The Kremlin Connection

And as the old apothegm goes, it is better to be respected than liked.

During the era of the Trump administration, the White House’s relationships with foreign countries, especially Russia, were a source prolonged debate. Although Mr. Trump owns property in some diplomatically sensitive countries such as the Philippines and Turkey, his unusually close relationship with the Russian government caught the eye of numerous people and had overshadowed almost all other issues surrounding his controversial presidency. If Russia were simply a friendly ally that the United States had worked closely with in the past, politicians and the media would have, at worst, dismissed it as a diplomatic advantage. However, Russia has a rocky history with the United States.

During the Russian Civil War in the early 20th century, the United States sent supplies and aid to the White Army against the Red Army (consisting of the communists) in order to prevent the spread of communism through Europe. The White Army failed, and the communists took power, forming the Soviet Union who dropped out of World War I early, gaining disrespect from the Allies. The Soviet Union was only recognized by the United States in 1933, almost twenty years after its founding due to the prolonged anti-communist sentiment. The United States formed an uneasy alliance with Russia in the Second World War, in which Russia seemed to test the United States’ power by violating agreements. The post-World War II era was characterized by hostility and the notably American policy of containment, which was a program that sought to isolate communism in the Soviet Union in order to stop the political ideology from bleeding into American allies such as France and West Germany. Later, hostilities escalated, and a nuclear standoff between the two countries occurred, acquiring the name “Cuban Missile Crisis” because the Soviets planted their missiles in Cuba; despite the seemingly impending doom of the two countries, no missiles were fired, bringing up the famous military doctrine of “Mutually Assured Destruction” which states that any country who launches a nuclear missile will be hit by a retaliatory counter-strike (due to the window of a few minutes before the missile lands), effectively ensuring the destruction of both parties; nuclear weapons were consequently viewed not as active weapons but as deterrents. Now, after the fall of the Soviet Union, hostilities still commence. The United States fights a proxy war against the Russians in Syria and engages in Russian-initiated standoffs in airspace. And prominently, there have been allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 United States Presidential Election.

Russia has (sometimes) successfully influenced changes of power in European countries since the post-World War II years. To prevent countries in the Soviet bloc from leaving, the Soviets planted and funded leaders who supported the Soviet Union in surrounding nations while sabotaging their opponents, flexing their political muscle in the face of smaller and less-powerful countries with the goal of scaring them into submission. In October 2016, Russia attempted something similar, sending in soldiers to Montenegro in order to prevent the small country from joining NATO, failing spectacularly and making fodder for Russia’s critics to use. Furthermore, Russia is also known for funding certain political groups in Europe, notably Marine le Pen’s far-right National Front. Le Pen, like Mr. Trump, praised Mr. Putin.

While the 2016 United States election was progressing, a group of hackers (that were traced to Russia) hacked into the Democratic National Committee and exposed numerous emails to the public, decreasing the popularity of the democrats. In retaliation, ex-President Obama imposed sanctions on Russia, thinking that Hillary Clinton was going to win the election and carry on what he had done so far; however, when Mr. Trump won the presidency, Mr. Obama as a parting shot closed down two Russian-owned compounds in New York and Maryland, which were not only retreats for Russian diplomats operating in the United States but also centers of espionage. Almost immediately after Mr. Trump stepped into the presidency, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson offered to give back the seized property to the Russians but was rebuffed when his offer was considered as an insult. Sensing that Mr. Trump could try to overthrow the sanctions placed on Russia, Congress approved a bill that severely limited the president’s ability to do so. To wrap things up, an unscheduled and unusually long meeting at a luncheon for heads of state between Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin, Russia’s president, prompted suspicion of possible collusion.

In Mr. Putin’s eyes, using hacking as a demonstration of power is optimal. Russia’s military is more powerful than that of any other country in terms of straight numbers but has limited capabilities overseas and can only attempt to show power by inciting conflict with American ships and planes. Such actions always lead to the international community showering disapproval on Mr. Putin, but this criticism actually bolsters Mr. Putin’s approval among the Russian people because they are drawn to the impact a leader can make on the world; Putin has already done so many times.

Interestingly, Mr. Trump once admitted at a press conference that Russia was doing the hacking but immediately regretted saying it and repeatedly told an aide that “it wasn’t [him] out there.” Also, Mr. Trump’s ad nauseam praise of leaders that are virtually dictators, Mr. Putin and Xi Jinping (China’s president), seems to me–and many world leaders–as obsequious flattery, which Mr. Trump thinks will deescalate the situation. However, in reality, Mr. Trump will need to be more candid and–to put it simply–strong to make Mr. Putin stand down, because it is a display of power, rather than an act friendship, that will sow the seeds of respect in Mr. Putin’s mind. And as the old apothegm goes, it is better to be respected than liked.

– William Cho (’21) 

Image Credits: GoGraph (clipart)

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