By: ROGER BOYES, The Times
Vladimir Putin is not a man over-burdened with principle but he does believe in the ancient code of tit-for-tat. He has never doubted that the CIA fomented the Rose revolution in Georgia, the Orange revolution in Ukraine, the later Maidan uprising in Kiev. It was a radical American pamphlet, he reckons, that encouraged Russian dissidents to mobilise protests against a stolen election in 2011.
Now it is payback time for the Kremlin leader. Putin is already a bit player in European election processes, extending bank loans to Marine Le Pen as she readies herself for the French presidential elections and putting his propaganda machine at the disposal of insurgent parties everywhere. Russia however has never been so directly involved in a US presidential contest.
Putin’s cyber-burglars are on the job. Leaked emails from Colin Powell, a former secretary of state, reveal his deep distaste for Hillary Clinton. Earlier an email dump showing Clinton’s coterie to be cynical and ruthless disrupted the Democratic National Convention. There’s more. Julian Assange has been receiving an unusually large number of early morning visits to his London embassy bolthole, raising speculation that some of the deleted Clinton emails could be made public next week.
The chief beneficiary of this stealth campaigning is Donald Trump. Remember how he openly appealed to Putin to get his hackers to work on Clinton: “I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.” Next week is a good moment for the Trump campaign: 30 out of the 90 minutes is set aside for national security issues in a head-to-head televised debate and the Republican contender needs ammunition.
Trump understands tit-for-tat, eye-for-an-eye — “If you don’t get even, you’re a schmuck” — and he grasps why Putin has it in for Hillary Clinton, who once likened the Russian leader to Hitler. Putin claims he does not have a preference in the US election, that he just wants a leader who can push for normalisation of relations with Moscow and an era of joint problem-solving. That’s difficult to believe. His Russia is best served by a disarmed Washington administration, one that allows him to make his own rules.
In this calculus, Trump is the clear Kremlin favourite. How could he not be? The magnate never hesitates to express his admiration of Putin. Trump’s foreign policy adviser, Carter Page, criticised America’s “hypocritical focus on ideas such as democratisation” in a Moscow speech. Trump’s military adviser, the retired general Michael Flynn, was on the high table with Putin at a gala dinner celebrating the Russia Today television network. Trump’s ex-spinmaster Paul Manafort used to be a consultant to Putin’s puppet in Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovich.
Perhaps Trump is impressed how rich Russian oligarchs become when they play along with Putin. Perhaps he thinks there is some equivalence between his commitment to America First and Putin’s Russia First. If so he’s on the wrong track; as the Ukrainians have found out to their cost, there is nothing “non-interventionist” about Kremlin policy.
More likely he has stumbled into the Strong Man Delusion, which goes like this: strong leaders are naturally drawn to each other and will end up either at war or working together. Trump imagines he has the measure of Putin more than any other foreign statesman. Putin however is not operating from a position of strength. His party has just won elections but on a very low turnout and with the help of vote-stuffing in the provinces. He is turning the security services back into the equivalent of the Soviet KGB; again, not as a sign of confidence but because of the belt-tightening that is about to inflicted on Russia this winter.
Putin is haunted by the prospect of western-backed public unrest. Living standards have already plunged by a fifth over the past two years, inflation is in the high teens; shopping is down, foreign holidays cancelled.
Putin’s best hope is a successful centenary celebration of the Bolshevik revolution next year, and sufficient stability to see him through an early presidential election that will keep him in power until 2024. To achieve that he needs an easing of western sanctions. Some European states are already talking of doing this and a President Trump would surely have few qualms about throwing sanctions overboard.
Could a President Trump find the right balance between co-operating with Putin on the Middle East and the Arctic while also facing off the Kremlin every time it undertook a new military adventure? On Ukraine, will he shrug his shoulders and declare it to be a European issue? His current advisers will surely tell him to accept that Russia has the right to an unchallenged sphere of interest. And thus help Putin rip up the rule book for relations between neighbouring states.
Not China, not North Korea, not Syria but Russia is the litmus for a future president. Trump is rightly suspicious about the nuclear deal with Iran and would gain support for a renegotiation. He is right, though not original, in his complaints about European allies who contribute too little to the Nato alliance. And it is surely justified to identify Hillary Clinton as a co-architect of some particularly limp parts of Barack Obama’s foreign strategy.
Trump however is an improviser and even a weakening Putin can run rings around an opponent without a plan. If America allows itself to be led by Trump, it will be bamboozled as surely as the tourists who are checkmated in 18 moves by the grand masters of Gorky Park.
The Australian /The Times