June 24, 2019

What Putin Wants

Guest Opinion
By Jack Segal | June 8, 2019

The 22-month investigation of Russian meddling into the 2016 election has wrapped up with indictments against multiple Russian officials, a Russian “troll farm,” two shell companies, 13 Russian civilians, and 12 Russian military intelligence officers. The Russian attacks included hiring Internet hackers in third-world countries to carry out phishing attacks. They succeeded in stealing files from the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign, then worked with WikiLeaks to distribute information that was damaging to Clinton to help Trump win. 

On May 29, Special Counsel Robert Mueller stated that the 22-month investigation concluded that “there were multiple systemic efforts to interfere in our [2016] election… and that allegation deserves the attention of every American.” Mueller did not find that “President Trump or his associates conspired with Russia in the 2016 election ... ” but could not determine whether there was a conspiracy to hinder the investigation. 

The President’s reaction went somewhat beyond Mueller’s conclusions to assert that there was “NO OBSTRUCTION, NO COLLUSION.” He’s termed the entire investigation a “witch hunt” and has directed Attorney General Barr to investigate whether the Mueller investigation was itself a violation of the law. The president has never endorsed the view all of his intelligence agencies share — that the Russians were behind the 2016 attacks — simply because, if that were true, his victory would be tainted. 

Having a fraught relationship with Moscow is nothing new. But during the worst days of the Cold War, we managed to have regular bilateral meetings by insisting that every meeting would address a broad four-part agenda including some things we wanted and other things that Moscow wanted: arms control, human rights, regional issues, and bilateral matters.

Last July, Trump had a summit with Putin in Helsinki. What grabbed the media’s attention was Trump’s seemingly submissive demeanor toward Putin. When the reporters began to question Putin about election meddling, Putin replied, “The Russian state has never interfered and is not going to interfere into internal American affairs, including the election process.”

Despite a clear assessment by U.S. Intelligence that Russia hadinterfered, Trump’s basically said he believed Putin. “I have asked President Putin. He just said it’s not Russia. I don’t see any reason why it would be … .”

After the resultant firestorm, Trump reversed his answer a day later: “It should have been obvious. I thought it would be obvious, but I would like to clarify just in case it wasn't. In a key sentence in my remarks I said the word 'would' instead of 'wouldn't … a sort of double negative.”

This leaves us with a grammatically challenged president who seems convinced that Russia did not interfere with the 2016 election. Recent efforts to hack U.S. computers by North Korea, China, Iran, and yes, Russia, underscore that wherever the source, we should expect this “poor man’s” weapon to proliferate. What we cannot expect is an effort from the White House to challenge Putin on this problem.

The question before us now is whether normalizing dialogue between the U.S. and Russia should “trump” our outrage at Russian meddling in our internal affairs. If yes, perhaps there’s room for both sides to adopt the type of broad four-part agenda that governed U.S.-Soviet relations in the past.

In Helsinki, Putin laid out a roadmap for getting the relationship back on track, so long as we ignore the election meddling. He called for renewed dialogue on “strategic stability, global security, and nonproliferation on weapons of mass destruction” to include renewing the “New START” strategic arms control Treaty, the INF Treaty, and the ban on weapons in space. Putin also made a pitch for re-establishing a working group on counterterrorism and (somewhat ironically) cybersecurity.

On regional issues, Putin cited the need to establish peace and reconciliation in Syria, building on the successful cooperation achieved by the U.S. and Russian militaries in staying out of each other’s way while also ensuring the stability of Israel’s Golan Heights border. Of course, Putin would push for us to accept Russia’s enlarged role in Middle East policy and Russia’s gross interference in Ukraine and Crimea, as well. Hisstrategic goals include the preservation of his regime, an end to American dominance, and restoration of Russia’s global superpower status. 

Do we engage, knowing that Russia’s agenda is very different from our own? Or do we continue to face off around the globe, running the risk of miscalculations — and missing possible opportunities for improvements? As a realist, I would argue that dialogue is always better than no dialogue. However repugnant Putin may be, he still has the capacity to influence global events that matter to the U.S., as we have seen in Syria, Yemen, and Venezuela. 

Despite what John Bolton and Secretary Pompeo might think, President Trump seems convinced that Russia’s transgressions are less dangerous than the risk of U.S.-Russia conflict. He seems determined to turn a blind eye to most anything Moscow does that might interfere with the goal of achieving the “normal relationship” that candidate Trump mused about during the campaign. While Trump’s motives are highly suspect, I’m inclined, reluctantly, to agree with the need for dialogue.

Jack Segal and Karen Puschel co-chair the International Affairs Forum and worked on Soviet and Russian issues from the mid-1980s to 2000. The IAF’s season ends with one of America’s top Russia experts, Georgetown University’s Angela Stent, June 20 at 6pm at Milliken Auditorium. www.tciaf.com

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