“Things will work out fine between US and Russia,” Donald Trump recently tweeted. “At the right time everyone will come to their senses & and there will be a lasting peace.”
From a president who fires the FBI director charged with investigating Russia’s attack on our 2016 election, and then gives highly sensitive classified information to Russia’s foreign minister, this is far more disturbing than reassuring.
Here is the reality Trump asks Americans to ignore.
Vladimir Putin is a former KGB agent who jails and murders his opponents. He mourns the former Soviet Union and wants to restore its power and influence. He is enraged by what he perceives as America’s disregard for post-Cold War Russia and has resolved to diminish our standing in the world.
All this preserves his autocracy. Russia is weak in the staples of economic growth — manufacturing and intellectual property — and suffers from falling oil prices. Putin’s implicit offer to Russians is, “Give up your hopes for greater democracy and prosperity, and I will give you a Russia the world fears.”
He has played this dubious hand brilliantly. By exploiting geopolitical opportunity — fissures in Western democracies, weakness among his neighbors, power vacuums in states susceptible to military intervention, fear of Russia’s nuclear arsenal, irresolve in the face of his own unpredictably and ruthlessness — Putin has made Russia the West’s principal global adversary.
In Eastern Europe, he is pursuing a Russian sphere of influence. His aim is to prevent his neighbors from forging closer relations with NATO or the European Union. His tactics are clear — cyberwarfare, attacks on democratic institutions, aggressive support of armed separatist groups, and outright invasion.
In 2008 he invaded Georgia, empowering pro-Russian separatists. In 2014, he invaded Ukraine, annexing Crimea and assisting separatists who turned the Donbass region into a war zone. He has harried the Baltic states — Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania — with disinformation and cyberattacks on civil Institutions. No matter that the citizens of all these countries want democracy and self-determination — Putin’s concern, derived from history, is restoring Russian dominance to prevent encirclement by pro-Western neighbors.
Currently, Trump is attempting to distract attention from his domestic travails by making common cause against terrorism with the Sunni Arab states, beginning his Middle Eastern trip in Saudi Arabia. In contrast, Putin seeks to expand Russian power in the Middle East by aligning with Shia Iran, the leading regional antagonist of both the United States and the Sunni Arabs. In the principal battlefield, Syria, Russia and Iran are directly aligned against American and Sunni interests In a battle for geopolitical advantage — which, transcendently, runs contrary to Trump’s stated goal of defeating ISIS.
Russia’s intrusion in Syria serves multiple goals. By propping up the brutal Assad regime in concert with Iran, Russia became a pivotal power in a roiled region, established a major naval base in Syria, and prevented a fellow autocrat from being overthrown — a particular phobia of Putin’s — while hoping, more rationally, to limit chaos and instability.
To succeed, Russia has partnered with Assad in hideous war crimes against civilians, protected the regime against UN resolutions condemning the use of barrel bombs and chemical weapons, and, quite clearly, abetted or tolerated the latest chemical atrocities. This contravenes any fantasy that Russia would willingly collaborate in deposing Assad, thereby abandoning its most important strategic partner in the Middle East — Iran.
A useful by-product, from Putin’s point of view, is that the flood of refugees fleeing Assad furthers another aim – destabilizing European democracies that oppose Russian dominance of its democratic neighbors. Here his strategy is to supplant governments that support NATO and the EU by promoting nationalist parties friendly to Russia — which, most often, are also anti-American and tinged with authoritarianism. Already Russia has meddled in the elections of seven European countries — including Germany and France.
Its means include cyberwarfare, fake news, and attacks on European electoral institutions and voting mechanisms. In France, Russia gave direct financial support to Trump’s favorite, Marine Le Pen, the anti-immigrant presidential candidate who recently denied French responsibility for deporting Jews to Auschwitz. In return, Le Pen endorsed Russia’s annexation of Crimea and proposed divorcing France from NATO, the EU, and Europe’s common currency — and made the two-person run-off. Her final reward was Russia’s blatant election-eve dump of e-mails hacked from her opponent’s campaign, miming Putin’s 2016 effort to help elect Donald Trump.
Other countries have done such meddling, including — in the not so distant past — the United States. But that in no way ennobles Putin’s goal: to destroy the post-World War II liberal order which, whatever its flaws, extended democracy, prosperity, and global cooperation. His next target is the ultimate defender of those values, Angela Merkel, who faces reelection in Germany. For Putin, this is personal — he bitterly resents Merkel’s advocacy of sanctions against Russia for the seizure of Crimea, just as he resented Hillary Clinton for promoting Russian democracy.
Thus Putin’s efforts to destabilize America by influencing our election and undermining our political foundations. Once more he progresses. Wittingly or not, a president who repeatedly discredits our legal and electoral system advances Putin’s aims, as does a leader who fails to understand them — whether by ignorance or design.
This cannot continue. The Justice Department and FBI must investigate Russia’s attack on our democracy — wherever that leads. And our response to Russia’s global ambitions must be smart, sustained, deeply considered, and resolute in upholding Western values. This may be a lot to demand of Donald Trump but, whatever the cause, he is the only president we’ve got.
Richard North Patterson’s column appears regularly in the Globe. His latest book is “Fever Swamp.” Follow him on Twitter @RicPatterson.