Vladimir Putin; Friend or Foe

The news right now is filled with commentary about how far the Russians may have interfered in the U.S. election process. Some have gone so far as to suggest that it calls the election into question. But, personally, I’m much closer to Paul Ryan’s point of view as noted in the Huffington Post, “As I’ve said before, any foreign intervention in our elections is entirely unacceptable, and any intervention by Russia is especially problematic because, under President Putin, Russia has been an aggressor that consistently undermines American interests. At the same time, exploiting the work of our intelligence community for partisan purposes does a grave disservice to those professionals and potentially jeopardizes our national security. As we work to protect our democracy from foreign influence, we should not cast doubt on the clear and decisive outcome of this election.”

While I do believe the Russians favored Trump, I don’t believe they changed the election results. Mrs. Clinton lost this election for any number of reasons most of her own making. What I do believe to be of material importance is President elect Trump’s apparent desire to have closer relations with the Russians. More importantly, I do not believe there would be a material benefit to the United States to do so. To use the President elect’s jargon, what’s the better deal for America?

As a businessman I never did business with people or firms I didn’t trust. As Congressman Ryan points out Mr. Putin does not have America’s best interests at heart.

The Russian leader has a long and sordid history of ill deeds. Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal commenting on this wrote, “In September 1999 a series of apartment bombings in three Russian cities killed 300 people. The Kremlin blamed the Chechen rebels. Later … agents of Russia’s security service … placed explosives in … an apartment building in Ryazan…. The bombings were instrumental in bringing Mr. Putin to power.”

After a supposedly independent parliamentary inquiry was held to determine the extent of Russian involvement in those bombings, the findings were placed under a 75 year seal.

Several of the members of that board of inquiry were considered liberals at the time. One was assassinated in 2003, another fell violently ill, lost all his hair and suffered massive organ failure, dying in 16 days. Yet a third survived albeit permanently disfigured the result of dioxin poisoning. Then there was the case of Alexander Litvinenko who died in Britain following a fatal dose of polonium.

Mr. Trump sees little problem with any of this. In December 2015 appearing on MSNBC’s Morning Joe he was questioned about Putin’s suspected killing of journalists hostile to his regime. Mr. Trump said, “Our country does plenty of killing also.” Perhaps, but I don’t think we are out there killing opposition party members.

Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, in the name of protecting Russian citizens who lived there, continued Mr. Putin’s reign of terror. According to Carnegie Mellon’s Moscow Center with this act, “Russia broke out of the post–Cold War system and openly challenged U.S. dominance. This move effectively ended a quarter century of cooperative relations among great powers and ushered in an era of intense competition between them. Two years on, Moscow continues to be in defiance. The conflict with the West has deepened, and confrontation with the United States and estrangement from EU countries are now the salient features of Russia’s international environment.”

Importantly, they also note that, “virtually simultaneously, Russia has entered a severe economic crisis, brought about by the demise of its oil-dependent economic model, which was exacerbated by Western sanctions…. Its outcome will largely determine the future of Russia.” Regardless of the outcome, however, Mr. Putin has demonstratively shown that Russia, with its takeover of the Crimea, has no regard for the sovereignty of other Nations.

Finally, Mr. Putin has made ample use of criminal elements within Russia, According to Newsweek, “Russia’s gangsters and spooks are often closely connected. Criminals are suspected in assassinations of Chechen rebels in Turkey; Russian cybercriminals have been used to fight the Kremlin’s virtual wars in Georgia and Ukraine and to crack into German and Polish government systems; and cigarette smugglers in the Baltics appear to have been used to raise funds for Russian political influence operations.”

Going on Newsweek notes that, “in some areas it has clearly been used to the advantage of Russian elites. A classic example is the harnessing of Russian hackers, who are granted a degree of impunity in return for their willingness from time to time to target the Kremlin’s foes.”

So, all in all, we have a nation with a horrendous track record of violence, dishonesty and a lack of integrity. Despite that, both Presidents Bush and Obama sought to improve relations with the Soviets, unsurprisingly, to no avail. While Mr. Trump may not be much of a reader, history does matter and particularly so in the foreign policy arena. It is rare that Nations or their leaders change their stripes to the degree that would be necessary for us to trust Mr. Putin and therefore change our policy position with regard to Russia.

Perhaps the President-elect believes that this time will be different. A close friend of mine believes that all of Mr. Trump’s comments to date with regard to Russia are simply posturing and that he will act with a full understanding of their past and their intent.

Maybe, but it certainly does not appear that way. It is quite clear that Russia would like to see the Western economic sanctions ended along with an end to Russia’s political isolation. But, Mr. Putin, according to the Carnegie Mellon report, “… has no intention of stepping back and reconciling … with the West through concessions and promises of improved behavior. Moscow’s strategy is to create facts on the ground to coerce its former partners turned rivals, above all the United States, to acknowledge Russia’s security interests—as defined by the Kremlin, not Washington—and accept Russia’s importance as a great power to be reckoned with globally.”

In other words, while Mr. Putin wants to bring back the power and prestige of the Soviet Union he is highly unlikely to desire to meet Mr. Trump’s terms of only doing deals that are great for America.

So, one must ask why President-elect Trump might believe that this time would be different? Why, indeed, would he think that the Russians are trustworthy partners?

In part, I believe, it is because he has done a lot of business with Russian oligarchs close to Mr. Putin. “The Trump-Russia links beneath the surface are … extensive,” Max Boot wrote in the Los Angeles Times. “Trump has sought and received funding from Russian investors for his business ventures, especially after most American banks stopped lending to him following his multiple bankruptcies.” Mr. Boot is a former editor of the Op Ed page of the Wall Street Journal and now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Time magazine wrote of Mr. Trump’s close association with a business group, Bayrock, which financed multiple Trump projects around the world. Bayrock’s founder is a Soviet era commerce official. “In a deposition, Mr. Trump said that the two had discussed ‘numerous deals all over the world’ and that Mr. Arif had brought potential Russian investors to Mr. Trump’s office to meet him.”

Time went on to write, “for all of his denials of Russian ties lately, Trump has boasted in the past of his many meetings with Russian oligarchs. During one trip to Moscow, Trump bragged that they all showed up to meet him to discuss projects around the globe. ‘Almost all of the oligarchs were in the room’ just to meet with him, Trump said at the time.”

In that context it makes more sense as to why President elect Trump believes that he can accomplish what two previous Presidents were unable to. But, there is a world of difference between financing hotels and dealing with an international pariah on geopolitical terms. They are not at all one and the same.

A number of Republican Senators and Congressmen have already expressed concern over President elect Trump’s desire to have closer ties with the Russians. Senator McCain urged, “the new Trump administration to stand on the side of those fighting tyranny and not with a former KGB agent who has plunged his country into tyranny.”

The President-elect should be listening to his intelligence community and he should understand that they have a much different perspective on this matter. While Mr. Putin does have very strong popular support at home there are real issues within Russia.

Carnegie Mellon notes, “The sharp drop in the oil price has markedly devalued Russia’s geopolitical importance vis-à-vis its principal customers in Europe and Asia. Russia finds itself again at a crossroads with a three-way choice: reform the economy and dismantle the existing politico-economic setup; go for a wholesale economic mobilization dominated by the state; or keep the system intact and face the prospect of continued decline and possibly an upheaval in the end. In the next five years, some sort of a choice between these three options will have to be made.”

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Ending the sanctions and getting back into the G8 community solves many of Mr. Putin’s immediate problems but doing so is not to our Nation’s best interests. Remember what Paul Ryan said at the outset, “under President Putin, Russia has been an aggressor that consistently undermines American interests.”

That is simply not a Nation you want to partner with. Indeed, given their internal econometric issues, it behooves America to leave the Russians hanging in the wind allowing those forces to play out because they will not likely favor Mr. Putin.

Perhaps my friend is right and as President Mr. Trump will show a stronger resolve with respect to Russia. I certainly hope so because if not, we are striking a deal with someone who most certainly will not have our back.

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