Nobody can really tell what Putin thinks about Trump and America now. Those who speak about it don’t know, and those who know don’t speak about it. It's a shame, because it would be really useful to know what Putin is thinking right now.
Jared Kushner, who has been appointed to a new White House role, is set to testify before a Senate committee investigating Russian interference in last year’s election. Kushner’s offer to appear before the Senate panel stems from his meeting with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the US.
Jeff Sessions, Trump’s attorney general, had met twice with the Russian ambassador, something he neglected to mention during his confirmation hearings. Indiscreet communications with the Ambassador Kislyak have already cost Trump his national security adviser General Mike Flynn, and it is somewhat ridiculous that a second White House insider had been caught in the same trap.
So, what does Putin want? What does Putin have on Trump?
When Trump beat Hillary Clinton, Moscow officials were drinking champagne in celebration. Clinton had been a hawkish irritant throughout Obama’s presidency. Trump, however, promised a grand deal with Putin, perhaps even the relaxation of sanctions. The new US President had appeared bored with minor issues such as human rights, democracy, Syria or Ukraine. He wanted to get everyone around a table, to thrash things out as if he were selling a house. This is exactly what Putin wanted too.
So, when Trump won, it looked like a victory for the Russian officials who had celebrated to dethrone America as hegemon of the world liberal order.
But, if you are in the business of dethroning America, the last thing you want to do is to actually dethrone America! Russia has long pretended to be America’s rival for power, and in reality Putin needed America as a rival to stay in power. If that were no longer the case, Putin would be in trouble.
He was doing OK as the Russian czar until the winter of 2011 when Muscovites protested and he suddenly became unpopular. He needed someone to blame. So he blamed America. The Kremlin explained that America opposed Putin not because he was a world-class kleptocrat, but because he was a rival for world power. Putin pitched himself as a global insurgent and it proved remarkably popular with the electorate. He was acting like he wanted to dethrone America, but he never truly meant it.
Putin’s friends have stolen many billions of dollars over the last 17 years and that money is no good to them if they can’t spend it in Monaco or Manhattan. The anti-western act was always just a game, intended to distract the Russian electorate from the wholesale theft going on all around them.
The best hope for Russia is that Trump ends up an ordinary Republican president. But if Trump is really the insurgent he threatened to be, his victory could cost Putin everything he worked for.
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