Donald and Vlad Inherit the Earth

by Michael Liss

Minin-and-pozharsky-1946301_1280The news of the day is that Russian President Vladimir Putin will be a guest of honor at Donald Trump's Inauguration. He will be seated between Speaker Ryan and Senate Majority Leader McConnell, and there are indications from inside the Trump transition team that the President Elect has asked Putin to give a second invocation, reportedly on a theme inspired by Matthew 5:5, to mark the friendship of two great nations.

How simple that was to write. If I added a few seemingly credible details—that Putin will be staying in Washington for several days afterwards to discuss key issues, including Syria, with old friend and nominee for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and then meet with Generals Flynn and Mattis, Trump's choices for National Security Advisor and Secretary of Defense—would you be completely shocked?'

And, if I were sophisticated enough in the manner of disseminating this, squelching some skepticism by adding a cryptic reference to a long-standing policy of the government not to comment directly on or confirm the presence of potentially high-value targets in this time of terrorism, I might, with the assistance of a scoop-hungry and partisan media, make this thing go viral.

We do live in paranoid times, in a rapidly diminishing universe of authoritative sources. We have just come through an awful election season, where the honesty and integrity of the two main candidates were assailed on a continuous basis, and nothing was too outrageous to say, nothing too far-fetched to be given credibility in certain quarters. It didn't hurt that Clinton and Trump presented enormous targets, but you could have nominated an American-born Albert Schweitzer and there would have been whispers about his organ playing and his manliness.

And then there's Putin. Whatever it was that Putin did (and I'm using him as a shorthand, because it's hard to believe that anything organized could have occurred without his approval), it was spectacularly effective. Not only did he manage to help his favored candidate, but, with the hack being publicly outed, he's created further uncertainty as to the legitimacy of Trump's election and the viability of our entire electoral process. Putin has handed Trump a poisoned apple—a shadow of doubt over his future actions when Russia is involved. Trump being Trump, he's reacted by directing his anger at the press for reporting it, and President Obama for imposing sanctions, but I suspect that, in his quieter moments, he knows that the Trump-as-pawn/stooge/debtor analogy could hound him.

I also suspect that Republicans, for all the joy they will get from imposing a top-down conservative agenda, are also a little bit wary—even those who have become (very) recent converts to vodka and samovars. What Putin has done is show just a little bit of the dark arts: hacking, trolling, fake news items, selective factual leaks, factual leaks mixed with false information. These are potent weapons that don't have to be used only on Democrats, nor are they reserved for election season. They can just as easily be turned on a Republican sitting on an important committee, perhaps one dealing with foreign policy, intelligence, or military appropriations, who, on a specific piece of legislation, has a position that doesn't please Putin. A leak to a local newspaper about an alleged scandal, negative postings on new websites that simply appear out of thin air, comments in on-line forums with embedded links, and suddenly, there's a fire that can't quite be put out.

The genius of Putin's strategy is that it uses pluralistic democracy, and even capitalism, against itself. Both are open, inherently shaggy-dog, and disruptive. Government doesn't come running in to shut dissent down or impose an artificial order. If you have an eye and an ear for it, there is great beauty in this—we move forward because of the cacophony, not in spite of it. To use a New Age term, from success, from freedom, we get a sense of wellness, and it makes us broadminded, experimental, tolerant, and willing to take prudent risks.

But erode the success, challenge personal and economic security, and the wellness comes under assault. In an interview with Zachary Laub for the Council on Foreign Relations, Harvard's Yascha Mounk notes that major democracies are seeing powerful movements that confront democratic norms and institutions at a time of rising economic anxieties and mass migration: “People have been growing more and more critical of our political system—not just of particular governments or institutions but of democracy itself—for a long time. It used to be that the average citizen was much wealthier than his or her parents had been. That's no longer the case. It used to be that people felt that they had a real voice in government and that there were intermediary institutions to help translate their views into public policy. That too is less and less the case. That's why, over the last twenty years, antisystem parties and movements, especially on the far right, have risen around the world.”

To expand on Mounk, and apply it to this situation, you can see how Putin's election gambit (here, and in Europe, where he is using the same tactics against a backdrop of highly visible terrorist attacks) plays into these doubts beautifully. A government that can't even supervise fair and free elections from foreign influence is one that can't be trusted to provide security and prosperity. It's time for people to turn to the strongmen–and they have.

Putin's motivation? It's not too much of a leap to see that Putin wants to be the most powerful man on Earth. He wants to continue the expansion of the Russian zone of influence, destabilize parts of the world he doesn't directly control, and seize opportunities wherever they present themselves. He has already achieved a great deal during President Obama's Administration: Obama's famous dictum, “don't do stupid shit” has often resulted in a passivity that encouraged Putin's ruthlessness. And Putin loves the game. He strokes Trump's ego right now because it's convenient, and because likes mocking “losers,” but he will never see America—even a Trump-led one—as an equal or a friend. What he's doing is analogous to the brilliant game of diplomatic cards that Hitler played before he invaded Poland in September 1939—getting major concessions by relying on the exhaustion and paralysis of Western leaders who had economic problems at home, as well as fresh memories of World War I, and just didn't want to engage aggressively again.

The problem is that Western Europe is too weak to oppose Putin absent the leadership of the United States. Part of that leadership is and must be based on the anticipation (in both in Europe and in Moscow) of the implied threat of what the US might do in expressing power. If Europeans believe that the US will stand aside each time there is a provocation from Russia, it will encourage them to make whatever deal they can make with Putin out of self-preservation. This is an ideal time for Putin to test this. Many people in Europe saw Obama as both too weak and too internationalist, even though he supported NATO, and expected a stronger ally in Hillary. But with Trump, who expressed contempt for NATO, they will wonder if he has any commitment at all to their safety and security, or just prefers to hang with Vlad in the big-boy's clubhouse.

This is a serious challenge for Trump, possibly even a defining one. But it is also an opportunity, if he has the intellectual and emotional flexibility to seize it. Putin expects Trump to react as he always does—by denying it, by bullying, by impeding investigations in every way possible. This is actually an ideal result for Putin—and not just because Putin can do it again. It will drive a bigger wedge between Trump and the intelligence community, and it will not stop half the country from believing that Trump's election was tainted. Trump will compound this if, once inaugurated, he rolls back Obama's punitive actions taken in response to Russian provocations. Putin doesn't really care about most of those sanctions, but he loves the idea of the appearance of Trump being in thrall to him.

Where is the opportunity? To start with, Trump needs to discipline himself. Last Friday, he veered back and forth between claiming foul, aligning himself with WikiLeaks, then putting out something halfway reasonable in content but with multiple insults. On Saturday, he was back to tweeting outrage—at Democrats—and extolling the value of good relations with Russia. He has to settle on a
succinct message that doesn't appear to prefer Vlad over either the intelligence community or the plurality of voters who voted for Hillary. Then, he should make a show of supporting a bipartisan investigation. There would be no significant risk in this approach—preliminary reports do not show evidence of actual hacking of vote tallies, so this can only help legitimize Trump's Presidency at home. Finally, he should act on the results. Do something that shows he takes it seriously. Symbolism counts here, and it will send a sharp message abroad—that, in the United States, we care about fair elections, that we will do what is necessary to accomplish them, even if our investigation shows we made critical mistakes in the last one.

Am I optimistic about this? Trump is almost beyond predictability, and there are no indications that he is ever going to conform to norms, or that he will ever be asked to do so by the people he sees as his friends.

There is a story floating around that Sean Hannity will travel to the Ecuadorian Embassy in London to hold a soft-ball interview with Julian Assange, in which Assange will clear this entire thing up to everyone's satisfaction.

And one that Trump will announce, in his Inaugural Address, that when he is President, we will all be saying “Schastlivogo Rozhdestva!” again.

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