Vladimir Putin must feel as though he’s won the lottery.
His government made a modest investment in cyberespionage against Hillary Clinton, a candidate he roundly disliked, and it paid off, big league.
Never mind the flap over whether the Russian president aimed to put Donald Trump in the White House; U.S. intelligence agencies agree unanimously that Russia wanted to disrupt the campaign — and succeeded. Now the incoming president of the United States says he yearns for a friendlier relationship with Putin and dismisses the evidence of cyberespionage as partisan whining.
His nominee for secretary of state, Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, is an oilman who lobbied the Obama administration to relax economic sanctions against Russia (understandably, because they were costing his company millions) and received the Order of Friendship from Putin.
“This is a fantastic team,” Sergei Markov, a Putin adviser, told Bloomberg News this week. “These are people that Russia can do business with.”
“I’d say Russia has eaten our lunch,” Fiona Hill, a Russia expert at the Brookings Institution, told me. “From their standpoint, it sounds as if they’re getting a lot of what they want.”
And what does Putin want? Hill ticked off a list:
First, he wants recognition as the leader of a great power and a resumption of summit meetings between the two presidents. According to the Kremlin, Trump has already agreed to a meeting.
Second, NATO: Putin wants the United States to reduce its military presence in the NATO countries on Russia’s western border, including the three Baltic states. President Obama has increased troop deployments there; Trump said he might cut them if NATO countries don’t spend more on defense.
Third, Ukraine: Putin wants the West to revoke the sanctions imposed after his 2014 invasion of Ukraine and to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea. “We'll be looking at that,” Trump said in July — a noncommittal answer that opened the door to a big concession. (It would be easy, too; the executive order on sanctions comes up for renewal by the president in March.)
Fourth, Syria: Putin wants the U.S. to support his efforts to bolster Syrian President Bashar Assad’s corrupt, autocratic regime. Trump says he wants a U.S.-Russian-Assad alliance to fight jointly against Islamic State.
Fifth, missile defense: Putin wants the U.S. to cancel plans for a missile defense system in Eastern Europe, including bases in Romania and Poland. Trump’s position on the issue isn’t known.
Sixth, ironically, Russia wants talks about cyberwarfare. “The Russians think we’ve been doing it to them all the time,” Hill said. The Russian-sponsored hacking of the Democratic National Committee may have begun as retaliation for U.S. cyberespionage in Russia, she said. “They’re telling us to knock it off,” she added.
The danger isn’t that Trump will seek a warmer, more cooperative relationship with Russia; that would be a good thing.
But even before his inauguration, Trump has already moved the starting point of any “reset” partway toward Putin’s position, with nothing offered in exchange.
“The Russians would love to get rid of NATO,” Hill noted. “For them, nothing could be better than if the U.S. walks away from it.”
And on hacking, “Trump is doing the work of the Russian government for them,” she said. “He’s pushing back against the CIA, so they don’t have to.”
All this by the guy who wrote “The Art of the Deal.”
Trump has long claimed he will bargain more aggressively than the Obama administration, but when it comes to Russia he’s not negotiating very hard. Indeed, he’s taken positions Republicans would criticize if he were a Democrat.
And some Republicans are pushing back. Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell said this week that he wants a serious, bipartisan investigation into Russian hacking. Sens. John McCain and Marco Rubio and others said they plan to question Tillerson closely before they decide how to vote on his nomination.
Their point isn’t to relitigate the presidential election; that’s over. Instead, they’re warning Trump that he can’t cozy up to Russia without creating serious trouble in his own party. It’s to make clear that a foreign government can’t meddle in a U.S. election without penalty, no matter who benefits.
And it’s to remind the president-elect that in high-stakes negotiations, a president should rarely give anything away for nothing — a rule Donald Trump, of all people, ought to endorse.