Guest Commentary

Soviets co-opted Finland in the Cold War. Is that what Putin is doing with Trump?

Last month, Americans celebrated their nation’s independence on the Fourth of July. Might it be the last time we do? Based on post-World War II history and the histrionics of President Donald Trump, it appears that Russian President Vladimir Putin is attempting to do to our country what the Soviet Union accomplished with Finland during the Cold War: the “Finlandization” of the United States.

Finlandization was a pejorative term used by NATO countries to describe how a powerful country — the Soviet Union — made Finland — a significantly less powerful country — abide by Soviet foreign policy, while Finland kept its nominal independence and its own political system. There is significant evidence that Putin is pursuing a similar approach with Trump and the United States, with considerable success.

The Soviet Union used deceit and espionage to implement Finlandization. Sixty years later, many of the same tactics utilized against the Finns have been deployed by Russia against the U.S., including its successful efforts to elect Trump president. Attempts to neutralize the U.S. continue with Putin, a former KGB agent, imposing his will by developing and cultivating a seemingly friendly personal relationship with Trump.

If Putin is successful, America will no longer be in control of her destiny. At that point, Russia will exercise controlling influence over the United States — just like it did with Finland. The Finns eventually developed a subordination to Soviet wishes on many subjects. They believed that if they limited their independence, they would be able to keep it. By restricting some of their rights, they would be able to maintain what was left of their democracy. This created a preconditioned state of mind in the Finns to self-regulate their foreign policies to avoid a military showdown with the Soviets that they would surely lose.

Putin is following the old Soviet playbook used against Finland. He directly engages Trump through frequent meetings and telephone conversations with high-level Russians. Consider just a few examples.

Early in his term, Trump met alone in the Oval Office with the Russian foreign minister and Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., telling them, “I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job,” Trump told the Russian officials according a document read to The New York Times by an American official. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off,” Trump reportedly said.

While the U.S. has the world’s strongest military hardware to deploy for its defense, we have seen how the Russians capitalized on our less-than-robust ability to defend ourselves from cyberattacks during the 2016 presidential election. Russia’s adeptness at cyberwarfare has provided Putin significant advantages over the United States — perhaps greater than if the two nations were in a traditional state of military conflict.

Putin understands this favorable imbalance with U.S. cyberdefenses. It empowers him to pursue his Finlandization project here. A strong case can be made that Trump is a willing participant in Putin’s aggressive strategy.

Two-and-a-half years into his presidency, Trump has had at least five private meetings with Putin with no other American in attendance. There have been many telephone conversations between the two leaders without others involved. This is unprecedented.

After a private July 2018 meeting with Putin in Helsinki, Trump said he believed Putin’s assertion that Russia did not meddle in the presidential election. This came after special counsel Robert Mueller charged 12 officers of the GRU, the Russian intelligence agency, with committing “large scale cyber operations to interfere with the 2016 presidential election.” Putin also admitted at the same press conference that he wanted Trump to win the election.

Trump further revealed his subservience when he commented approvingly on a Putin proposal to have U.S. representatives of the special counsel’s office go to Russia to work with their investigators with respect to the 12 Russians charged.

This absurdity is further evidence Trump is being set up to further advance the Finlandization of America.

This year, Trump and Putin had a one-hour telephone call on May 3, in which Trump failed to even mention Russia’s election interference, regardless of the fact that Mueller’s redacted report released two weeks earlier laid out the evidence of it in detail.

According to former acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, Trump announced during an Oval Office meeting that he “believes” Putin’s assessment of North Korea’s ballistic missile capabilities over that of the U.S. intelligence community. As a further nod to Putin, Trump attempted to shut down the special counsel’s investigation into Russia’s cyberattack of our 2016 elections by directing his former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, as well as White House counsel Don McGahn to instruct Attorney General Jeff Sessions to end the investigation.

Two of Trump’s own cyberofficials told The New York Times that the president had not been briefed on recent steps to counter Russian cyberattacks on our electric grid and other critical infrastructure for fear “that he might countermand it or discuss it with foreign officials, as he did in 2017 when he mentioned a sensitive operation in Syria to the Russian foreign minister.” It is clear that some officials fear the president has been compromised to the point of leaving him out of the loop.

The latest example of Trump’s embrace of Putin occurred last week when Trump called for readmitting Russia to Group of Seven meetings. Our allies were surprised by this suggestion because Russia was kicked out of the G7 for its invasion of Ukraine in 2014.

The Trump administration appears to have neglected to implement a cybersecurity protocol designed to stop foreign nations from disrupting our elections. If so, this is government malpractice at the highest level. It would allow Russia to replicate its winning 2016 efforts for Trump in 2020. In the Soviet Finlandization scheme, once the Finnish president was conditioned to accept Russian domination, the Russians returned the favor by continuing their political support for his reelection.

Most troubling, Trump announced in a June interview with George Stephanopoulos that he’d continue to accept information about political opponents from foreign sources. The president is undeterred that such actions would violate federal law.

According to media reports, the White House has requested the names of our highest-paid intelligence officers. That list would contain undercover CIA operatives who are positioned around the world, including those placed in Russia. For what purpose would Trump want such a list unless it is to gain complete political control of our independent intelligence agencies? The list could be secretly sent to Putin, and everyone on it would be put immediately in danger. The threat to our national security would be incalculable.

The evidence strongly suggests that Putin has successfully cultivated Trump to think and act in a way that is beneficial to Russia, even at the expense of our nation’s security. Sadly, it’s become clear that many of our other elected and appointed officials may have validated Trump’s Russia-centric state of mind. It matters little whether that’s a product of those officials sharing those interests, or rather fear of a Trump Twitter tirade if they stand up and object. The net result is that Trump’s complicity goes unchecked.

What lies ahead? We should be on alert for Russia’s continuing interference in our elections. If Finnish history is any guide, Russia will expand the playing field to meddle in selected congressional races, as well as helping to get Trump reelected in 2020. If appropriate officials don’t act soon, the Finlandization of America may soon be irrevocably complete.

Tom Coleman is a former Republican Member of Congress from Missouri and has served as an adjunct professor at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service and at American University. Glenn Kirschner, a former U.S. Army Judger Advocate General and career federal prosecutor, contributed to this piece. He has taught at the George Washington University School of Law and serves as a legal analyst for NBC News and MSNBC.