Trump’s divided loyalties when it comes to Russia.

The least that we have the right to expect from president-elect Donald Trump is his undivided loyalty when it comes to our relationship with a hostile foreign power.  There is compelling evidence that when it comes to Russia we are not going to get that from Trump and that he is going to try to balance the interests of the United States with his personal and business interests.  It is an incredibly risky proposition.

Trump intends to dramatically reset the relationship between the United States and Russia by reversing policies toward Russian currently held by the United States and its allies without any cogent explanation of why he believes that doing so will improve Russia’s behavior.  It appears likely that Trump will try to relax economic sanctions against Russia without demanding an end to Russian intervention in Ukraine and will cooperate with the Russians in combating rebel forces seeking to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad without insisting that plans be made for Assad to step down.  And that may only be the beginning.

There is little doubt in my mind that Trump’s judgment is affected by his desire to retain the flow of money from Russian oligarchs into Trump’s projects and by the prospect of Trump’s businesses gaining favored access to the Russian real estate market.  Cozying up to Russian President Vladimir Putin is the best way for Trump to keep his Russian creditors and investors happy and to realize his dream of a Trump Tower in Moscow.

Putin wants a favor from Trump – relaxation of the economic sanctions imposed in 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea.  And Trump is falling all over himself to deliver that favor to Putin.  The extent to which Trump will go to accommodate Putin was made strikingly clear by the manner in which Trump bashed the CIA’s conclusion that Russia hacked into emails in an attempt to influence the election in Trump’s favor.

Trump has every right to be cautious about accepting the CIA’s opinion, and could have diplomatically expressed concern about the conclusions without dismissing them out of hand.  Instead he ridiculed the findings with a gratuitous insult of the CIA’s competence, reminding everyone that “these are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.”

Why would Trump react so vehemently and attack the general credibility of the agency that the United States depends upon to provide information critical to our national security?  There is only one reason:  Trump knows that Congress never will relax the economic sanctions against Russia if it believes that Russia attempted to influence the outcome of the presidential election and relaxation of the sanctions is vitally important to Putin, and therefore to Trump.

Trump put the CIA and other intelligence agencies on notice that he is not going to let the facts get in the way of his intentions toward Russia and that these agencies better not try to persuade him otherwise.  It is a terrible start to his relationship with agencies that will be expected to provide the intelligence presumably used by him to help guide foreign policy.

What does Trump want from Putin in return for relaxing the sanctions against Russia?  We know that Russian banks and oligarchs within Putin’s inner circle have invested heavily in Trump’s projects and lent him money.   Russian financiers came to Trump’s rescue when banks in the United States were no longer willing to lend him money.  In 2008 Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. said at a real estate conference in New York that “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets.” He added that “we see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”

The problem is that we don’t know how much money is involved and, more importantly, what strings are attached to that money because Trump refuses to tell us.  How heavily dependent are Trump’s projects on Russian financing?

After his 2008 remarks Donald Jr. clammed up on the subject of Russian money.  Ordinary prudence in such situations by public and private entities dictates that a conflict of interest is assumed until proven otherwise by full disclosure of the relevant financial information.

For the same reason the American public should have the opportunity to judge for itself whether Trump’s commitments to his Russian creditors and investors pose a potential conflict with his duty as president to act solely in the best interests of the United States.  If denied that opportunity the public has every reason to assume the worst.  Dr. Evelyn Farkas, formerly Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, wrote in a commentary this week that based on what we know – and on what we don’t know because of Trump’s refusal to disclose the extent of his financial ties to Russia  – it remains possible that Trump is in a fact a puppet of Putin.  Strong stuff.

Trump long has sought entrée to the Russia real estate market without success.  To succeed in Russia it helps to have a friend in high places and there is no friend in a higher place in Russia than Putin.  Trump wants access to Russian money and to the lucrative Russian real estate money.  Putin holds the keys to both.  Sometimes it doesn’t pay to look past the obvious when trying to figure out a person’s motivations.

Equally obvious has been the dramatic difference between Trump’s approach toward China and his approach toward Russia.  Trump has criticized China harshly and repeatedly and his opening gambit in establishing his relationship with Chinese leaders was to speak with the president of Taiwan.  One of Trump’s vaunted negotiating techniques is to be unpredictable and keep the other side off-balance, and nothing unsettles the Chinese quite like the prospect that the United States might change its one-China policy.  It was a message to Chinese leadership that everything could be on the table.

On the other hand Trump has refrained from criticizing Russia and has been almost fawning in expressing admiration for Putin.  Trump generally reserves such fawning praise for occasions when he is talking about himself.

In contrast with his message to China that everything could be on table for negotiation when he becomes president Trump already appears to have taken major issues off of the table for purposes of talking to Russia.  He indicated that he is willing to accept the annexation of Crimea by Russia on a permanent basis, believes that the economic sanctions against Russia should be lifted, and supports Russian intervention on the side of al-Assad.  Why would he weaken his hand with Russia before taking office?  The only parties he has unsettled with his approach toward Russia have been our allies.

The planned nomination of Tillerson as Secretary of State confirms Trump’s intention to build a strong relationship with Putin.  Tillerson has been a friend of Putin for nearly 20 years and rose to the top at Exxon on the strength of his performance managing the company’s Russian account.

Tillerson negotiated ExxonMobil’s massive deal with the Russian oil company Rosneft, 75% of which is owned by the Russian government.  Putin himself awarded Tillerson the highest medal bestowed by Russia on a foreign national for his efforts.  The deal, signed in 2011, gave Exxon access to vast Arctic oil reserves inside Russia and makes Rosneft a partner in projects in the U.S. including projects in Texas and in the Gulf of Mexico.

At the time the deal was estimated to be worth approximately $300 billion; projections now are that it is worth upwards of $500 billion and is described as the largest deal of its kind in history.  The deal was suspended in 2014 when sanctions were imposed on Russia because of its annexation of Crimea.  Unsurprisingly, Tillerson became an outspoken critic of the sanctions.  The deal cannot proceed until the sanctions are lifted.

Tillerson has no diplomatic or public sector experience.  He has worked at Exxon his entire career.  There is one reason and only one reason that Trump wants Tillerson:  Tillerson’s close ties to Putin.

Tillerson, who is a talented and widely admired international businessman, is not necessarily a bad choice for Secretary of State, but this is not about Tillerson.  This is about Trump and what Trump sees happening if he and Tillerson can thaw the relationship between the United States and Russia.  Tillerson is but a means to an end.  Of all possible candidates for Secretary of State Trump selects the person said to be the American with the closest relationship to Putin.  Coincidence?

Do I believe that Trump is intent on selling out the United States and its allies to Russia for personal gain?  No.  I believe that this is as much about grandiosity as avarice and that Trump believes that he can successfully negotiate with Putin where others have failed.  I also believe that in Trump’s megalomaniacal mind he thinks that he can negotiate a deal that helps both the United States and the family business.  What could possibly be wrong with that?

Against the weight of most expert advice, and contrary to the positions of our allies as well as his own party, Trump may have convinced himself that relaxing the sanctions against Russia will change Russia’s behavior for the better.  If that is what he believes then he has no idea who he is dealing with in Putin.

Like the former KGB agent that he is Putin has played to Trump’s ego masterfully, convincing Trump that the two of them can engineer a grand deal that showers Trump with glory as the greatest deal-maker on the world stage.  Although Putin has the measure of Trump I question how much Trump knows about Putin.

I am currently wading through The Shadow of the Winter Palace by Edward Crankshaw.  The 1976 book, which my wife bought from a second-hand book seller, chronicles Russia’s drift toward revolution beginning with the “Decembrist” revolt in 1825.  The pre-soviet history of Russia is absolutely fascinating, and I enjoyed Robert Massie’s 2011 book on Catherine the Great enough that I went back and read his 1981 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Peter the Great.

A little knowledge of Russian history is helpful because contemporary experts on Russia and Putin have suggested that Putin models his style of leadership on the tsars, and is best described as an imperial leader rather than as a soviet one.  “What the West is dealing with today is an imperial Russia. Under Putin’s leadership, Russian policy is more like that during the time of the tsars before the 1917 Russian Revolution,” according to Luke Coffey of The Heritage Foundation.  “The difference between Russia and the West right now is that Russia has a strategy that it is willing to follow and the West is hoping the problem disappears.  The U.S. needs a comprehensive strategy when all it has right now is a response,” stated Coffey.

The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, reportedly has been influential in crafting some of Trump’s policy positions.  If so, Trump’s pivot toward Putin is at odds with the foundation’s traditional wariness of Russian motives.  In a report released last year the foundation described the situation as follows:

“The long-run history of Russia’s relations with the West raises a fundamental question for American comprehensive strategy. Since at least the 17th century, Russia has been torn—and has oscillated—between viewing itself as a basically Western nation or as a great and imperial power that embodies values apart from those of the West and has historical license to control its neighbors in the name of increasing its power and advancing its concept of civilization. It is possible to view the rise of the Putin regime as simply another moment in Russian history when the pendulum has swung away from the West.  If that is the case, Russia is a problem that will be with the West for a very long time, although its urgency will wax and wane.”

In addition to his designs on restoring the geopolitical dominance of mother Russia, Putin also is a thief and, according to Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham and most other intelligence experts, a murderer.  The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin by Masha Gessen is a sobering account of how the former mid-level KGB agent found his way to the top of the Russian government, often using ill-gotten gains to purchase the loyalty of political allies.  Suffice it to say that there is nothing uplifting about Putin’s character or inspirational about his rise to power.  His only friends are people that he finds useful.

Putin is not interested in some grand rapprochement with the United States.  He is interested in a relaxation of sanctions that will allow Russian to strengthen its economy and make more money available to cause mischief around the world.  The sanction that Putin is most interested in relaxing is the one that has stalled implementation of the deal between ExxonMobil and Rosneft.  Rosneft has been a bountiful source of cash for the Russian government, and any source of cash for the Russian government is a source of personal wealth for Putin.

Putin will make some minor concessions in order to allow Trump to claim success in any deal but no deal is going to deter Putin from continuing to militarize the Arctic, threaten Russia’s neighbors, aggressively pursue space-based nuclear weapons, expand cyber warfare capabilities, and play a spoiler role by involving Russia irresponsibly in the world’s crises and problems.  Putin wants the economic sanctions on Russia lifted so that he can redouble his efforts to undermine democracies around the world.  Putin will keep any deal that he makes with Trump only so long as it suits Putin’s purposes.

To Putin this is just another instance of buying and selling favors, and no one understands pay-to-play any better than Vladimir Putin.  He used his positions in the government of St. Petersburg and later his position as Deputy Chief of the Presidential Property Management Department in the Russian government to enrich himself and reward his friends.  According to Karen Dawisha, author of Putin’s Kleptocracy, Putin’s power (and enormous personal wealth) is based on a comprehensive system of bribery, kickbacks, and other corrupt practices.  Dawisha estimated Putin’s personal wealth at approximately $40 billion.

Of course Putin not only rewards his friends; he punishes his enemies.  They end up in prison or, as in the case of Boris Nemtsov and others, dead.

Is it harsh to suggest that our president-elect might be unduly influenced by the prospect of personal gain?  Not unless you believe that there is no reason for ethics laws requiring financial disclosures and prohibiting conflicts of interest because you trust all elected officials to disregard conflicts when making decisions.  I understand that such laws do not apply to the president, but tell me one thing in Trump’s background and character that would convince me that he is the exception to the rule and that we do not have to worry about conflicts of interest when it comes to him.

And please don’t insult my intelligence by telling me that any potential conflicts of interest will be resolved by turning over the Trump business empire to Trump’s sons.  I don’t care if it is Eric and Donald Jr. rather than Dad showing up at the grand opening of the Trump Hotel and Casino in Moscow, the conflict of interest would be precisely the same.

I do not know at this point whether anything can be said or done to assure us of Trump’s undivided loyalty when it comes to the relationship between the United States and Russia.  As with any number of other things in the Trump presidency we are going to have to watch him like a hawk and hope for the best.  I think that we are also going to need more than a little luck.

December 16, 2016

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