President Donald Trump has never shown much interest in foreign policy issues. The few consistent themes he has supported are to defeat ISIS, restructure trade deals, and radically improve relations with Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
While it is easy to understand the interest in destroying ISIS, and his thoughts on trade are long-held, it is less clear why he is so keen to overturn the bipartisan policy toward Russia. Although he has failed to explain what he hopes to accomplish by engaging Russia, it is nonetheless apparent it is important enough to him that he is willing to antagonize Congress, rebuke the Intelligence Community and ignore long-time U.S. allies in an effort to develop a personal relationship with Putin. He dismissed blatant Russian cyber-attacks against the U.S. and even went so far as to unfavorably compare our most important ally, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, to Putin. He seems uninterested in most foreign issues but goes out of his way to praise Russia.
He surely must have a good reason.
While it is easy to predict what Putin gets out of improved relations, it is more difficult to discern how the U.S. might benefit from any trade-off with Russia.
What is a winning trade-off? What do we want, and what are we willing to give up to get it? A reasonable reading of Putin’s national interests suggests that they are antithetical to ours. Are we willing to lift sanctions and recognize Putin’s seizure of Crimea and eastern Ukraine? For what? Help with ISIS? Do we need their help? Why hasn’t Russia shown any willingness to help us fight terror over the past 16 years? It’s a deal no serious foreign policy professional would take.
Perhaps the Trump Administration will surprise us and articulate a coherent strategic national interest for engaging Mr. Putin. However, short of some hidden strategic interest yet to be revealed, there seem to be only two other possibilities why President Trump would be interested in reaching out to Mr. Putin.
The more benign explanation is that he naively sees Russia as a European partner who should be able to help us deal with trouble spots in the Middle East and Asia. The second option is more troubling because it suggests criminality and could potentially damage or destroy the Trump Presidency.
The desire to improve relations with Russia is not unique to the Trump Administration. As I outlined in a previous post, many people without deep experience engaging Russia assume that we should be able to find a way to collaborate. President George W. Bush tried his best to cooperate with Putin, and when it didn’t work, President Barack Obama sought a “reset.” Even inside the CIA, there were initial hopes immediately after 9/11 that the Russians would be key allies in the war on terror. All these efforts to reach out were met with the cold reality that Russia’s core interests are simply not compatible with ours. As Rolf Mowatt-Larssen commented at a recent Cipher Brief Georgetown Salon, “The landscape is cluttered with people who thought they could fix the relationship with Russia.”
The U.S. is an optimistic country and assumes all problems have solutions. Russia, on the other hand, has bloody experience with nearby enemies and reflexively rejects any perceived effort to constrain its power. As George Kennan articulated, “The jealous and intolerant eye of the Kremlin can distinguish, in the end, only vassals and enemies, and the neighbors of Russia, if they do not wish to be one, must reconcile themselves to being the other.” No matter how big and powerful, Russia always feels threatened. Even when they are feeling weak, they bluster and bully to hide their vulnerability. In this sense, Putin’s policies and beliefs are largely consistent with Russian history and the legacy of the Russian Tsars.
In contrast, U.S. foreign policy is built on Wilsonian principles, following Emerson’s adage that “the only way to have a friend is be one.” In Henry Kissinger’s book, World Order, he quotes a letter from President Franklin Roosevelt to the U.S. Ambassador in Moscow who had complained of the Soviet Union’s record of broken agreements and hostility: “Bill, I don’t dispute your facts; they are accurate. I don’t dispute the logic of your reasoning. I just have a hunch that Stalin is not that kind of man… I think if I give him everything that I possibly can and ask nothing from him in return, noblesse oblige, he won’t try to annex anything, and will work for a world of democracy and peace.”
Needless to say, Stalin’s vision of democracy and peace was very different from Roosevelt’s. It took a Cold War, a united alliance, and over 70 years to roll back Soviet conquests in Eastern Europe.
The other possible rationale for Mr. Trump’s surprising support for Putin is more troubling. In fact, President Trump’s unwillingness or inability to outline any strategic rationale emboldens those who seek more nefarious explanations.
Those looking for darker motives received their first glimpse with the publication of a report produced by a former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele. The dossier, released by BuzzFeed, suggests that the Trump Administration’s pro-Russian behavior is criminally motivated. The report outlined allegations of blackmail and collusion between members of Trump’s campaign and Russian spies.
Several media outlets in the U.S. and Europe have also begun to dig into Mr. Trump’s past dealings with Russia. While none of the reports so far have uncovered a smoking gun, they nonetheless highlight Mr. Trump’s affiliations with Russian oligarchs and individuals close to Russian organized crime figures (see James S. Henry, The Curious World of Donald Trump’s Private Russian Connections in The American Interest).
The BuzzFeed report received frenzied media attention for a few days but has since fallen from the front pages. While titillating, the material was impossible to verify without the resources of a professional investigative agency or intelligence service. Numerous commentators have even dismissed the report outright, including the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward, who called it “garbage.”
While I certainly agree that there is no way to determine the credibility of the document, it is not fair to call it garbage. Just as the public has no way to judge the document’s credibility without detailed knowledge of Mr. Steele’s sources, it is also impossible to conclude that it is all false.
Mr. Steele was a senior British intelligence official with experience in Russia. He worked on the defection of Russian intelligence officer, Alexander Litvinenko, who was later murdered by Russian officials using radioactive polonium. He also investigated the world soccer body, FIFA, which led to indictments by the FBI. He is a credible professional.
Nonetheless, the scurrilous nature of the report published in BuzzFeed was hard to believe. The account of blackmail, bribes, and hidden cameras in hotels may have come across as Cold War fantasy to some. However, whether the specifics are true or not, the activities described in the report are fully consistent with the behavior of the Russian intelligence services. Accordingly, skepticism of the specific claims is warranted, as it would be with any raw intelligence report. However, the overall narrative is not crazy, and the details are worthy of further investigation.
While the Russian economy is anemic and produces little that the world is interested in buying other than oil, the Russians are the best in the world at surveillance, theft, blackmail, and subversion. We at CIA responsible for beating the Russian intelligence services on their own turf dubbed Moscow the “Yankee Stadium” of espionage. American diplomats and visitors can anticipate audio and video surveillance in their hotel rooms and homes, their movements to be tracked, and should assume any Russian they meet will be questioned and potentially threatened by authorities. The regime’s use of male and female prostitutes (often called “Swallows”) to compromise visitors in Russia has a long, sordid, and successful history. Look up the stories of journalist Joseph Alsop and Marine Security guard Clayton Lonetree for some atmospherics. In recent years, the Kremlin has used the same trick to embarrass and punish Putin’s political opponents. While foreigners are monitored and often harassed, Russians who run afoul of the regime often find themselves dead.
President Trump’s efforts to engage with Vladimir Putin risk further inquiry into his personal motives. If he accommodates or appeases Russia without providing a compelling explanation, it will provide further credence to those who assume he has something to hide.
This narrative is likely to gain strength as the hyper-partisan atmosphere of the campaign abates, and observers begin to reflect on the Trump campaign’s willingness to collude with a hostile foreign power to smear his opponent. Although the BuzzFeed report is no longer on the front pages, the FBI will certainly continue to investigate the allegations, some of which are crimes that could lead to a possible Constitutional crisis or even impeachment. Even short of formal charges, there will likely be continued leaks related to President Trump’s business and personal connections to Russia. In any case, questions will continue to surface until the Administration can clearly articulate its intentions regarding Russia.