Despite Trump’s unpredictability, there are compelling reasons why Vladimir Putin is still satisfied that Donald Trump, and not Hillary Clinton, lives in the White House.
In mid-June, I attended the annual British International Studies conference (BISA) in Bath, England. One of the panels that I was present at was entitled, ‘Trump and the Unpredictability Doctrine,’ where I listened to a paper by an academic working at Leiden University on Trump’s political volatility as it relates to Russia. My colleague from Leiden said that predictability is not only important for allies but for enemies as well.
While I am not sure if Trump thinks of Russia as an ally or a friend, this statement led me to an out of left field thought: based on Trump’s overall performance in the Oval Office, has Putin ever regretted that he interfered in the 2016 campaign with the express goal of undermining Hillary Clinton’s electability as president?
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Why Putin might have buyer’s remorse
The first reason that Putin may regret Trump’s capricious behavior in the White House is that his opponent in the 2016 campaign was a known entity. Although Putin blamed then Secretary of State Clinton for giving ‘a signal’ to protesters (who were angry at evidence of vote-rigging in the 2011 Russian election) to take to the streets in what became the largest mass protest of his presidency, Putin nevertheless had a clear understanding of her internationalist worldview.
Clinton was also already well known as a foreign policy consensus-builder, who looked for multilateral solutions. It was also Hillary who executed the ‘reset’ policy with Russia early in Obama’s first term, which was an attempt to collaborate on issues of common interests. Clinton had direct experience of bargaining with Moscow and, in particular, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
Former spy Putin is appalled by all the leaks
The second reason that Putin must have doubts about the wisdom of a Trump presidency is related to the leakiness and the sheer levels of mismanagement of the Trump White House. As a former spy, who knows the value of secrecy, Putin must be appalled at the sloppiness and utter amateur-ness of the Trump administration.
The third, and most important reason, that Putin must lament Trump’s impulsive tendencies is that Congress has moved to tie the Trump administration’s hands on policy related to Russia and, in particular, maintaining sanctions on the Putin regime. Congressional leaders, including Republicans, were alarmed by a series of activities carried out by Trump and his loyalists.
For instance, congressional leaders were worried about efforts at the Republican National Convention to rewrite the platform that called for sustaining or increasing sanctions against Russia.
Likewise, key members of Congress were anxious about exertions by National Security Advisor Michael Flynn to lift sanctions soon after Trump took office. Congress was equally alarmed with Trump’s efforts to return control of two diplomatic compounds on U.S. soil that Russia used for spying.
Congress took sharp measures
These activities led congressional leaders overwhelmingly to pass the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which converted the Obama administration’s executive orders into federal law. Obama’s sanctions were in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, its military intervention in Ukraine and the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.
The most regretful part of CAATSA for Putin is that it not only blocks any efforts to roll back Obama’s sanctions but it applied new ones against entities conducting business with Russia’s defense and intelligence sectors. Incorporated into the legislation is a further stipulation that forces Trump to compile a list of names of well-connected Russians with links either to the Kremlin or within Putin’s inner circle. Congress was unlikely to pass such strident smart sanctions aimed at Putin’s sources of power if Clinton had been elected president.
Trump does not see the value of alliances
On the other side of the coin, one must consider several compelling reasons why Putin remains delighted that Trump is in the White House. First, because America’s relations with its European allies are at an all-time low. Trump’s transactional view of alliances is creating deep divisions between America and its European friends that Putin could have only fantasied about before 2017.
In interviews that Jeffrey Goldberg conducted with several senior people close to the president, it is clear that Trump does not see the value in having fellow democracies as friends. Goldberg finds what the administration labels its ‘We’re America, Bitch’ doctrine, to be ‘self-isolating’ and ‘self-sabotaging.’ Such an unapologetic attitude combined with a willingness to offend America’s allies and friends must thrill Putin. As realist scholar Stephen Walt of Harvard University argues, driving a wedge between America and its allies is one of Putin’s ‘core strategic goals.’
A smile on Putin’s face
The second reason why Putin must be contented with Trump’s residency in the Oval Office is that Trump so evidently wants to dismantle the global institutions and rules-based system that the United States has built since the mid-1940s. Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, describes this as Trump’s ‘Withdrawal Doctrine’, or as one of Trump’s close friends told Goldberg, the ‘Fuck Obama Doctrine’.
Whatever its label, the goals of such a foreign policy are clearly to cancel out agreements that Obama made, including pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), renouncing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, quitting the Paris Climate Accords and threating to scupper additional pre-Obama agreements like NAFTA and NATO. The cancelling out of these policies must make Putin smile.
A cozy get-together with the president of the free world
If we put ourselves in Putin’s shoes and weigh up the pros and cons of Trump’s unpredictable presidency, we would probably all agree with my colleague from Leiden University that Putin has no regrets. Trump’s dismantling of the global institutions and alliances creates windows of opportunity for Putin to act with impunity. A wide latitude that allows Putin to be repeatedly accused in the UN Security Council of committing war crimes in Syria but still have a cozy one-on-one date in Helsinki with the ‘President of the Free World.’
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