Some predicted that the harmony between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin would end up evaporating. Just as some didn’t think that Trump would finish his term. At this point, we have made an effort to be realistic and recognize that the good vibes between the two are lasting longer than predicted and that, in perspective, their pact has proven strong enough to withstand the upheavals of the “Russiagate” investigation, including Washington’s recent accusation of 12 officials from Moscow’s intelligence service of hacking into the Democratic Party’s email accounts.* In another time, this could have led to a Cold War-style crisis, but what we have here seems to be no more than a joke.
Time and time again, Trump has shown himself to be bent on ignoring Putin’s antics, while at the same time waging an economic war on the European Union and placing obstacles in NATO’s way, aware that all of this is in the Kremlin’s interest. And Putin is delighted to know that Trump won’t lift a finger to discuss, for example, the conflict in Ukraine, where Russia is on its way toward consolidating the annexation of Crimea and the establishment of Donbass as a satellite state, organizing a referendum if necessary. The American and Russian presidents have little to say about this conflict because they have old acquaintances there. Trump’s former campaign chief, Paul Manafort, currently facing trial for his involvement in “Russiagate,”** was one of Viktor Yanukovych’s Western right-hand men for business dealings. Yanukovych was the pro-Russian president of Ukraine who was overthrown in the 2014 Maidan uprising, which had the support of the U.S. administration, then in the hands of the Democratic Party.
On the last day of the Helsinki summit, an international correspondent, in the face of such complicity, dared bring up again the question of kompromat: was it true that Putin has documents that, were they to come to light, could deal a mortal blow to Trump’s personal life or his image as a businessman and politician? And Trump and Putin joined in chorus with the the usual, “Here we go again, with these stories that can’t be believed.” It goes without saying that if there really is kompromat, neither of the two leaders will admit it. But the fact the question came up again fits with certain analysis and reflection (including that of Professor Nina Khrushcheva, an American of Russian origin and granddaughter of the Soviet leader) that argue Trump cannot say or do what he likes because he’s aware that Putin knows what he knows.
The ones suffering the most from the consequences of this Russian-American comedy of errors – in the face of powerless U.S. state entities, media and intelligence – are European citizens. In addition to having to watch out for Putin, they also have to be alert around Trump. The one who is supposed to be protecting them is the one that’s threatening them.
A Postmodern Molotov-Ribbentrop
Trump’s apparent concessions to Putin have been compared to Neville Chamberlain’s giving in to Adolf Hitler in 1938. But couldn’t we be looking at something like a postmodern version of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Hitler and Joseph Stalin, albeit with a different situation for one of the sides? Who could have imagined that in the U.S. we would see a division like the one Trump creates. In October 1940, at a conference in Los Angeles, German writer Thomas Mann issued a warning that now has special resonance: “Let me tell you the whole truth: if ever fascism should come to America, it will come in the name of freedom.”
*Editor’s note: The special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election issued an indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officers on July 13, 2018 in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign.
**Editor’s note: Paul Manafort is currently on trial in Virginia on federal charges related to financial crimes and money laundering. Manafort will face a separate trial in Washington, D.C., in September on separate federal charges including conspiracy to defraud the United States, and making false Foreign Agent Registration Act statements in connection with his work for Ukraine.