WASHINGTON - Why is Russian President Vladimir Putin so grateful to his American counterpart Donald Trump? Because the latter diminishes the United States’ standing in the world, making little Russia look larger.
Leave it to American analysts to explore major news events in great depth — and miss the main story. Case in point: the testimony of former FBI Director James Comey.
Virtually everybody has been concentrating on Comey’s interactions with Trump. Doing so not only misses the main point, it also means that most people are inadvertently buying into the Republican talking points.
As it stands, it seems as if the main goal the Republicans want is to offer themselves up as a deflection mechanism for the Russians.
The central issue of the testimony was the big deal that Comey underlined, the massive intrusion of Russian actors in the electoral process. Are these actors part of the Russian services? Or are they, as was suggested by Putin, “patriots,” i.e., arms-length operators, but perhaps not direct employees?
Whether or not the folks who ran interference in U.S. electoral politics are actually members of Russian government agencies, or whether they worked — presumably like the little green men in Crimea or Ukraine — in their spare time does not really matter.
The real question is: What did the Russian president want to achieve and what did he achieve, by trying to tip the balance of the 2016 U.S. presidential election?
It’s not easy to tell, especially because the Republicans of all people — who usually see a red scare around every corner — are all of a sudden surreally relaxed about Russian connivance. Never before in American history have so many U.S. conservatives so eagerly acted as Russia apologists as is happening right now.
What was Putin after?
Was Putin trying to bring about a lifting of the sanctions imposed after the invasion of Crimea and Ukraine? Not likely. The current sanctions are but a drop in the bucket of oil, whose price is the only relevant driver of the ups and downs of the Russian economy.
Did Putin perhaps more broadly want better relations with Washington? That is doubtful, too. It is politically vital for the Russian leader to perpetuate the myth that his country is once again on a par level with the U.S.
To transform that myth into reality, there are only two ways: Putin could opt to supercharge Russia’s economy and people. But that is a difficult, if not impossible task, not least due to demographic factors (not to mention the vodka supercharging …).
An alternative strategy for Putin would be to manage cutting the U.S. down to size. That could be achieved by a sudden diminution of Washington’s elevated stature on the global stage.
Ideally, Russia would insert a U.S. leader who is keen to weaken U.S. alliances and undermine the international order which the U.S. government established and led for 70 years.
Putin does not need to invest in more aircraft carriers like China does. He can just boast, with good reason: “Honey! I shrunk the USA!”
More amazing yet, he accomplished that feat over the space of little more than two weeks, between May 25 and June 9.
May 25: Brussels, NATO Summit. President Trump blasts his allies for not paying their dues to NATO, as if talking about membership in his golf courses or Mar-a-Lago.
June 1: Washington, Rose Garden. After weeks of unbearable “suspense,” Trump announces that the U.S. is withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, essentially for incoherent economic reasons. He also demonstrates his profound concern for the planet by stating a vague intent to negotiate a much better deal that’s fair to the country, adding: “And if we can’t, that’s fine!”
June 9: Paris, OECD ministerial. The U.S. delegation, led by Ambassador Robert Lighthizer, refuses to endorse the traditional communique. It contains the traditional condemnation of protectionist policies, the type of which one now assumes the U.S. intends to actively pursue. We have to remember that the OECD is a group of like-minded countries that espouse both the liberal economic policies and the democratic ideals the U.S. has been promoting since the end of World War II. If it can’t find common ground there, it won’t find it anywhere.
What it all this adds up to
In sum, the Trumpian “strategy” exhibited in these three occasions is the strategy of the middle finger. That kind of acting out might undoubtedly bring intense immediate satisfaction to the actor, as well as applause in the boondocks (but not so much in Pittsburgh, a city that knows better).
But it will also bring the U.S. mid- and long-term isolation. This administration believes that hard power is all that counts. It should know better: Hard power worked fine in Granada and Panama. It is not working so well in Afghanistan or Iraq. What made America great in the past is soft power, not the middle finger option favored by the puerile Trump team.
As to the erosion of American soft power, it really has a great deal to do with the ever more grievous lack of professional conduct. Qatar is fast becoming Exhibit A in that regard. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, also a newbie, thankfully attempts to cool down the situation. Then Trump moves to cross him. No surprise that Qatar’s foreign affairs minister then rushes to Moscow. That suits Russia just fine.
Putin versus the amateurs
To date, Putin made a very nice return on his small investment in the Trump card. Putin is not reputed to be a chess player, but should give it a try. Vis-a-vis Trump’s America, he is making all the right moves.
Jean-Francois Boittin is a former French diplomat and Treasury official. He lives in Washington and works on various consulting jobs as well as with a Paris economic think tank.