A potential Trump Presidency provides both opportunities and challenges for Russia and President Vladimir Putin.
Putin’s strategic goals are to weaken the U.S., diminish U.S. influence in Europe, solidify hard and soft control over the nations on Russia’s periphery, and eliminate economic sanctions.
As a former KGB officer, Putin’s primary tool to support his goals is his intelligence service.
As we have already seen with the alleged Russian hack on the Democratic National Committee, Russian intelligence operatives are willing to manipulate the election in a brash fashion. This is nothing new. The Russians, and Soviets before them, used “Active Measures” – a mix of political warfare, manipulations, and disinformation to keep their adversaries off balance – as a central tenet of their foreign policy.
As former senior KGB officer Oleg Kalugin described it in an interview with CNN, collection is not really the “heart and soul” of Soviet/Russian intelligence. Instead, they favor the arts of subversion – “active measures to weaken the West, to drive wedges in the Western community alliances, particularly NATO, to sow discord among allies, to weaken the United States in the eyes of the people of Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America, and thus to prepare ground in case the war really occurs.” In Putin’s calculation, the competition with the U.S. is a zero sum game. Anything that hurts the U.S. is seen as a gain for Russia.
In this sense, Donald Trump’s unorthodox and deranged comments are extremely useful to Putin. Anything suggesting that the U.S. might retreat from overseas commitments is a win for Russia. Comments about withdrawing support from NATO, Japan, and other U.S. allies plays directly into Putin’s hands. It makes it easier for him to sow disinformation and discord, painting the U.S. as an unreliable ally and partner. Further, Trump’s antagonizing of China and other foreign leaders helps Putin both ingratiate himself with them and play the role of the de-facto leader of the global anti-America movement.
Additionally, you can bet that a Trump Administration that includes advisors with dubious ties to Moscow (Carter Page) will swiftly lift economic sanctions on Russia. Further, a Trump Presidency grants Putin that which he covets most of all – attention on the world stage. The worst thing for Putin is to be ignored. In this sense, Trump has already raised Russia’s profile and bolstered Putin’s narrative that Russia is a great power.
Former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed that Putin is actively manipulating Trump to achieve Russian objectives. He claims that, “In the intelligence business, we would say that Putin had recruited Trump as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation.” This, of course, is nonsense. While I share Morell’s concern with Trump’s unsuitability for office, Morell has no evidence to make such a blatant claim and, instead, is using hyperbole to make Putin appear much more dangerous than he is. Despite his high office, Morell has no experience with agent recruitment and handling. Indeed, no professional with any experience in the CIA’s clandestine service would dare suggest Trump is a recruited asset. You can’t be both recruited and unwitting.
However, while the suggestion that Trump is “recruited” is absurd, the notion that he is an unwitting tool of Putin’s agenda is spot on. The Russians even have a term for this – “useful idiots.” Like so many gullible westerners over the years, Trump fits the long held Russian practice of subtly and cynically manipulating naïve people to serve their purposes. There is a sad history of gullible people doing the Russians’ work for them. However, to date, we have never had somebody at the highest level who is so tractable.
However, a Donald Trump Presidency is not all positive for Putin and the Russians. Like most leaders, Putin prefers predictability and does not want unexpected chaos on his doorstep. While weakening the U.S. role in Europe is a win-win for Russia, muddled policy in Turkey, Afghanistan, and elsewhere could lead to unforeseen problems for Russia. While Trump seems favorably inclined toward Russia, he is by no means a reliable or predictable partner, and potentially reckless actions could have negative consequences for Russia.
As I mentioned in an earlier Cipher Brief article, Putin is the classic bully who will push as far as he can until he feels resistance. As such, he certainly understands what he sees in Trump. However, while Putin will likely prefer a Trump over a Clinton Presidency, he is likely nervous that it will be impossible to control somebody who is so ignorant of basic foreign policy issues, and can say one thing one moment, and something completely conflicting the next.