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17 January 2017

Trump is not the America

Russia can downgrade itself to the level of a KGB lieutenant-colonel, but America will not submit to a billionaire

While following the ongoing worldwide reaction to the “Russian influence” on the American elections, I recall a friend from my student years. He always preferred not to walk the couple of hundred metres from the University metro station to the second humanities faculty department building, and would wait for a bus or trolleybus – always overcrowded, in true Soviet style – just to ride one stop. Regarding the difficulties of getting onto public transport, he answered that if N people can fit into a bus, N+1 can definitely squeeze in too. This statement – which has always proved correct – was known in our circles as “Vinogradov’s lemma”.

I think the Kremlin was following similar logic when it started its risky game of information espionage, firstly against the Democratic Party, and later, perhaps, the majority of the US presidential candidates. Ossetia and the Crimea, bribing European radicals, the war in Syria… – Western leaders have grown accustomed to many things, and Vladimir Putin has got away with so much; why then wouldn’t “the most influential politician in the world” (according to Forbes) attempt to encroach on the most important one? I feel that Russian strategists have miscalculated it this time, however. Their latest move is unlike previous ones, and has crossed a certain red line.

Apart from their feeling of impunity – which is natural to those who have never been penalized for their “high jinks” for nearly half their conscious lives – the Russian strategists have also tripped over their favourite motto that “Putin is Russia”, currently an indisputable concept within the political elite. Sure of their own omnipotence, and projecting their primitive perception of power onto other countries, the strategists decided that, should Trump win, befriending him would equal befriending the United States: so if Putin is Russia, then why shouldn’t Trump be America (after his election)?

Both the first and second lines of reasoning have weak points, however.

On the one hand, I tend to trust that the American secret services did discover a “Russian trace” in the cyber-espionage. It could well be (and it is highly likely) that the Kremlin did not order the leaks, nor was the information gathered by “off-duty” secret service agents. Yet it has been proven (and both the incumbent and future presidents were informed) that the hackers had contacts with representatives of the Russian authorities, plus everyone knows how happy Moscow was about the Democrats’ loss. Only in the last weeks before the elections, when the polls started to show Clinton clearly in the lead, did Putin start to be pronouncedly diplomatic in assessing the American campaign. No one in the Kremlin and its entourage concealed their delight at Trump’s victory, and the Americans’ feeling that Moscow is behind the cyber attacks means much more to them than any direct evidence.

This has got the Americans worried – and I mean all of them, not just supporters of any given party or candidate. Because putting Crimean Tatar activists in prison in occupied Crimea, corrupting Marine Le Pen, destroying residential areas of Aleppo, or even poisoning former co-workers with Polonium in London bars is one thing, but threatening the United States’ (cyber)security is another thing altogether. In such cases, Americans go on the defensive, which is harsh: this is exactly why Viktor Bout, convicted for “conspiring to kill American citizen”, will serve his full sentence, and hacker Roman Seleznyov, kidnapped in 2014, will be getting “the works”. By attempting to interfere in American affairs, Putin has crossed an important line. It is similar to a historical situation in which someone was allowed to annex Austria and even the Sudetes, but not to bomb British cities. Taking this N+1th liberty will have completely different consequences than “just another” Nth one.

On the other hand, Russia, of course, can downgrade itself to the level of a KGB lieutenant-colonel (it has done its share of mimicry in the past), but America will not submit to a billionaire. The USA will remain as it was, with its own – not just Trump’s - interests. Moreover, only people with the mentality of Russia’s temporary rulers could think that Trump will spend all his years in the White House making himself richer. Quite the contrary – he really will try to “make America great again”, and the image of some other country whose secrets are in the hands of a pipsqueak hiding in a London embassy pales in comparison. This is why Trump himself – not even influenced by upright senators or ministers – will start investigating a plot against America’s information security, and, most probably, will eventually find one. In that case, Russia is likely to be shamed, which is not what the Kremlin needs if it hopes for a “reset”. One thing is already visible, judging by the first statements from Trump’s ministers: even future secretary-of-state Tillerson (who was awarded a Russian Order of Friendship medal) has already used rather non-conciliatory language regarding Russia at his Senate confirmation hearings.

There is also another problem. The hottest discussion topic in Washington lately is not the intrigues surrounding the Russian espionage, but the rumours that Moscow probably has some serious compromising materials on Trump himself. They probably do exist – first of all business-related (a deal with Rybolovlev, some projects in Russia, direct connections between people from Trump’s headquarters and Putin’s loyalists in Moscow and Kyiv). If this is true, the consequences may be even less predictable. Hoping to use such compromising materials for real leverage, one must assume one is dealing with a salesman, not a politician. If you wish to blackmail Poroshenko, you should threaten his factory in Lipetsk, but it is impossible to scare Trump over his interests in Russia and its satellites. Before collecting dirt on Trump, one should remember what happened to those who tried it with Putin.

Currently in Russia, even liberals are actively discussing Obama’s impotence and how weak America was for being “aghast” because of “a couple of Russian hackers and the Russia Today TV channel”. Indeed, the reactions of Obama, who is still head of the White House, and of his successor, Trump, and many other politicians could be said to have been over-emotional. Yes, America felt vulnerable, but this vulnerability does not equal weakness in this case. The truth is that, for a couple of decades, the United States got used to its exclusive status in the world, and often started to underestimate emerging challenges worldwide. This does not mean that it will fail to respond to those challenges in the end.

Let us recall 1990, when one determined politician decided that Kuwait’s independence of 1961 was unlawful, much in the same way as the Crimea being given to Ukraine in 1954 came under question. America’s answer to that challenge might not have been particularly prompt, but we know how that politician ended up in 2006. Or, let us look back to the mid-1990s and another politician who intended to build a “Serbian world” in the Balkans. He was also tolerated for quite a long time, but how he met his end is also well-known. We can evoke even more obvious cases of vulnerability: when Ramzi Yousef and his five accomplices detonated a truck bomb in the car park below New York’s World Trade Centre in 1993, it did not spark a war on Islamist terrorism like the act committed in the same place by a dozen others on 9/11. And even though Allah gave Bin Laden almost ten years’ grace, America struck back in the end.

The conclusion is simple: some can giggle over how the Fancy (or actually not very fancy) Bears harassed the U.S., but they should not assume that the world’s major superpower frightens easily. Quite the opposite, America lives according to the “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” principle, and Russian hackers have caused mainly (or rather exclusively) symbolic damage to the country. If we assess the scale of the damage, it might turn out to be smaller than it seems.

The Democrats can blame their current defeat on the Russians (however, it was rather the outcome of incompetent miscalculations on the part of Clinton and her team) and play their “being wronged” card to greater advantage for themselves. Note that, prior to the elections, there was serious talk of possible impeachment of Clinton, should she get elected, because of her attitude to state secrets amongst other things. Now, the Republicans themselves are opposed to any proceedings against her, considering how the compromising materials against the former candidate were obtained. At the same time, the Republicans will be desperate to prove that they have no links to Russia and no particular interest in Moscow, and will not pander to the Kremlin’s strategists. They have little reason to do so, anyway: Trump won not due to Russian wiles, but thanks to his quality campaign and the peculiarities of the American federal system. This is why we can be fairly certain that none of these events were very damaging to anyone in Washington. For decades, the American establishment has been very skilled at using the nation’s vulnerability to well-known ends: strengthening the country, increasing its defence capability and, in the end, damaging its enemies…

…the list of which so far still includes Russia.

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