President Trump’s most excitable critics have spent almost a year claiming that the president colluded with Russia to win the White House, with some suggesting he should be impeached and members of his campaign be prosecuted criminally. There is still no evidence that anyone associated with Trump colluded with Russia, and with a bureaucracy that leaks like a sieve, there would likely have been proof of it by now.
If anything, we now know that Democrats’ relationship with Fusion GPS could have included criminal acts and collusion. Calmer critics suggest Trump is naïve about Russia even though his actions have demonstrated the opposite.
More importantly, the president’s critics seem to demonstrate that they don’t know Cold War history, don’t understand Russia, and don’t understand how authoritarians like Putin operate. They fail to understand Putin’s needs and goals, which have little to do with him trying to control the American government and much more to do with trying to sow chaos and confusion in the democratic countries that oppose Putin’s aggression.
Putin’s Running an Agitprop Campaign
Putin doesn’t really care who is in the White House for the most part; he knows he can’t effectively influence our elections and certainly can’t impose his choice on American voters. Rather, his goal is to use disinformation campaigns and cyber attacks to discredit our democracy, to make voters think that the pride we have in our constitutional democracy is unwarranted.
We have seen Putin do exactly this in France and other European nations. Some reports even suggest Russia is funding anti-natural gas environmentalist groups in other countries, even in the United States, to bolster Russia’s energy sector. Ultimately, his goal is to engage in acts that cause us to fight one another in hopes that it weakens America on the international stage and makes a mockery of our democratic way of life.
Putin is shamed every day by the existence of free, prosperous democratic countries that are the beacon of the world. He wants that status for Russia for pride’s sake and to encourage countries near Russia to look to Russia for world leadership rather than to the West.
The former KGB agent wants to see Russia returned to its former glory, as a world power and a regional force to be reckoned with. He enjoyed the eight years of the Obama administration, as Obama publicly and repeatedly apologized for American power and denigrated our greatness. What Putin got from this was not only a weakened America that didn’t effectively confront Russian aggression, but also one that didn’t inspire other nations to look to the United States for leadership.
In short, Putin doesn’t care if the White House is controlled by a Republican or a Democrat; he simply wants to do the only thing he can do, which is to make the United States less effective and less attractive in the world.
Trump Isn’t Swallowing Putin’s Jabs
We know how the Obama administration reacted to Putin bringing back the old Soviet tactic of “active measures” to disrupt the West. But how has Trump reacted? Quite differently, the record will show.
Trump has bombed Russia’s allies in Syria and shot down its proxy’s plane; he has increased defenses in the Baltics and bolstered the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Trump is pursuing closer relations with former Soviet captive nations through the Three Seas Initiative and the Intermarium. These efforts would deny Putin the ability to intimidate his neighbors into doing his will and force him to find accommodation with the United States, which the Trump administration is interested in so long as U.S. interests are accommodated.
Further, Trump increased sanctions on Russia and will sign even harsher ones soon. He is choking off Russia’s main source of revenue by taking away its energy market in Europe. Not only has Trump worked to undercut Russian energy dominance, he has also encouraged American energy production, further destabilizing Russian oil interests.
And the president has no intention of doing the one thing Putin wants more than anything: to end the Magnitsky Act that threatens Putin’s own money and his hold on his corrupt system. Putin lives and dies by his ability to keep his cronies happy by enriching them through corruption; if the United States uses sanctions to thwart him, he won’t have the funds to buy loyalty.
We should not be surprised at Putin’s response to all this when he kicks out our diplomats or plans massive military exercises: an authoritarian always must show himself tough with anyone who stands up to him. But we should not be fooled by his bravado: Russia is weak and broke, and Putin is nervous about his own standing in his regime. His recent actions regarding our diplomats is the mildest form of response he could offer.
For the first time in eight years, he faces a U.S. administration that will return tit-for-tat plus 10 percent (to use Henry Kissinger’s dictum) and at some point he will seek an accommodation. He cannot afford to be seen as losing to the United States, and the Trump administration understands this and has at hand cabinet officials and a White House that are ready for a return to good relations, as Vice President Pence noted in the Baltics at the end of July, but only when Russia is ready to act like a country that respects a peaceful and just international order.
In the end, a strong America with its free markets and free people is the future of the West and a sound rebuke to Putin. We should celebrate Trump’s stronger diplomacy backed by effective military and diplomatic measures—because they are working.