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Opinion | Scent of the Russians

Category: Diplomatic Relations,Politics

Garry Kasparov, the chess champion and chairman of the Renew Democracy Initiative (with which I’m associated), has an excellent suggestion for how to respond immediately to Russia’s attack Sunday on three Ukrainian naval ships operating in their own territorial waters: Send a flotilla of U.S. and NATO warships through the narrow Kerch Strait to pay a port call to the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov.

The move would be Trumanesque, recalling the Berlin airlift of 1948. It would symbolize the West’s solidarity with our embattled Ukrainian ally, our rejection of Russia’s seizure of Crimea, and our defiance of the Kremlin’s arrogant, violent, lawless behavior. And it would serve as powerful evidence that, when it comes to standing up for the free world, Donald Trump is not, after all, Vladimir Putin’s poodle.

In other words, don’t count on it.

So far, the most Trump has done in response to the Russian outrage is to call off a meeting with Putin at the G-20 Summit in Buenos Aires — while offering, as he burbled in a tweet, “a meaningful Summit again as soon as this situation is resolved!”

That’s the coy promise of a future kiss, not a line drawn in the sand. Trump’s diplomats, particularly U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, have been tougher. But even she urged that matters be addressed in an obscure and toothless venue called “the Normandy Four Format,” where Russia has a seat — and effectively a veto — while the U.S. has neither. Had Barack Obama behaved similarly (as he mostly did during the Crimean and Donbass crises), conservatives would have been in full throat, decrying weakness, appeasement and American retreat.

Where’s Sean Hannity when you need him to be embarrassed for his country?

At least Obama’s Russia policy was philosophically consonant with a longer liberal tradition of relative dovishness in U.S. relations with Moscow. And at least Obama came around, albeit much too late, to seeing Russia as the enemy that it is.

The abiding mystery with Trump is why he continually attempts to ignore outrages, finesse differences and curry personal favor with Putin. Ideologically it makes no sense: Conservatives have been hawkish on Russia since the days of Warren Harding and V. I. Lenin. Politically it makes no sense: A pro-Russia policy has no domestic constituency. Policy-wise, it makes no sense: Trump has actively fought Senate Republicans and his own senior advisers over taking a tougher Russia line. (The sanctions enacted last year were forced on him over his fierce objections.) Psychologically, it makes no sense: If there’s one thing Trump detests, it’s being mocked and derided as a weakling and the creature of stronger, smarter adversaries.

Hence the only other sensical hypothesis — namely, Trump’s self-interest — which even conservatives need to admit has become much more plausible following Michael Cohen’s guilty plea this week. The president’s former fixer now admits that he lied to Congress over the timing and extent of his efforts to make contacts and win contracts in Moscow on behalf of the Trump Organization, which lasted until at least June 2016, after Trump had essentially clinched the Republican nomination for president. By then questions about his Russia ties were fast becoming a political liability.

Now the president and his apologists are mounting an astonishing defense — accusing Cohen of being a liar while insisting there was nothing wrong with the very business dealings Trump previously lied about. If Cohen is lying, why does the president now freely admit to the truth of Cohen’s claims? If there was nothing wrong with the dealings, why did candidate Trump repeatedly deny them?

The contradiction here would be too inane to mention if it weren’t also insidious. Falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus. If the president tacitly admits to lying about his business interests in Russia, it’s unsafe to assume anything else he says about those ties is true.

And if the president openly admits that he was looking toward future business opportunities in Russia in the event he lost the 2016 election, it’s equally unsafe to assume he isn’t doing so right now with respect to the 2020 election — or that American policy toward Russia isn’t being softened, restrained, bent and debased accordingly. Quid pro quo is another Latinism that needs no translation.

None of this amounts to impeachable offenses — yet. But it is squalid, smelly and suspicious, and another reminder of why Robert Mueller’s investigation of Trump’s finances is no fishing expedition. Any Republican who claims to be alarmed by Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, Syria, Salisbury or Menlo Park can’t be serious if he isn’t willing to protect that investigation from its principal enemies, starting with the president and his acting attorney general.

Kasparov’s good advice on Russia policy needs a corollary. We need a naval flotilla to help break Putin’s efforts to strangle Ukraine. We also need its political equivalent to break the president’s efforts to strangle the special counsel. The Flake-Coons bill just strangled in the Senate would have been a start.

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