Trump and Putin: Odd political bedfellows

Donald Trump admires Russia's Vladimir Putin, a leader whose interests aren't America's, but would he really turn his back on the Baltics, Crimea and NATO?

Who's really pulling the strings? Trump and Putin

WASHINGTON, September 9, 2016 — Donald Trump has reaffirmed his admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin. He signaled his preference for the authoritarian leader of an American adversary over that of our own president.

Trump said at a national security forum in New York, “I think it is inarguable that Vladimir Putin has been a stronger leader in his country than Barack Obama has been in this country.” He complimented Putin’s “great control” of Russia and his 82 percent approval rating.

Trump has said that he would like to work more closely with Putin to defeat ISIS and that he would consider lifting sanctions and recognizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea. He has also brought U.S. commitment to NATO into question.

Steve Rosenberg, the BBC’s Moscow correspondent, says that it would be astonishing if the Kremlin didn’t welcome the prospect of a Trump presidency.

How unusual is it for a U.S. Presidential candidate to be so supportive of Moscow?

“It never happened in the last 70 years or so,” says Michael McFaul, a former U.S. Ambassador to Moscow, currently director and senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford. “Trump says things about Russia, about Putin personally, that are way beyond convention for a Republican or Democratic candidate or for a politician in either party.”

Trump’s running mate Mike Pence supported Trump’s embrace of Putin, but no other prominent Republican has done so. House Speaker Paul Ryan said, “Vladimir Putin is an aggressor who does not share our interests.” He accused the Russian leader of “conducting state-sponsored cyber attacks” on “our political system.”

Ryan was referring to the hack of the servers of the Democratic National Committee, which U.S. officials believe was conducted by Russian intelligence services.

At the national security forum, Trump disputed Russia’s role in the DNC hack. Later, in an interview with the Kremlin-backed Russia Today network, he said it was “probably unlikely” that Russia was trying to interfere in our election. He blamed Democrats for “putting that out.”

Congressional Republicans admit little doubt that Moscow was behind the hack. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla, said of Putin, “He’s a thug. He’s a dangerous and bad guy.” The New York Times writes,

Even Sen. Jeff Sessions, perhaps Mr. Trump’s closest ally on Capitol Hill, appeared ill at ease when pressed about Mr. Trump’s statements. Asked whether political combat should stop at the water’s edge, Mr. Sessions paused for nearly 10 seconds before saying, “I’ve tried to adhere to that line pretty assiduously, but less and less does that get adhered to in the modern world.”

Putin’s regime, a key ally of Iran and of the brutal dictatorship in Syria, has tried to intervene in the internal politics of numerous European countries, from Ukraine and Moldova to Italy and France. Now, Putin is courting Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan. Discussing Putin’s goals in this area, John Bolton, former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., notes,

“Distancing Turkey from NATO would be just the start. Regaining Black Sea naval dominance and enduring unhindered Russian access to the Mediterranean through the Bosporus and the Dardanelles have been Kremlin ambitions for centuries. In today’s environment, persuading Turkey to leave the tacit alliance working to overthrow Syria’s Basar Assad regime, a Moscow ally, would be a critical step forward for Russia’s increasing influence in the Middle East.”

Putin presides over an increasingly authoritarian Russia. Muckraking journalists, rights advocates, opposition politicians, government whistle-blowers and other Russians who challenge Putin are treated harshly, imprisoned on trumped-up charges, smeared in the news media, and with increasing frequency, killed.

Political murders, particularly by poison, are nothing new in Russia, going back centuries. A notorious case is that of Alexander V. Litvinenko, a Putin opponent who died of polonium-210 poisoning in London in 2006.

Today in Moscow, murders and deaths under mysterious circumstances are now seen as such a menace that Kremlin critics flee the country and keep their locations secret. Among those fleeing Russia recently was Grigory Rodshenkov, a whistleblower in Russia’s sports doping scandal.

In the case over state-sponsored doping, two other officials with knowledge of the scheme died unexpectedly as the outlines of the scandal began to emerge. “The government is using the special services to liquidate its enemies,” said Gennadi V. Gudkov, a former member of parliament  and one time Lt.. Colonel in the KGB. “It was not just Litvinenko, but many others we don’t know about, classified as accidents or maybe semi-accidents.”

What are the reasons for Trump’s embrace of Putin? According to published reports, Trump’s businesses are now receiving financing from various sources in Russia and Kazakhstan. One of his key foreign policy advisers, Carter Paige, is said to have continuing financial and employment ties to Gazprom, Russia’s trillion dollar energy company.

Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, worked closely with former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted in 2014 and is a close ally of Putin.

Under the influence of these aides, the Trump campaign pressured the Republican National  Committee to remove party platform language calling for the U.S. to provide “lethal defensive weapons” to Ukraine in its ongoing struggle with Russia-backed rebels in the region. That was the only substantial change Trump’s team requested, and it came just as Trump said that we might not honor our NATO commitments should Russia invade the Baltic states.

Nina Khrusheva, a professor of international studies and associate dean at the New School, noted a shared characteristic of Putin and Trump:  they are tough, authoritarian leaders. They are tough like schoolyard toughs, refusing to back down from a fight. Putin himself has used that image to describe his childhood.

The GOP, which under President Reagan helped end the Cold War, doesn’t know what to do with a candidate who has embraced Moscow’s authoritarian and aggressive leader. If Trump has any foreign policy advisers he will listen to, this would be a good time for them to step in to correct Trump’s lack of understanding of the realities we face in an increasingly troubled world.

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Allan C. Brownfeld
Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.