What Does Putin Get Out of a Trump Administration?

In reporting on the fact that U.S. intelligence sources have suggested that Vladimir Putin was directly involved in efforts to influence the 2016 election, NBC News says this about his motivation for doing so:

Putin’s objectives were multifaceted, a high-level intelligence source told NBC News. What began as a “vendetta” against Hillary Clinton morphed into an effort to show corruption in American politics and to “split off key American allies by creating the image that [other countries] couldn’t depend on the U.S. to be a credible global leader anymore,” the official said.

As much as Republicans have tried to malign President Obama’s foreign policy as “weakness,” the truth is that after the Bush/Cheney administration damaged this country’s reputation in the world with their invasion of Iraq and prosecution of the global war on terror, he has made great strides in restoring confidence in America’s leadership in the world. The fruits of these labors can be seen in the way that our current president was successful in rallying global support for sanctions against Iran (which led to a coalition that was able to negotiate an agreement to end their nuclear weapons program), sanctions against Russia for their incursion into Ukraine and a world-wide agreement on dealing with the effects of climate change. In other words, Obama was able to lead via the formation of strong partnerships rather than through conflict and domination. That made the U.S. a “credible global leader” and presents a threat to Putin’s vision of Russia as a major power on the international stage.

But Russia has been weakened militarily and so recently determined that a new course was necessary. Max Fisher reported on this last summer.

Of the questions raised by charges that Russia was involved in the release of hacked Democratic National Committee emails, at least one — why would Russia do such a thing? — can be answered with a little-noticed but influential 2013 Russian military journal article.

“The very rules of war have changed,” Gen. Valery V. Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff, wrote in the Military-Industrial Courier.

The Arab Spring, according to General Gerasimov, had shown that “nonmilitary means” had overtaken the “force of weapons in their effectiveness.” Deception and disinformation, not tanks and planes, were the new tools of power. And they would be used not in formally declared conflicts but within a vast gray between peace and war.

Those ideas would appear, the next year, in Russia’s formal military doctrine. It was the culmination of a yearslong strategic reorientation that has remade Russian power, in response to threats both real and imagined, into the sort of enterprise that could be plausibly accused of using cyberattacks to meddle in an American presidential election.

While Trump hasn’t even been inaugurated yet, we can already see how his words have destabilized relations with our allies around the globe from Europe (lack of commitment to NATO) to Asia (threats to China) to Latin America (threats to overturn the opening with Cuba). It will be over the long term that we will see how Putin’s desire to damage this country’s global leadership plays out under a Trump administration.

In the meantime, there could be very significant benefits that Putin will attain from a Trump presidency. These are signaled most clearly from the nomination of Rex Tillerson to be the next Secretary of State. Here is how Steve Coll described it:

Tillerson’s success within Exxon was attributable in part to the work he has done in Russia. He has forged close relations with both President Vladimir Putin and Igor Sechin, the close Putin ally who runs Rosneft, one of Russia’s oil-and-gas giants. In 2011, Tillerson flew to the Black Sea resort of Sochi to sign a joint-venture agreement with Putin under which ExxonMobil would partner with Rosneft to produce oil from the Arctic, a project made easier by the retreat of Arctic sea ice, due to global warming. Economic sanctions imposed on Russia because of its annexation of Crimea and its military interference in Ukraine have slowed this collaboration. If Tillerson is confirmed, he would be in a position to benefit the corporation where he spent his career, by, for example, advocating for the easing of Russian sanctions. In general, Tillerson and ExxonMobil have argued against economic sanctions as an instrument of American foreign policy. Tillerson’s compensation over the years has included large amounts of Exxon stock; he would presumably be required to divest those holdings, but at a minimum, the appearance of a conflict of interest would remain, because of his long service at Exxon and the wealth it has given him.

On the idea that Tillerson would divest himself of Exxon stocks, Mitchell Schnurman found that might not be possible because “1.9 million shares [of his 3.7 million] held by Tillerson, worth over $177 million, were not vested at the end of 2015. And they’re not scheduled to vest for years.” Questions about this should certainly be raised at his confirmation hearing.

It is very possible that a Trump administration will lift the sanctions on Russia because, as Politico recently reported, the president-elect will be able to do so with the stroke of a pen. When asked about this, Reince Priebus wouldn’t rule out the possibility.

It is important to note that such an action would not only be a concern to our allies in the Baltic States (who fear further Russian incursion), it is also a slap in the face to our NATO allies, who President Obama rallied in support of the sanctions – even though it would require them to pay an economic cost. He laid out the case for them in his speech in Brussels in 2014.

And our enduring strength is also reflected in our respect for an international system that protects the rights of both nations and people — a United Nations and a Universal Declaration of Human Rights; international law and the means to enforce those laws. But we also know that those rules are not self-executing; they depend on people and nations of goodwill continually affirming them. And that’s why Russia’s violation of international law — its assault on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity — must be met with condemnation. Not because we’re trying to keep Russia down, but because the principles that have meant so much to Europe and the world must be lifted up…

Now is not the time for bluster. The situation in Ukraine, like crises in many parts of the world, does not have easy answers nor a military solution. But at this moment, we must meet the challenge to our ideals — to our very international order — with strength and conviction.

It is a disruption of that “international order” which Putin wants to challenge with a Trump administration.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.