Putin Helped Put Trump in the White House. He Could Be His Downfall Too

The chaos of Donald Trump’s opening weeks in the White House have strengthened the suspicion that his term will end early and unpleasantly. It is even tempting to start a sweepstake on which outrage or scandal will ultimately bring him down.

I am going to back an old favourite - Russia. One of the few consistent elements of Trump’s campaign and presidency so far is his subservience to the Kremlin. The reasons for this bizarre behaviour have still not been explained either by Trump or his opponents. Trump insults America’s friends, neighbours and loyal allies on a near daily basis. So why does this extreme nationalist and supposed patriot go to such lengths to avoid criticising an enemy state like Russia?

It is certainly not because the US superpower needs to appease mid-ranking Russia. The American economy is 13.5 times larger by GDP and infinitely more sophisticated than Russia’s chronically natural resource dependent one. The US spends approximately twelve times as much on its military and faces no conceivable conventional threat to its territory from Moscow.

It is not because there are insufficient reasons to criticise Russia either. Its recent atrocities include responsibility for the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH-17, killing all 298 men, women and children – all citizens of close US allies, including one American – on board. By killing Alexander Litvinenko in London with highly radioactive polonium and putting numerous others at risk, it committed the world’s first act of nuclear terrorism in the capital of the US’s purported closest ally and still harbours the culprits.

Inside Russia, opponents of Putin are routinely imprisoned or murdered, particularly those, including journalists, who seek to exercise the right to free speech that Americans cherish.

Trump could argue that most of these events took place before he came to power. But they should surely offer a self-proclaimed opponent of terrorism like Trump an insight into the Putin regime’s character and give him pause for thought before kow-towing to the Kremlin. Instead, Trump’s most notable comment over recent days has been to denigrate his own country, the world’s leading democracy, by equating it with the murderous dictatorship in Moscow.

And we are not just talking about past misdeeds anyway. If anything, the pace of Russia’s abuses has already stepped up since Trump took office. Vladimir Kara-Murza, a US-resident Russian opposition activist, is currently in a coma after apparently being poisoned last week in Russia, where he was on a visit to promote a documentary about his murdered colleague, Boris Nemtsov. Meanwhile, opposition leader Alexei Navalny has just been spuriously convicted and given a suspended 5-year prison sentence to prevent him from attempting to stand in the 2018 presidential election.

The new US government’s inaction over the election hacking affair is seemingly not being replicated in Moscow

Perhaps most disturbingly from a geopolitical point of view, Putin’s first phone call with Trump in the White House was soon followed by a renewed Russian assault on Eastern Ukraine.

None of these actions have been condemned by Trump. His administration issued only a tepid statement suggesting the latter was all part of an unfortunate civil war in Ukraine. It is nothing of the sort. There was no war in Ukraine until Russia started one, or even any significant “separatist” sentiment. The conflict there is the result of a straightforward invasion of a sovereign state launched, funded, directed, armed and manned by Russia.

Then there is the direct attack on the US by the Russian state hackers who interfered in its presidential election. A crime that even Trump has eventually been forced to grudgingly half-acknowledge, whilst still refusing to take any action over it.

The new US government’s inaction over the election hacking affair is seemingly not being replicated in Moscow. Intriguingly, since Trump took office there has been a wave of arrests of senior Russian Federal Security Service (FSB, the successor to the KGB) agents and one suspicious death.

Those arrested include the Deputy Head of the FSB’s Center for Information Security, Sergei Mikhailov, his subordinate Dmitry Dokuchayev and Ruslan Stoyanov, the Head of Kaspersky Lab, a private company that works with the FSB on internet security. Coupled with the reported dismissal of Mikhailov’s boss, Andrei Gerasimov, Head of the Cyber Intelligence Department, this amounts to a purge of the FSB’s cyber security team.

To some observers of espionage matters, this looks like a spy network being rolled up. If that is the case, it is impossible to know at this stage what information or whose tip-off prompted it. Only the Russian authorities and the CIA, whom the group were allegedly working for, may know for sure.

It is not yet clear whether these arrests are related to the sudden death in late December of Oleg Erovinkin. A long-standing FSB man working on intelligence matters in the Kremlin, Erovinkin was a senior advisor to Igor Sechin, Putin’s closest and most powerful associate. There has been some speculation that Erovinkin may have been a source for the information contained in the famous dossier compiled by a former British Secret Intelligence Service official about the compromising information the Russians allegedly have on Trump. (For more on these events, see Amy Knight’s excellent “New York Review of Books” article).

Whatever happens on these cases, I suspect we have not heard the last of them. I would be willing to bet too that there is more information to come on the Trump team’s close connections to the Kremlin and the reasons why he is so strangely deferential to Russia.

More about the author

About the author

Paul Knott began his working life in a hut on Hull's King George Dock before globetrotting for two decades as an unlikely British envoy. His "instructive and funny" (Alan Johnson MP) book about his experiences, "The Accidental Diplomat", is out now.

He is also the Chief Foreign Correspondent for the Sabotage Times and contributes to publications such as The Telegraph, Forty-20 and When Saturday Comes.

All that travel has failed to shift Paul's inherited old Labour instincts.

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