Information Warfare · Russia

Vladimir Putin’s ‘puppet strings’ on Trump are an illusion

Vladimir Putin, KGB magician illusionist

American media have seemingly bought into the hype hook, line, and sinker, that Trump is ‘owned’ by Putin. 

This story is easy to sell to rabid liberal protesters who care more about ousting President Trump than in reading the truth. It is nice to finally read a respected author mirroring what I have been saying.  

It is really all about Putin pushing an illusion, reinforcing a conspiracy theory which supports his goals. Sow discord and undermine democracy. Putin never needed to own Trump, he only has to support the illusion. 

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Moscow news editor Alexei Venediktov once remarked that Vladimir Putin is first and foremost a Brezhnev-era KGB officer. A KGB officer’s top priority is to undermine his main enemy: the U.S.  In a brilliant stroke of political judo, Putin is encouraging the belief that he installed President Trump as the real-life Manchurian candidate, feeding into the acrimony – on both sides of the aisle, and also overseas – provoked by the American populist revolt.

[Note: This is the third in a series of articles about Trump and Putin. Click here to read about Putin’s Islamic problems, and here for his problems with the Russian nationalists.]

Like every political analyst in the world, Putin was convinced that Hillary Clinton was going to win the election. He had aimed to tarnish American democracy in the eyes of the world, portraying it as a farce in which the dead vote. He had expected to be dealing with a weakened, tamed Clinton as the American president. Instead, he got Trump.

So what does a smart KGB officer from the Brezhnev era do?  He turns to the tools of his trade: disinformation, misinformation, propaganda, and more. He pivots, and claims that he installed President Trump and controls him – and he leverages his propaganda machine in Russia and Europe to promote the claim. He manipulates the American media too, using half-truths and feeding into the narrative they are eager to write.  His claims undermine the confidence of the security structure in Washington, NATO capitals, and around the world.

First, Russian media brought out Russian experts on America to reassure worried Russians that the real purpose of Trump’s hard line national security appointments would be to negotiate deals.  Senator Alexei Pushkov, considered Putin’s mouthpiece, said it isn’t reasonable to “expect that Trump will agree with Russia on all issues, but he is at least a step up from the continual conflict with Obama.” Dimitri Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said it is natural that Trump’s cabinet should be anti-Russian, because “man is a creature of his environment, and the environment in the United States is now very hostile to Russia.”

In early December, Putin himself promoted the idea that Trump would be his man. In a double entendre worthy of The Sopranos, he told Russia’s NTV that “if Trump is a clever man, then he will fully and quite quickly understand another level of responsibility. We assume that he will be acting from these positions.”

Even entertainers got in on the act. Tigran Keosayan, television producer and partner of RT editor in chief Margarita Simonyan, jokingly asked why Hillary spent nearly a billion dollars on her campaign. “Half that much to Putin, and he would have gotten her elected for sure!” A Russian comedic “news” show features a satirical phone call in which ‘Trump’ calls ‘Putin’ “Boss” and promises to “dismiss the CIA and their reports to hell, and send the Pentagon there too!”

In Eastern Europe meanwhile, Lidovky, a Czech media outlet owned by Putin-aligned Finance Minister Andrej Babis, ran a story claiming that the Communist Czechoslovak Secret Police (the StB) had developed the Trump family from the day Donald met his first wife, Ivana (a Czechoslovak citizen at the time). The clear implication is that the KGB was engaged with the Trumps for 3 decades.  Someone knew where to look for the right StB files.

Putin actually doesn’t need to control Trump – he just needs us to believe he does.  If he can sow doubt among America’s allies, American voters, and the media, he already has won the game.  With even members of Congress and Trump’s own administration personnel unsure, Putin and his surrogates whisper to world leaders that there is no point in talking to the puppet, instead of the one pulling the strings. Come straight to Putin to make a deal – cut out the middle man!

But if Putin were pulling the strings, we would see administration policy that favors Russian interests. Instead, Trump and Mattis are demanding an immediate increase in NATO defense spending, and Trump reiterated his demand that Russia give the Crimea back to Ukraine. After Gen. Flynn’s resignation, White House spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters on Feb. 14 that the president “has made it very clear that he expects the Russian government to de-escalate the violence in the Ukraine, and return Crimea. The irony of this entire situation is that the president has been incredibly tough on Russia. He continues to raise the issue of Crimea, which the previous administration allowed to be seized by Russia.”

These are not the policy positions of a Russian puppet; they suggest that Putin is only posturing, hovering around Trump, pretending to be in control. Instead, it’s quite the reverse: Trump’s actions are undermining Putin abroad and at home, where he has ordered media coverage of Trump to cease. Look at the results, and not the noise: Trump is forcing NATO to its greatest defense spending in decades and is demanding the return of Crimea. The bubble has burst in Russia, and Putin already is on the defensive.

Bart Marcois was the principal deputy assistant secretary of energy for international affairs during the Bush administration, and was previously a career foreign service officer.



2 thoughts on “Vladimir Putin’s ‘puppet strings’ on Trump are an illusion

  1. Though I would agree that Putin probably does not “control” Trump, the latter’s view of the world has much in common with Putin’s. The risk is a new Yalta. Entitled “Post-Truth, Post-West, Post-Order?”, the Munich Security Report 2017 prepared ahead of the Munich Security Conference, which contains a scathing indictment of European populism and Trumpism, says:

    “The United States might move from being a provider of public goods and international security to pursuing a more unilateralist, maybe even nationalistic foreign policy. We may, then, be on the brink of a post-Western age, one in which non-Western actors are shaping international affairs, often in parallel or even to the detriment of precisely those multilateral frameworks that have formed the bedrock of the liberal international order since 1945. Are we entering a post-order world? How this question will be answered in the years to come will depend on all of us.

    “The world is facing an illiberal moment. Across the West and beyond, illiberal forces are gaining ground. From within, Western societies are troubled by the emergence of populist movements that oppose critical elements of the liberal-democratic status quo. From outside, Western societies are challenged by illiberal regimes trying to cast doubt on liberal democracy and weaken the international order. And Western states themselves seem both unwilling and unable to effectively tackle the biggest security crises – with Syria as the prime example.

    “The past twelve months have been a resounding rejection of the status quo. In several elections and referenda, political outsiders succeeded, while the establishment was dealt major blows. Populist parties are now part of the government in about a dozen Western democracies.

    “Economic factors may explain part of the populist rise: incomes for a majority of citizens in industrialized economies have stagnated or fallen between 2007 and 2014.2 However, in the US, for instance, analyses show that it was “not economic hardship but anxiety about the future that predicted whether people voted for Trump.” There is also a cultural backlash against so-called “globalism” from which the populist surge draws. The main dividing line in politics runs less and less between left and right but between a liberal cosmopolitan pole and a populist (or even xenophobic authoritarian)one.

    “Populist parties reject the cultural modernization in Western societies and revolt against what they perceive as threats to the nation, ranging from immigration and cosmopolitan elites to international institutions. They dismiss pluralism and liberalism, essential elements of liberal democracies.

    “Populists are experts in the politics of agitation, forming an “axis of fear” across the West that exploits insecurities and grievances of the electorate, often by twisting the facts or even by spreading outright lies that speak to the preconceptions of their supporters. And they may not even be punished by voters for not offering solutions. In his farewell speech, German President Joachim Gauck warned of the dangers for Western democracies: “We should remember that if we only accept as fact what we already believe anyway and if half-truths, interpretations, conspiracy theories and rumors count every bit as much as the truth, then the path is clear for demagogues and autocrats.”

    “With good reason, the editors of the Oxford Dictionaries proclaimed “post truth” the word of the year 2016. Beyond all the dangers for democracy, this also has a very clear security dimension: If politicians, for instance, lie about crowd sizes, say demonstrably wrong things about previously held positions and suggest that falsehoods are merely “alternative facts,” can citizens and allies trust them on national security issues? Likewise, a “post-truth” culture makes foreign disinformation campaigns more likely and erodes the very foundation of enlightened debate on which liberal democracies depend.

    “The Illiberal International and Cracks in the Liberal International Order The rise of the populists has rapidly become a systemic challenge that threatens to undermine the liberal international order the world’s liberal democracies have built and upheld since the end of World War II. The populists watch and learn from each other and increasingly cooperate across borders.
    “What does this – especially a much more unilateralist, nationalist US foreign policy – mean for the future international order? Will it slowly become a more fragmented order in which regional hegemons define the rules of the game in their spheres? Or will the Western democracies be able to preserve the core norms and institutions of the liberal international order? Do they even want to?

    “Who is going to provide common public goods that benefit their own country, but also others? The development of some of today’s crucial geopolitical hotspots may give us a preview of the emerging disorder and disengagement.

    “In Syria, more than 400,000 people died, and millions had to flee their homes. While the Europeans stood by and the United States was reluctant to fully engage [this is an indictment of Obama’s passivity -GRM], others filled the vacuum. Most decisively, the Russian government took an active role in the conflict when the Syrian regime appeared to be losing. It claimed that it was fighting against the Islamic State, but primarily waged war on the opposition. According to the human rights groups, hospitals were regularly and deliberately targeted. While Western officials have repeatedly argued that “there is no military solution” to the war in Syria, Russia and its allies pursued one – and seem to be successful. Is this the brave new post-Western world?

    “The events in Aleppo also may foreshadow the significance of international law and human rights (or lack thereof) in the future. Should a genocide be perpetrated somewhere in the world in the coming months, would anybody step in?

    “In Ukraine, Russia has violated several key principles governing European security. Even so, sanctions might be reduced without any progress on implementing the Minsk Agreements. Should the Trump administration strike a meaningful deal with Moscow, this could signal a new era of great powers determining the fate of smaller ones. As several European leaders warned Trump before his inauguration: “The rules-based international order on which Western security has depended for decades would be weakened. […] A deal with Putin will not bring peace. On the contrary, it makes war more likely.”

    Marcois says that “Trump is forcing NATO to its greatest defense spending in decades and is demanding the return of Crimea.” No, it’s not Trump who is forcing NATO to spend more: it’s Putin. As Stoltenberg observed, “”In 2014 we decided 3 things: we decided to stop the cuts, then gradually increase defense spending and then move towards 2% within a decade. In 2015 we stopped the cuts, 2015 was the first year in many years we didn’t have cuts in defense spending across Europe and Canada. Then in 2016 we had a significant increase of 10 billion dollars or close to 4% in real terms. So actually after just two years we have made two important steps: stop the cuts and started a significant increase.” I do not remember Donald Trump to have been in office at that time.

    As to Crimea it does seem that Trump has now aligned his position on that of the international community and international law (UNGA resolution 68/262). The question is: will he maintain the sanctions that are specific to Crimea and Sevastopol. Without such sanctions it’s just talk.

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