Yesterday, after news broke that Rex Tillerson had been fired and replaced by Mike Pompeo, I heard some voices reassuring themselves that unlike many in the Trump world Pompeo is fairly hostile to Russia. At least, they say, he views Russia through a more traditional Republican prism. This raises a general point that is critical and we all must address. We don’t need more hostility toward Russia or more hawkishness. What we need is an un-compromised policy toward Russia. Most specifically, we need an uncompromised President, something we currently do not have.
This is no mere rhetorical point. Russia is a threat. But it is largely a threat because of its weakness, its status as a declining power with cultural and geopolitical ambitions far out of sync with its current reality and most future realities we can credibly envision. That is the centerpiece of Putinism, the aim to reclaim Russia’s 20th-century preeminence and exact revenge against those he blames for Russia’s precipitous collapse in the 1980s and 1990s. Putinism is a textbook revanchist worldview and policy agenda. Indeed, we can see it playing out in the crises of the last handful of years. The effort to destabilize Ukraine and seize the Crimean Peninsula speaks for itself. The 2016 election tampering campaign is an even deeper example.
There is a fascinating debate going on now about whether there is such a thing as a “Gerasimov Doctrine,” a theory of full-spectrum warfare aimed at countering the West. Here’s a good introduction to that debate here. What is beyond debate is this: Russia is geographically vast but economically a modest player at best in the scale of the world’s great powers. Russia’s GDP ranks somewhere between that of Italy and Mexico. It’s jarring to recognize that but it is true. Russia’s military and political leaders realize they simply lack the economic or geopolitical heft to remain a world power in conventional military terms. They simply can’t afford it. To maintain the great power or major power status to which Russian elites believe Russia is entitled it must mobilize unconventional tools to do so. Whether this is a doctrine or a more ad hoc strategy of necessity growing out of the experience of last decades ‘color revolutions’ in Eastern Europe and the Arab Spring, it is the impetus behind Russia’s increasingly pervasive and aggressive focus on information warfare, subversion, hacking and various efforts to destabilize potential adversaries it cannot dominate or engage with in conventional economic or military terms. (As I wrote way back in August 2016, this Gerasimov Doctrine, growing out of Russian perceptions of the Color Revolutions and the Arab Spring is oddly comparable to conservative perceptions of liberal media hegemony and the creation of Fox News. No really.)
The key danger we currently face is not Russia itself. It is the success of the 2016 campaign. I’m not talking about the fact that President Trump won the election. We don’t know the impact of the disruption campaign and in any case, that fact is in the past. I’m talking about the fact that Russia and Vladimir Putin clearly exercise some control over Donald Trump. Now. I know that is a dramatic accusation. Perhaps to some, it will appear hyperbolic. But after a year I think there’s no longer any way to doubt that this is true. On every front, he resists taking punitive measures against Russia, even when mandated to do so by US laws. He goes to great lengths never to criticize Russia. In the exceedingly rare cases in which he does, it is in prepared statements written for him by others. In other words, when it’s not really him. He finds himself spilling highly classified intelligence to top Russian government officials. He seeks out private meetings with Vladimir Putin where no other Americans are present. The latest instance with this chemical weapons assassination attempt in the UK is just the latest example. Some members of the administration have been outspoken. But President Trump has done his very best to keep his criticism to an absolute minimum, always leaving open the possibility that others are involved. It’s just like he does when he’s asked about Russia’s interference in the 2016 campaign.
I don’t know why this is. Does Vladimir Putin have something on Trump? Is there money involved? Is it simply that in the nature of things Putin can expose the collusion that took place during the 2016 campaign. Perhaps it’s just an on-going arrangement freely engage in on both sides. Of course, we can speculate that President Trump simply has a profound admiration and attraction to Putin which makes any criticism impossible. But that would if anything be worse than kompromat and bribes. Something is clearly wrong, very wrong. The President is not able to act in America’s interest with regard to Russia. And that unexplained subservience sends shockwaves across numerous critical US alliances, particularly in Europe.
It is important to note that there is no single policy that is in America’s interest. There is a range of policies and ways of dealing with Russia, some more aggressive than others. Those are different policies each rooted in different strategies and interpretations of statecraft. But they are united by a calculus that puts the interests of the United States first without any conflicting allegiances, corrupt alliances or compromised intentions. For now, we simply don’t have that.
That isn’t just a massive indictment of President Trump. It’s a great danger for the United States and every American citizen. Because on this critical front – not an existential threat, not the only or even necessarily the greatest threat – our government is decapitated at the top. We don’t know how far this goes. This mini-chemical weapons attack, again, is instructive. My greatest fear with Trump is not so much that he would ‘sell out’ the US as that his subservience and public lickspittledom would lead Putin to be so aggressive that it would set in motion a chain of events that would be difficult to stop. What if one of those Russian planes buzzing US ships crashes into one? What if Putin kills someone with nerve gas on American soil? What happens then? At some point, inevitably, the U.S. snaps from Trump accommodation to aggressive response. How much of a hold does Russia have over Trump? Can he be driven to inflict willful damage on the United States? We don’t know. But our ability to act, in critical decisions and engagements implicating our most essential alliances, is crippled.