domingo, 11 de junho de 2017

Russia's attempt to influence the course of the United States

(Michael Flynn, Donald Trump, Jeff Sessions, Vladimir Putin e Sergei Kislyak.)

Between August and October last years there was a sudden deterioration of the relationship between Russia, the West in general and the US in particular, when the Democratic Party National Committee was hacked by the Russians, the deploy of Iskander-M missils in Kaliningrad and many diplomatic divergences regarding Syrian Civil War. After the US elections, on November 8th, the level of tension dropped down. The news I´ve followed in the internet and comments from political analysts pointed to a rapprochment between then-elected President Donald Trump and his colleague Vladimir Putin, some of his advisers to the Kremlin and a possible Russian interference in the electoral process.

The hypothesis I raised was that, failing to secure Trump´s victory (above all the Hillary´s defeat, widely demonized by the Russian elite), Russia bet on an escalation in military tension to frighten US public opinion aiming to influence decisively the elections. This attitude can be summarized by the statment of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Kremlin´s ally and leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), known for his agressive nationalism and extremist positions, that if Americans voted to Hillary, "it´s war. There will be Hiroshimas and Nagasakys everywhere."

(Vladimir Zhirinovsky celebrating with his colleagues the Trump´s victory, November 9th, 2016) 

For the Kremlin´s joy Trump won, Zhirinovsky celebrated the victory cheering with a toast of sparkling wine with his co-workers and Duma effusivelly applauded when the elections final result was announced.

An example of the tension decrease was the Kremlin´s reaction to the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats from the US and the requirement to return two complex they used in the states of Maryland and New York. The order was given on December 29, 2016 by then-President Obama, and both mesures should be enforced within two days. Washington also extended executive powers to impose sactions on agents who attack the US institutions. By this way, Obama enlarged the already imposed sanctions on Moscow encompassing the Federal Security Service (FSB), the Main Directorate of Intelligence (GRU) under direct Putin´s authority, four GRU´s members and three companies that provide materials to this intelligence service. An American cybersecurity analyst has defined this Washington´s action as "the biggest retaliatory move against Russian espionage since the Cold War".

The Kremlin was expected to respond in the same way or even exaggeratadly, such as the responses to the US political sanctions it has suffered in recent years. Putin, however, didn´t react this way. He officialy stated that "we [Russia] will not resort to irresponsable 'kitchen' diplomacy but will plun our further steps to restore Russian-US relations based on policies of the Trump Administration", in addition refusing to take mesures againts US diplomats´ families and wishing to Obama and Trump New Year congratulations. That is: Putin simply didn´t respond to the Obama´s action, depriving it of it´s political pourpose. Through Twitter, Trump praised the Russian colleague´s wait and reiterated the appreciation for his intelligence. As for interest in reducing tensions, there was a clear tuning between Putin and Trump.

A few weeks after Trump´s inauguration on January 20th, the tuning between both the presidents was already suffering interferences. As I commented in this blog in last March, Trump appointed James Mattis, strong NATO supporter, as Secretary of Defense, and at the UN explicitly condemned the annexation of the Crimea by Russia, that was initial cause of the economic sanctions that Washington and the EU imposed on Moscow. This conviction came on February 3rd, just the 14th day of the Trump´s presidency, that still waits for the return of the Crimea to Ukraine and an effective action by Russia to curbe the violence in this country. Because of these attitudes, the White House has shown to recognize Russia as the conflict´s cause in Ukraine. (It should also be noted that on April 11th Trump officialy approved the entry of Montenegro as the 29th member of NATO, countering the Russians in a region sensible to their interests.)

(Beach in the Seychelles Islands: discreet venue for a secret meeting between the Emirates government, a Trump´s financier and a Putin´s associate. Questions to be answered.)

On the other hand, the Trump government began rehearsing a rapprochement with Moscow. US, European and Arab officials have reported the existence of secret US-Russia negotiations for this purpose. According to a lenghty Washington Post report, the United Arab Emirates government has organized a meeting between the founder of security firm Blackwater and financier of Trump´s campaing, Erik Prince, and a Putin´s close associate. The meeting would aim to establish a channel for dialogue between Washington and Moscow behind official contact mechanisms and would have occcured around January 11th in Seychelles Islands, a small country in the Indian Ocean where a member of the Emirates government had a private island. The negotiations agenda would involve reviw Russian alliances in Middle East in exchange of a possible easing on economic sanctions. For the Emirates, the interest would be to cut off Russian support to Iran and Syria, regional rivals of the Persian Gulf monarchy.

(US surprise attack on Syria on April 7th: changes in Trump´s political team may be one of the reasons of the attack.)

The cooling in rapprochment came in Syria. Trump authorized the surprise military attack on the Shayrat air base in the early hours of April 7th in response to the chemichal attack likely carried out by the Assad regime on day 4 to the northwestern town of Khan Shailkhun. Among many other developments, one of them was the following disegangement between Washington and Moscow, that accused the US of attacking a "soverign country". The Kremlin suspended the direct line of communication (besides conflicting information among US officials) between American and Russian armies that allowed the informations exchange on the aircrafts to avoid conflicts and unintetional attacks between both. It also promised to strengthen Syria´s aerial defense system and to protect the country´s infrastructure. This last point isn´t new, given that on December 28, 2016 a Israeli high-resolution sattelite caught two Russian army´s vehicles at the Latakia military base, on the coast of the country, used to move Iskander-M missils, the ones mentioned in the beggining of this text and capable of carrying nuclear warheads. The images confirmed a suspicion already in existence, which shows that such missils has been in the place for some time, and that Syria, regardless of the recent crisis with the US, is of utmost strategic importance to Russia.

(Tillerson with Putin in the Kremlin: despite the crisis in Syria and little progress in diplomacy, the historic meetings between both helped to break the ice.)

Despite Russia´s strong complaint, the US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, was in Moscow a week after the American attack. At the last minute, Tillerson met with Putin for two hours after a talk to his colleague Sergey Lavrov. According to witnesses, the meeting with Putin revelaed an old intimacy between the two, known from various meetings in the past, and disassociated from the tense atmosphere of the visit. While Russia said there was no proof that the chemical attack was carried out by the Assad´s regime, the US was saying the opposite. For Trump it was "likely" that the Kremlin would know that Assad was planning the chemical attack, while Tillerson said diplomatically that still there was no clear evidence of this. On both sides there was a consensus that the relationship between the two countries has worsened greatly. For Lavroy the US foreign policy was "contradictory" and difficult to understand, and one reason for this would be the fact that Tillerson hasn´t yet filed all vacancies on the State Department. These positions show more insecurity than a real worsing, since there was signs of cooperation, among them the reestablishment of the direct line of communication on the US and Russian aircrafts that fly over Syria and the fight against terrorist organizations. The crisis in Ukraine and the Russian hacking in the American elections were to be discussed in another occasion. There are, however, a number of issues that have not yet been clarified in the Russia-US relations.

Domestic politics may also have weight in the attack on Syria. For Putin an external crisis helps to cultivate his figure of strong man to the Russian people, for Trump there´s vantage that, in opposing the Russian interests in Syria with the attack, he distances himself from the accusation that people of his inner circle would have links with the Kremlin, as well diverting public´s attention from the investigations in the issue.

(Trump and his advisors watching the attack on Syria live: next to the table is Jarde Kusher, the second from right to left; in the background in front of the chandelier Steve Bannon. Suggestive picture.)

Finally, we arrived at a crucial point: Steve Bannon´s loss of influence in political decisions of the White House. Bannon was Chief Strategist of the Trump´s campaign and is the current Chief Strategist of the presidency and his Senior Conselor. Since the beggining of the current mandate, the evolution of the president´s advisory groups has diminished the Bannon´s influence on political decisions. The most explicit case was the disagreement between him and Trump´s son in law and senior adviser, Jared Kusher, on the decision to attack Syria in response to the chemical attack on April 4th. For Bannon it wasn´t of the US interest to carry on the attack, whereas Kusher wanted a punishement to Assad. The divergence between them would correspond to an ideological split among the White House aides: on one hand the "nationalist" groups determined to prioritize the US national interest proposed by the Trump´s campaing and on the other the "democrat" group with some members of the Democratic Party that, por it´s tradition, has an internationalist inclination.

(Steve Bannon listening Trump: strategist and adviser linked to Eurasianism.)

The nationalism of Bannon is related to Eurasianism, current of though whose main promoter is Alexander Dugin, with whom the American shares many of the values. Both see themselves as nationalists, tradition defenders and have aprecciation for theories of history and study of civilizations linking these subjects to political, economic and moral issues. His sympathy for Eurasianism and Putin was clear in the conference that Bannon attended in the Vatican in 2014. People close to Bannon translated into English the main Dugin´s book, The Fourth Political Theory, that set forth the basis of his though, a reformed Eurasianism known as Neo-Eurasianism. For Dugin Bannon is an ideological ally. This helps to explains the enthusiastic support that the Russian gave to the Trump´s election still in the Republican primaries, when Bannon was his chief strategist. Despite Trump to be "tough, rude, (...) emotional", said Dugin, he´s an "extremely successful ordinary American", "it is the true America". The Russian ideologist called Americans to vote to Trump, since he would get back to the US domestic problems and would leave mankind alone, "tired of American hegemony and it´s destructive policy".

With Trump´s inauguration, however, Dugin was disappointed with some of his policies, such as the Washington´s decision to demand that Russia give Crimea back to Ukraine, but definitely gave up with the US attack on Syria. For him, Bannon was the "last hope" in Washington, but given the Trump´s action, whom he called "mad neo-con", hopes for and alliance between Americans and Russians disappeared.

(Military officer Michael Flynn at Russia Today´s gala dinner in 2015: sitting alongside to Vladimir Putin and surrounded by Kremlin´s members.)

It´s clear the association between the Bannon´s loss of power in the White House, the attack on Syria and the crisis with Russia. It´s clear, but no fully explained, since other elements not ananlyzed in this text, such as the departure of ancient members of the Trump´s campaing and government, such as Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn, were also factors that indirectly contributed to disturb a rapprochement with Moscow. Manafort was Viktor Yanukovich´s strategist, a Kremlin´s ally, in the presidencial campaign of 2010 for president of Ukraine. Flynn, a former US Army general, has more obvious ties: he has personal contacts with the Kremlin, having attended the 10-year anniversary gala dinner of the state television Russia Today, whose chief editor, Margarita Symonian, is an enthusiastic supporter of the Russian president. Putin was present alongside the military officer. Flynn appears regularly on the channel conducting reviews on international politics.

(Lavrov and Kislyak being received by Trump in the Oval Office of the White House: despite tensions, contacts on high level continue.)

Despite the political turmoil between Washington and Moscow, there are some signs of willingness (or opportunism) from both sides to reestablish closeness shaken by the attack on Syria. In addition to the aforementioned meeting between Tillerson and Putin in the Kremlin, Trump received in the White House the Russian minister Lavrov and the country´s ambassador in Washington Sergei Kislyak. Kislyak is key figure in the political crisis of the Trump government by his contacts with Flynn still in the US electoral campaign. According to an American newspaper, in the meeting the president would have disclosed confidential information from the secret services to the Russians. Despite complaints from US politicians, the White House National Security Advisor has called the information "false", and the newspaper´s sources aren´t mentioned in the report. Anyway, the Trump´s reception for Lavrov and Kislyak shows there´s an attempt from both sides to normalize the Washington-Moscow relationship regardless the intentions at stake.

Given the above reports, it´s possible to perceive that the great political and military tension between Russia and the Western countries in the second half of 2016 had as one of it´s targets to influence the US elections. It´s difficult to mesure how much the Russians are capable and how much they actually did to interfere in the election, as this interference is under FBI investigation and the USA is a country of continental dimensions. Although American media to be strongly concentrated in a few corporations, people still have a huge variety of media. Therefore, the hypothesis that the Russians have used military pressure as means of influencing the US public opinion is plausible. In uncertanty of domestic efficacy, the explicit external threat was used.

(Pro-Trump propaganda in Russia during US elections: "Let´s make the world great again - together!", says the annoucement. In it´s innability of determining the US course, Russia seeks to play with as many cards as possible to overthrow the American global leadership.) 

The joy by Duma with Trump´s victory, the explicit gesture by Putin to not react to the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats by Obama (seen by the Kremlin as one more provocation by this government) and the massive support of Russian media to the Republican are public signals that there was interest of Moscow in Trump´s victory. For Russia it was also important to avoid as worsening of relations given country´s difficulty in simultaneously mantaining a military escalation throughout it´s Western portion and a direct involvement in the wars in Syria and Ukraine in a time of economic crisis.

The shuddering of tuning between Trump and Putin began with a series of Washington´s mesures that were against Moscow, such as mantaining the sanctions linked to the annexation of the Crimea, condenming of the Russian action in Ukraine, reaffirming of compromisse with NATO and it´s expansion, and the domestic political struggle. The Trump government has members that were influenced by ideological sources sympathetic to Russia, like Bannon, and people with sympathies and/or the means of approaching both sides, like Flynn. Add to this the Russian influence in US electoral process, destabilizatin factor of the government. Trump has a plenty of reasons not to show his willingness of approaching to the Russians and cover up members ideologically sympathetic to Russia: this avoids attack from opponents and the media (the later has been a harsh critic of the Republican since primaries). So far, however, there was no public desagreement between Washington and Moscow. Or, in Dugin´s words, Trump was still tolerable. Untill the attack on Syria.

Contrary to Dugin´s wishes, Tillerson´s recent meetings with Putin in the Kremlin and Lavrov´s with Trump in the White House show that, despite the crisis in the relationship, Washington and Moscow remain willing to hold talks at the high level. In the same way there´s an attempt to create a deeper and more discret link, such as the meeting held in Seychelles Island, so that the contact is mantained ar at least informally. Two things, however, need to be taken into account: first, that the Kremlin is always a source of uncertainty for a variety of reasons, since the lack of political transparency to the Executive´s relationship with the secret service, and the Trump government, led by a noob in politics, is still seeking to stabilize amid turbulences and domestic adjustments; second, that Russia, following it´s messianic and revolutionary "tradition" of which the present government is heir, is willing to continue the struggle to expand it´s influence throughout the world and subdue the post-Cold War world system. And for this it will have to subdue the USA.

There are also many other elements that would help to complete and improve this text. I could also do other ramifications and deepenings by questioning: a) what happened at the Seychelles meeting and it´s possible consequences (and to what extend the Washington Post report is true); b) the real reason of the attack on Syria; c) the Flynn´s role in Trump government and the possibility of he being a communication channel with the Kremlin; d) possible contacts of the Attorney General Jess Sessions with the Russians during US election (not commented in this text); e) the means and impacts of the Russian trolls a propaganda in the USA; d) the American media´s role, largely critical of Trump, and that possibly exaggerates Russia´s power in Washington and; g) the reasons and consequences of the recent dismissal of FBI Director James Comey, who was responsable for investigating the potential commitment of the Trump government with Russia.

Russia´s actions fit in a global strategy to undermine democracy and liberalism in the West. There are a plenty of reasons to suppose that the Kremlin will continue to do so. But the next steps of the US-Russian relationship are still unpredictable.

* Published in Portuguese on May 21st, 2017.

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