Is Putin Getting What He Wanted With Trump?

Participants of an economic forum in St. Petersburg, Russia, watching Vladimir Putin speak. Credit Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters
Participants of an economic forum in St. Petersburg, Russia, watching Vladimir Putin speak. Credit Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters

In the Senate last week, Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina, asked the fired F.B.I. director James Comey if he had “any doubt that Russia attempted to interfere in the 2016 elections.” Mr. Comey responded with a single word: “None.”

Indeed, he went on to tell the American public that the Russians “did it with purpose, they did it with sophistication, they did it with overwhelming technical efforts.” And he warned: “They will be back,” adding, “they are coming after America.”

Vodka shots in the Kremlin, right? Not exactly.

Doubtless Vladimir Putin continues to derive satisfaction from having assaulted American democracy and embarrassed Hillary Clinton. But the Russian president had one paramount priority: to lift Western sanctions.

The sanctions, passed in the aftermath of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, have been effective at preventing key Russian individuals and businesses from obtaining financing and critical technology. Now, even though Mrs. Clinton managed on her own to lose a winnable election, Mr. Putin is likely to get hammered with reinforced sanctions further targeting his circle of capos, state companies and cybercriminals.

While pundits hyperventilate about Russia’s resurgence, the reality is that President Putin isn’t winning. He is, in fact, on a losing streak. His dishonest intervention in eastern Ukraine has rendered that country more pro-Western than at any time since 1991. Russia’s steadfast support for Syria’s butcher, Bashar al-Assad, is bringing Moscow little concrete gain. And costs keep piling up. According to one estimate, a quarter of Russia’s global weapons exports in 2015 were to rogue Venezuela, in transactions predominantly effected via loans. Last week, Moscow cut $1 billion from projected state budget revenues.

So it’s unwelcome news for Mr. Putin, to say the least, that the United States Senate is not only unlikely to lift sanctions on Russia but also well on its way to strengthening them. Word from Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, is that a final bill would pass overwhelmingly and that the votes will likely be there in the House, too, to override a presidential veto. When sanctions were imposed in 2014 and reinforced in late 2016, they took the form of an executive order, but if Mr. Graham and his colleagues have their way, the new, tougher sanctions regime will become law.

The senators leading the way are right on the policy: Russia needs to pay a significant price for its cyberwarfare against the United States and other adversaries need to be deterred. Mr. Putin’s aim is the survival of his regime. Russia’s longer-term grand strategy, such as it is, consists of hoping that the West weakens or even collapses, and helping that dissolution along. The stakes couldn’t be higher.

As our lawmakers put financial pressure on Moscow, the Senate Intelligence Committee, the House Intelligence Committee and the special counsel Robert Mueller are investigating allegations that the Trump campaign might have coordinated with Russian intelligence on the hacking and tarnishing of the Clinton campaign. Americans will eventually learn the truth.

But we don’t need to wait for their official reports to know that the notion that the Russians sought out the help of the Trump campaign is hilarious. It would be like LeBron James asking me for shooting tips. I play pickup, but c’mon.

Anyone who knows the likes of Carter Page or Roger Stone, or even more seasoned bumblers like Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn, would laugh at the idea that the Russians needed their assistance. Did some of the characters in Mr. Trump’s circle seek to ratchet up their status or fatten their wallets by sucking up to Russians and wittingly or unwittingly expose themselves to foreign intelligence operatives? Maybe. Yet the collusion story is ultimately a sideshow. What’s consequential is the tale of Russia’s penetration of Trumpworld in order to try to influence United States policy.

Mr. Putin may be strategically vacuous — look at Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela — but he is tactically agile, particularly when it comes to covert ops. Mr. Trump, for many years, was talking to Russian oligarchs and, according to Russian officials, became a walking listening device for the Kremlin. Is it true? We shall learn in due course, when penetration rather than collusion rightly takes center stage.

The root of the unfolding political fiasco for Mr. Trump is that as a candidate and as president-elect he reportedly sought to do something beyond daft: to lift sanctions on Russia right after they had blatantly meddled in an election partly on his behalf. It’s no surprise that speculation has been feverish that he must be guilty of collusion or even of opening himself up to blackmail.

But who needs blackmail when Mr. Trump has genuine affection for strongmen like Mr. Putin (see also: Egypt, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia). His corresponding dislike for democratic and female leaders like Angela Merkel, who happen to be constrained by the rule of law, also seems sincere. Furthermore, it is possible that the president has implored various government officials to deny collusion publicly because there was none on his part, and he views the frenzy over it as a concerted effort to delegitimize his election victory. (To some extent, it is.) Mr. Comey’s shrewd performance under oath on Thursday, however, amplified the prospect that Mr. Trump’s ham-handedness will mire his presidency in charges of obstruction of justice.

An investigation into Trumpworld for collusion, moreover, could morph into the equivalent of looking for bacteria on a pile of dung. Large parts of the overpriced real estate sector involve money laundering, with Russian, Chinese, Arab and even Iranian money.

That said, the irony is that Mr. Trump’s Putinophilia is correct in an unwitting way: The United States needs Russia inside the international order for its own security and global stability. Attempted isolation, which President Obama pursued, failed spectacularly. The 2016 election interference was a dramatic reminder that Russia is out there and must be reckoned with. A policy of waiting for the “inevitable” regime collapse from its economic failures misunderstands how Russia works. The only viable option is to engage. But contra Mr. Trump, that must be done from a position of strength.

What will come of Mr. Trump? Beyond the infamous associates of his chaos campaign, he has assembled numerous outstanding individuals in his administration, and the more I interact with them the more I feel they are characters in a Greek tragedy, whose central figure suffers from a ruinous character flaw. Last week, despite Mr. Trump’s efforts to sideline him, Mr. Comey returned to the stage, and his part in the drama won’t end any time soon. Unlike Mr. Putin, Mr. Trump’s fate will be determined by the institutions of our democracy, which have proved more resilient than perhaps all but our 18th-century founding fathers anticipated.

Stephen Kotkin is a history professor at Princeton and a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He is the author of the forthcoming Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941.

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