MOSCOW – The Russians came to Washington bearing gifts. And they spoke volumes about how Moscow operates.
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Perhaps the most glaring detail from the lengthy written testimony Jared Kushner gave Senate investigators Monday was his description of the presents given to him by Russian banker Sergey Gorkov.
Two items were bestowed on President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, both of them from his own ancestral home in present-day Belarus, once part of imperial Russia: a piece of art and a bag of soil. Kushner says they were handed to him in the December meeting with the banker, a sit-down which he says was part of “the normal course of events of a very unique campaign.” In his remarks, Kushner, who also serves as Trump’s senior adviser, denied any collusion with the Russian government.
Kushner’s Senate hearing is the latest twist in the "Russiagate" scandal that continues to engulf the White House. U.S. intelligence agencies have said Moscow acted to exert influence on last year’s presidential election, in favor of Trump. Moscow flatly denies this, though that has not stopped its Foreign Affairs Ministry and state-run broadcasters from making tongue-in-cheek references to Russian complicity. Trump has called the Russia connection “phony” and said he is the victim of the “biggest witch hunt in American political history.”
But not a week seems to pass by without more details emerging about contacts between members of the Trump campaign and Russians from all spheres of life – including pop stars, lawyers and lobbyists.
Gorkov, who heads Russian state investment bank Vnesheconombank, or VEB, and others with Kremlin influence, clearly did their homework ahead of the meeting with Kushner, which took place one month after Trump secured the presidency. The gifts seemed to be designed to dispel the feeling that Russia and the United States are worlds apart and that relations between the two are the worst they've been in decades.
If the gifts could talk, they may have said, "See, we’re not so unalike, we’re from the same place." In other words, Jared Kushner may have been born in New Jersey, but his roots are in Russia.
Perhaps this didn’t work on him: What was clearly some soil that came from his Jewish homeland – the place from which members of his paternal family escaped the Holocaust, digging their way through a tunnel dug under a heavily guarded ghetto and spending months trawling through woods – was ungraciously described later by Kushner in his testimony as a “bag of dirt.” He didn’t meet Gorkov again.
Kushner couldn’t even get the name of his ancestors’ hometown right. In his written statement, he called the Belarussian village “Nvgorod,” which doesn’t exist anywhere in the former Soviet Union and is most likely a corruption of the name Novgorod, a major Russian city. In fact, his relatives come from a place called Novogrudok, which is in western Belarus near the border with Lithuania.
Like many towns in that region, Novogrudok has changed hands many times over. Originating in the 16th-century Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Novogrudok was later absorbed by the Russian empire, reverted to Poland in the early 1920s and became part of the Soviet Union at the outset of World War II. When the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of 1991, the locale became part of what is today Belarus.
Which brings up another interesting point. Should the Russian state – or people working for a state apparatus – be carrying around soil from other sovereign nations, and passing it on to someone in a third country? The Belarussian government in Minsk has not yet commented on Kushner’s statement, and perhaps never will, but that doesn’t make the Russians any less presumptuous or imperialist in their actions.
While many former Soviet states still rely on Russia for economic reasons, and political backing, a major gripe with Moscow is also its continued presence in what it sees as its natural sphere of influence. When a former Soviet country flirts with Western allies – as we’ve seen with Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine – Moscow gets nervous and reacts accordingly, often by banning a key export or refusing military protection.
Rows between Moscow and its neighbors often erupt around the thorny issue of NATO. Russia accuses the West of trying to wield power in its backyard by means of the military alliance, which includes the trio of Baltic states. Several years ago, Kazakhstan threatened to scale back ties with Russia after President Vladimir Putin threw cold water on the concept of Kazakh statehood.
Although Belarussian leader Alexander Lukashenko has squabbled with Putin before, accusing him of attempting to buy influence in the country, they have since reconciled their differences, and Minsk has moved back into Moscow’s orbit.
Considering the fact that Kushner misspelled – or worse, lacked knowledge of – the name of his ancestral home, Russia’s assertiveness in sending gifts from Belarus was probably lost on him. But it offers insight into how the Kremlin views Russia’s vantage point, which is one of considerable power.
Since coming to power 17 years ago, much of Putin’s legacy-building has centered on re-establishing Russia’s role as a major player on the world stage, and trying to restore the might and awe the Soviet Union once held.
In doing so, he has largely succeeded: By firmly entrenching its troops in Syria, Russia has now become vital to the peace process; a Russian-Iranian military axis has formed and Moscow’s relationship with Beijing is described by both sides as being at its best. Like the Soviet Union before it, and the Russian empire before that, of which Novogrudok was part, modern Russia has aggressively reasserted itself in geopolitics. But to Kushner, who is trying very carefully to navigate through a political storm that has the potential to bring down his father-in-law, it was just some dirt.