Quora: How Russia and Putin Benefit From a Trump Presidency

Vladimir Putin at a news conference in Moscow, Russia, December 23, 2016. Sergei Karpukhin/reuters

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Answer from Ross Cohen, B.A. in History & Political Science​:

If anyone doubts Russia is benefiting from the Donald Trump presidency, they just haven't thought about it enough. Russia benefits from the Trump presidency in any number of ways—at least 20 by my count.

They would also unquestionably benefit even more if the hubbub caused by their interference with the American presidential election on Trump's behalf hadn't cast such a spotlight on the issue, which has produced continuing revelations about their connections to high-level Trump staffers, basically every few days, for the entire Trump presidency.

Before getting into how Russia benefits, it's important that we're all aware of two established facts:

  • The seventeen agencies of the U.S. Intelligence Community unanimously concluded with high confidence that Russia ran a significant operation to interfere with the U.S. presidential election.
  • The FBI director recently confirmed under oath that Donald Trump and his campaign/administration are under active FBI investigation for possibly colluding with Russia in this plot to affect the election.

Without further ado, here are 20 ways Russia benefits from the Trump presidency so far, and how they may in the future:

A President of the United States they can more easily manipulate. This seems like a logical place to start. Mikhail Fishman, the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times, a paper critical of Putin (which has been attacked more than once), explained the Kremlin thinks of Trump as "a stupid, unstrategic politician." "Putin is so much more experienced than Trump. He has more than fifteen years of global political experience. He knows how to do things, how to work the system. He makes plenty of mistakes, but he knows how to think and act. Trump isa total neophyte. He has no experience and doesn't understand how global politics operates. He displays his ignorance every single day." [We don't have the space for all the examples of that ignorance so I'll just mention that during the campaign, Trump wasn't even aware that Russia had already invaded Crimea. See: George Stephanopoulos awkwardly corrects Donald Trump when he says Putin 'is not going into Ukraine' or Trump says Putin is 'not going to go into Ukraine,' despite Crimea or Trump tries to clean up on Crimea]. "Trump is a posturing performer, full of idiotic narcissism. He appears to be a disorganized fool, to be honest. Putin, on the other hand, is calculating, organized, and he plans everything." These quotes came from an interview published in this article: What does Russia want from the Trump administration? A Russian journalist tries to explain. As the writer summarized, "Fishman's point is clear enough: Putin sees in Trump an opportunity to manipulate US-Russia relations."

No further response to their attack upon the United States of America. Let's not be confused by the language being used, Russia's cyber attack on American elections means Russia attacked America. The Obama administration put together some sanctions just before leaving office, but do you think it should end there? If another country attacked America, would Trump let it go and deny it even happened? He's notorious for criticizing anyone and everyone, including our closest allies, and he likes to call himself a "counter-puncher." Is it likely he would've been satisfied by the Obama administration's actions if it were any other country that attacked us? The Trump administration has basically dropped the matter. The only reason it ever gets discussed comes from outside the administration, from Congress and the press. The administration has not taken a single proactive step on the topic or shown any interest in reacting to the attack. Attacking America without any reaction from the new administration obviously benefits Russia.

No response—not even condemnation—to their more recent attack on the United States. Wikileaks just dumped a huge trove of supposed CIA documents purportedly detailing all of their cyber-war capabilities. George W. Bush's CIA and NSA director, Michael Hayden, agrees with what many have been saying for some time now, that Wikileaks is acting as an arm of Russia. Any other administration would, at minimum, condemn the release, and quite possibly respond in kind, now that it's become increasingly clear it's Russia behind it. Still, not a single critical word or action from the administration.

Appointment of inexperienced Putin friend to lead the State Department. Rex Tillerson, longtime friend and oil partner of Putin, opposed U.S. sanctions on Russia and is possibly the best they could've hoped for—a secretary of state with no particular education or experience in diplomacy or international relations apart from a career at the helm of an oil company, forging partnerships with Russia and other corrupt governments. If you are Russia, what kind of secretary would you want? One with a pre-existing unusually friendly relationship with you, a history of opposing sanctions against you, and no education, experience, or expertise in government or foreign relations to speak of. They got their man. Even if Tillerson doesn't do a thing to help Russia, that would be preferable to almost any other secretary they've faced or could expect to face as lack of action against their aggression on multiple fronts is a big win.

Purging of the State Department's most experienced people on Russia. One of the biggest American thorns in Russia's side and checks on Russian aggression has been the State Department. That is what gets international cooperation in using America's unparalleled "soft power" to build up alliances, block some of their hostile activities, and levy sanctions. Unlike Russia, the leaders of the U.S. change frequently, so we are especially reliant on the expertise and institutional memory of our apolitical career civil servants at State. Along with the intelligence community, they're the ones most likely to spot unseen Russian moves, understand hidden motives, and properly advise our top leaders so they can be effective, basically to prevent America from getting rolled by its counterparts in Russia. We need this kind of expertise now more than ever with Russia's years long crescendo of aggressive behavior reaching alarming heights, particularly since America's new president, most of his White House staff, and secretary of state, are all completely new to international relations. That's why it's pretty bad for America and beneficial to Russia when the Trump administration gets rid of our longest serving non-political employee at the State Department. And the second longest serving one. And the third… It's actually a lot more than three highly experienced people, they've let a slew of them go. I'm not talking about "Obama people" but senior career professionals from the Foreign Service who have served under the past four, five, or in some cases, six presidents. Each person has decades of experience not easily replicated or replaced so there's collectively centuries of experience walking out the door. That's certainly not good for the USA, but it does benefit Russia when there's a bunch of empty desks and newbies instead. Given all that's happening (or not happening) at State, it's slightly less shocking that they went an unprecedented six and a half weeks without the "daily" press conference, or similarly that the new secretary didn't let the press corps join him on his first international trip, "breaking with decades of past practice."

Slashing of the State Department's budget. The initial Trump administration proposal would cut the State Dept budget by 37 percent. That kind of cut to the U.S.'s envoys to the world and expertise at home would be devastating to our ability to project soft power abroad. A big cut in the U.S. State Department is good for Russia as it gives the U.S. fewer resources to push back on them with. You can't slash their budget by 37 percent and think there wouldn't be an effect. Most likely the cuts won't be anything close to that (indeed, they've now revised it down to a still unthinkable 29 percent), at least not at first, but this is what the administration is pushing for. Even the military, which is getting a big budget boost, said this was an insanely bad idea.

Not one word of criticism from the President of the United States. The U.S. is supposed to stand for freedom and speak out against tyranny and oppression. Throughout the campaign and administration Donald Trump has had very harsh words to say about congressmen, senators, judges, journalists, corporations, allies—basically everyone there is…except Vladimir Putin. It's a deafening and noticeable silence from such a boisterous and pugnacious man, which speaks volumes. The U.S. has the loudest voice on the world stage and it seems clear it will no longer be using it to stand up to Russian misdeeds. Shortly before leaving office President Obama said of Putin, "This is somebody, the former head of the KGB, who is responsible for crushing democracy in Russia, muzzling the press, throwing political dissidents in jail, countering American efforts to expand freedom at every turn; is currently making decisions that's leading to a slaughter in Syria." When might we hear something like that from Trump? If the leader of the world's most powerful country won't stand up to Russia, who will? Trump is weak on Russia, and that is to their benefit.

Not one word of criticism from the Secretary of State of the United States. In 2011, when Hillary Clinton was secretary of state, she said that Russia's recent parliamentary elections were not free and fair (which the evidence shows they clearly were not). There were protests in Russia after the elections and Putin publicly blamed Clinton for it. Not having her in office means he no longer has to deal with someone unafraid to call him out on his dictatorial actions. We will see if the new secreatry, Rex Tillerson, or his boss, Donald Trump, ever come close to being as critical of Putin's tyranny as Hillary Clinton already has. So far we haven't seen it. This is good for Russia (not the people, of course, but the current regime).

Pro-Russia position in the Republican Party Platform regarding their invasion of Ukraine. At the RNC convention last summer when they were drawing up the party platform as they do before every election, they found that they had a freer hand than ever before. Unlike Romney and McCain, who had their people moderate the platform so the hardliners of the party couldn't go too far, Trump was completely hands off and let them do whatever they wanted with the platform—except when it came to its position on Russia's invasion of Ukraine. On that one issue, they got involved and had it softened (which they've been caught lying about repeatedly) to avoid any kind of pledge to give weapons to Ukraine. The watered-down language instead said the U.S. would provide "appropriate assistance." Music to Russia's ears.

12_Tillerson Swearing In
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, accompanied by President Donald Trump, speaks after his swearing-in ceremony on February 1. Tillerson's time as Exxon Mobil CEO brought much contact with Russia, but raised hopes for a new direction in U.S/Russian policy failed to materialize in his debut speech as secretary of state Friday at a G20 summit in Bonn, Germany. Carlos Barria/REUTERS

No real Russia policy is dangerous and may encourage major escalation in violence in Ukraine, the Baltics (NATO members), or even against the U.S. They've invaded neighbors, shot down airliners, bombed Syrian civilians and rebels backed by the U.S., cyberattacked America to influence our elections, likely published CIA secrets, defied an arms control treaty, harassed our diplomats, buzzed our ships—what's next? They have elections of their own coming up in a couple years and that often means a ratcheting up of aggression. We need to get ahead of that. "In light of the dangers that the present Russian regime represents, however, what matters is deterrence, which always has a strong psychological element. Restraining the behavior of the Putin regime requires creating the impression in both word and deed that violations will meet with a serious response." "The resignation of Michael Flynn, President Trump's national security advisor, and the attendant stories about chaos and dysfunction in the White House, have highlighted the importance of personality and process in national security policymaking. But more important is the actual content of foreign policy — and it's here that the Trump administration seems to be most seriously lacking. Unintentionally or not, the White House still appears to have no firm policy on the greatest threats facing the United States. In order of their priority they are: 1) Russia's challenge to democracy in America and abroad."

Supporting Russian propaganda: calling America's election system rigged. One way to keep a corrupt dictator in power is to convince the people that there's no such thing as a truly free and democratic government, that it's all just as much a sham as theirs. Undermining western democracy and getting our own leaders to "confirm" that our system is rigged like theirs, plays right into their propaganda at home. When Russians accuse Putin of rigging elections, he couldn't ask for a better set of ammunition than Trump has provided him. Putin wants to keep the Russian people cynically docile, overwhelmed by feelings of apathetic futility. Russians do protest and Russians do vote and Russians do try to speak out, but Putin jails and kills many that do, shuts down critical news outlets, rigs their elections, embezzles and allows his friends to as well, etc — getting the Russian people to believe there's no such thing as a free country (so why even try?) makes it far easier to discourage opposition and keep his hold on power. Trump's "rigged" narrative has been extremely beneficial to Putin in that regard.

Supporting Russian propaganda: The President of the United States saying we're just as bad as Putin when it comes to murder. When asked by Fox News Host Bill O'Reilly if Trump understood just how bad Putin is, calling him "a killer," Trump said, "What, you think our country's so innocent?" An unbelievable thing to hear from the president of the United States. [In March alone the lives of two Putin foes came to a violent end: the lawyer for a Russian whistleblower was thrown off the roof of his Moscow apartment and an outspoken former member of Russian parliament was gunned down in the street. See also: 10 critics of Vladimir Putin who wound up dead ] Fully unpacking Trump's comment is beyond the scope of this post, but just as his "rigged" narrative is a lovely gift to Putin's propaganda efforts, dismissing Putin's actions as no worse than anything the U.S. does is a big, sloppy, wet, open-mouthed kiss for Putin. Masha Gessen, a journalist who has lived both here in the U.S. and in Russia under Putin, wrote a book on Putin's rise to power. In a New York Times piece she explained that Trump's response to that question is actually a technique straight out of the dictator's handbook, an old Soviet technique called 'whataboutism,' "the trick of turning any argument against the opponent." Gessen explains how Putin and allies have renewed the use of it since coming to power. "They seem convinced that the entire world is driven solely by greed and hunger for power, and only the Western democracies continue to insist, hypocritically, that their politics are based on values and principles." If it isn't obvious that Trump's statement was extraordinary, consider that "no American politician in living memory has advanced the idea that the entire world, including the United States, was rotten to the core," Gessen noted. Vladimir Putin probably sent Donald Trump flowers and a singing telegram after that interview.

Reduced American credibility. Of course having a president who says our government is just as bad as Russia's is not good for American credibility but consider how many wildly untrue statements Donald Trump has made, even after taking office. Hell, pick just about any week of his presidency and he made one or more outrageous statements that were just incredible—as in not credible, unbelievable, and ultimately debunked. Put aside the idiotic assertions about the crowd size at his inauguration and other unimportant topics, he actually accused both the preceding American president, and our closest ally, of breaking laws to wiretap him. Both charges were baseless and rejected by all parties as utterly false, but now what happens when there's a crisis and he needs some credibility to get something important to national security done? Will anyone believe him? How much more convincing and proof will be needed to get allies or others from the international community on board with America's goals and plan of action? This terrible degradation of the American president's credibility only benefits adversaries like Russia and China.

Removal of sanctions. This has not happened yet—it's only been two months and obviously there's a lot of heat on them right now—but they've already admitted it was "under consideration" in the first week of the administration. When Mikhail Fishman, the Russian newspaper editor quoted above was asked why Putin feared a Clinton presidency more than Trump's, Fishman answered, "Because he knew that would mean an extension of Obama's harsh orientation to Russia, perhaps even more aggressive than Obama. Putin has experienced some difficult years since his 2014 invasion of Crimea, but he didn't expect this level of isolation." (source: A Russian newspaper editor explains how Putin made Trump his puppet) Combined with falling oil prices, the sanctions have been painful to Russia's economy; their GDP is down 3.7% and their currency is about a third less valuable than it used to be (see: Russia's GDP falls 3.7% as sanctions and low oil price take effect and Prolonged Sanctions Rip Into Russian Economy, Causing Angst For Putin). Lifting the sanctions is a major objective for Russia, Secretary Tillerson opposed the sanctions in the first place (certainly all his old friends and associates at Exxon want them lifted), and the Trump administration was already publicly floating the possibility of lifting them in their first week. Russia certainly thinks it's a distinct possibility. "We don't exclude the lifting of the sanctions after Trump enters office," said a senior Kremlin official at the top of their information warfare food chain (we'll get into that later). If there wasn't an insane amount of Russia-related heat on them right now—their national security advisor already had to resign and the administration is being questioned by the press every day and actively investigated by Congress and the FBI—it might've already happened.

Trump's new Secretary of Commerce is quite close with Putin associates. Secretary Wilbur Ross has major dealings with Russian oligarch and Putin friend, Viktor Vekselberg, as his business partner for the past two years. Much hay was made of a relatively small donation Vekselberg had made to the Clinton foundation, but this is an actual close relationship and billion dollar business partnership, so it ought to be much more concerning. Wilbur Ross has also served on the board of a bank with a former KGB official close to Putin, a bank saved by Russian money. We don't yet know how this will benefit Russia, but it's not the least bit hard to imagine how it might. What if career professionals in the American government recommend imposing more sanctions on Russia in retaliation for their attacks on us, perhaps targeting Russian financial institutions and oligarchs? Do you think this member of Trump's cabinet might hesitate or argue against actions that harm his friends and business partners? We don't know yet, and from the outside we may never have the full picture, but having a sympathetic senior member of the administration is obviously to Russia's benefit.

Weakening NATO, one of Russia's greatest objectives, is clearly happening. NATO is the most important and successful military alliance since World War II. It helped keep the Soviets in check and it's helping keep the Russians in check. Its strength is completely dependent on the confidence its members and adversaries have in the certainty that an attack on any member will be defended by all members, particularly its strongest member. Mr. Trump has undermined the NATO alliance at multiple junctures. Not only has Trump called it obsolete, questioned its validity, criticized its members, snubbed our allies, etc — but now the administration is truly weakening it with more than just portentous statements and symbolic snubs (refusing to shake the German chancellor's hand) but serious actions. Tillerson is skipping the annual meeting of all the foreign ministers (his counterparts) of the 28 NATO member countries. This is the meeting where the policy and strategy to counter Russian aggression is discussed at the highest levels. It sets the strategy for the coming year. It's always important but quite a bit more important when there's a new president and doubly so when that president has made numerous alarming statements that cast doubt on whether the U.S. would live up to its commitments. It's far more than a diplomatic snub, it's confirmation that the administration cannot be counted on, and it's a signal to Russia that the U.S. might not step in if they attacked a NATO member. It's hard to adequately characterize the magnitude of the situation. By the way, what's Tillerson doing instead? He's meeting with Russia. That seems a little like standing up your wife on your anniversary to go see your alleged mistress instead…except, ya know, with potentially billions of lives at stake. I haven't really done the issue justice, I strongly recommend you read this article: Why experts think Rex Tillerson skipping a NATO summit is "an unmitigated disaster." I wanted to quote half and paraphrase the other half, but it's better if you just read it. As ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee Adam Schiff put it, "We've already sent a terrible message to NATO. The only message frankly that has gotten through of this administration to NATO is not that we support you, not that we value you, not that we thank our NATO allies for coming to our assistance in Afghanistan and Iraq where NATO soldiers have stood by, fought by and died with our own troops, but rather pay up. That's the only message we've delivered." About Tillerson skipping the NATO meeting to meet with Russia, Schiff added, "I hope the reason he's going to Moscow is to hand back the Special Order Friendship medal he got from Putin because after what the Russians have done to us over the course of the last year, that's the only reason Tillerson ought to be going to Russia." Aside from the damage to NATO, it's hard not to wonder what other benefits Putin might be getting from his meeting with Tillerson. [Following some backlash, Trump has announced he will meet with NATO allies in May instead. Some damage is already done but time will tell what actually happens from here. It's been an eventful couple months and who knows what lies ahead.]

Europe moving closer to Russia and more distant from America. When America elects a leader who can't be counted on, Europe hedges its bets and gets closer to Russia. This clearly hurts us and is to Russia's benefit. There are far-right candidates and political parties in Europe that see Trump has both an inspiration and compadre, as well as an excuse to establish stronger ties with Russia. Some favor lifting European sanctions on Russia, which weakens America's hand when trying to disincentivize further aggression, since those sanctions were punishment for previous aggression. The less likely Putin is to be hurt by future aggression (such as invading Latvia—a NATO ally we've pledged to defend), the more willing he will be to take the risk and put the world on the brink of war. How did WWI start? It started when one country's heir to the throne was assassinated by a terrorist group (supposedly funded by Russia, as it happens) and triggered a chain reaction of war declarations on both sides based on a web of entangling alliances. NATO is a 28 country all-for-one-and-one-for-all defensive pact that Putin might just want to test now that it's approaching its nadir. He's already invaded multiple other neighbors that used to be under Russian dominance and he's also already staged troops at the Latvian border not long ago. The threat is serious. Who does it benefit for Europe to have a widening rift with America? Who would benefit from Europe seeking closer ties with Russia? That's right, it's Comrade Putin!

Paul Manafort
Paul Manafort, Trump's former campaign manager. Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Weakening the EU. Trump has made many anti-EU comments, gleeful about Brexit and predicting/encouraging others to do the same. He and his chief strategy advisor, Steve Bannon, think the world (or at least the U.S.) is better off with no multilateral cornerstone alliances like NATO or EU. They prefer only bilateral agreements. Sometimes they've walked back these kinds of statements, only to repeat them or make similar ones later, sending at best mixed messages. Trump has even explicitly said that he considers our relationship and level of trust with EU/NATO countries no different than the Russia relationship. As the Washington Post helpfully explains, this "president is the first American leader since World War II not to support European integration. The European Union has long been considered to be in the U.S. interest, since it created a unified market for U.S. businesses, provided a bulwark against communism during the Cold War and helped quell the bloody slaughter that cost U.S. lives, among others, in the first half of the 20th century. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, the European Union expanded eastward into formerly communist nations, a development that leaders there say helped bring rule of law and stability as they modernized their economies." If you're Putin, would you prefer opposition by unified adversaries or something less? Cracks in U.S.-Europe solidarity and weakening of the European Union are the stuff of Putin's dreams.

Pride at Home and Respect Internationally. A top Russian military officer and Kremlin advisor spoke at a Russian convention early last year, well before the US election or any hacking was exposed, and openly said that they now have capabilities that will allow them to deal with the U.S. on equal terms, hinting at something big on the horizon. He said that we're not in 2016 (it was when he said it), we're in 1948, the year before Russia revealed it too had an atomic bomb to rival the U.S. as equally powerful. The translation was literally that in 1949, "everything changed and they started talking to us on an equal footing." If it wasn't clear enough, he went ahead and spelled it out as much as he could, short of mentioning a date, time and target, "I'm warning you: We are at the verge of having 'something' in the information arena, which will allow us to talk to the Americans as equals." The cyber advisor made it clear that once Russia "becomes strong, it will dictate to the Western partners [the United States and its allies] from the position of power." They are now putting a much larger fraction of their military efforts into information warfare. In fact, quite ominously, he said that for information warfare to be effective, it can't just be employed during wartime, it must be deployed during peace time as well. The fact that one of their top military officers openly said this is extremely scary, but it speaks to the fact that they are proud of this capability and pride is a major motivation and benefit they receive from using it. They've now used it successfully and the Trump administration is their evidence of it (whether or not their operation was why he won). They've put the world on notice. One of the questions in the recent House Intelligence Committee hearing asked FBI Director Comey why the Russians didn't try to cover their tracks better, why they seemed to have acted in the loudest possible way so it was clear that the hacking was done by them. Comey's response: "I think part, their number one mission is to undermine the credibility of our entire democracy enterprise of this nation. And so, it might be that they wanted us to help them by telling people what they were doing. Their loudness in a way would be counting on us to amplify it by telling the American people what we saw and freaking people out about how the Russians might be undermining our elections successfully." They're proud of it. They want everyone in the world to know they are once again a major power in the world, a force to be reckoned with, not some regional power but a world power that should not be trifled with. The loss of stature they've suffered since the end of the Cold War is very embarrassing to Russians and this is their new way to balance the scales, to proudly exert influence and compete with the western powers on equal terms (and for far less money than conventional military buildup requires). The very existence of the Trump presidency is proof to them that they are powerful forces to be feared and taken seriously, which they obviously consider beneficial.

Other untold benefits we're still discovering, since we just learned Trump's campaign chairman was essentially on Putin's payroll. New information is coming out every week. We recently learned that Trump's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, was paid $10 million a year by one of Vladimir Putin's closest friends, specifically to influence American policy at the highest levels, for the benefit of Putin. The administration has tried to say Manafort played a "limited role" in the campaign. That's true if by limited they mean he only ran the campaign for a while, not the entire time. He replaced the guy that left after being arrested on charges of assaulting a reporter (Corey Lewandowski) and was brought in to bring order to the very chaotic, unprofessionally run campaign, which he somewhat did, hard to believe as that may be, and Trump's polling went up noticeably after he took over. He ran the campaign until he had to resign following some other mid-campaign Russia revelations. Also of note, he owns an apartment in Trump Tower.

It's expected they're going to do a lot more "information warfare" going forward. European democracies with upcoming elections are worried they'll pull the same thing there. The FBI director recently said he expects Russia will try to meddle in future American elections again, too. We simply can't fully comprehend the total benefit Russia gets from a Trump presidency. It has already gotten plenty, is still getting plenty, and looks likely to get more well into the future.

To sum up, the ultimate goal of Russia is to strengthen itself and to weaken and undermine the West as much as possible, by diminishing its leadership, credibility, unity, and resolve, and especially its institutions and alliances. Russia certainly got their money's worth with Donald J. Trump.

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