Jan 10, 2020
It is well known that Russian President Vladimir Putin supported Donald Trump and opposed Hillary Clinton in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. It is still debated whether or not Putin’s intervention affected the election result. It is often just assumed that Putin will support Trump again in 2020. But he just might not. In fact, Putin may well seek to undermine Trump’s campaign this year. Trump’s positive statements about Putin both during the 2016 presidential campaign and afterward may have led Putin to believe that Trump would be more willing to cooperate with Russia than either Obama was after Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea or Clinton would have been had she been elected president. But if this was Putin’s expectation, he has been sorely disappointed. In their very first conversation after Trump became president, Putin suggested that the two leaders agree to extend the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) which is due to expire in February 2021—a move that Putin may well have considered something to be only practical, sensible, and even uncontroversial. But after having to put Putin on hold to ask his aides what New START even was, Trump came back on the phone to say, “No,” because he was sure that the treaty was somehow unfair to the U.S. As the expiration deadline approaches, Putin has continued to press Trump to renew it, only to be rebuffed. Since Putin sees the treaty’s extension as sensible for both sides, he regards Trump’s refusal to do so as irrational at best and indicative of a desire to expand America’s nuclear arsenal at worst. Further, despite Putin’s hopes that Trump would reduce the Obama-era economic sanctions against Russia, Congress in 2017 (when Republicans controlled both houses) enacted more sanctions. While Trump said he disapproved, he signed the bill anyway—which was not reassuring to Putin. Nor is Putin likely to believe that Trump really could not control a Republican-dominated Congress insofar as Russia is concerned. In addition, Putin expected that Trump—unlike Obama—would recognize Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. Trump, however, has not done so and does not appear likely to. Moreover, unlike Obama, Trump has sent military assistance to Ukraine, which is fighting against Russian-backed separatist forces (and even the Russian Army itself) in eastern Ukraine. In the U.S. and Ukraine, there has been a scandal about how Trump delayed this aid in the hope of getting the Ukrainian government to investigate the Bidens. For Putin, though, what is scandalous is that Trump has sent any military aid at all to Kiev. And most recently, Trump’s ordering the killing of Iranian General Soleimani in Baghdad could raise serious problems for Putin. As commander of the Qods Brigade, Soleimani oversaw the effort by Iranian and Shi’a militia forces in Syria to support the Assad regime. At a minimum, Soleimani’s death risks disrupting this. And if the U.S.-Iranian conflict escalates so much that Tehran is no longer able to act as effectively in Syria, this will confront Putin with having to deploy more Russian forces to Syria to take up the slack. With Russia mainly concentrating on the air war, it has been able to avoid large-scale Russian casualties which would be highly unpopular with the Russian public. But if Soleimani’s death eventually leads to a lesser, or just less effective, Iranian presence in Syria, Russia may have to compensate by increasing its own—and thereby risk suffering increased casualties—in order to protect Assad against opposing forces that will take heart from the Soleimani’s demise. In all of these instances—and more—Trump’s positive words about Putin have not prevented the U.S. from undertaking actions that Putin considers harmful to Russia. And the fact that this has occurred repeatedly must have raised Putin’s concerns that Trump is either too weak to be useful no matter how many positive things he says about Russia, or that Trump’s pro-Russian statements are meant to lull Moscow into not responding too harshly after repeated anti-Russian actions in the hope that the latest one will be the last. Either way, Trump may have outlasted his usefulness to Moscow as far as Putin is concerned. In 2016, Putin may have believed that while Clinton was hostile to Russia, Trump was friendly. Now, he may feel cheated. (Indeed, the joke that some of my contacts in Moscow make is that Putin is so disillusioned with Trump that, “he wants his money back.”) If, then, Moscow sees Trump as more hostile than friendly, as well as reckless and unpredictable, Putin may conclude that Trump has betrayed him. The Russian leader is highly likely to seek revenge. Yet even if Putin turns against Trump in 2020, there is no reason to believe that whatever propaganda and influence campaigns Moscow unleashes will actually serve to help the Democrats or hurt Trump. Indeed, for the Trump base, Moscow’s turning against their hero may even reassure them that Trump is not so beholden to Putin as they may have secretly feared no matter all their loud proclamations to the contrary. Still, nobody should be surprised if, during the course of the 2020 presidential election campaign, WikiLeaks or a similar organization manages to get hold of and publish Trump’s tax returns, details about his confidential business deals, or even certain videotapes. What the Russian intelligence services might find especially amusing would be to release (in an at least somewhat indirect way) even further information than the U.S. government has about Trump’s strong-arming Ukraine over investigating the Bidens. And why would Moscow do this? Because when it comes to Trump, Putin is no longer amused.