Thursday, February 9, 2017

The problem with Putin. And Trump. And Tillerson, And Flynn.

This is a wonderful summary of where things stand between the United States and Russia right now,

I should say right off the bat that I believe the more benign explanation for Donald Trump's pro-Russian policy. I think POTUS is simply naive  rather than corrupt as regards his attitude toward Russia, and certainly not treasonous. But it's important to contrast the benign, Wilsonian underpinnings of American foreign policy in general with the paranoid view of foreign policy history has taught Russia. We cannot fathom a power which, in looking at the world, can see "only enemies and vassals." Russia's compulsion to have a buffer zone of client states insulating it from the West strikes us as unnecessary and archaic. But both things are very much a part of the Russian psyche. They are why an alliance or even a friendly relationship with Russia will always by an illusion apart from some temporary emergency like World War II. The Russian view of the world simply doesn't allow for it. We are Other. We are alien. We can be either enemy or vassal, but there are no friends.

It's also why Russia will always be determined to subjugate the nations which formed the Soviet Union's belt of satellite countries. Georgia and Ukraine have already been preyed upon, and Putin is not done there yet. Belarus, as I said yesterday, may be next. Although their membership in NATO makes them dangerous targets for the Russians (by terms of the NATO agreement the United States would be required to treat any attack on Latvia, Estonia, or Lithuania as an attack upon itself), our Baltic allies (as indicated by that iconic graffito on a Vilnius wall of Trump and Putin kissing) are terrified of the implications of Trump's pro-Putin worldview.

Does Secretary of State Tillerson understand which side the black bread is larded on? Does National Security Advisor Flynn? Both are extraordinarily friendly toward Russia. Tillerson is regarded as Putin's best American friend and has been decorated by the Russian government; Flynn has shown up at least one Putin banquet and is a known Russophile. Tillerson, since his nomination as Secretary of State, has shown some encouraging signs of objectivity as regards his Russian friend; Flynn, not so much. In the context of President Trump's admiration of the Russian strongman, the backgrounds of both Tillerson and Flynn are troubling. Perhaps Secretary of Defense Mattis can give the president sound advice with regard to Russia, but the two administration officials whose job descriptions give them the greatest responsibility in that area are compromised in terms of their ability to inspire much confidence that they will do so.

And that's the problem with having a president who is both personally naive and ill-informed and surrounds himself with so many advisors who share his dubious world-view. The Putin-friendly attitude of the Trump administration and his failure to learn from the experience of the Bush and Obama administrations that making nice-nice with the Russian dictator doesn't produce a response in kind remain worrisome, Putin is indeed, as Tillerson told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a "playground bully" who responds only to strength. The question will be whether Mr. Trump- who professes to admire Putin's own strength- responds to it as he needs to, or as he seems inclined to.   A great deal depends on the answer, both for Russia's anxious neighbors and for our own national security.

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