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I was wrong-as were a great many people. Earlier I predicted that Putin and Trump would work together and be friendly. I anticipated that Congress would drag their feet, but overall I thought that the symbolic power vested in the imperial presidency would be sufficient to let Trump repair relations. So far Trump hasn’t made any overtures towards Russia-but you can’t blame me for ultimately failure to predict Trump’s foreign policy, which will remain hazy and undefined for the near future.
Trump’s inability to quell tensions with Russia can largely be attributed to his increasingly precarious position. Every week seems to bring new allegations of some lackey having contact with Russia. To repair relations with Russia would fuel further speculation and cut even deeper into Trump’s legitimacy.
The degree of the Kremlin’s involvement in the election is still up for debate, but it seems all but confirmed that Russia flexed its cyber muscle to publish DNC records and Clinton emails. Until recently I thought the reason for this was obvious: Russia wanted Trump to win in order to gain advantages. Trump wanted a weaker NATO. Trump wanted broad support against ISIS. Trump was willing to lift sanctions and concede several points on Ukraine. But with new information and happenings I think the real reason for Russia’s hacking is more sinister, brilliant, and carefully calculated then I could have imagined…
Trump’s potential for collaboration or assistance was an afterthought; sure it is nice to have a pro-Russia leader in the White House but ultimately it was foolhardy on my part to think that Russia would have left things to chance so carelessly. Everyone acts like Trump and Putin are best friends or bedfellows, but in reality Trump was just a pawn in a much more intricate game.
The ultimate goal of Russia was, quite simply, to generate as much conspiratorial hysteria as possible to undermine U.S. foreign policy. They, like everyone else, probably anticipated a Clinton victory and were taking steps to avoid the worst possible outcome (for them) of a popular neo-liberal regime taking hold of the White House. How do you best disarm a potential Clinton White House? Well it wasn’t exactly hard. Clinton was already attracting serious heat from critics of her foreign policy (from the left) and her private email servers/Benghazi (from the right). The fact that the DNC conspired against Bernie Sanders only gave Russia more fuel to throw on the fire.
Exerting its powerful cyber capabilities and honed propaganda arms, the Kremlin was able to dig up dirt and ensure that it spread; the ravenous mainstream media and far-right kooky media couldn’t help themselves to such scoops. Trump naturally took this bait and, with his awesome powers of public spin and straight talk, made a great mouthpiece. Contacts with Russia among people in the Trump camp who would later be tapped for positions may have also helped this process along, more on that later though…
The end goal of Russia was to ensure that Clinton would be under massive public scrutiny if she won. Her legitimacy would have been just as questionable as Trump’s is now, and Russia’s ministers would be able to capitalize on this. If you listen close enough you can hear the arguments Russia had lined up: “American politics are just as corrupt as anywhere else!” Imagine all the dirt they may have been holding on her for once she was elected. But none of that came to pass. To the surprise of Russia and everyone else, Trump won somehow.
What motives did Russia have? Revenge for sanctions and Obama/Clinton policies? Sure! Weaken the liberal establishment and empower the right around the world? Yes! Weaken America’s ability to take action and form policy? Again, seems rational. Maybe, just maybe they could give Trump enough to win or at least make things close. A Trump victory would be huge for Russia; while they could not be sure of what Trump would do it was probably obvious to them that he would either help them (unlikely) or be completely ineffectual on account of his lack of experience and hugely controversial status (more likely). Could Russia lift sanctions and get all of its policy goals? That was a little harder to pull off, but helping Trump could only further undermine the liberal order and weaken NATO and the EU as populists gained momentum in Europe and around the world.
Regardless of what happen, it would be a win-win for Moscow. In the worst case scenario they would have to confront Clinton, albeit enervated by a divided and critical populace. In the best case (some said impossible) scenario, they would just have aided in Trump’s victory. This is Putin’s silver bullet, piercing the heart of the American polity at a critical, transformative moment. While it was carefully forged and aimed, the Kremlin probably could not have guessed how effective it was going to be. Look at where we are now! Trump’s popularity is less than 40% (and falling), and the man can’t get anything done. The State Department is all but empty. Confidence in government is shaken. America is becoming excessively divided-the very nature of truth and fact itself is being brought into question.
Meanwhile the liberal post-war order as a whole is being drawn into question. A lot of liberals in America like to imagine that Putin and Trump have some sort of relationship-this is falsehood. Russia has no further need to do anything. They pulled off a stunning coup in the U.S. election, all that is left is to watch America falter. Now their attention is likely turning to Europe. With France facing a tight election with Marine Le Pen (a far right nationalist) at the top of heap the EU is on the brink. Marine Le Pen just called today for sanctions against Russia to be dropped; at this point she is Russia’s best hope of lifting the devastating sanctions (read: she is the best chance the Putin regime has of continued survival).
Meanwhile American Russophobia is approaching McCarthy levels, although this is warranted. Russia fed the right-wing news of Clinton’s many shortcomings and the right ran with it. The Republicans and alt-Right have both been active participants in this propaganda campaign, twisting it for their own ends. Of course they didn’t operate in a vacuum; Russia forged ties with several of them, or so it seems. The increasing ties between Russia that many of Trump’s inner circle had are coming to light with frightening regularity. Essentially Russia’s information warfare has proven to be highly effective in neutralizing America; faith in the DNC and Clinton faltered, meanwhile ties forged with Right wingers have ensured that Trump’s regime can’t get off the ground.
The end product is that America is eating itself. Russia has freedom of movement to apply greater pressure to its areas of interest and undermine the liberal order. A couple interesting loose ends remain however. For starters, it does not seem that America will lift sanctions. Trump remains too weak to condemn sanctions; doing so would only deepen allegations of collusion with Russia. The Kremlin likely identified that America would have not lifted sanctions no matter what happened. Another loose end is the degree to which right wingers and Russia actively collaborated. I doubt that the Kremlin was dumb enough to directly involve Trump (why would they want to give America a chance to impeach its president and get its house in order), but evidently their tendrils are deep enough to severely weaken the administration as a whole.
There is no camaraderie between Trump and Putin. There is no long game Russia is playing to try and get its way. At the end of the day Putin just had a great opportunity to throw a wrench in American politics, slowing us down tremendously in the process, and he took it. Now we just have to deal with the issue of extracting the bullet and it doesn’t seem like their will be any anesthetic. We have a long, agonizing surgery ahead of us that will no doubt test our democratic resolve, not to mention leave a permanent scar. Trump himself can play a major role in fixing things if he were to take a harder stance against Russia and encourage greater transparency. This seems unlikely from a rash egoist, especially one who pushed the body politic straight into the bullet’s trajectory.
One has to admire the beautiful, elegant simplicity with which Russia has duped us. This isn’t some clunky reptilian ploy, such as that Brezhnev utilized to start the Soviet-Afghan War; this is a wise move made by a shrewd operator, fiendish in conception and straightforward in execution. The tragedy is that we made it so easy for them. The political parties ran bad horses, and we let ourselves get so partisan that we only noticed the true extent of the damage when it was too late. Well, now its too late.