Anyone who reads the unconfirmed report on Russia’s purported ties to President-elect Donald Trump has to agree with the media organizations that balked at publishing it – until BuzzFeed decided to let Americans “make up their own minds.”
The document’s provenance seems to be a dirt-digging contract issued to an ex-British spy by Trump’s political opponents; it’s a pastiche of claims from unnamed sources, marred by spelling errors and including a tale about a Russia-Trump conspiracy hatched in a city, Prague, that Trump’s purported representative at the purported meeting says he’s never visited.
It culminates in the assertion that Russian intelligence controls Trump via possession of a video showing him disgustingly engaged with prostitutes in Moscow, a classic KGB-style kompromat (blackmail) scenario that seemed a little too vivid even before Trump ridiculed it at a news conference Wednesday.
There remains, however, one blindingly obvious, utterly true and, so far, insufficiently explained fact: Trump favors Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Putin favors him.
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You hardly need a clandestine “Source A” to know that RT, the Kremlin’s global media network, has consistently apologized for Trump. Nor is there much doubt that the Putin regime hacked Democratic Party documents harmful to Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, and used WikiLeaks as a front for their release, as even Trump fleetingly and grudgingly conceded Wednesday.
Through it all, Trump has dodged the issue of Russian meddling in the election and changed the subject to the purported benefits of closer relations with Moscow, insisting Wednesday that “if Putin likes Donald Trump, guess what, folks? That’s called an asset, not a liability.”
There needs to be more focus on why this bizarre bromance is so dangerous, even if its origins lie in nothing more sinister than the misguided foreign-policy musings of a celebrity real estate mogul.
Basically, the risks are the same as they would be in allying with any corrupt, dictatorial regime – magnified many times over by Putin’s geopolitical and ideological pretensions, which are ambitious indeed.
Whatever its other defects, the leaked document describes those rather well: Putin aims to “encourage splits and divisions in the Western alliance” so as to foster “a return to 19th-century ‘Great Power’ politics ... rather than the ideals-based international order established after World War II.”
Trump’s big idea is an alliance with Moscow against the Islamic State, which his designated national security adviser, the Russophilic Michael Flynn, has promoted for years on the grounds that our “common enemy” is radical Islam.
The problem is twofold: Russia may not have all that much to offer; despite its supposed hostility toward the terrorist group, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter says Moscow has done “virtually zero” to fight the Islamic State while otherwise waging war, in alliance with Iran, against Bashar al-Assad’s enemies in Syria.
And what little help Russia might supply the Trump administration would not be free. Such trade-offs are a commonplace of U.S. intelligence liaisons with dictatorships, past and present. When dictatorships helped us against, say, Soviet-backed guerrillas during the Cold War, the assistance often came in return for an American blind eye to corruption and human rights violations.
If Putin cooperated against the Islamic State, his price would surely be American indulgence of his designs against Ukraine and, over time, other European states. He would also likely try to penetrate U.S. intelligence, stealing those secrets and technology the Trump administration did not share.
On a subtler – but no less real – level, close partnership with Putin would legitimize his brand of illiberal rule by making it seem effective against a greater evil, terrorism; conversely, it would delegitimize liberal-democratic politics.
This is precisely the sort of devil’s bargain people have in mind when they warn against “letting the terrorists win.”
At least our Western European Cold War allies in NATO were mostly democratic, obviating moral dilemmas; and the United States redeemed its compromise at Yalta, which let the Soviets dominate Eastern Europe, by supporting democracy in that area after 1989.
Even after recent financial crises and democratic backsliding, Europe could have much to offer in the fight against the Islamic State; from Paris to Berlin, events over the past year show that jihadist terrorism is more of a European-American common enemy than a Russian-American one.
Yet instead of urging revitalized transatlantic relations, with NATO as its anchor, and instead of emphasizing values as a bulwark against terrorism, Trump disparages democratic leaders such as Angela Merkel of Germany and celebrates Putin’s “strength.”
It would be a profound historical irony, and a profound historical tragedy, if a President Trump were to cozy up to Putin’s Russia at the expense of democracy and self-determination for Europe and other regions. It would be kompromat on an international scale.