By David K. Shipler
It is impossible now, in the maelstrom of information and disinformation swirling around Donald Trump and Russia, for the United States to deliberate reasonably about its relationship with Moscow. It could happen if Trump were just slightly nuanced and sophisticated, because he is clearly disposed to patching things up with Putin. That would be a good thing if the open hand were accompanied by a clenched fist, to be raised when necessary.
Oddly, though, Trump cannot summon an unkind word about Russian policy and behavior, possibly because he sees the world in black and white, is consistently blind to shades of gray, and is determined to overturn all the tables and chairs of conventional thinking in Washington. He has thus polarized, not persuaded, and has helped fuel a dangerous hysteria about Russia in the national security and political establishment. It is reminiscent of the Cold War, when the Moscow-Washington global competition was viewed as a zero-sum game, with every gain by one seen as an equivalent loss by the other.
But the Russia-US relationship today is not a zero-sum game. It includes intelligence sharing on terrorism, the potential for joint efforts in Syria, collaboration in space and science, work on climate change and preserving the Arctic, and on. The relationship is an intricate tangle of conflict and cooperation, of clashing and mutual interests, of risks and rewards. Hillary Clinton clearly understood this. So, it seems, does Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, as indicated in his Senate confirmation hearing. But the President-elect shows no sign of seeing the cross-currents or looking past his next move. He plays checkers while Putin plays chess.
Did Putin authorize the hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s emails? The FBI, the CIA, and the NSA say yes; Trump said emphatic no’s until his press conference this week, when he acknowledged that Russia might have done it. But a small group of former US intelligence agents have organized to express their conviction that the emails were leaked, not hacked, and that the evidence of Moscow’s involvement was “thin gruel,” as it was called by Ray McGovern, a former CIA analyst, and William Binney, a former ranking technical specialist for the NSA.
Still, the consensus in Washington and the press that Russia did the hacking raises the next question: Why? To damage Clinton and help Trump in the campaign? The intelligence agencies say yes, mostly citing open-source Russian media as evidence—plus some intercepted Russian cheers after Trump’s victory.
But one has to wonder if Putin is really short-sighted enough to prefer an impulsive, erratic US president with his hand on the nuclear button, a man who can switch on nastiness when offended. Putin may have despised Clinton for allegedly fomenting protests over ballot rigging in his 2012 re-election, but a smart Russian leader would have to recognize Clinton as a more stable and dependable adversary—tough, yes, but schooled in realistic assessments of the opportunities and limits of foreign policy.
Then, did Russia’s supposed preference for Trump actually change votes? The DNC emails distributed by WikiLeaks contained nothing earthshaking: officials preferring Clinton over Bernie Sanders, some complaining about her as an inadequate candidate. “Fake news” about the Clinton Foundation’s ethical lapses was reportedly spread by Russian media in the US.
Russia was out “to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order,” say the intelligence agencies in their public report, “the promotion of which Putin and other senior Russian leaders view as a threat to Russia and Putin’s regime.” The Russian leader had complained that the release of the Panama Papers, which cast aspersions on some of his associates, and the disclosure of Russian doping of Olympic athletes, were American capers to damage Russia’s reputation. Russia is reportedly poised to influence German and French elections in favor of nationalist, rightwing parties.
But no adequate research exists to document that enough votes in the US were changed by the release of hacked emails. And even if they were, then the fingers that have been pointed at Putin should also be turned around and pointed at ourselves, at American voters too lazy or too biased to do any critical thinking, check sources, and drill into the truth. In the end, only American voters, not agents in Moscow, can be the downfall of American democracy.
Finally, how much truth—if any—is contained in the 35 pages of memos sent to the FBI by Christopher Steele, a former MI6 British agent who once worked under diplomatic cover in Moscow? Hired by a Republican opponent of Trump and then by Clinton’s campaign, Steele portrays a concerted effort, which he deems successful, to ensnare Trump in a web of wrongdoing involving sex, corruption, and coordination with Russian officials during the campaign. Trump heatedly denied any of it, and no news organization after months of trying has been able to verify a single piece of the story.
As anyone who has lived in Moscow knows, both during Soviet and post-Soviet times, the KGB, now the FSB, indulges routinely in tricks designed to entrap foreigners in compromising situations. A US military attaché in Soviet days told me, almost misty-eyed, about an approach made to him by a beautiful young woman. He was canny enough to know what was going on and to refuse, while wishing he could have accepted. American journalists and business executives were also targets.
So, if Russian intelligence had not attempted—the key word is attempted—to lure Trump as a wealthy visiting American businessman into compromising situations, it would have been the first time in history that Moscow had passed up such a chance. Trump hasn’t acknowledged any such attempts, which hollows out his emphatic denials. Why doesn’t he describe the Russians’ efforts, which can often be clumsy and obvious? Did they really make no approaches? If so, did he steadfastly refuse? Or can he be blackmailed? Washington is buzzing with speculation.
The unverified assertions have been lent plausibility by Trump’s predatory sexual behavior and his ethical indifference. From what we have learned of him, the details don’t seem entirely out of character. That doesn’t make them true, as we should remind ourselves.
The trouble with all this is that it generates bipartisan anti-Russianism, which blocks the conduct of sensible foreign policy. Russia is a complicated country, and Putin is a wily operator who harbors the age-old Russian complex about the West’s disdain and the hazards of geopolitical encirclement. The West’s unwise expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe, to Russia’s border, has ignited paranoia in Moscow, and a quarter-century after the humiliating collapse of the Soviet Union, Putin appears bent on regaining, at least to a point, the reach of the Russian empire from Central Asia to Eastern Europe.
Given Trump’s doubts about the virtue of NATO and his nonchalance about Russia’s annexation of Crimea and instigation of warfare in eastern Ukraine, Putin might see a real opening in his chess game. As a former KGB agent trained in flattery, blackmail, and manipulation, he seems to have a taste for recruiting people, attempting to enmesh foreign leaders in a web of deference, dependence, and affinity.
Perhaps he regards Trump’s vanity and naiveté as offering opportunity. Perhaps he reads Trump accurately, for a normal American politician facing all this suspicion about his collaboration with Russia would want to rebut it with a demonstration of hawkishness. To bolster his credentials, he would want to find a way to confront Putin. Trump has shown no such inclination.
A nasty backlash has been unleashed in Washington, less so in the American heartland.
The Gallup poll’s graph of favorable vs. unfavorable attitudes toward Russia over time shows lines undulating dramatically, from nearly a decade of favorable ratings beginning with the reformist Mikhail Gorbachev and extending into the early post-Soviet era of embryonic democracy. Then the lines crossed, with the negative side soaring until 65 percent expressed an unfavorable view of Russia in 2016. At the end of last year, an NBC/Wall Street Journal survey found 55 percent of Americans bothered “a great deal” or “quite a bit” by the gathering evidence that Russia had hacked the DNC’s emails. As in other areas of life, the country’s polarization was acute, with 86 percent of Democrats bothered, but only 29 percent of Republicans. In Congress, though, the outrage spreads across the aisle.
A return to a reasonable balance between repelling and respecting Russia, between guarding the West’s security and building on areas of mutual interest, depends on qualities the next administration has yet to acquire: calm expertise and an ability to think a few steps ahead about cause and effect. Mr. Trump, it’s your move.