Richard Lourie is the author of Putin: His Downfall and Russia’s Coming Crash.
In the wake of 9/11, the U.S. government discussed hiring screenwriters to help it with its own worst-case scenarios since the failure to foresee the attack on the Twin Towers was not only a failure of intelligence but of imagination. That lesson was apparently not lost on the FBI, which has proved willing to consider President Donald Trump a Russian asset. It was also a conclusion many Americans had already come to, the only question being whether Mr. Trump acted wittingly, unwittingly or somewhere in between, half-wittingly.
Everyone has his own scenario. Here’s mine: In 2004, when three former Soviet republics were admitted to NATO, Vladimir Putin realized that neither co-operation, nor even peaceful coexistence with the West were going to be possible; the relationship was fundamentally antagonistic. After all, the United States had promised Mikhail Gorbachev that if he allowed the two Germanys to reunite, NATO would not move “one inch east.” And now, of course, Russia is ringed from the Baltic to the Black Sea by NATO. So, after the Russian army’s poor performance in the brief war with Georgia in August, 2008, Mr. Putin fashioned a two-pronged strategy: Strengthen yourself militarily while weakening your enemy psychologically.
Mr. Trump had been on the Russian radar at least since 2008, when a Russian oligarch bought his Palm Beach mansion for more than twice the roughly US$40-million Mr. Trump had paid, his first taste of easy Russian liquidity. In fact, between 2003 and 2013, people from the former Soviet Union made 86 all-cash purchases of Trump properties for a total of US$109-million. The political value of these transactions has only become apparent in the course of time. Mr. Trump is tied to Russia by money and it is that, not hotel peccadillos or direct collusion, that will bring him down.
Mr. Putin’s two-pronged strategy is now paying off. The Russians have leaped ahead with hypersonic missiles that travel more than five times the speed of sound and are essentially impossible to guard against. And his Western enemy is greatly weakened; a divisive President exacerbates U.S. divisions and also threatens to withdraw from NATO. Meanwhile the EU is shaken both by Brexit and the brazen rightward lurch of countries such as Hungary.
Even in an over-the-top Manchurian-candidate-type scenario, it would be hard to picture Mr. Putin and his minions grooming Mr. Trump for years and years. But Mr. Putin was quick to recognize Mr. Trump’s potential utility and supported his improbable candidacy with all Russia’s cybernetic wiles. Was Russia instrumental in bringing Mr. Trump to power? The very question is Mr. Putin’s victory. It can’t ever be answered and thus introduces a permanent ambiguity into a system that prides itself on demonstrable integrity.
The two Presidents have met five times since Mr. Trump took office. The details of these conversations remain, for the most part, a mystery. As was reported earlier this week, Mr. Trump went so far as to have some of the American interpreters’ notes confiscated, forgetting that there is another set, the Russian one, which now becomes another means of leverage for Mr. Putin.
The Russian-American relationship has now also become of personal political importance to Mr. Putin who is, officially at least, in his last term as President. Unless he decides to make himself president for life, hardly out of the question, Mr. Putin will have to leave office in as strong a position as possible to safeguard his wealth and liberty. He will continue to be stymied on the economic front by sanctions and by low gas prices.
The only other possibility is a glorious foreign-policy success, something on a much grander scale than Crimea and Syria. And there can be no greater such success than humbling the United States, especially on its own turf. That would explain why two Russian nuclear bombers flew to Venezuela in mid-December, 2018, to carry out exercises with the Venezuelan military in order to improve their “interoperability.”
Mr. Putin is also working to strengthen ties with Nicaragua and Cuba, even supposedly considering reopening Russia’s old listening post in Lourdes, Cuba. That would be mostly of symbolic importance given the technological improvements in the nearly 20 years since it closed. Still, symbolism counts and a strong Russian presence in the Caribbean would be seen by Russians as fair and fitting payback for NATO’s encroachment on Russia’s western border.
It could also, of course, lead to trouble. God save us from a 21st-century remake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, with Mr. Putin taking Khrushchev’s role and Mr. Trump playing the part of JFK. That’s a scenario no one would want green-lighted.