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  • Writer's picturePaul Hansbury


In this conclusion to the three–part blog, I return to Donald Trump. People like to label those articulating Russia's arguments and repeating its propaganda as 'useful idiots'. As I said in the first part, it's an unkind label and the fact that Trump happily calls people 'delinquents' or worse is no justification for using it to my mind. Trump and Tucker Carlson may echo some of Putin's claims because they accept them uncritically; it may reveal a lack of intellectual acumen, but it does not an idiot make.

Since I originally drafted this blog, the news of Alexey Navalny's death emerged. It puts the Tucker Carlson interview into sharp relief; many saw Carlson's reluctance to ask tough questions as cowardly, the polar opposite of the courage with which Navalny kept up his political campaigning despite harassment, imprisonment and near–fatal poisoning in 2020. Navalny joins a long line of Putin's critics to wind up dead in unclear circumstances.

Trump has refused to condemn Putin for in the past for murdering his opponents or for its poor human rights record. In 2015, talk show host Joe Scarborough asked Trump about the deaths of opposition journalists and politicians in Russia. Trump replied: 'Our country does plenty of killing also, Joe.' As far as I'm aware, he has not commented on Navalny's death.

Useful idiot?

Trump appears to accept many of Putin's claims about Ukraine. Back in 2016, asked about Crimea, Trump replied: 'The people of Crimea, from what I've heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were [i.e. with Ukraine]. And you have to look at that, also.' He might have heard it from Putin who insists that the annexation was the Crimean people's choice. One might be cautious about what Putin says regarding Crimea. A couple of weeks before the annexation, at a press conference on 14 March 2014, Putin was asked if he was considering the possibility of Crimea joining Russia. 'No, we do not,' he replied directly. The referendum in Crimea a couple of weeks later took place at the barrel of a gun, with Russian soldiers present all over the peninsula.

Trump shares much of Putin's critique of NATO enlargement and he is hardly alone in that. Last year's debates between the Republican candidates competing for their party's nomination made clear that many of them would choose to take a softer line on Russia. In an essay, Vivek Ramaswamy stated that he would 'accept Russia's control of the occupied territories and pledge to block Ukraine's candidacy for NATO... end sanctions and bring Russia back into the world market.' Ron DeSantis pledged to stop military or financial aid to Ukraine and not be involved in what he described as 'a territorial dispute', although he did later recant that phrase. Trump's unrealistic claim that he would end the war in 24 hours does not seem so unusual in this context. (We can turn to none other than Carlson for a summary.)

There's good reason to think that Trump admires Putin at some level. On the campaign trail in 2016 he awarded Putin 'an "A" for leadership'. Shortly before his 2018 summit with Putin in Helsinki, he said it would be 'easier' than meetings he had with NATO and the UK prime minister on the same trip. He appeared to accept Putin's claims that Russia had not interfered in the 2016 presidential election at face value.

Or maybe not...

It should be remembered, though, that his last presidency hardly turned out well for Putin or Russia. During his last presidency the US withdrew from two key arms control agreements (the INF Treaty and the Open Skies Treaty), expelled sixty Russian diplomats following the Salisbury poisonings, and expanded sanctions on Russia through CAATSA (the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act). These may be less about Trump, more about Congress or other actors, but the point is that they resulted in a Trump presidency less favourable to Russia or Putin than many expected. For this reason, I'm inclined to take Putin's comment a few days ago that he would prefer 'predictable Biden' over Trump as genuine.

If Trump returns to the White House, Congress could again prove an obstacle depending on its composition. Trump would though choose his own administration with greater care after his previous experience and that may result in a slightly freer hand. His former national security adviser, John Bolton, thinks that Trump wants to 'get out' of NATO and is using allies' defence spending as a pretext. But he might struggle to win support for leaving the alliance because Republicans are split on the issue; several Republican senators distanced themselves from Trump's recent comments.

What else Trump might do with a freer hand in foreign policy remains to be seen. Colin Dueck summarised the Trump approach last time round as a series of pressure campaigns against both adversaries and allies in respect of both security and trade. 'Insofar as there is a Trump doctrine,' he wrote, 'it might be described as an attempt to squeeze out what the president views as relative gains for the United States through the applied escalation and de-escalation of American leverage.' (Dueck 2020: pp.125-6)

For sure, Putin thinks a Republican victory in November will be more likely to alter the US support for Ukraine in a way Russia deems favourable. But that is at best a wager, not a guarantee, and Putin's comments in his interview with Carlson last week, in which he bemoaned the influence of unelected bureaucrats on US foreign policy, suggests to me that he thinks that too.

Uses and abuses of power

One can also wonder how helpful someone like Carlson really is to Putin. I've no idea whether there's anything in reports that the Kremlin was unhappy with the interview (that sounds like disinformation to me), but Navalny's death is a reminder that there are things more fundamental than the propaganda value of a sympathetic US interview, or even a US president congenial to Putin but operating under a system of democratic constraints.

Reports about the Arctic penal colony where Navalny spent the final two months of his life describe a brutal regime. The inhospitable conditions alone make Putin culpable for Navalny's death, irrespective of exactly what happened in his last moments. Many have pointed out that Navalny looked well when appearing via video link for a court appearance a day earlier and conclude, reasonably, it makes murder likely. There are other details that rouse suspicions.

Either way, Putin is running scared of domestic opponents – even locked away in a prison colony as the FKU IK–3 'Polar Wolf' camp where Navalny died – and that exposes the fragility of his rule. He has the power to lock up whomever he chooses, but if he authorised murder of someone under lock and key then that suggests he is worried about his control slipping. A few soundbites from Tucker and others does little to countervail that fragility. The idiots may not be so useful in the end.

Thank you for reading! You can support this blog by buying a copy of my book Belarus in Crisis: From Domestic Unrest to the Russia–Ukraine War. Available to UK buyers here and US buyers here.

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