News media have been abuzz about the apparent contact between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence throughout the course of the 2016 election cycle. Now, with the firing of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, and the potential for an investigation by Congress, the matter is causing casualties in the administration. With President Trump’s inner circle seemingly deeply connected to Russian interests, coupled with its own incompetence on some of the most basic activities of government, Russia has the opportunity to further fill the void in global leadership caused by Western liberalism scrambling for a new leader. Russia’s opportunity to raise its stock as a global leader means further support of illiberal populist movements in Europe and elsewhere, and more blatant violations of sovereignty in the Post-Soviet space.
Russia has prodded the sovereignty of the United States and other Western democracies for decades. Given the disaggregated nature of the American election system, the apolitical bureaucracy, and sacrosanct nature of the peaceful transition of power, it is wholly impossible that Russia was able to flip the outcome of the 2016 election as some conspiracy theorists suggest. Furthermore, there is unlikely to be any grand collusion between the Trump White House and the Kremlin on issues like Ukraine, or the Middle East without significantly altering U.S. decision-making infrastructure. If any attempt at such political collusion is made, the two sides will find themselves quickly at loggerheads over issues that have been sticking points for decades. Students of history will know how Russian support in the War on Terror at the 9/11 terrorist attacks was predicated on U.S. support of a new Russian campaign in Chechnya – a bridge too far for the Bush administration.
Why then, if nothing is likely to change functionally (even if it does rhetorically) in the bi-lateral U.S.-Russian relationship, is Vladimir Putin excited about the first month of the Trump presidency and its future? It is because Russia benefits more from an incompetent White House than a friendly one. Now is an incredibly dangerous time for the Baltic States or Georgia, should Russia wish to conduct an overt test of their sovereignty. If the White House cannot even find a functioning National Security Council staff, or have a phone call without upsetting Australia, then their response to large-scale crises on this level is effectively neutered.
Russia therefore benefits from a detached, dysfunctional, and cynical United States, perhaps even more than a United States openly engaged in supporting Russian aims around the world. This is because Russia still relies on branding the United States as its boogeyman so as to further consolidate domestic support. Western institutions used to be the great counter-example to Russian autocracy and power projections. With the United States now the source of great international skepticism, Europe alone cannot stand alone as the moral bastion of liberal democratic values.
Furthermore, Russia is now openly aspiring to lead a new global movement that is “Post-Western” and “defined by sovereignty.” This is the first salvo against globalization from Russia who feels emboldened as an ideological leader. Many lovers of liberal democracy now turn to figures like Justin Trudeau as the figurehead of Western democracies and their morals. However, Canada does not have the resources or the international precedence as a major player that the United States does. As former President Obama reminded us, the world does not call Moscow or Beijing when there is an international crisis. They call Washington. When Washington is ill-equipped to answer that proverbial crisis line, the world is fundamentally less safe and illiberal regimes only feel more emboldened.
Likewise, another apparent danger in the budding bromance between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump is the two leaders’ uncanny ability to cause their populations serious political fatigue, leaving them detached and cynical. Currently the Trump administration is seeing a groundswell of political activism on the left, but the matter is being obfuscated by a Russian-like information campaign of blatant falsehoods. By taking the illiberal rhetoric of President Trump, applying it in practice, and extrapolating those notions twenty years in the future, we get a reality somewhat akin to modern-day Russia.
With a White House that is functionally illiterate in the useful application of American power and rhetoric around the globe, and with its own house in increasing disorder, Russia could potentially enjoy its greatest geopolitical opportunity since its socialist revolution over 100 years ago. Few today recognize just how close Europe was to full-scale Marxist revolution during that time period. Had an alternate reality played out, Russia could have become the ideological leader of the continent. Today with its support of populist, global-skeptic movements and their continued successes in Hungary, the United States, the United Kingdom, and potential successes in Germany and France, Russia’s political capital is on the rise. If Vladimir Putin was looking for a policy ally in the Trump administration, he is likely to be disappointed, but such an America-phobic leader as him likely invests no capital in the support of U.S. presidents, no matter who they are. With a dysfunctional White House, we must not be surprised with Russia getting its way more often on the global stage in ways we have not seen in decades.
Charles Johnson is a Senior Contributor for Ramen IR focusing on Eurasia. He previously was a research fellow and development coordinator at the International School of Economics at Tbilisi State University. He graduated with an MA in Russian and Eurasian Studies from Johns Hopkins University SAIS, and a BA in History and International Relations from Boise State University. He also served as an Education and Youth Development Volunteer in the Republic of Georgia with the US Peace Corps. Charles has worked in economic affairs with the US State Department and on NATO Policy with the US Department of Defense. His Twitter is @