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By Jason Michael
FEW IN THE INTERNATIONAL MEDIA picked up on White House reporter Jeff Mason’s last question during the Putin-Trump press conference in Helsinki. Yet, what he asked President Putin and, perhaps more importantly, the answer he received were the single most significant revelation to come out of the US-Russian summit. “Did you want President Trump to win the election,” Mason put to Mr Putin, “and did you direct any of your officials to help him do that?” “Yes, I did. Yes, I did,” responded the Russian premier as soon as his translator had finished. Two simple questions and two unhesitant affirmative answers which I fear will resound down through our future like a broken church bell tumbling down time’s stone campanile steps.
Speculations can cease. We can stop defending against the accusations that this was all an elaborate conspiracy theory. Russia interfered in the 2016 US presidential election. In the face of an Oval Office-led right-wing media barrage claiming an anti-Trump “witch-hunt,” this was precisely what former FBI director Robert Mueller indicted twelve Russian military officers for on Friday. In spite of the constant attack his investigation has been under, Mueller has been vindicated. All the evidence from the US intelligence agencies has been vindicated. Russia was active in the subversion of US democracy to secure the election of the “Siberian Candidate” – Donald J. Trump.
The arrest of Maria Butina, a 29-year-old Russian national, in Washington DC adds another layer to the drama. According to federal prosecutors the woman employed by Alexander Torshin – a major player in Russian politics and a deputy governor at the Russian central bank – has links to Russian intelligence and had been active in funnelling rubles into various conservative organisations, including the NRA, for the purposes of funding the Trump campaign.
Butina has a similar part in the “dark money” story to Richard Cook in Scotland. Cook, a former chairman of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party and the only known member of the unregistered political interest groups the Constitutional Research Council, travelled to Kiev in 2013 to collected funds from a German fraudster, Hans-Ernst Bastian, via the state-owned Укрексімбанк bank – during the pro-Russian presidency of Viktor Yanukovych.
Two ground-changing Western elections – Brexit and the 2016 Presidential – and everywhere a similar pattern of infiltration, money laundering, illegal foreign funding (all Russian-linked), and the gaming of democracy. We are looking at the modus operandi of a global power with an interest in destabilising Western democracies and dividing the US from its allies. Regardless of the current British government’s suspect reluctance to investigate at least the possibility of Russian interference in UK politics, other European nations have begun to take steps to safeguard themselves from the same and from the potential consequences of a compromised US or UK.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on the day of the Putin-Trump meeting that Germany “can no longer fully rely on the White House.” As the Western alliance begins to come undone the attitude in Berlin is that a recalibration of Germany’s partnership with the United States will require “a united, confident and sovereign Europe.” What this means is that the US is now being viewed in the European Union as a broken reed, and that for a common defence against Russian pressure and expansion – think Ukraine, the Baltic states, and Poland – the EU will have to look inward, rather than to Washington, and seek consolidation and greater political unity.
Russia has taken a big bite into the US and the UK, seriously compromising their security and the integrity of their democratic structures. This has weakened the bonds of NATO – potentially harming global security – and fractured the European Union. Why Russia would do this is obvious. Over the past decade the recovery of Russia on the international stage was met with a US policy of encirclement, seeing the placement, replacement, and strengthening of a US military presence around the western, southern, and eastern edge of Russia. US policy towards Putin and Russia has been one of hampering – seeking to frustrate Putin’s hemispherical agenda. Much of this, of course, came into the open during the Syrian conflict, in what amounted to a proxy war between the two powers.
Europe too has been frustrating the Kremlin’s ambitions. Looking to the East and its own economic expansion, the European Union has increasingly encroached on what Russia sees as its sphere of influence in Poland, the Baltic states, and in Ukraine. The EU’s courtship of Ukraine before 2014 contributed in no small part to the civil unrest in the country which led ultimately to the ousting and exile of its pro-Russian former president Viktor Yanukovych.
Russia’s big bite has thus far been a dazzling success. In the Trump election we see that Putin has most likely purchased for himself the highest prize in international politics – the US president. US influence over the UK and the success of its cyber war in Britain and the effect of its dark money programme during the Brexit referendum has delivered for Russia a heavy blow to European unity, creating at least the possibility of an exploitable weakness. It is unimaginable Putin would not push the EU door if it failed to offer much resistance. Power – after all – abhors a vacuum.
So far, Russia has been given the benefit of the doubt in what looks like a diplomacy in Europe of latter day appeasement. While Trump cannot be trusted to stand by his commitments to the NATO alliance, the EU will continue to try to pacify Russia, but sooner or later Putin will over bite – forcing Europe to take a stand. The Ukraine was a failure of the EU, but Berlin knows that if the EU fails to protect a member state on the Russian periphery the European project is dead. Europe does have red lines, and right now Russia is busy testing Brussels’ resolve when it comes to holding those lines.
This is a dangerous period. The stand-off between the EU and Russia and between previous US administrations and Russia have created something of a new Cold War. How close this situation comes to actual conflict, as it did during the Cold War, depends in large part on the maintenance of the balance of power. Any significant shift in that balance may have catastrophic consequences.
Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin’s full press conference