I arrived in Washington on Wednesday, a couple of hours before the news broke that Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump’s attorney general, had held two meetings with the Russian ambassador that he had neglected to mention during his confirmation hearings. My conversations in bars that evening, and in government offices the next day, attempted to continue along normal lines before returning – like a lover, obsessing over an ex – to the only topic anyone cared about: Putin. What does Putin want? What does Putin have on Trump? Eventually, I gave up trying to talk about anything else.
Indiscreet communications with the ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, had already stripped Trump of General Mike Flynn, his national security adviser, and it was ridiculous that a second White House insider had been caught in the same trap. Sessions claimed that the conversations hadn’t amounted to much, which gave wits an irresistible opening. Within hours, satirical news source the Onion had cast the jowly diplomat Kislyak as heartbroken about Sessions not remembering him. “Our two conversations hold great significance for me, and I can’t help but be upset to learn that Jeff felt otherwise,” the website imagined the Russian lamenting.
It is a long time since anyone could call Putin’s adventures in Trumpland covert but, all the same, an ambassador does have to be able to operate reasonably discreetly. When a comedy website starts making your man in Washington the butt of its jokes, you have crossed a line. Mike McFaul, a Russianist who served as Barack Obama’s ambassador to Moscow, tweeted: “It is not illegal and nor should it be illegal for Americans to meet with Russians.” It is a remarkable indicator of the level of radioactivity currently associated with anyone Russian that he felt the need to point this out.
Last November, when Trump gained his unlikely victory over 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, throughout his campaign, had appeared bored with minor issues such as human rights, democracy, Syria or Ukraine. He wanted to get round a table, to thrash things out as if he was selling a condo. This is exactly what Putin wanted too, so when Trump won, it looked like a victory for the Russian officials who had campaigned to dethrone America as hegemon of the world liberal order.
But if you are in the business of dethroning America as hegemon of the world liberal order, the last thing you want to do is actually to dethrone America, because then you have to confront the question of what happens next. Russia has long pretended to be America’s rival for power, while all along it has actually been America’s annoying little brother. Putin has only been able to do what he’s done because, in a scrap, America would always have his back in the playground. If that is no longer the case, Putin is in trouble.
I’ll explain. Putin did not start out as a world-strutting Bond villain. He began, in 1999, as an ex-spook from St Petersburg, newly arrived in Moscow, keen to make Russia great again, looking for all the help he could get. He attended G8 summits; he won debt deals with the Paris Club; he agreed to ratify the Kyoto protocols; he sat through meetings of the Nato-Russia Council; he called George W Bush after 9/11 and offered to help. He was, in short, a committed multilateralist.
And he was remarkably good at it. Moscow began to look like a normal European city. Putin’s clever diplomacy and firm grip on the reins, combined with a lucky spell of high oil prices, meant he could pay Russians their pensions on time, resurface the roads, defeat the Chechens, take on and defeat the over-mighty oligarchs. Russians travelled with their newly earned wealth, however, and they realised that, although Moscow had improved markedly, it was still a long way behind Paris, London or Berlin. And, ungrateful that they were, they blamed Putin for their straitened circumstances, as well as the friends of his who had become billionaires from the state contracts he tossed their way. In the winter of 2011, Muscovites protested and suddenly Putin looked unpopular, which he could not stand.
He needed someone to blame, so he blamed America. State journalists hounded the American ambassador (McFaul, as above), while prosecutors accused anti-corruption activists of connections to Washington. In the Kremlin’s telling, America opposed Putin not because he was an all-time kleptocrat, but because he was a rival for world power. Putin pitched himself as a global insurgent, a rival to the liberal order, and it proved remarkably popular with an electorate reared on the cold war.
And this was attractive to some westerners too, particularly those who yearned for the certainties of the past, whether that be Brits who wanted to Take Back Control or Americans who wanted to Make America Great Again. They considered Putin to be a partner in the campaign to rewind the clock a few decades. And that, eventually, led to the great coalition of Trump, Nigel Farage and Putin, the dethroning of America as hegemon of the world liberal order and the looming eclipse of the west as we know it. But this is a problem for Putin, because he never 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, Mayfair, Malibu or Manhattan. The anti-western act was always just a game of balls and cups, intended to distract the Russian electorate from the wholesale theft going on all around them. But it proved so successful Putin has now helped elect an anti-westerner as leader of the free world.
Trying to explain this argument in a Washington bar last night, I found myself mimicking Michael Caine. Kislyak is gaping at the shattered remains of the US political system, while Putin snarls into his ear: “You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off.” Russia is toxic in Washington now. By Saturday morning, Trump himself had joined in the frenzy, accusing Obama of arranging Sessions’ contacts with the Russians, and of repeatedly meeting Kislyak. It is hard to imagine Trump even proposing a grand bargain with Putin, let alone achieving one.
The best hope for Russia is that Trump ends up an ordinary Republican president, one who will perhaps prove irritating to Putin’s ego, but who will at least safeguard the global financial system that allows Kremlin insiders to keep the billions they have siphoned into the havens of the west. If Trump is truly the insurgent he threatened to be, however, this victory could cost Putin dear.
Author: Oliver Bullough