyber-attacks on the Republican National Committee (RNC), the Democratic National Committee (DNC), and operatives’ emails. The report, a consensus document, prepared by the CIA, NSA, and FBI concluded: “We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.”
Considering the Russian government, just like any other foreign government who sees the United States as an adversary, engages in regular cyber-attacks, it takes very little to persuade me that it was the Russians behind the hacks.
Note, however, that the motives, agreed to by the three intelligence agencies, were not to elect Donald Trump. Analysis that said so would hardly make sense. According to the Wall Street Journal, the techniques used to infiltrate the DNC were also used in an attempt to infiltrate the RNC, only the RNC’s security measures blocked the attempts. Moreover, the timing of the security breaches also work against the theory that the original motivations were to help Donald Trump. The first breach took place in the summer of 2015, the second in April of 2016. Recall, Donald Trump didn’t even officially win the Republican nomination until July 2016. It makes a lot more sense that the Russians, like nearly everyone else on Planet Earth, believed Hillary Clinton would win the election, and they were busy digging up damaging information to weaken and use as leverage against her.
The intelligence community also revealed high-level Russians cheered upon learning Donald Trump won the election. Much could be said about this, but, in short, some Russians cheered President Obama’s election, and the Communist Party USA backed Hillary Clinton. In other words, it means nothing.
The President-elect has been notably defensive about the conclusions of the intelligence community, so what about that? Does it at least imply he is defensive of the Russian government and naive to an alarming degree about the nature of the Russians’ desire to cause upheaval in the American democratic process? After President-elect Trump received a personal briefing from the intelligence agencies, he responded: “While Russia, China, other countries, outside groups and people are consistently trying to break through the cyber infrastructure of our governmental institutions, businesses and organizations including the Democrat [sic] National Committee, there was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election including the fact that there was no tampering whatsoever with voting machines.” Those are not the words of someone who seems to be clueless about the constant cyber attacks adversaries launch against the United States—including Russia. They are the words of someone who is keenly aware that the media and those insufferably determined to look at the incoming Trump administration with as little charity as possible are using the Russian cyber-attacks to delegitimize the American election outcome.
The Obama administration started its first term speaking positively about Russia; it was willing to capitulate on matters important to Russia in an effort to appease it (i.e. the U.S. missile defense system); it powered through with the nuclear arms reduction treaty, New START, even though there is evidence it did so while concealing to Congress that Russia was in violation, and remains in violation, of another arms control treaty, the INF Treaty and engages in nuclear saber-rattling; it paid little notice to the Russians harassing U.S. diplomats; it allowed Russia to harass the U.S. Navy in international waters; and it permitted Russia to protect and empower the dictator Bashar al-Assad and partake in the brutal onslaught of the Syrian people, to name just a few.
It’s little wonder the incoming President might be resisting the lame-duck President’s efforts to make this Russian infraction the one that calls Russia out as a true enemy.
Now, let’s address the rhetoric from Trump regarding Russia and its leaders. Trump has called Putin a leader for his country and has accepted Putin’s compliments directed at him.
Each statement directed towards Putin is worth examining, but, for example, Trump got members of the anti-Trump intelligentsia really clutching their pearls when he quipped, “Russia, if you are listening, I hope you are able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by the press.”
The response from Camp Clinton was remarkable. Jake Sullivan, Clinton’s chief foreign policy adviser, said, “This has gone from being a matter of curiosity, and a matter of politics, to being a national security issue.” But, many of us who followed Clinton’s shameful and illegal handling of highly classified documents and her mysteriously disappearing 30,000-plus emails wondered, “If those emails were harmless, why would Russia finding them create a national security issue?”
Or, put another way, as Charles Krauthammer observed, “Whether or not [Trump] made [the Russia comments] seriously or not, could have been sarcastic or sort of half sarcastic as a way to plant the idea. The fact is that it leaves the Clinton campaign in a complete contradiction. If these are just private e-mails, then there is nothing to be concerned about. There’s no espionage. There is no danger to national security. I mean, they will discover her yoga lesson schedule.” Indeed.
Each one of Trump’s statements regarding Russia has been relatively cordial, it’s true.
But, whether intentionally or not, some of them, especially this one, appears to have another political meaning, and effect. But, to be sure, categorically none of the comments rises to level of evidence that America’s new Commander in Chief seeks a grand alliance with Moscow. Is it possible, then, if one takes Trump’s statements toward and about Russia within the context of Trump’s overarching themes regarding what America’s standing in the world ought to be and with full view of his stated foreign policy goals, that Trump is doing something far more clever than what people give him credit for? I think so. And that brings me to the last point.
Trump has consistently argued for investing in and modernizing America’s military. Most importantly, he has identified the employment of nuclear weapons as a major threat he would like to avoid, and recently stated, “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”
He is absolutely right. The United States has been lowering the number of its nuclear weapons for decades in the hopes that other countries would be motivated to eschew nuclear strength as well. In addition, the United States has allowed its nuclear force to age without adequate modernization. All three legs of the triad—submarines, missiles, and bombers—are due for serious refurbishment if they are to remain safe and offer a credible deterrent. What has kept the United States from maintaining and improving its nuclear force? Fear of provoking the Russian Federation. President-elect Trump has no such fear. It’s as if he knows (and he surely does) that the Russians have been modernizing their own nuclear weapons without reservation, have even been testing a class of missiles that could be used to deliver a nuclear weapon in violation of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, without due penalty from the U.S. government. It’s as if he knows that the Russians have been threatening to employ nuclear weapons against U.S. allies in response to U.S./NATO deployments of purely defensive military systems.
Trump has also indicated that he will support expanding U.S. missile defense. The Obama administration has traded away or slowed down U.S. missile defense development and expansion because of Russia’s objections. Expanding missile defense is exactly what the United States must do—but it will require a steely commitment to American primacy in the face of Russian (and Chinese) fierce opposition. So far, it certainly seems as though the president-elect is gearing up for exactly this.
Donald Trump’s firm stance on Iran is another indicator that he is no flack for the Russian agenda. The Iran deal was supposed to slow Iran’s nuclear program. In the end, with strong U.S. and Russian lobbying, the Iranians got just about everything they wanted out of the deal, and the matters Obama officials once told Congress were necessary conditions for a “good deal” were off the table. If the incoming administration is to roll back the effects of the deal, it will… you guessed it… require pushing back on Russia and staunching its power grab in the Middle East via its alliance with Iran.
If the Russians wanted an American president in office who would follow the Obama administration’s patterns of concessions and refusal to respond to Russian aggression, it would have been hoping for and preparing for a Hillary Clinton presidency.
Alas, it does not seem this is what it will enjoy with a U.S. President Trump. But, as Trump oft remarked during the campaign: “If I run, and if I win, I don’t want the enemy to know what I’m doing.” It’s a welcome approach to the complexities of American foreign policy, and it certainly seems like the president-elect has not only kept the Russians guessing, but the too-clever-by-half national security establishment as well. The media and the commentariat were wrong about candidate Trump, wrong about the electorate, and there’s little to reason they are right about the incoming President now.
If I were to describe the current Trump approach to the Russian Federation, taking his rhetoric and his policies stances together, it sure seems more than plausible that it is a variation of President Theodore Roosevelt’s “speak softly and carry a big stick.” Time will tell.
Rebeccah L. Heinrichs, a contributing editor at Providence, is a fellow at Hudson Institute where she provides research and commentary on a variety of international security issues and specializes in deterrence and counter-proliferation. She is also the vice-chairman of the John Hay Initiative’s Counter-proliferation Working Group and the original manager of the House of Representatives Bi-partisan Missile Defense Caucus.
Photo Credit: Donald Trump in Hershey, PA, on December 15 for his Victory Tour. By Michael Vadon, via Flickr.