Trump’s Russia Problem Isn’t Going Away

After Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran stalled after a few months, Iraq spent the remainder of the long war on the defensive. In one of Iraq’s direr moments, Sunni Arab nations in the Gulf became alarmed enough at the prospect of Persian conquest of Iraq that they agreed to loan Saddam money for the fight. The same consideration led the United States to lend a hand by providing satellite intelligence and agreeing to look the other way on Iraq’s use of chemical weapons on the battlefield.

There were real and ostensible reasons that Saddam Hussein chose to invade Kuwait in 1990. There had always been some dispute about whether Kuwait properly belonged to Iraq. There were credible claims that Kuwait was drilling diagonally for oil under the undisputed sovereign territory of Iraq. But the main reason may have been that Saddam wanted debt relief from Kuwait considering that his country had suffered the burden of beating back Iranian incursions into his country. Kuwait adopted an uncompromising position on the repayment of loans, and that gave Saddam a real incentive to annex them.

Once Saddam annexed Kuwait, the world had to decide whether or not to accept it as a fait accompli. Since Kuwait was a member of the United Nations in good standing, it would set a very bad precedent to do nothing while they were wiped off the map. There were more pragmatic considerations, too. After all the investment in armaments during the Iran-Iraq War, Iraq emerged from the stalemate with one of the largest armies in the world. With all the money they’d get from owning Kuwait’s oil fields, they could reconstitute themselves quickly and possibly threaten their neighbors, including American ally Saudi Arabia.

This history doesn’t overlay perfectly with Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine and annex Crimea, but there are enough similarities that we can understand why just “letting it go” was an unattractive proposition. In the end, had Kuwait been abandoned, we would have avoided decades of (what today is) known disaster in exchange for different problems that we can only speculate about now. Would Iraq have succeeded in building a nuclear weapon? Would they have gone to war with the House of Saud? Would there have been a second Iran-Iraq War? Would other territories have been annexed by other countries?

We’ll never know the answers to these questions. All we know is that liberating Kuwait came at a staggering cost when we consider what subsequently happened in Iraq and in the region.

Likewise, it’s hard to say what should be done about Russia’s annexation of Crimea and other violations of Ukraine’s sovereignty. Every option has the potential to create worse problems than it solves. However, the economic sanctions that were put on Russia have been a middle road between escalating the conflict and doing nothing. Russia has definitely paid a heavy price and they’re desperate to see the sanctions lifted. Their clear investment in Donald Trump is transparently part of that strategy. In fact, in retrospect, it’s easy to see Putin’s strategy for beating Clinton and why he chose to host both Green Party candidate Jill Stein and the former head of our Defense Intelligence Agency and eventual Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn (circled below) at the gala celebrating the ten-year anniversary of RT, a CNN-like propaganda organ of the Russian state.

flynnputinstein

Stein spent her time in Moscow criticizing America at every turn and saying nothing about Russia’s annexation of Crimea, their state-sponsored assassinations, their treatment of the LGBT community or any other matter of concern.

Michael Flynn led a standing ovation for Putin.

While the current focus is on what Michael Flynn may have promised Russia in the way of sanctions relief, it’s important to realize that the sanctions are in place as a way to honor the sovereignty of all United Nations members. Collective security requires that countries feel secure and that they have recourse if they are invaded or parts of their territory are annexed.

This is admittedly problematic when the country doing the annexing is a nuclear-armed permanent member of the UN Security Council. In fact, as we’ve seen, it’s extraordinary problematic even when the annexing country is a smaller, less formidable power like Iraq.

What should be clear though is that, for purposes of deterrence alone, we cannot allow countries to go around annexing territory, and that there’s a price to be paid if we do nothing about it.

It may not be realistic to put Crimea back under Ukraine’s control, but there must be some kind of settlement of outstanding issues and assurances of Ukrainian sovereignty before any serious discussion of lifting sanctions on Russia can proceed.

But this is precisely what Trump and Flynn seem to be avoiding by talking about lifting sanctions in return for nothing or in exchange for unrelated concessions on nuclear arms.

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump will propose offering to end sanctions imposed on Russia over its annexation of Crimea in return for a nuclear arms reduction deal with Moscow, he told The Times of London…

…”They have sanctions on Russia — let’s see if we can make some good deals with Russia,” the Republican president-elect was quoted as saying by The Times.

“For one thing, I think nuclear weapons should be way down and reduced very substantially, that’s part of it. But Russia’s hurting very badly right now because of sanctions, but I think something can happen that a lot of people are gonna benefit.”

This lax attitude about Ukraine was evident throughout Trump’s campaign, and nowhere more obvious than when they interceded to soften the Republican platform on the issue.

The Trump campaign worked behind the scenes last week to make sure the new Republican platform won’t call for giving weapons to Ukraine to fight Russian and rebel forces, contradicting the view of almost all Republican foreign policy leaders in Washington.

The current brouhaha about Michael Flynn concerns an additional set of unilateral sanctions that President Obama placed on Russia on December 29th in retaliation for interference in our presidential election. The same day, Flynn called the Russian ambassador and discussed Obama’s move. Reportedly, he asked Russia not to overreact and offered the promise of improved relations once Trump was inaugurated.

It goes without saying that anyone who has ever served as the head of our Defense Intelligence Agency should not be going to Moscow to fete Vladimir Putin and lead a standing ovation in his honor. This man is now heading our National Security Council, which is why a senior Defense Intelligence officer was recently quoted saying that “since January 20, we’ve assumed that the Kremlin has ears inside the SITROOM [Situation Room],” and “There’s not much the Russians don’t know at this point.”

It appears that Flynn’s job is in jeopardy, but mainly because his conversations with the Russian ambassador were intercepted and show that he lied about what they discussed. Yet, even if Flynn is fired, the problem will remain because Flynn is not the only connection between Trump and Putin. The new Secretary of State has the unique distinction of having been recognized with Russia’s Order of Friendship award. We can’t forget that Trump had to sack his campaign manager Paul Manafort because of his ties to Russia or the whole Carter Page saga that briefly caused controversy last fall.

And then there’s that British dossier that purported to demonstrate coordination between Trump’s campaign and the Russians’ hacking efforts. It is gaining credibility in the intelligence and law enforcement communities as some of its falsifiable elements have instead been confirmed.

At this point, even former national security officials, like George W. Bush’s Homeland Security & Counterterrorism Advisor Fran Townsend, are raising the alarm:

Because the intelligence community thinks that Trump’s administration is not independent of the Kremlin, they are reportedly withholding intelligence from our new president.

…out of worries about the White House’s ability to keep secrets [from the Russians], some of our spy agencies have begun withholding intelligence from the Oval Office. Why risk your most sensitive information if the president may ignore it anyway? A senior National Security Agency official explained that NSA was systematically holding back some of the “good stuff” from the White House, in an unprecedented move. For decades, NSA has prepared special reports for the president’s eyes only, containing enormously sensitive intelligence. In the last three weeks, however, NSA has ceased doing this, fearing Trump and his staff cannot keep their best SIGINT secrets.

I wish I were making this stuff up, but I’m not. No one seems to know quite what explains it. Fear that people will find out that Trump once hired Russian prostitutes to pee on each other on the mattress that Barack and Michelle once slept on doesn’t seem like an adequate explanation.

And, in any case, it doesn’t really matter so much what the explanation is as it matters that our intelligence community does not and will not trust the administration.

On Friday, one of Flynn’s closest deputies on the NSC, senior director for Africa Robin Townley, was informed that the Central Intelligence Agency had rejected his request for an elite security clearance required for service on the NSC…

…One of the sources said the rejection was approved by Mike Pompeo, President Donald Trump’s CIA director, and that it infuriated Flynn and his allies.

Like I’ve been saying, I just don’t see how this administration has any shelf-life. Can they really tame their critics and get beyond this?

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.