WASHINGTON, April 11, 2017 – The strange romance between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin and Russia seems to be coming to an end. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, for one, has called Russia “incompetent” for allowing Syria to hold on to chemical weapons, and further accused Russian officials of trying to influence elections in Europe, using the same methods it did in the U.S.
“This was inevitable,” said Philip H. Gordon, a former Middle East coordinator at the National Security Council. “Trump’s early ‘let’s be friends’ initiative was incompatible with our interests and you knew it would end.”
Secretary Tillerson swept past Trump’s repeated insistence that, despite the conclusions of U.S. intelligence agencies, there was no evidence of Russian interference in last year’s election. Russia is actively engaged in expanding its influence and spheres of interest. Its invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea is only one example.
There is now more Russian naval activity in Europe than at any point in the Cold War, a top U.S. and NATO Admiral, Michelle Howard, says. Howard, who heads NATO’s Allied Joint Force Command in Naples and commands U.S. forces in Europe and Africa, says Russia’s strident maneuvers could leave the U.S. at a disadvantage and that we are seeing Russian activity that we didn’t even see when it was the Soviet Union. This is taking place not only in the Mediterranean but also in the North Atlantic and Arctic regions.
Howard, who heads NATO’s Allied Joint Force Command in Naples and commands U.S. forces in Europe and Africa, says Russia’s strident maneuvers could leave the U.S. at a disadvantage and notes we are seeing Russian activity that we didn’t even see when it was the Soviet Union. This is taking place not only in the Mediterranean but also in the North Atlantic and Arctic regions.
For Donald Trump to have downplayed Russia’s interference in our elections, and to have initially surrounded himself with an array of individuals with strange ties to Moscow—like Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort and Roger Stone—raises many questions that remain unanswered.
It was hardly a leap of faith to understand Russia’s desire to undermine our election and install what it viewed as its favored candidate. Russia is doing this all over the Western world. In France, presidential candidate Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front, was in Moscow in March to openly seek financial support. In 2014, her party received a 9 million Euro loan from a Russian-Czech bank, and in 2026 she received an additional 3 million Euros from another Russian bank. A political fund run by her father, the former party chairman, also received 2 million Euros from a Russian-backed fund based in Cyprus.
Le Pen’s agenda, opposition to NATO and the EU, is aligned with that of Moscow. It was Putin’s hope that Donald Trump, who hailed the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU and downplayed NATO’s importance, would also advance Moscow’s agenda.
Throughout Europe, Russian websites, including Russia Today, Sputnik and others, spin out rumors and conspiracy theories. Globsee, a Slovak think tank, found that in January alone, pro-Moscow disinformation outlets in the region were carrying stories that “The CIA plans the assassination of Donald Trump,” that NATO is “a terrorist organization,” and that, “The European Union is the Third Reich.”
These websites applauded the Trump travel ban and celebrated the anniversary of the Russian annexation of Crimea by discussing alleged ties between Ukraine and neo-Nazis amid calls for the annexation of the rest of Ukraine.
A threat assessment by the Lithuanian government early in April reported that a Russian buildup of high-readiness combat forces means that Moscow could easily invade the Baltic states, potentially overrunning allied troops who would be difficult to reinforce.
“In case of Russian military aggression, countries in the region would have a possibility to contain the aggression effectively only if the required sufficient defensive capabilities were already present in the region before the start of the conflict,” says Lithuania’s 2017 National Security Threat Assessment.
By virtue of its geographic advantage, Russia dominates the balance of military power in the immediate region around the Baltics, which has long been a source of concern for nations like Lithuania that were once dominated by the Soviet Union.”Currently, Russia is capable of conducting combat activities against the Baltic states with 24-48 hours notice,” the Lithuanian report says.
Narrow political partisanship makes people do and say things which make them look increasingly foolish. Many Republicans and conservatives who opposed the tyranny of Communism during the years of the Cold War when some on the left did not, have now followed Donald Trump in his early embrace of Vladimir Putin, a long-time KGB agent, who has imposed a corrupt and repressive kleptocracy upon the Russian people and seeks to restore as much of the Soviet empire as he can.
Recently, Russia approved a law decriminalizing some forms of domestic violence by a vote of 385-2. Only one human rights activist protested. Those who criticize Vladimir Putin often find themselves dead, or in prison.
How is it that people who call themselves conservative, who claim they believe in the Constitution, individual freedom and limited government, can find Vladimir Putin’s autocratic, repressive and corrupt regime appealing? How is it that conservative commentators who compared Barrack Obama to the devil himself, openly embrace Putin and oppose the EU and NATO? Is it simply to be on the same side as Donald Trump?
If Donald Trump said the world was flat, would these commentators suddenly agree? Is this what our political discourse has come to? Or is something more unseemly at work?
In Russia itself there is increasing unrest. Late in March, the largest demonstrations in five years against Vladimir Putin’s regime took place across the country. It was also the first time in Putin’s 17 years in power that protests reached all across Russia. In the process, these actions have shattered the Kremlin’s confidence.
What galvanized thousands of Russians, many of them young, was an online video accusing Dimitry Medvedev, prime minister and one of Putin’s most loyal lieutenants, of a huge scheme of corruption that has allegedly put luxury estates and vineyards at his disposal. Many of the demonstrators brought rubber ducks in a mocking reference to a house Mr. Medvedev built for his ducks.
The video, produced by dissident Alexei Navalny, has been watched more than 15 million times since it appeared on March 2, garnering broader attention for the protests. More than 100,000 have subscribed to Navainy’s YouTube channel, taking the total to 709,000 and exceeding those who follow the YouTube platform of state news outlets RT, Rossiya 24 and Channel One.
According to The Economist,
“A group of anthropologists from the Russian Presidential Academy who have studied attitudes among young people say they lack the fear of authority instilled during the Soviet era, and are more attached than their elders to universal values such as honesty and dignity. The Soviet coping mechanisms of cynicism and double-think are notably absent among the young. They see Russia’s current elite as financially and morally corrupt and find Mr. Navalny’s simple slogan, ‘Don’t lie and don’t steal’ compelling. Television, the medium which Mr. Putin’s government uses to manipulate mass opinion, has little effect on the young, who mainly get their news from the Internet… According to the Lovada Center, most Russians believe that ‘nothing depends on us.’ The younger generation appears to be different. ‘I need to exercise my civil rights if I don’t want to live my life complaining about the country in which I was born,’ says a 20-year-old student in Mocow. ‘It is wrong to say nothing depends on us. Of course it does.'”
Partisan, ideological thinking often leads people astray and into endorsing policies and people they would never embrace if they were thinking rationally. In the 1930s, American Communists opposed Nazism and urged America to arm to resist it. Then, after Stalin signed a pact with Hitler, these same people found Hitler not so bad after all and urged America to stay out of the war. When Hitler invaded Russia, they changed sides again.
Those in Republican and conservative ranks who embraced Vladimir Putin because Donald Trump did appear to have been acting in this same narrow, partisan spirit. Mr. Trump—perhaps listening to the generals he has appointed—now seems to have altered his view of Mr. Putin and Russia.
Syria’s use of chemical weapons, which Putin assured us had been eliminated, may have provided some indication as to his real goals in the region. Will those on the right who have embraced Putin now abandon him? If so, we will see that narrow partisanship motivated them. If they continue to embrace Putin, they will be telling us something far more negative about their values and the kind of world they would like to see. In either case, their views can hardly merit our serious consideration in the future.