As Donald Trump’s inauguration looms, there’s been a lot of speculation about the nature of his relationship with Russia. Trump has frequently spoken of his admiration for the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin; Trump refers to Russia as a “partner” rather than an “adversary.” Meanwhile, the CIA believes that Russian hackers helped Trump win the election. In addition, Trump nominated ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson to be Secretary of State largely because of Tillerson’s good relationship with Russia. What’s going on?
First, we do not fully understand Trump’s business dealings with Russia because Trump has never released his tax returns. On February 28th, Senator Ted Cruz said, “There have been multiple media reports about Donald’s business dealings with the mob, with the mafia. Maybe his [tax returns] show those business dealings are a lot more extensive than has been reported.” (http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2016/mar/02/ted-cruz/yes-donald-trump-has-been-linked-mob/) Politifact noted, “Cruz’s statement is accurate. Media reports have linked Trump to mafia bosses and mob-connected business associates for decades.” Time magazine (http://time.com/4433880/donald-trump-ties-to-russia/), and other sources, have tied Trump to Russian oligarchs.
Writing in Alternet (http://www.alternet.org/election-2016/do-cia-revelations-mean-trump-will-be-putins-puppet?), Marty Kaplan observed: “It’s entirely conceivable that Russia has something on Trump. They may hold hundreds of millions of dollars of Trump debt. They may have spousally unsettling video of him—a KGB specialty, and a plausible Trump susceptibility. Surely the Kremlin has mapped his character disorder.”
Second, 17 US intelligence agencies believe Russian hackers helped the Trump campaign by hacking DNC emails, as well as those of Clinton Campaign Manager John Podesta, and giving them to WikiLeaks. Recently, NBC News (http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/why-cia-thinks-russia-wanted-trump-win-n695131) reported the CIA believes Russian operators wanted Trump to win.
There’s no proof that Russian hackers corrupted voting machines or changed vote totals. However there is abundant evidence that the hacked Democratic information, dripped out day-to-day via WikiLeaks, hurt Clinton: it kept down her favorability rating — leading to a false equivalence between Clinton and Trump — and reminded Bernie Sanders supporters why they preferred to vote for Jill Stein.
What’s going on between Trump and Russia? Why would Russia want Trump to win the US presidency?
Russia likely sees a Trump presidency as a “twofer.” First, It would strengthen Russia’s geopolitical position. Writing in the Washington Post (https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/the-kremlin-likes-the-hacking-attention-but-not-the-blame/2016/12/14/65279738-c177-11e6-92e8-c07f4f671da4_story.html?), David Filipov observed, “Whether or not the Kremlin is guilty of doing all the things Western accusers say it is, Russia is now considered a master purveyor of geopolitical disorder. And that, for Putin, is a win.”
Second, Trump could directly impact Russia’s economy. Since Russia annexed Crimea and invaded eastern-Ukraine, Russia has been the subject of US and European sanctions. These have impacted the brittle Russian economy. The global decline in oil prices has also contributed to a Russian recession. (In 2016, Russia’s GDP is forecasted to decline.) The Trump Administration could render significant aid to Russia by lifting sanctions.
On the radio program, “Democracy Now” (http://www.alternet.org/environment/could-massive-russian-oil-deal-exxon-explain-why-putin-appears-have-meddled-us-election?), Amy Goodman speculated: “One of the enormous deals that Vladimir Putin and [ExxonMobil CEO] Rex Tillerson worked on was a $500 billion oil exploration partnership between Exxon and the Russian government’s oil company, Rosneft. The Obama administration blocked the deal when it imposed sanctions against Russia for its intervention in Ukraine… This deal could explain why Putin appears to have interfered in U.S. elections in favor of a Trump victory.”
What would the US get in return? As noted, it’s possible that Trump has preexisting deals with Russian oligarchs and improved relations with Russia — such as the lifting of sanctions — could benefit Trump’s businesses.
Another possibility is that Trump and his closest advisers foresee a fundamental shift of US foreign policy: Russia becoming a partner in a global war on Islam. Writing in The Atlantic (http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/12/the-conservative-split-on-russia/510317/) Peter Beinart observed: “Trump and his advisors describe America as fighting a civilizational struggle against the enemies of the West. Seen through that very different lens, Muslims look more nefarious and Vladimir Putin looks more benign… [Trump is moving US foreign policy] away from an ideological confrontation with authoritarian Russia and toward a civilizational conflict with Islam. Trump’s choice for National Security Advisor, General Michael Flynn, has tweeted that ‘fear of Muslims is rational’ and ‘Islam is like cancer’ When asked in August about Putin, [Flynn said] that America ‘beat Hitler because of our relationship with the Russians’ and we should renew that partnership in the new world war against ‘radical Islamism.'”
Since the end of World War II, there’s been a “cold war” between the United States and Russia. It appears that Trump wants to supplant this with a “holy war” between the United States and Islam, a war where Russia would be an active partner of the US. For this reason, Trump appears willing to lift sanctions and make Russia a “partner.”
This major shift in US foreign policy seems a likely reason why Russia helped Trump win the presidential election.