Devil in Disguise: Twenty Years of Vladimir Putin Manipulating American Leaders

“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”  The sentence from The Usual Suspects has become ingrained in the American psyche, not just because it was a great line in a cool movie (unfortunately tainted by later revelations about star Kevin Spacey), but because it remains applicable to so many real-world situations. Among other situations, it’s an apt description of the past twenty years of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy towards the United States.

Now Vladimir Putin is not the devil, although there are a few people who think he might be pretty close.  Earlier this year, a Siberian shaman named Alexander Gabyshev walked 3000 miles (by his estimate) towards Moscow to perform an exorcism on the Russian President, gaining a significant following – both literal co-walkers and approval on social media – along the way.  Gabyshev, who was detained by Russian security forces and deemed mentally unfit, has not been the first person to accuse the Russian President of demonic influence.  Five years ago, amidst bloody fighting in eastern Ukraine that followed the Russian annexation of Crimea, the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kiev Patriarchate made similar accusations. Patriarch Filaret, whose branch of the Orthodox Church broke away from a larger, Russian dominated hierarchy in the 1990s, said that Putin had “become possessed by Satan” and was forcing Ukraine into fratricidal conflict reminiscent of the biblical Cain.

Yet, if you ask current US President Donald Trump, Putin is not the bad guy that others have made him out to be, much less the incarnation of evil.  In the midst of many worrisome meetings and contacts between Trump and his team and various Russian operatives, Trump has often cited his ability to get along with Putin, characterized the Crimean seizure as Putin “outsmarting” Barack Obama, and dismissed or even laughed off Russian election meddling.  Critics have consistently worried that Putin is at best manipulating the easily flattered Trump and at worst is exercising some sort of leverage over the American president.

Whatever the answer (and I don’t think you need to go to conspiracies to understand Donald Trump’s affinity for dictators), Putin’s attempts to influence America’s top leadership didn’t start with Trump.  Some context is necessary. For decades, Moscow was Satan – the enemy – as far as Washington was concerned, but that fear collapsed alongside the Soviet Union.  The Russia that emerged in the 1990s was pro-capitalist, democratizing (or so it seemed), and too dysfunctional to be harmful; the main US military fear shifted from Moscow launching nuclear weapons at the US to the Kremlin simply losing track of those arms.

Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, determined to reverse the loss of the Soviet Empire, which he infamously called the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century (which, if you at all paid attention to the 20th century – wow).  Throughout the Russian president’s two decades in power, he’s attempted to rebuild Russian influence as a regional and global power. Locally, he’s encroached upon former Soviet territory when the opportunity arose; before Crimea, the devil went down to Georgia (the Republic, not the US state), with Russian forces taking de facto control of the Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions of that country.  Putin’s also attempted to spread Russian geopolitical influence more broadly, connecting with pariah states like Iran, Syria and Venezuela and recently making inroads in sub-Saharan Africa as well.

Along the way, the Russian president has made a point of trying to convince American leaders that he’s not attempting to re-establish a Soviet style dictatorship and expansionist state.  And despite increased repression within Russia and continual meddling abroad, Putin’s efforts have paid off more often than not.  George W. Bush famously “looked into [Putin’s] eyes” and saw the latter’s soul, cultivating a relationship that remained friendly throughout the Bush years even as Putin consolidated autocratic power at home.  Putin also took advantage of the Bush administration’s War on Terror to crush opposing forces in the majority-Muslim breakaway territory of Chechnya, framing Russia’s brutal efforts in that region as a fight against Islamic extremism.

Sometimes, Putin’s strategy has failed outright – Barack Obama and his foreign policy advisors remained incredibly skeptical of Russia throughout the Obama years, and Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry were highly critical of Putin.  Russia thumbed its nose at its American adversaries during these years, flagrantly annexing Crimea from Ukraine and fomenting unrest in that country as a way to counter its drift towards the West.  Putin didn’t pass up opportunities to put the US and its leaders in tough spots, such as when it engineered the Syrian chemical weapons compromise as Obama and Kerry dithered on how to respond to Bashir al-Assad crossing the “Red Line” of using these weapons on his own citizens. And it was Putin’s personal hostility towards Hillary Clinton that initially provided much of the motivation for interfering in the 2016 US presidential election, before Putin realized that electing Donald Trump was a bigger prize than simply frustrating Clinton.

Candidate Donald Trump initially took an adversarial approach toward Russia, despite maybe having friendly interactions with Vladimir Putin during the 2014 Miss Universe pageant. As an aside, it still remains unclear whether the two actually met in Russia during this time, or if Trump exaggerated how greatly he got along with the Russian President – it wouldn’t be the biggest lie that Trump has told. (Seriously, read the comments that Trump made about Putin from that time. They definitely read as remarks of someone trying to convince you they’re best friends with someone they’ve never actually met. It’s perhaps the thirstiest a presidential candidate has been for a foreign leader’s attention).

Candidate Trump and Putin quickly reached a rapprochement, driven by flattery from Putin and common antipathy towards Clinton (again, the idea that other factors, like potential Russian financial leverage over the Trump organization or even blackmail material, played a role has not been proven, and probably isn’t necessary to explain the relationship between the two leaders). Though Robert Mueller couldn’t prove criminal wrongdoing, one need simply look at what Trump said and did publicly to see a complementary, if not concerted, effort by Trump and the Russians to undermine Clinton’s campaign.  Combined with the help of a lot of Russian bots on social media (seriously Zuckerberg, get on that), these efforts paid off.

Now, President Trump believes (and finds it convenient to believe) that Putin’s Russia is not an adversary, and furthermore, that it can actually be a partner in the world.  Trump has been willing to cede US influence around the world to Russia – Syria is the latest high-profile instance of this, though sub-Saharan Africa may be a more significant example in the long run – and even turn a blind eye while Russia undermines American efforts against countries like Iran and Venezuela.  Trump has maintained his disturbingly friendly relationship with Putin in defiance of critics, and shows no signs of changing course now – as Nancy Pelosi forcefully accused him last week, “all roads lead to Putin.”  And while Vladimir Putin may be no Beelzebub, he’s likely to remain an adversary to US interests, even as President Trump (or perhaps future President Gabbard) remains convinced that the threat does not exist.

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