Brennan, Trump, and Russia: Bloody Noses

Former CIA Director John Brennan has given an interview in which he made three points about the Russians and President Donald Trump. In reverse order: 

  • Mr. Trump is a very selective consumer of U.S. intelligence and rejects what he does not like or support. This creates problems within the U.S. intelligence establishment and, to some degree undermines the CIA’s credibility abroad. 
  • Regarding cyber operations to respond to Russian attacks on the U.S. electoral system, he noted that it was important in the Obama administration to avoid a cycle of actions and retaliation that in the end would just be disruptive. 
  • Russia’s intention in attacking Hillary Clinton’s campaign, in Brennan’s view, was to bloody Mrs. Clinton before she was elected in the hope of making her a weaker President.  Though unstated, it appears that Director Brennan, who says the Russian operation was directly ordered by Vladimir Putin, believes that Putin regarded Trump as much less of a threat to Russian interests than Mrs. Clinton.

It is a rather odd conclusion, but one that has merit nonetheless. It is odd because unlike Mrs. Clinton, Donald Trump favored a very strong U.S. military and significant increases in U.S. defense spending. That was not a position of Mrs. Clinton or of the Obama administration, though she claimed she wanted to do more than Obama. Why is it, then, that Putin would favor a president leading a reinvigorated U.S. military?

The answer may lie with Russia’s perception of its own standing vis a vis the United States. From the Russian point of view, the United States could defeat Russia just by spending more and by using its industrial might to turn out ever more sophisticated weapons. While Russia has clearly modernized its military and its weapons, it is a long way from being able to deploy any significant number of weapons systems, especially front-line aircraft (such as the stealthy Su-35), and land forces, including its new tank (the T-14 Armata), which would be important if the Russians had any military ambitions in Europe.

Putin could and has, therefore, put on a pretty good show in Syria against an enemy with little ability to stop the Russian air force. But outside of that, despite shows of bravado, Russia’s military is not in good shape. From this point of view, Trump’s investment in the U.S. military really doesn’t change anything much for a Russia that sees itself already unable to take on the U.S. militarily.

Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, was seen as a political hardliner and troublemaker, especially regarding Russian operations in Ukraine. The Russians would believe that when she was president her team would include such people as Victoria Nuland, who was especially hostile to Russia and its Ukrainian operations.  Weakening Hillary as much as possible would have made sense to Russia.

On the economic level, Russia depends for its well-being on the sale of oil and gas, and other commodities in the world market. Oil prices have been low for some time, making it hard for the Russians to meet their budget requirements. And the Russians realize that the U.S. is the newest emerging oil and gas power in the world.  Fracking will make America a future major exporter of oil and natural gas (in the form of LNG). 

This goes back to the question of President Trump. It is clear that Mr. Trump has an agenda in his head regarding Russia, but there are serious doubts that he can do much with it under the current political circumstances.

The Trump agenda appears to start with the idea that Mr. Trump as a successful businessman, which the President attributes largely to his negotiating skills, can find a modus vivendi on many bilateral U.S.-Russia issues including Syria, cyber issues, and Ukraine. Already he has begun to change things regarding CIA support for opposition groups in Syria, and Russia and the United States are working on some sort of cooperative alliance on cyber security.  It is just as likely that the Ukrainian issue is also within their discussions and – to venture a guess – it is some sort of lease deal for the Crimea and a settlement of the insurgency in east Ukraine that may well be under active discussion.

Mr. Trump’s problem is that he is a very weak president, torn by internal dissension including from his National Security Advisor and his Defense Secretary, and without any real Congressional support.  Any deal with the Russians could cause a furor and expose Mr. Trump to public humiliation over his efforts at negotiation with an international rival, particularly if the deal was on Ukraine.  Therefore, Trump is walking on grenades, any one of which can explode at any time.

The surprise for the Russians is that Mr. Trump won the election. In an effort to demonstrate his skill in foreign affairs, Trump is now working to reorder America’s policy in various ways, particularly as regards the Russians. But if he continues to pursue his agenda without building support inside his own administration and on Capitol Hill, he will lose.  The result is all of this may backfire on the Russians and Putin.  Instead of bloodying Hillary, Putin’s nose may be bleeding as Russia faces a militarily stronger United States with an energy surplus and a president increasingly frustrated but determined to find a “success.”