“Pro-Kremlin proxy Vladimir Zhirinovskiy, leader of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, proclaimed just before the election that if President-elect Trump won, Russia would ‘drink champagne’ in anticipation of being able to advance its positions on Syria and Ukraine,” noted the U.S. intelligence community’s official assessment of Russian intervention in the presidential election. Vladimir Putin’s regime had developed a clear preference for Donald Trump, including and perhaps especially “his Russia-friendly positions on Syria and Ukraine.”
It is exactly those two issues that are playing out at the forefront of American politics right now. Trump is facing impeachment over his campaign to withhold diplomatic recognition and military aid from Ukraine while working covertly in an alliance with pro-Russian political actors in that country. Meanwhile, Trump suddenly and impulsively engineered a
U-turn in American policy toward Syria to the direct benefit of Russia and its regional proxies.
The mystery of Russia’s influence over Trump has largely disappeared from public attention since the publication of the Mueller report. Yet now, as thousands of ISIS terrorists go free and a humanitarian crisis unfolds, whatever illicit or corrupt backchannel or leverage Russia may have still poses a great danger to American security.
Mueller, of course knocked the wind out of the question without resolving it. In his testimony, he did concede, after one House Democrat drew it out of him, that Trump’s secret campaign negotiations for a lucrative Moscow building deal made him vulnerable to Russian blackmail. But Mueller’s report focused on finding criminal-law violations, not counterintelligence threats. New details of Trump’s odd Russophilia have continued to leak into the public domain. In late September, the Washington Post reported that Trump privately told the Russian ambassador he was not concerned about Russia’s interference in the election. Days later, the same newspaper revealed that Trump “fawned over” Putin in one of his first calls as president and spent ten minutes with Theresa May disputing her country’s intelligence assessment that Russia had poisoned a former Russian spy on British soil.
From the American perspective, the Ukraine scandal is primarily about the president’s attempt to leverage his power over a vulnerable foreign country to gin up investigations of his domestic opponents. But from Ukraine’s end, the narrative looks a bit different. It is a story about restoring Russian influence over Ukraine’s political system.
Even while it has menaced its smaller neighbor, Russia has sought to manipulate Ukraine internally by covertly supporting corrupt political officials who would promote Russian interests. Russian oligarchs hired Paul Manafort to advise corrupt Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. After a popular uprising drove Yanukovych out of power, the nexus of corruption and Russophilia didn’t disappear. It has instead reconstituted itself around a series of figures who, like Manafort, have cultivated influence with Trump.
The great joke behind Trump’s claim to be rooting out “corruption” in Ukraine is that it is the literal opposite of his agenda in that country. Trump has been allied with the most corrupt elements in Ukrainian politics, a point Michele Goldberg explains lucidly in her recent reporting from that country.
Manafort is now in prison, but Rudy Giuilani appears to have taken on a successor role. He has collected half a million dollars from Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, two shadowy figures with links to Russian organized crime. Parnas and Fruman may not be the ultimate source of Giuliani’s money; Reuters reports U.S. prosecutors charge an unidentified Russian businessman sent a million dollars to their accounts.
Giuliani’s work in Ukraine began with attempts to absolve Manafort of collecting illicit sums from Russia by smearing the Ukrainians who exposed his corruption, and absolving Russia of election hacking by promoting a conspiracy theory that blamed Ukraine for hacking Democratic emails. From there, he expanded his efforts to attacking Joe Biden.
But Giuliani, who was being paid by the Russians and representing Trump for free, advanced a policy agenda that benefited both. As the curtain behind the Ukraine scandal has been slowly pulled back, it has become increasingly clear that Trump stands almost alone within his own administration in his coldness toward Ukraine.
Trump had to turn over his Ukraine policy to an outside, Russian-paid lawyer because it repelled almost the entirety of his own administration’s foreign-policy staff. Trump’s refusal to support Kiev and release the military aid voted by Congress appalled and alarmed numerous White House advisers, many of whom saw the extortion play as not only misguided but outright criminal.
Trump has concealed his discussions with Putin from other members of his administration. When the two leaders spoke in July, Trump implausibly claimed to have called out of concern for wildfires in Siberia. This last summer, he pleaded with fellow G7 members to readmit Russia, which had been expelled as punishment for its invasion of Ukraine. Even in September, in a televised meeting with Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky while the scandal was blowing up all around him, Trump treated Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a minor misunderstanding between the two countries. “That was done a long time ago, and I think it was handled poorly. But it’s just one of those things,” he said. Addressing Zelensky, he offered, “I really hope that you and President Putin get together and can solve your problem,” as if a small country under military attack from a much larger one was in any position to work out its problems by itself.
So the question again turns to why is Trump almost alone in his own administration on this issue. All the old suspicions still apply. Trump has not released his financial information, and we don’t know how much Russian money he has collected. (Remember, he was trying to collect several hundred million dollars in fees from the Moscow project during the campaign, completely in secret.) Or perhaps the Russians might simply be very good at manipulating Trump’s ego, which they’ve been doing since the 1980s, so that his spiteful or self-destructive lurches tend to redound to their benefit.
It hardly requires a nefarious conspiracy to explain why Trump has done something stupid. That outcome is, as a social scientist would put it, overdetermined. Still, the juxtaposition is quite striking. Trump is currently enduring a domestic crisis (the Ukraine scandal) and a foreign one (the Syria debacle). One of these crises — green-lighting a Turkish invasion of Syria — had no plausible connection to his own political self-interest. Both have transpired because Trump took reckless and self-destructive actions that happened to follow the course of action Russia desired.