By Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
Chances are that the approach of the White House to the Kremlin will continue on course. Its objectives are to encourage the Russians to engage even deeper in the Middle East and to disengage at least some in eastern Europe, so the US can scale down its involvement there and shift its strategic weight to contain China. Yet, some observers argue that because of the ouster of General Mike Flynn, President Donald Trump’s Moscow policy will change dramatically. Is the Trump reset with Russia over? Flynn was the policy’s chief architect, so the rapprochement he engineered will be no more. This argument misses some crucial points and, generally, reflects the poverty of America’s expertise on the Kremlin. To grasp Trump’s Moscow policy, we should first understand the cultural context here, and then explain the new administration’s approach to Vladimir Putin.
First, domestic ideological preference color the attitude of the United States toward the Russian Federation. What the liberals hate about the Muscovite state, the conservatives tend to love. And vice versa. The conservative orientation rejoices over the apparent restoration of Christianity and traditional values in Russia, failing to grasp that the master of the Kremlin treats those instrumentally, cynically, and dialectically.
The Russian leader is a consummate dominator and an ultimate moral relativist, employing Marxist dialectics to maintain himself in power. Having rejected Russia’s cultural nihilism of the 1990s, he took up whatever tools and institutions contradicted it, in particular the Orthodox Church, patriotism, and faux tradition, which – in his execution – is a combination of a selection of the Red and White topics from his hapless realm’s history.
Much of this is lost on many of America’s Russia watchers. In lieu of rigorous analysis, feelings triumph. Conservatives delude themselves that they would feel at home in the Russian Federation. Liberals are repulsed at many (but not all) of the changes introduced since 1999. It appears that the liberals hate Putin so far as he eliminates successive planks of cultural Marxism from Russia’s system, for example stomping out “gay propaganda.”
Yet somehow there were no howls of outrage in The New York Times or The Washington Post when the alter-globalist rock band Pussy Riot desecrated a church in Moscow by barging in and belching out obscene tunes. Instead, the glitterati lionized the female performers for their anti-Putin spunk and martyrdom. Hardly a squeak came from the progressive quarters when a radical feminist group Femen activist obliterated a cross with a chainsaw at a cemetery for the victims of Stalin’s purges outside of Kiyv. That somehow was also cast as an “anti-Putin” move. Now the liberal media is not exactly up in arms against the brazen leftist protests in St. Petersburg against the restoration of an Orthodox Christian cathedral to its lawful owner: the Orthodox Church. In the 1920s it was expropriated by the Bolsheviks and turned into a “Museum of Atheism.” Now the Putinite city council has resolved to give it back which triggered a mass hysteria on the part of the local cultural Marxists. So the opposition is, once again, laudably “anti-Putin.” The riddle is simple. Putin pays lips service to Christianity and has restored the Orthodox Church in the caesaro-papist scheme to serve the state as a symbol and a conveyer belt of its propaganda. Thus, the liberals of Russia oppose the Orthodox Church and Christianity as a way to stick it to the Russian president. The leftists are furious. Their counterparts in the US feel their pain.
On the other hand, the American conservatives largely rejoice in the discomfort of the progressives and sympathize with the Orthodox Church. Likewise, they were outraged at the antics of Femen and Pussy Riot. No wonder that for many on the right, paleoconservatives in particular, Putin is a hero redressing the old wrongs, healing the festering wounds, and putting his country, and others, back onto a straight path of tradition. Project all this onto foreign policy and it becomes obvious that both the liberals and the conservatives mostly fight their domestic culture wars using Russia as an excuse. This is the best formula to miss major points about the Kremlin. Hence, on the one hand, foaming at the mouth about the alleged Russian theft of our presidential elections, most liberals pose as outraged patriots who suddenly champion America’s national security by opposing Putin. On the other hand, against inconvertible evidence of a Russian propaganda and cyber war, many conservatives foolishly dismiss any and all accusations of Moscow’s interference in our electoral system. Meanwhile, the Kremlin scorns both the American liberals as squeamish wimps and the conservatives as useful idiots.
Good news is that Mike Flynn knows that perfectly well. The General is no FDR with a self-duping fantasy of “Uncle Vlad.” Unlike George W. Bush, the former national security advisor looked into the eyes of the master of the Kremlin and failed to detect any soul there. He saw steely ruthlessness and iron resolve of Russia’s president.
Flynn harbors no illusions about Putin. He wants to use him. To put it colloquially, the immediate objective is for the Americans to do the flyin’, and for the Russians to do the dyin’. They fight the terrorists on the ground, while we assist in aerial and logistical operations. The Russian Federation gets thus bogged down in Syria, like the USSR did in Afghanistan, and bleeds itself white. It deteriorates progressively and grows too weak to meddle anymore even in “the near abroad,” eastern Europe. The Intermarium lands between the Black, Baltic, and Adriatic seas, in particular Ukraine, are safe.
Meanwhile, the US removes the diplomatic chains thwarting its national security and shores up its allies through a newly reinvigorated NATO, where “everyone pays his fair share.” Then the Turmp White House is free to square off with the Forbidden City in the Far East. This sounds like a brilliant strategy to me. Is it realistic? Let’s see.
General Flynn has successfully imprinted this vision onto President Trump. Why else would the latter bring up New START as an “unfair treaty” in his inaugural conversation with Putin? Why insist that the treaty must be renegotiated for America got the short end of the stick because of Barack Obama’s fecklessness? Why, after eight years of lapping up all sort of humiliation, point out to the Kremlin that the White House would put up with a nuclear imbalance no more?
Further, why else would the new American chief executive consequently reiterate that Russia should return Crimea to Ukraine? This was not a cranky, one time tweet. The US ambassador to the UN brought it up first. Then Trump wrote a letter to his counterpart in Lithuania expressing his support for Vilnius’s actions on behalf of Kyiv, whose nation’s territorial integrity the American leader promised to uphold. Lastly, US president himself publicly expressed his backing for Ukraine’s Crimea.
Moscow hopes that Trump has been disingenuous and merely stakes out his negotiating field by upping the ante with New START and Crimea. Perhaps. For the American president politics is the art of the business deal. This is understandable given his background. But unlike business, politics is not only about profits and losses but also about the intangible, including, for some of us at least, freedom.
Whether Mike Flynn’s scheme is feasible strategy is another story. It hinges upon the size of Putin’s hubris. The latter believes he can out-counterintelligence everyone. He feels he has everything under control. He is also the best at being bad. Funny, but Trump thinks exactly the same, even though he has no counterintelligence experience. He’d better learn fast. And it should dawn on him that the president needs to deal first with the saboteurs within his own administration and the detractors of the liberal press. Domestic tranquility is usually a precondition for a successful foreign policy in any scheme of integrated strategy.
Dr. Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is the Kościuszko Chair at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C. where he conducts research on East Central Europe and Russia. His expert areas include History, Democracy Building, Communism, American Foreign Policy and International Relations. His most recent book is “Intermarium: The Land Between the Black and Baltic Seas” was published in 2012 by Transaction Publishers.