Vladimir Putin in Serbia
Credit: iStock

It’s worth taking some time to go back to ground zero and understand why Vladimir Putin decided to interfere in the 2016 election in the first place. By all accounts, he was initially motivated by his hatred of Hillary Clinton.

When mass protests against Russian President Vladimir Putin erupted in Moscow in December 2011, Putin made clear who he thought was really behind them: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

With the protesters accusing Putin of having rigged recent elections, the Russian leader pointed an angry finger at Clinton, who had issued a statement sharply critical of the voting results. “She said they were dishonest and unfair,” Putin fumed in public remarks, saying that Clinton gave “a signal” to demonstrators working “with the support of the U.S. State Department” to undermine his power. “We need to safeguard ourselves from this interference in our internal affairs,” Putin declared.

But according to the Steele dossier, Putin had also been cultivating and supporting Donald Trump for at least five years prior to the election. Here is what Steele’s Russian sources identified as Putin’s motive:

[The Trump operation’s] aim was to sow discord and disunity within the U.S. itself, but more especially within the Transatlantic alliance which was viewed as inimical to Russia’s interests. Source C, a senior Russian financial official, said the Trump operation should be seen in terms of Putin’s desire to return to Nineteenth Century “Great Power” politics anchored upon country’s interests rather than the ideals-based international order established after World War II.

Wow, there’s a lot packed into those two sentences. When it comes to “discord and disunity within the U.S.,” we are living with the pain of Trump’s successful implementation of that one on a daily basis. We’re also seeing the most serious breech of our relationships with the transatlantic alliance since the second World War. Just today, Politico reports on the lack of cohesion heading into the upcoming G7 meeting, and there are no doubts about who is causing the disruption.

…the disruptive force is Trump. From trade rules to climate change, to defense spending and the Iran nuclear deal, the U.S. president has torn up the global consensus that existed under his predecessor, Barack Obama, leaving diplomats scrambling to paper over the cracks in the Western alliance and find any common ground on which to build the event. Failure to come together would break with years of tradition at the G7 summit, which has historically served as an annual affirmation that the biggest Western powers are largely aligned.

We have no way of knowing whether Trump is still taking marching orders from Putin or if the Russian president was simply adept at picking someone who would naturally do his bidding. Either way, this is exactly the kind of thing that puts a smile on Putin’s face. But according to the summary from Steele, the kind of disruption Trump is causing is the means to an end, which for Putin is a return to 19th century “Great Power” global politics…the very thing that gave us two world wars.

Long before Christopher Steele heard from his Russian sources, the Obama administration was warning about Putin’s attempt to use 19th century tactics. For example, here’s Sec. of State John Kerry on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine:

“You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pre-text,” Kerry said. “It is serious in terms of sort of the modern manner with which nations are going to resolve problems.

During his first major address abroad in Cairo, President Obama made the distinction.

For we have learned from recent experience that when a financial system weakens in one country, prosperity is hurt everywhere.  When a new flu infects one human being, all are at risk.  When one nation pursues a nuclear weapon, the risk of nuclear attack rises for all nations.  When violent extremists operate in one stretch of mountains, people are endangered across an ocean.  When innocents in Bosnia and Darfur are slaughtered, that is a stain on our collective conscience.  That is what it means to share this world in the 21st century.  That is the responsibility we have to one another as human beings.

And this is a difficult responsibility to embrace.  For human history has often been a record of nations and tribes — and, yes, religions — subjugating one another in pursuit of their own interests.  Yet in this new age, such attitudes are self-defeating.  Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail.  So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners to it.  Our problems must be dealt with through partnership; our progress must be shared.

The clash between Putin and Obama was basically one of “Great Powers” dominating the world versus the kind of global order developed via partnership after World War II. The reason Putin has every reason to be thrilled with Trump’s performance is that the current president is successfully tearing down the alliances that led to those partnerships. Of all the things that Trump is in the midst of destroying, that could be the most consequential shift of our lifetimes.

If you are interested in a dramatization of what a 19th century approach would look like today, I recommend watching the series “Occupied,” which James Walcott calls “The Norwegian thriller that predicts the disaster of Trump’s geopolitical outlook.” The story is about how Russia comes to occupy Norway. But here’s the kicker:

An idealist, whose firm neck of resolve is undermined by the tiny darts of panic in his eyes, [Norweigian Prime Minister] Berg believes that the international order will come to Norway’s assistance and rectify the situation, but there is no cavalry coming to the rescue—because the United States in this scenario has turned somewhat isolationist and withdrawn its muscle from NATO and now do you see the point I’m making?

YouTube video

That is why, after the last G7 summit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that the days when Europe could completely count on others were “over to a certain extent…we have to know that we must fight for our future on our own, for our destiny as Europeans.” She is doing what she can to hold the European alliance together without much hope of support from the United States. That is exactly what Putin was hoping for from Trump.

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