After National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s scandalous resignation and Donald Trump’s tough new rhetoric toward the Kremlin, Russia has started to back away from the U.S. president. That could be dangerous.
The resignation of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn (pictured) took place in accordance with the best traditions of American political scandal, based on accusing an official of lying and purposeful misinforming the leadership and voters. Photo: U.S. Department of Defense
This week has not been easy for U.S.-Russia relations, especially with the scandalous resignation of President Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Russia is now back on the agenda of the U.S. media after a brief period in which U.S. President Donald Trump’s early presidential moves overshadowed any talk of foreign policy.
The image of Flynn is controversial in the U.S., at least because journalists, experts and politicians see him as the Kremlin’s key lobbyist within the Trump administration. Flynn’s image was tainted after his sudden appearance at the celebration of the 10th anniversary of the RT TV channel (which is seen by the media community as the Kremlin’s propaganda arm). On December 10, 2015, he was among the high-ranking guests and took the floor during the anniversary celebration, while sitting close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
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The fact that Flynn had been continuing to actively communicate with the representatives of Russia was not a big secret. This information had been circulated in the media long before Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration. However, this didn’t prevent the American president from nominating Flynn to one of the key positions in his cabinet, which was previously occupied by such heavyweights as Zbigniew Brzezinski and Henry Kissinger.
Nevertheless, Flynn kept maintaining contacts with Russian diplomats and officials in the period between the 2016 November elections and the presidential inauguration and afterwards. And Trump might have known about it. Probably, the U.S. president saw Flynn as a key figure that could help to implement Trump’s pragmatic plan to normalize U.S.-Russia relations. Yet, unpredictable circumstances hampered these intentions.
Flynn resigned very quickly – less than a month since he assumed his role as the President’s National Security Advisor. His resignation took place in accordance with the best traditions of American political scandal, based on accusing an official of lying and purposeful misinforming the leadership and voters.
Flynn is reported to have passed over in silence the details of his phone conversations with Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak (according to officials, they discussed the Western sanctions on Russia and Flynn didn't reveal it). This situation created problems for U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and put him in an awkward position. After all, he publicly denied that Flynn and Kislyak talked about sanctions.
But, according to the leaks to the media, the sanctions were among the topics of the Flynn-Kislyak discussion. Most importantly, their conversation reportedly took place shortly before Putin’s decision not to expel American diplomats from Russia (in response to the Obama administration's move to deport 35 Russian diplomats from the U.S.)
The logical question emerges: to what extent could Flynn’s promises to lift the anti-Kremlin sanctions have been the reason why Putin refused to respond reciprocally to Barack Obama’s stance? As a result, Flynn played the role of the sacrificial lamb in the hand of Trump who had to whitewash the reputation of the U.S. Vice-President.
Anyway, the publication of the transcript of the Flynn-Kislyak conversation will clarify the situation. Given the highly polarized political environment amidst Russia’s alleged interference into the U.S. electoral system and new details about the contacts of the Trump administration with Russia (which is seen as an adversary) might create a big headache for Trump himself. Moreover, it might have grave political implications, including the possibility of impeachment.
No wonder Trump is trying to distance himself from Russia and is trying to be tough toward Moscow (specifically, he expects the Kremlin to return Crimea to Ukraine and describes Moscow’s policy on the peninsula as the “taking” of Crimea). It is a matter of his political survival. In his domestic policy, Trump might be consistent with his mantra “America First,” but he will be inevitably forced to reassess his approaches toward Russia or, at least, to make a pause. Otherwise, his opponents might undermine his positions and even accuse him of state treason.
This might be the reason why Trump suddenly changed his rhetoric toward Russia. He made it clear he expects the Kremlin to return Crimea to Ukraine and reduce violence in Donbas, as White House spokesman Sean Spicer said on Feb. 14. At the same time, Pentagon head James Mattis pledged that the Trump administration would negotiate with Putin from a position of strength. Trump himself admitted that his predecessor Obama was too soft with Putin after the “taking” of Crimea.
So, it’s best for the Kremlin to shy away from reckless conclusions and keep in mind all these details and the political environment in the U.S. to understand the motivations behind Trump’s tough rhetoric. However, the Putin-Trump “bromance” and Russia’s obsession with the American president seem to be over. The news about Flynn’s resignation and following criticism of Russia by the Trump administration were met with an outcry and indignation in Russia. Some representatives of Russia’s political elites responded like an offended child who could not put up with an insult.
Moreover, according to rumors circulated in the media, the Putin administration tacitly ordered journalists and officials to stop kowtowing to Trump. If Russian television channels indeed change their tone about the American president and stop paying much attention to him, it might indicate that the Kremlin sees its high expectations on Trump as a failure. This means the Russian political elites will distance themselves from their “American partner.” And such a move might have serious implications.
First and foremost, the disappointment in Trump creates a highly undesirable political and informational vacuum in Russia: The Kremlin will badly need to find a new agenda — a topic that would replace Trump, distract Russians from current day-to-day and economic problems and bring more drama into their lives.
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Crimea, the war in Eastern Ukraine, and the fight with international terrorism in Syria have been pacifying Russian audiences since 2013. Later, they were replaced by the 2016 U.S. elections, the personality of Trump and the hopes for his friendly policy. What could replace these unjustified hopes? Some experts are concerned with the possibly of a new short victorious war elsewhere or the escalation of tensions with NATO. This agenda is vitally important for the Kremlin to reinvigorate the “besieged fortress” narrative before the 2018 presidential election.
All these circumstances might create a very dangerous situation: The severe political crisis in the U.S. will persist because of Trump’s alleged ties with Russia, while the Kremlin may fuel tensions and look for an enemy or relevant topic to distract audiences at home and resolve the current domestic political challenges.
And Trump’s dubious intentions to strengthen ties the Russian leadership as well as the Kremlin’s naive hopes for his capability to resolve the long-standing Russian-American conflict triggered this dangerous process. It might be extremely dangerous for the entire international security system.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.