Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Manafort, Flynn and Trump--Playing the Russian Hand . . .

As a little thought experiment, let's look at the current situation in Washington from the Russian perspective.  For starters, doing so helps to cleanse the mind of irrelevant niceties like burden of proof, or even guilt or innocence.  What happened to Flynn is a useful reminder that all assets have useful lives, although the speed with which he depreciated is mind boggling, and definitely a reminder of the fragility of the biggest asset of all.

Let's assume that the Russian goal here is (realistically) to weaken the United States, reduce its international footprint and (optimistically) contribute in any way possible to that country entering an existential crisis of a magnitude similar to what Russia endured in the breakup of the old Soviet Union.  The optimistic goal (American corporate managers would call it a stretch goal) seems pretty unrealistic, but this time last year getting Trump elected to the presidency seemed about as unrealistic.  Of course, as Russians, it's important to remember that Russian assistance did not elect Trump as the American president, it provided a useful nudge, sure, it contributed, of course, but to claim it actually made Trump happen, that's overstatement.  A little humility is in order.

As Russians, let's also assume that there are elements in American politics that want to bring Trump down.  His situation is a bit like that of Nikita Khrushchev after the Cuban missile crisis.  Now, any Russian link is obviously the kiss of death (look at Paul Manafort, and he was more an eye-opener to the possibilities of the situation than an actual, functioning asset).  But it is very much in the interests of Russia to keep Trump in power as long as possible.  The man is a buffoon, and the national humiliation of the Americans at having a coward and political weakling for their president is, in itself, enormously advantageous.  Beyond that, to the extent that his legitimacy is impaired and the country's political elite is thrown in turmoil, the virtual paralysis of the country is even more advantageous.  So, it's very much in the Russian interest to keep him installed, if possible, and, if that isn't, to prolong for as long as possible the turmoil associated with his continued presence in office or eventual removal.  The ideal outcome might be have him, in place, neutered, but with a remaining limited capacity to impede any any anti-Russian moves by the United States.  In Russian dreams.  But dreams sometimes come true.

The Trump opposition is in no sense coordinated or disciplined.  Popularly elected and politically motivated Democratic legislators and the patriotic intelligence professionals of the American security establishment have some natural antipathies that could be exploited.  If Trump or his inner circle were even marginally competent, those factions could be neutralized or perhaps even turned against one another.  But, when it comes to exercising power, they aren't and unfortunately there is no way to provide Trump's team with the coaching and guidance it desperately needs.  The United States isn't Syria (yet).

Now, the American intelligence services range from opaque to impenetrable.  But the same cannot be said of the political opposition.  So, while not much can be done to prop Trump up, there may be opportunities to attack his opponents, at least in the political and media elites.  In the meantime, to use an American proverb, make hay while the sun shines.  Or, if you're old enough, as you may remember from your childhood courses on dialectics, strike when the correlation of forces is in your favor.

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