Tag: Russia

Early Thoughts on the Trump-Putin Meeting

As a historian of the Cold War, I have a passing knowledge of a number of meetings between Soviet/Russian leaders and U.S. presidents. Some are famous for getting relations off on the wrong foot (e.g. Kennedy and Khrushchev at Vienna in 1961); others set the stage for great breakthroughs, but were seen as failures at the time (e.g. Reagan and Gorbachev at Reykjavik in 1986); still others are largely forgotten (e.g. Johnson and Kosygin at Glassboro, NJ in 1967). It is impossible to predict how we will remember the first substantive meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.

We can see, however, what President Trump wants us to remember. “I think we have great opportunities together as two countries that, frankly,…have not been getting along very well for the last number of years,” Trump said at the opening of the meeting in Helsinki. “I think we will end up having an extraordinary relationship.” 

President Trump has long said, going back to his campaign, that it is important to have good relations with Russia. I agree. I’ve never seen meetings between American leaders and senior government officials and their foreign counterparts as a “reward” for good or bad behavior. It’s called diplomacy. If this first meeting does set a tone for cooperation between the two countries, historians might eventually judge it worthwhile.

Unfortunately, the context surrounding this meeting is not conducive to long-term success. Credible evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 election, affirmed in detail as recently as Friday, casts a long shadow, and makes it very difficult to make progress on matters of mutual interest. Any genuine breakthrough will immediately run afoul of U.S. domestic politics. That President Trump continues to dismiss the Mueller investigation as a “rigged witchhunt” and mostly blames his predecessor for failing to call the Russian election hack to the attention of the American people merely confirms a widespread perception that he doesn’t take it seriously.

In addition, on the heels of last week’s NATO summit, and the G-7 meeting last month, there is the unsettling fact that President Trump seems to prefer meeting with autocrats than with leaders of democracies. We saw that again today, with President Trump praising Vladimir Putin effusively days after he humiliated European leaders. He also spoke warmly of their mutual friend, China’s Xi Jinping. Last month, the president joked about how North Koreans “sit up at attention” when Kim Jong Un speaks, and he would like “my people to do the same.” He seems particularly impressed by how others are able to stifle domestic dissent. This behavior and rhetoric plays into his critics’ warnings about Donald Trump’s authoritarian instincts, and today’s meeting does nothing to ease such concerns.

President Trump’s idiosyncrasies notwithstanding, however, I will be paying attention to what, if anything, emerges from his meeting with Vladimir Putin. These could include agreement to discuss nuclear arms control, tamping down the civil war in Syria, and possibly reaching some resolution on Ukraine. But we’d all be advised to wait a bit before rendering a definitive judgement.

Putin’s New Term—From Brezhnev to Stalin

As was widely expected, on Sunday Vladimir Putin was once again reinstalled (reconfirmed, re-enthroned) in the Kremlin. The term “elected” cannot be used in this case since nothing that happened on March 18, 2018, or in the months leading to this date, qualifies for the internationally recognized basic standards of the term “election.” 

In full control of the Kremlin for more than 18 years, Putin has already been at the top of the Russian state longer than any other Russian or Soviet leader in the last century—including Leonid Brezhnev—and is now left to compete only with the three-decade reign of Joseph Stalin.

The official numbers of the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) gave Putin 76.7% of the vote with a turnout of 67.5%, making up almost 52% of Russia’s electorate. According to the CEC, the official number of people who voted for Putin was 56.4 million. However, Sergei Shpilkin, the renowned expert in electoral statistics, has estimated that ballot stuffing this year amounted to at least 10 million. In each of the three previous cases of “presidential elections” (in 2004, 2008, 2012) Shpilkin and his colleagues calculated the number of added (falsified) votes at between 8.8 and 14.6 million. 

Whatever the actual level of Putin’s public support, the official numbers provide Putin with a level of legitimacy that Russian presidents never had before. The real question that now arises is how he is going to use it.

The general consensus is that Putin’s policy on the domestic front would be a still further tightening of his grip on the last remnants of civil society, a further destruction of the already almost-fully-destroyed rule of law, meager—if any—meaningful economic reforms, and definitely a new level of ideologization of Russian society based on anti-liberal, conservative, Orthodox religious values. Russia’s level of political rights and civil liberties in previous years has been sliding down to non-free status. Now its status is just one notch above the very bottom in Freedom House’s political freedom index, meaning that it is close to the level of the totalitarian regimes of Cuba and North Korea. Given Putin’s persistence and Russia’s rapid political deterioration, it is rather hard not to expect that Russia will soon sink to the lowest level in the political freedom index.

As for Putin’s possible foreign policy in the coming years, we can get a hint of it based on a number of his recent statements, comments, and interviews. It appears that Putin’s traditional interest in disturbing Russia’s immediate neighbors and grabbing pieces of land in Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine has been visibly redirected towards Belarus, since Mr. Lukashenko’s dictatorship—lacking any serious foreign allies except for Russia—seems to be particularly vulnerable to absorption. In addition, the Russian “czar” has started to look for more ambitious targets beyond the borders of the former Soviet republics. Recently, his attention has been directed towards his key adversary—the United States—and the most irritating part for him within the United States, its democratic political system. In the documentary movie “The World Order, 2018,” which was prepared by the Kremlin propaganda team before the March presidential vote, Putin firmly articulated his two approaches to the United States: to be emphatically positive towards president Trump and to show strong “disappointment with the unpredictable [democratic] political system” of the United States.

Otherwise, in his interview with NBC anchor Megan Kelly, Putin appeared even more decisive—by naming (unprecedentedly) five times the most crucial problem for him and his key partner (president Trump): namely, the United States political system and the United States Congress. He blamed Congress for all of America’s alleged crimes, such as intervention into Russian internal affairs, different accusations of Russia, proclaiming Russia as an enemy, and the introduction of sanctions against Russia—something that Putin has never done before. It remains to be seen what particular instruments he is ready to apply towards this enemy—intervention into congressional elections this Autumn, cyber-attacks, propaganda, blackmail, or otherwise. But having seen Putin’s approach for years, it is hard not to foresee that one of the main targets of his aggressive foreign policy—either open, or clandestine, or both—in the coming years is going to be the democratic political system of the United States, with the United States Congress at its center.

Putin’s Shiny New Missile Threatens Nonproliferation

Vladimir Putin’s public speech Thursday night hit many of its objectives: a memorable branding moment for a politician heading into an election this month, boasted a new image of Russia after years of economic stagnation and military decline, and debuted a shiny new missile to emphasize that point. 

The new nuclear-powered cruise missile could have serious implications for U.S.-Russia relations by complicating the bilateral New START treaty that intended to downsize the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals. The state of American nonproliferation efforts seems to be at a low in recent history. President Trump frequently threatens to rip up the Iran Nuclear Deal and antagonizes North Korea, another rogue nuclear power. Hopefully policymakers can resist using this new Russian missile as an excuse to undercut New START and cease advocating for nonproliferation on the global stage.

For a full run-down, read my analysis published yesterday at Reuters.

The Foot in the Door on Internet Speech Regulation

Campaign finance has captured Congress’s attention once again, which rarely bodes well for democracy. Senators Amy Klobuchar, Mark Warner, and (of course) John McCain have introduced the Honest Ads Act. The bill requires “those who purchase and publish [online political advertisements]to disclose information about the advertisements to the public…”

Specifically, the bill requires those who paid for an online ad to disclose their name and additional information in the ad itself or in another fashion that can be easily accessed. The bill takes several pages to specify exactly how these disclosures should look or sound. The bill also requires those who purchase $500 or more of ads to disclose substantial information about themselves; what must be disclosed takes up a page and a half of the bill.

The Federal Election Commission makes disclosed campaign contributions public. With this bill, large Internet companies (that is, platforms with 50 million unique visitors from the United States monthly) are given that task. They are supposed to maintain records about ads that concern “any political matter of national importance.” This category goes well beyond speech seeking to elect or defeat a candidate for office.

Why does the nation need this new law? The bill discusses Russian efforts to affect the 2016 election. It mentions the $100,000 spent by “Russian entities” to purchase 3,000 ads. The bill does not mention that Mark Penn, a former campaign advisor to Bill and Hillary Clinton, has estimated that only $6,500 of the $100,000 actually sought to elect or defeat a candidate for office. It also omits Penn’s sense of perspective:

Hillary Clinton’s total campaign budget, including associated committees, was $1.4 billion. Mr. Trump and his allies had about $1 billion. Even a full $100,000 of Russian ads would have erased just 0.025% of Hillary’s financial advantage. In the last week of the campaign alone, Mrs. Clinton’s super PAC dumped $6 million in ads into Florida, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

#Russiagate Update: Winner Leak Implications

Megyn Kelly is probably kicking herself for not delaying her interview of Vladimir Putin. Had she waited just a few days, she could’ve brought a leaked copy of the latest NSA estimate of the timeline, motivations, and targets of alleged Russian hackers during the 2016 election cycle to her chat with Putin and asked a lot of pointed questions about it. Even though that opportunity never materialized, she and other journalists still have the chance to ask some equally important questions of American officials about this rather interesting document and the young woman responsible for sharing it with the world. What follows are some of my suggested lines of inquiry for our friends in the Fourth Estate.

The Leaker: Reality Leigh Winner

As I read The Intercept’s story, I kept asking myself one question, over and over: did this young woman learn nothing from Ed Snowden? 

This extract from the arrest warrant affidavit contains details that, if accurate, speak to a total lack of awareness of or concern for the kind of “insider threat” detection measures that now exist in most, if not all, Intelligence Community components:

Extract of arrest warrant affidavit in the case of Reality Leigh Winner

Why did Winner not use a truly secure means of contacting The Intercept? Why did she select this particular document? Why did she not contact a whistleblower advocacy organization for legal advice before even contemplating such a rash act?

The Media Outlet: The Intercept

In a statement published a short time ago, The Intercept claimed that

On June 5 The Intercept published a story about a top-secret NSA document that was provided to us completely anonymously. Shortly after the article was posted, the Justice Department announced the arrest of Reality Leigh Winner, a 25-year-old government contractor in Augusta, Georgia, for transmitting defense information under the Espionage Act. Although we have no knowledge of the identity of the person who provided us with the document, the U.S. government has told news organizations that Winner was that individual.

That statement is at odds with the search warrant affidavit quoted above, which claims that Winner was in “email contact” with the “News Outlet” (The Intercept).

Who’s telling the truth here vis a vis Winner’s alleged email contact with The Intercept–the Department of Justice or the paper? Could Winner have emailed the wrong reporter at The Intercept, and the actual story authors were in the dark that she’d contacted the paper? Did Winner’s email bounce? And why did Intercept staff share an exact copy of the purloined document with NSA officials in the first place? Why didn’t they simply read key passages of the document over the phone, or include extracts in an email to NSA officials?

Given the fact that Winner printed the document and thus left investigators a digital trace of her actions, perhaps The Intercept’s decision to share a scanned version of the document wouldn’t have mattered–but maybe it would have, and why endanger a source (annonymous or otherwise) by behaving in such an irresponsible way with the document?

Does the White House Have a Syria Strategy?

With the news that the United States has for the second time attacked targets linked to Syria’s Assad regime—in this case a convoy near Western forces in Al Tanf—concerned observers may be worrying that the Trump administration has chosen to make a major change in its Syria strategy. Fear not! As Secretary of Defense James Mattis told reporters:

“We’re not increasing our role in the Syrian civil war, but we will defend our troops. And that is a coalition element made up of more than just U.S. troops…”

Instead, you should probably just fear the fact that the United States no longer seems to have a Syria strategy.

Certainly, the Obama administration’s strategy towards Syria was inconsistent and vague. From the President’s statements early in the Syrian uprising that “Assad must go,” to his infamous red line comment, the Syrian chemical weapons deal, and the decision to intervene against ISIS, it often seemed as though the Obama administration was unsure whether it was willing to accept the Assad regime as part of a Syrian transition or not.

Nonetheless, throughout Obama’s term, the United States took no direct military action against Assad, and—other than arming a small number of rebels early in the conflict—largely ignored the question of Assad’s future, focusing instead on the campaign against ISIS.

With his disinterest in human rights, and his willingness to cooperate with Russia, the Trump administration was initially expected to be more conciliatory towards Assad than Obama. Yet only days after senior U.S. officials publicly stated that the U.S. priority was not to remove Assad, the President fired 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian air base.

Yesterday’s attack marks the second such incident. That they don’t constitute an official policy change is in large part because they were apparently authorized by commanders in the field, reflecting Trump’s desire to delegate key military decisionmaking down the chain of command.

Yet in many ways, this highlights the dangers of such delegation: though the strikes may have been necessary to protect American and British Special Forces based near al-Tanf, they carry risks of retaliation for U.S. troops in Syria and Iraq, as well as the potential for escalation with Syrian regime forces, Iranian-backed militias, or even Russian forces.

Targeting decisions like this, made at the tactical level, are thus deeply worrying. As ISIS continues to decline, military advances will bring both sides closer, raising the potential for conflict that could drag the United States deeper into the Syrian quagmire.

Unfortunately, lack of clarity about the Assad regime and allied forces is only one of the important questions that the Trump administration has so far failed to address in Syria. Though the headlines largely focused on the disgraceful behavior of Turkish President Erdogun’s bodyguards in beating up protestors, his D.C. visit last week also yielded no apparent progress on the brewing Turkish-Kurdish conflict in Northern Syria.

Indeed, the Trump administration recently took the decision to directly arm Syria’s Kurdish rebels, one of the most effective forces against ISIS. This was probably the right decision, but strains relations with Turkey, our NATO ally, which considers these groups as terrorists, and is engaged in bombing them.

At the same time, Trump appears to look more favorably on Russian plans for resolving and ending the Syrian conflict than his predecessor, but has taken an openly hostile attitude towards Iran, one of the other signatories of the de-escalation plan, and a major player on the ground in Syria. These two positions cannot be easily reconciled.

Thanks to a recent boost under the new administration, there are now at least a thousand U.S. troops in Syria training and working with ground forces fighting ISIS. It is these troops—and the larger number of U.S. forces in neighboring Iraq—who are most placed at risk by the new administration’s incoherent approach to Syria.

Whether or not the White House realizes it yet, tactical decisions like the one made yesterday by commanders on the ground in Syria risk dragging the United States even further into this complex war. The only way they can avoid it? Develop a coherent Syria strategy. 

The Trump-Russia Connection: Context Is Crucial

The Justice Department’s appointment of former FBI director Robert Mueller as Special Counsel takes the ongoing investigation of Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 presidential election and possible collusion between Trump campaign officials and the Russian government to an entirely new level.  If the investigation is to be truly objective and informative, some crucial issues need to be addressed. 

Above all, it is imperative to determine the full context of the Trump-Russia relationship.  The old parable about a group of blind men feeling limited portions of an elephant and reaching erroneous conclusions applies here.  Without context, someone feeling the elephant’s trunk may express unwarranted confidence that it is a thick rope.

One of the issues that must be examined is the extent and nature of the contacts between members of Trump’s election campaign team and Russian officials.  To determine that in a dispassionate manner will not be easy.  An anti-Russia hysteria has reached alarming proportions in the past few months, eerily resembling the McCarthy era in the 1950s.  As I note in a recent article in the American Conservative, there appears to be a concerted effort to make Russia a pariah.  Indeed, at least two House Democrats have voiced objections to any contact whatsoever between the Trump administration and Russian officials.

That attitude is both unrealistic and potentially very dangerous.  Even during the worst days of the Cold War, U.S. leaders never severed communications with Moscow.  In fact, constructive dialogues produced some worthwhile agreements with America’s totalitarian adversary, including the treaty banning atmospheric nuclear tests in 1963.  To adopt an unprecedented, hardline attitude now toward post-Soviet Russia, which is a conventional rather than a totalitarian power, would be irresponsible.

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