As political pundits around the World regain their feet after the events in Helsinki, it is increasingly plausible that the curious, ambiguous, and obfuscated relationship between President Trump and President Putin will end up being the greatest scandal of a generation.
Yes there is a possibility that it is entirely the imagination of suspicious minds and deep state distractions, but with every passing week new evidence mounts that encourages once cautious minds to believe in the absolute improbable.
The capacity to recognise the manifestations of this proposition is, if not reliant on then certainly greatly assisted by, an understanding of the main protagonist in this historical thriller, Vladimir Putin.
It is to this end that I feel it would be advantageous to impart a brief synopsis from the academic endeavour to understand the man who has intrigued a planet. What does Putin want?
To start with, it is sadly necessary to remind readers that Putin is not a good guy (it is sad that this is not obvious to many). Firstly he is corrupt. It is uncontroversially estimated that even though he has only ever been employed as a civil servant, Putin is in fact the richest man in the world, although none of it is in his name. His summer villa on the Black Sea reportedly cost $1billion to build, all paid for by a handful of Oligarch billionaires who will never set foot in it. Anyone who is close to him is fantastically rich (and entirely indebted to him). His high school friend and professional Cellist was uncovered by the Panama Papers leak to be worth around $2billion, not a bad salary for playing the Cello. There is a collection of people that surround Putin, men that he trusts, who are all billionaires… the rest of the country? Well they are struggling. In fact according to the Global Wealth Report, Russia is the most unequal country in the world, almost 75% of the nation’s wealth rests in the hands of the top 1%.
Secondly, he is a murderous dictator. Political opponents and journalists who dared criticise him are routinely killed (or at the very least imprisoned). He secured his power by first arresting the owners of TV stations and basically saying “sell your TV station to this guy or you’re going to prison for Tax Fraud”. After not too long every TV station belonged to one of his Oligarch friends.
Once, a Russian accountant named Sergei Magnitsky, working for an American investor stumbled upon evidence of the immense corruption that fed the Oligarch machine (and unknown to him fed Putin’s coffers). Thinking he would be rewarded for discovering this plundering of the nation’s wealth by bringing it to the Government’s attention, he instead found himself arrested (though never charged) and died suspiciously whilst languishing alone in a Moscow Prison cell (remember this guy’s name, I’ll bring it up again later.)
There are literally books detailing Putin’s crimes but all you need to know for now is he is a murderous dictator who will do anything to hold onto power; which brings us to my first point.
Putin has been in power for 18 years. He has stolen billions of dollars from the Russian State. What do you think is going to happen when he finally loses power? Well, he has an idea. He looks to Libya, Iraq, Egypt… he has seen what happens to dictators when a nation’s people overthrow their despots, and it doesn’t look fun.
To ensure this never happens he requires the constituents of Russia to look upon Western Society not with awe and desire, but with derision. If you ever see Russian TV’s coverage of Europe or America it will accentuate and emphasises the “scourge” of immigration, the problems of enforced liberalisation, political correctness gone mad, the absolute calamity that is democracy; everything that Russia has none of. He wants the People of Russia to look at Europe and the USA and think “geez, thank God we have Putin here holding this place together because that place looks like hell”.
By injecting hundreds of millions of dollars into fake Facebook advertising creating fake ‘activist groups’ at the fringes of the political spectrum, he finds existing social divisions and does everything in his power to exacerbate and fan the flames. By generating and then propagating conspiracy theories utilising vast Twitter troll farms he creates distrust in the institutions that have been the bedrock of Western Society for generations; those being institutions of government and mainstream media. Putin thrives in a World where people don’t know what to believe.
Have you ever shared fake news or a meme claiming something that is actually fake? Congratulations, there is a good chance you just shared some Russian propaganda.
But beyond that he does harbour genuine geopolitical aspirations for Russia, and these are not difficult to recognise and understand. We need only look at the geopolitical standing of Putin’s regime midway through Obama’s last term.
Western Europe was a strong united bloc, its closest ally was the USA, both committed to the principles of liberal democracy and both committed to mutual defence of any possible Russian expansion under the NATO military agreement. Dictators around the world were falling as the Arab Spring dawned around the World, democracy was spreading. Even the pro-Russian dictator of neighbouring Ukraine had fallen to popular protests prompting the necessity of a Crimean land invasion to reassert influence. As punishment, the USA and EU united to forge a formidable front to enact unprecedented sanctions that almost instantly stalled the Russian economy.
Furthermore, an American businessman Bill Browder took up the cause of his friend and former business associate Sergei Magnitsky (remember the Russian accountant?). With the blessing of Obama, Congress united to pass the Magnitsky Act which directly targeted the assets of Russian Oligarchs deemed responsible for Magnitsky’s death. Soon, Canada and most of Western Europe passed similar Acts.
The noose was tightening on Russia’s Oligarchs, and on Putin himself.
Suddenly, reports came in Russians were meddling in the 2016 election, to help get Trump elected.
The infamous Trump Tower meeting that Trump Jr lied about? That was top ranking members from the Trump campaign allegedly meeting with a Russian lawyer to discuss the Magnitsky Act (and to get "dirt" on Clinton).
In the final days of the Obama administration, as increased sanctions were placed on Russia as punishment for their meddling in the US election, a phone call was intercepted between Trump’s top National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and the Russian Ambassador, in that call Flynn told the Russian Ambassador not to worry, things would change once Trump was President. (Flynn has since been charged with lying to the FBI about this phone call).
Fast forward a year into that Presidency.
The European Union is no longer united. It has lost a member (there is strong evidence Brexit was also influenced by Russian meddling). NATO has been publicly questioned as an institution by Trump and the US alliance with Europe is, at best, fractured, if not irreparably so.
The President of the USA not only lambasts the leaders of Liberal Democracies but he publicly applauds powerful dictators. Instead of promoting the ideals of democracy with Russia, he throws plaudits at him as a strong and powerful leader.
Trump has stated the intention to withdraw US military from Syria, leaving the sphere of influence to Russia. He unilaterally declared, without even warning his own military, that he would cease anual military games in South Korea (on Russia’s doorstep), a move apparently suggested by Putin.
He even refuses to confirm if the USA would heed the requirements of the NATO treaty and come to the aid of NATO countries if they were attacked by Russia.
Meanwhile, USA appears a fractious and calamitous basket case with a leader who is thumbling and bumbling in front of the whole world. Suddenly, the desire to attain the fruits of Western Democracy don’t seem so tasty.
Two years ago, Putin was weakened, isolated, and surrounded by a powerful alliance of nations committed to the cause of liberal democracy. Today, the leaders of France and Germany remain as the last remnants of an idealistic ideology. Trump glorifies and subjugates his own agencies to this Russian Dictator, much to the delight of Russian TV cameras.
History will tell if Trump has in fact been complicit in this dramatic change of fortunes for Putin or if he has been, as some suggest, purely a useful idiot. But the ability for the rest of the World to mitigate the damage is reliant on everybody being conscious of what is actually occuring.
The fact is, as sensational as it sounds, the very ideal of liberal democracy around the world is under threat. For the first time in a generation, democracies are falling, not growing. Suddenly, the President of the greatest democratic power in the world, the nation that has fought, for better or worse, for the cause of spreading democracy over the past 100 years, is now instead committing his country to isolationism and has provided a clear signal to the dictators of Russia, China, and everywhere else… the world is theirs for the taking.