Putin's best-laid plans are failing

He got the incompetent president he preferred, but he also got an increasingly anti-Russian Congress.

USA Today

MAR 2, 2017

I recently asked some Chinese officials what they thought of Vladimir Putin’s intervention in the 2016 U.S. election. Was this a smart thing to do? Will other countries — like China — emulate Russia’s example? After some hemming and hawing, and obligatory disavowals that there is no proof of Russian complicity, they said something pretty interesting: that Russia made a mistake. They have learned, they told me, that American politics is like a see-saw — if you tip one end, the other goes up in the air. The Russians have leaned hard on the executive branch and as a result of that Congress is turning more anti-Russian. It is much wiser, they suggested, to follow a policy of non-interference in other nations’ internal affairs.

A cynic could easily point out that in years past China sponsored Communist insurgencies in places like Malaya, Vietnam, and Korea which hardly hewed to the principle of non-intervention. A realist could also note that the Chinese, coming from a country that continues to grow in wealth and power, can afford to take the long view, whereas Putin presides over a declining state and so must maximize its influence while he can. But there is a good deal of wisdom in the Chinese reaction, because Putin’s intervention does seem to be backfiring, even if it’s far from a total loss.

A few months ago, it was reasonable to fear that a pro-Putin president would be presiding over a pro-Putin team — including National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who accepted $40,000 to attend a banquet in Moscow with Putin, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was once awarded an Order of Friendship by Putin — and that together they would lift sanctions on Russia, dismantle NATO and let Russia have its way with Eastern Europe. It is not entirely clear why this hasn’t happened, but surely part of the reason is that the Kremlingate scandal has made it impossible for Trump to make "good deals" with Putin as he has said he would love to do.

If Trump were to lift sanctions under the current circumstances, there is a good chance Congress would reimpose them; indeed a bipartisan group of senators has already introduced legislation that would take away presidential discretion in this matter. More than that: If Trump were to lift sanctions after the daily drumbeat of Kremlingate disclosures (including Wednesday’s news that Attorney General Jeff Sessions was not being truthful in denying he had any meetings with Russian representatives), he would be at serious risk of impeachment — if not now, then if and when Democrats regain control of Congress.

Trump for the time being is continuing the existing policy of punishing Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. He is also surrounding himself with appointees such as Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster who take a much less benign view of Putin than he does. The National Security Council has just hired as its top Russia hand Fiona Hill, a well-respected scholar at the Brookings Institution who has hard-line view on Putin.

This, surely, is not what Putin bargained for. On the other hand, the situation is not all bad from his vantage point. No doubt Putin’s first preference would be to have a president who implements a pro-Russian agenda. But he is also happy to avoid one who is, in his perception at least, anti-Russian — and that is how he viewed Hillary Clinton. Moreover, Putin benefits from an incompetent president whose administration is plagued by turmoil and uncertainty, and he certainly has that at the moment.

After nearly six weeks in office, Trump is already on his second national security adviser and he has not filled any of the key posts at the Departments of State and Defense beneath the Cabinet level. Indeed there’s pretty much no one home throughout the government—of 549 confirmable positions in the administration, Trump has nominated only 33 people, leaving 94% unfilled. Atlantic reporter Julia Ioffe visited the State Department and found it “adrift and listless,” with career employees not knowing what they are supposed to do. That makes it difficult for the U.S. government to respond to moves such as Russia's continuing aggression in Ukraine or its suspected attempts to manipulate elections in France, Holland and Germany.

Trump has also been weakened by his high unpopularity ratings — his poll numbers have turned negative faster than any previous president — and by the Kremlingate scandal which has already cost him his first national security adviser and might yet cost him his attorney general. A weak America led by a disorganized president is a godsend for anti-American states like Russia.

Putin's intervention arguably helped install that president. So just because it hasn’t worked as well as he might have hoped doesn’t make it any less dangerous. It was an assault on American democracy and we must get to the bottom of the whole affair. Sessions' decision to recuse himself from all investigations involving presidential campaigns was a good start. Now we need a special counsel to lead a credible inquiry.

“Destined to be the classic account of what may be the oldest . . . hardest form of war.” —John Nagl, Wall Street Journal

 

"Enormous, brilliant and important…. Terrific… Astute… Boot’s Invisible Armies should be required reading in the White House and Pentagon." —Michael Korda, Daily Beast

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