Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

August 16, 2016

Does Putin Want Trump? Really?

By David K. Shipler

            Of all the odd things that have happened on the way to the presidential election, the weirdest is the spectacle of Republicans, once the fist-pounding party of national security, shrugging off Donald Trump’s affinity for Vladimir Putin and for Russia’s geopolitical ambitions. Further, to turn normalcy completely upside down, the Democrats, once the party of internationalism, are pointing fingers at the specter of treacherous foreign influence subverting American democracy.
            With some exceptions, the right has been indifferent and the left has been apoplectic over Trump’s embrace of Moscow’s perspectives. He has spoken admiringly of Putin, and Putin has returned the favor. The Republican candidate has accepted Russia’s annexation of Crimea, deleted a call for lethal arms to Ukraine from the Republican Party’s platform, brushed off the suspicious murders of nonconforming Russian journalists, and questioned whether NATO members such as the Baltics should be defended in accordance with the treaty’s obligations.
            Presumably to help Trump, two of Russia’s intelligence services hacked the email files of the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, with mildly embarrassing releases so far and, surely, more serious disclosures to come. Meanwhile, Trump receives favored coverage and commentary by the Kremlin’s Russia Today television broadcasts in the U.S.
            The question is whether Putin, who is reputed to be a canny manipulator, really thinks that Russia would be well served by having a crackpot in the White House. Maybe so, if he’s as short-sighted as his KGB training taught him to be.
Putin-watchers see him as a recruiter in the intelligence-service style, having learned to exploit weakness and vanity in targeting people for recruitment. He’s now busily recruiting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, for example. And Trump certainly has lots of weakness and vanity—a tempting target for Putin to apply flattery and bribery to see whether the erratic, unpredictable, thin-skinned, narcissistic mogul can be groomed into a client.
 There’s a context to this. According to reports by The Washington Post, The New York Times, Politico, Slate, and others, financial ties exist between Trump and some of Putin’s close associates. These include funds moving from Russia and Kazakhstan to help Trump with debt; business involvements between a Trump company and a firm owned by a Russian oligarch with alleged mafia connections; and a close consulting relationship between Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and the corrupt, pro-Moscow Ukrainian president, Viktor F. Yanukovych, who was ousted in a popular uprising. (Manafort left the campaign Aug. 19.)
The Times has found that a ledger uncovered by Ukrainian investigators in Kiev lists $12 million to be paid to Manafort, apparently by Yanukovych’s party from bribes and looted Ukrainian assets. (The documents stop short of confirming that he actually received such funds.) Another Trump adviser, Michael Caputo, was under contract in 2000 “to improve Putin’s image in the United States,” the Post reported.
These intricate relationships between Trump and his advisers on the one hand, and Putin and his associates on the other, have energized those who oppose Trump for other reasons to engage in flights of rhetoric unheard since the Cold War. Stephen F. Cohen, a professor emeritus of Russian history from NYU and Princeton, has characterized some of the accusations as "neo-McCarthyite."
That’s an exaggeration in itself; nobody is witch-hunting imagined communists in Hollywood, the Army, the State Department, or universities. But Cohen worries that Trump’s supposed endorsement of “détente” with Russia (a term Trump never seems to have used or even formed into a concept) is being lost from the political discussion. Heading off a dangerous new Cold War and forging improved relations with Russia merit a serious policy shift, Cohen argues.
He’s right, but whether that’s best achieved with a soft touch or a hard bargain is always debatable. It was arguably a miscalculation to expand NATO beginning in 1999 to include the the Eastern European countries that had recently emerged from Soviet domination, and then the former Soviet Baltic republics of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. The expansion brought no gain to the West, only an obligation to go to war should Russia attack any of the new members. Where the Western foreign policy establishment saw the move as a deterrent to Russian aggression, the Russians, trying to stand erect from the humiliating collapse of the Soviet Union, saw it as a finger in the eye and a threat that had been rolled right up to their western border.
            It is both a deterrent and a threat, and so it warrants some clear rethinking. A discussion about the viability and purpose of the alliance would be sensible if it could be led by someone sensible. Unfortunately, Trump is the one to raise the issue, and so has cast it as a blustering, isolationist impulse without a shred of strategy. If improved relations are a goal, as they should be, they have been impaired by both Putin and Trump, as can be seen in the thunderous denunciations by anti-Trump American commentators. Russia is now pictured as the arch-enemy of America’s global interests and domestic democracy.
             Jeffrey Goldberg declares in The Atlantic that Trump has acted “to unmask himself as a de facto agent of Russian President Vladimir Putin, a KGB-trained dictator who seeks to rebuild the Soviet empire by undermining the free nations of Europe, marginalizing NATO, and ending America’s reign as the world’s sole superpower.”
             “Putin’s Puppet,” reads the headline in Slate, which calls out Trump for “slavish devotion” to Putin. “Vladimir Putin has a plan for destroying the West—and that plan looks a lot like Donald Trump,” writes Franklin Foer, a former editor of The New Republic. “We should think of the Trump campaign as the moral equivalent of Henry Wallace’s communist-infiltrated campaign for president in 1948, albeit less sincere and idealistic than that. A foreign power that wishes ill upon the United States has attached itself to a major presidential campaign.”
            Foer goes on to smear Trump for paying “obeisance” to an actor he thought was Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and “lavishing praise” on him during the real Gorbachev’s visit to New York in 1977. The impersonator, Ron Knapp, was on the street fooling crowds when Trump, descending from Trump Tower, merely shook hands and said meeting him was a “great honor.” Foer was a kid at the time, obviously too young to realize even now that Gorbachev had become a darling in the West for his bold liberalization of Soviet society. The joke was on Trump for not spotting the imposter, but in this singular instance, he deserves a break: he said nothing more effusive than any other American would have to the man he thought was Gorbachev.
            What is going on here? Reading Putin’s mind has become a cottage industry, and now reading Trump’s mind has got serious commentators working overtime.
            Two observations are particularly noteworthy. The first is by Timothy Snyder, a historian at Yale. He writes in The New York Review of Books:
            “It is not hard to see why Trump might choose Putin as his fantasy friend. Putin is the real world version of the person Trump pretends to be on television. Trump’s financial success (such as it is) has been as a New York real estate speculator, a world of private deal-making that can seem rough and tough—until you compare it to the Russia of the 1990s that ultimately produced the Putin regime. Trump presents himself as the maker of a financial empire who is willing to break all the rules, whereas that is what Putin in fact is. Thus far Trump can only verbally abuse his opponents at rallies, whereas Putin’s opponents are assassinated. . . . As anyone familiar with Russian politics understands, an American president who shuns alliances with fellow democracies, praises dictators, and prefers ‘deals’ to the rule of law would be a very easy mark in Moscow. . . . For him Trump is a small man who might gain great power. The trick is to manipulate the small man and thereby neutralize the great power. . . . Given what Trump has done thus far, under no stress and with little encouragement, it is terrifying to contemplate what he would do as a frustrated American president looking for love.”
            And here is David Remnick in The New Yorker:
            “The fellow-feeling between the two is complex, but it is not hard to see who gets the better of whom. Trump sees strength and cynicism in Putin and hopes to emulate him. Putin sees in Trump a grand opportunity. He sees in Trump weakness and ignorance, a confused mind. He has every hope of exploiting him. . . . Vladimir Putin is a cunning and cynical reader of his adversaries. He notices that Trump does not know the difference between the Quds Force and the Kurds, or what the “nuclear triad” is; that his analysis of Brexit was based in part on what might be good for his golf courses in Britain; that his knowledge of world affairs is roughly that of someone who subscribes to a daily newspaper but doesn’t always have time to get to it. Overwhelmed with his own problems at home, Putin sees the ready benefit in having the United States led by an unlettered narcissist who believes that geostrategic questions are as easy to resolve as a real-estate closing. Putin knows a chump when he sees one.”

I would add this caveat to Tyler and Remnick: that Putin, in favoring a vain and mentally unbalanced man to control the nuclear missiles that could annihilate Russia, is not as smart as we think he is, or as he thinks he is.

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