Analysis

Putin's Week Started Badly but Then Trump Made Russia Great Again

Macron's victory was a bummer for the guys in the Kremlin. At least they can trust Trump to come up with the goods

What a difference three days make in international politics. On Sunday night, as Emmanuel Macron handily beat Marine Le Pen in the second round of France's presidential election, we were all chalking it up as a defeat for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had money, propaganda resources and his intelligence services' best cyber efforts invested in the far-right candidate. Putin seemed so rattled by Le Pen’s loss that he quickly sent a conciliatory telegram of congratulations to Macron, calling for an end to “mutual mistrust.”

But it may be too early to see the Macron victory as part of the West’s fight back against the Kremlin’s interference in its democratic process. If anything, the event 48 hours later underlined how effective the collusion between the Russian government and Western populists has been. Donald Trump’s firing of FBI chief James Comey supplied overwhelming proof, if any was still necessary, of just how far Russia’s corruption had spread.

While most of the furor around the Comey firing has been focused on its implications for American domestic politics, the international dimension is no less monumental. If Trump is so worried about the investigation into his ties with Russia that he's prepared to risk a massive backlash at home and arbitrarily remove the FBI director, just imagine what he's prepared to do, or not do, abroad to keep the Russians sweet.

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A few weeks ago there was an assumption that Trump’s order to fire Tomahawk missiles at Russia’s ally, the Assad regime in Syria, was a sign he may be prepared to confront the Kremlin after all. But as time passes and there has been no follow-up to that single strike which caused some damage to an airbase and destroyed a few planes but did little to change Syria's balance of power it's becoming evident that it was a one-off. By retaliating against the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons on its own citizens, Trump wanted to show he was different from Barack Obama who failed to do so in 2013. But it turns out that in acquiescing to Russia’s overall strategy in Syria, Trump is continuing Obama’s policy to the letter.

There's only one difference. Obama and his secretary of state, John Kerry, at least made a show of rhetorically opposing Russia’s military propping-up of the regime and bombing of civilians in Syria while doing nothing to oppose it. Under Trump, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was invited this week to the White House where the president expressed his approval of Russia’s “de-escalation areas” plan for Syria, another name for extending regime control over more areas of the war-torn control. 

Another decision by Trump this week has brought a tight-lipped smile to Putin’s face. On Monday he approved a plan to directly arm the Kurdish YPG militia with heavy weapons. YPG is the main component of the Syrian Democratic Forces, which America is supporting in anticipation of a ground offensive against the last major stronghold of the Islamic State in Syria, its headquarters in Raqqa.

The Syrian Democratic Forces may be the best, perhaps the only, viable force on the ground to capture Raqqa. But anointing the group America’s champion in Syria means an almost certain diplomatic crisis with Turkey, which sees the Kurdish force as a proxy of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, the PKK, which it considers a terrorist organization. A campaign led by the Syrian Democratic Forces further limits Turkey’s influence over events carrying on just across its southern border and may be one humiliation too many for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is coming to Washington next week.

Russia doesn’t care that much about how soon the Islamic State is defeated in Syria, as long as its Russian-born fighters don’t return to carry out terror attacks on home soil. But Putin is happy with tension in NATO the Western defense alliance he sees as encroaching on Russia’s borders. Any sounds of discord between the United States and Turkey, which have the largest and second-largest armies in NATO, are music to his ears.

In the aftermath of the French election, senior officials in both France and Germany have been making tough statements on their plans to retaliate against Russian cyberattacks. Macron and Angela Merkel may be serious about taking Putin head-on, but this week’s events raise the fear that for the first time since 1945, Europe could be facing Russia without America’s backing. Putin has only a fraction of the force that stood at the disposal of his predecessors who dominated the Soviet Union and its communist satellites, but he may have succeeded where they failed by driving a wedge between Europe and the United States. Thanks to Trump, he's making Russia great again.