Michael G. Roskin: Trump’s Dilemma
Thursday, January 12, 2017 10:00 AM
One problem with the murky story of Russian “kompromat” on President-elect Donald Trump is why ever would the Kremlin release its secrets, ending their utility as blackmail? And why ever would Moscow throw away its opportunity to settle Ukraine and ISIS with a not-unfriendly President Trump? It makes no sense.
Trump calls the story “fake news” — and indeed it may be — but it still leaves him with the dilemma of how to handle Russia. Remaining pro-Putin might improve U.S.-Russian relations but — amid whiffs of Russian tampering — at the cost of domestic political disapproval. Turning anti-Putin, on the other hand, might shield him from charges that he is Putin’s puppet but would wreck rapprochement with Russia. Middle grounds here — “let’s be a little hostile” — are hard to stick to.
If President Trump keeps calling the consensus on Russian interference “ridiculous,” he may put himself on the wrong side of public and congressional opinion as both parties turn critical of Russia and of his disparagement of U.S. intelligence agencies. Secretary of State Clinton’s “reset” button in 2010 could not dent U.S.-Russian differences, which are deeply rooted in history and geography. Trump has followed a certain logical consistency on Russia, but his consistency has created dilemmas.
First, in seeking to improve relations with Russia, Trump couldn’t very well call Putin an aggressor for seizing Crimea and parts of Ukraine. He had to accept Moscow’s contention — probably via Paul Manafort, who should be called to testify — that Russia has valid geostrategic interests, such as keeping the naval base of Sevastopol out of NATO control. Such understandings, however, should not give Putin free license to reconstruct the tsarist empire.
Next, Trump had to deny that Russian hackers and “trolls” churned out e-mails in a Putin-ordered “influence campaign.” If he accepted the charges, he’d have to denounce Moscow, ending any reset. Scoffing at the charges for several months, however, made Trump look foolish and obdurate in the face of U.S. intelligence findings.
Russian intrusion into our 2016 election, even with unclear impact, impugns the legitimacy of Trump’s victory. If it swayed 1 percent in two or three key states, Hillary might have won. This alone required the Trump people to dispute the reality of Russian penetration.
Trumpists also had to accept Julian Assange’s assertion that he is no Russian agent and did not get WikiLeaks’ hacked emails from Russia. But who can trust him? A lifelong anti-American, he always shields the sources of his purloined material. Several Republicans who called for Assange’s death now praise him.
To deal with Putin, Trump had to ignore treaty and strategic obligations and let NATO and the European Union fragment. He favored Brexit and demanded allies pay for defense. Trump could not call for stationing American forces in Poland or the Baltic states. To rally NATO would signal that we recognize the threat of Russian power and are ready to counter it. Bye-bye reset.
The pro-Russian line also had to ignore the influx of Russian money and cyberpenetration into Western Europe. In French and German elections this year, Moscow favors, respectively, the proto-fascist National Front and Alternative for Germany, as they aim to rip Europe apart and get the U.S. to depart.
A deal on Ukraine would require Western recognition of Russian ownership of Crimea, but instead of a new era of balance, Putin’s claims could be just beginning. The Baltic states — Latvia’s and Estonia’s populations are about one-quarter Russian — could next beckon him to “rescue” his Russian brothers. And we’ll have little in the region to dissuade him.
Conservative Hugh Hewett speculated in the Washington Post that Trump might have been shrewdly “playing” Putin, but it is more likely that the former KGB colonel played Trump. As noted here Dec. 15, Russian agents collect compromising materials (“kompromat”) to bribe and control. Could kompromat — on personal life, finances and contact with Russian agents — explain Trump’s accommodative approach to Russia? Those who suggest it must offer evidence.
Trump in Tuesday’s press conference sideways indicated that the Kremlin hacked but won’t do it again, much less use kompromat on him, a credible assertion. Trump does revenge well and would label Putin a scoundrel and adversary. Cold-War hostility could return. Putin is no fool and would avoid that.
Trump’s original idea was not bad: Let’s turn Russia from a geostrategic problem into a strategic partner, settling Ukraine and fighting ISIS. In reaching settlements we risk letting Putin pursue his current aggressive policies. How much are we willing to offer for another chance at restart amid doubts about Moscow’s honesty?
No personal rapport will budge Putin, who is the product of Russian geopolitical fears and Stalinist brutality. The Obama administration was slow to react to Russian cyberpenetration, but for a while Trump denied that it even existed. Let’s see if President Trump adopts harder positions on anything dealing with Russia — cyberpenetration, NATO and Ukraine. Reality makes continuity the norm in U.S. foreign policy.