Ask anyone in Washington to tell you what Vladimir Putin is doing, and they’ll tell you he’s laughing his head off about the “scandal” over Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. After all, what launched this scandal was a stunning assessment last January by the top officials of our country’s intelligence service, which concluded “with high confidence” that Putin had personally decided to help Donald Trump defeat Hillary Clinton, then unleashed Russia’s legendary intelligence services to make it happen.
What’s laughable is the assumption that Putin is laughing his head off. It’s more likely that, right about now, he’s on the verge of panic. Why? Two reasons, neither of which any of the geo-political geniuses in Washington seems to have noticed.
Putin’s Spooks are Hopeless
First, everyone in Washington assumes the Russian hacking operation was a brilliant success. Was it? Here’s what Putin’s spooks actually accomplished: They hacked into Hillary Clinton’s email server, then got two shady characters with known ties to the Kremlin into a meeting with Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort. That’s it.
All of us know 15-year-olds who could have hacked into Clinton’s email server in about an hour. And what devastating secrets about Hillary Clinton had Putin’s spooks uncovered, then passed on to that Russian lawyer and the lobbyist so they could slide these knockout blows across the table to the astounded and presumably delighted Trumpsters — secrets which, as the Washington national-security establishment generally assumes, would then put soon-to-be President Trump in Putin’s debt?
Financial records of a Swiss bank account no one knew Clinton had? Long-sought evidence of how Hillary really made that $100,000 profit trading commodities futures back when Bill was governor of Arkansas? An audio recording of some secret deal Clinton had negotiated with China when she was secretary of State? Photographic proof that Hillary and Huma once had a three-way tryst with an underaged aardvark?
No, nothing like this. In fact, nothing at all. And we can be sure about this because if the Russians had provided dirt on Clinton — anything even remotely damaging to her chances for winning the election — the Trump campaign would have used it. Instead, the Russian lawyer and lobbyist spent the meeting in Trump Tower blathering on about adoptions and the Magnitsky Act that Congress had passed to impose sanctions on Russian officials and business executives.
So, either Hillary Clinton has led the most honorable, law-abiding, blameless life in the history of politics, or Russia’s intelligence services are incompetent. Reader, take your pick.
Meanwhile, In Poland
For the second reason Putin is panicked, let’s turn our attention away from this phony scandal to focus on something that actually matters: The first ever tanker with liquefied natural gas from the United States just docked in Poland.
This a global game-changer. For decades, going back to the Cold War days of the Soviet Union, exports of natural gas from Russia to Europe have been among the Kremlin’s most vital levers of power. These exports provided hard currency the Soviet Union needed to enable its pathetically weak economy to compete globally against the United States, not just economically and politically, but militarily.
The Kremlin’s not-too-subtle threats to turn off these gas exports gave it a political choke-hold on those countries that depended on Russian gas for everything from their industry to keeping their homes heated in the winter. These gas exports were so crucial to Moscow that, during the Reagan administration, a massive diplomatic and covert campaign to stop construction of a natural-gas pipeline from the Soviet Union into Europe played a crucial role in ending the Cold War itself.
The Cold War is long since over, and the Soviet Union’s East European satellites are now independent countries. Today, much of Europe — including former Soviet satellites as well as countries like Germany, Turkey, and Italy — are even more dependent on Russian gas than they were 25 years ago. Just the implicit threat of cutting off the gas flow next winter has given Putin a political grip on Europe that’s worth more than all his tanks and missiles. And since the Russian economy today is no more dynamic than the Soviet economy of the 1980s, the Kremlin is just as dependent on gas revenues as it ever was.
Well, we just broke Russia’s monopoly. By sending natural gas from the United States to Europe, we have loosened the Kremlin’s political grip on Europe. And by making it possible for Europeans to buy American gas rather than Russian gas, we have once again dealt a shattering blow to the Russian economy — and thus to Russia’s global military ambitions.
So, at precisely that moment when his country’s economic prospects are tanking, Putin is hobbled with a spy service that’s more like Inspector Clouseau than the KGB. That’s why he’s on the verge of panic. If anyone should be getting a good laugh out of all this, it’s President Trump.