The Biggest Winner In The Trump-Ukraine Scandal? Putin, Of Course
With the ongoing Ukraine scandal having an impact in Washington and Kyiv, the biggest winner is in Moscow.
Writing in Politico Magazine, Molly McKew notes that the biggest winner of the whole Ukraine controversy currently gripping the United States is, perhaps not surprisingly, Russia and Vladimir Putin. The largest part of McKew’s piece is an excellent examination of the reasons behind Putin’s 2014 decision to annex Ukraine, the reasoning behind its efforts to continue to underwrite the ongoing war in the eastern part of Ukraine, and what it has in mind for the future of Ukraine, and the future of other nations such as Moldova and Georgia. That section of the article is far too lengthy to fairly quote here, but I recommend it as essential background material not only for the Ukraine scandal but also for the reasons why Ukraine itself has come to be a central battlefield between Russia and the United States and our European allies.
With respect to the ongoing scandal here in the United States, though, McKew makes these points:
In one gesture, Trump reduced the survival of Ukraine to a bargaining chip in an utterly petty pursuit; embroiled Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, in scandal and undercut his ability to defend the interests of his nation; and weakened the clout of U.S. leadership on Ukraine, the region and beyond.
The biggest beneficiary of this latest Trump-derived scandal is the Kremlin. This isn’t some theoretical future calculus. It has an immediate impact on U.S. security and our strategic outlook. And it enhances the ability of the Kremlin to keep stirring chaos inside the United States.
Trump is bargaining away U.S. security for conspiracy theories about Ukraine and the Bidens that he hopes will not only strengthen his position for his re-election, but will also erase the evidence that Kremlin intervention helped to elect him president. It’s actually hard to know which part of all this makes the Kremlin most happy.
The ongoing scandal also helps Putin for two other reasons.
First, the Ukraine scandal helps Putin not only because it casts a cloud over the relationship between the United States and Ukraine, which in turn casts a cloud over the relationship between Ukraine and the rest of the western alliance. As has been noted before, Ukraine is a relatively poor nation facing down a rebellion being funded and armed by one of the largest military forces in Europe. Without some kind of aid from the United States and other nations, they are essentially defenseless. Since it’s clear that neither the U.S. nor any of our allies in Europe are going to come to the direct aid of Zelenesky and his regime via actually sending military forces (nor should they), that means military aid or monetary aid. This is why Congress authorized military aid to Ukraine earlier this year, and this was the aid that Trump was withholding at the same time he was “asking” the Ukrainian President for the “favor” of helping with an investigation of Trump’s political rival.
Second, the allegations against Trump and President Zelensky’s involvement in the matter have already reverberated against him back home, earning him the derisive nickname “Monica Zelensky” and have increased pressure on his young and relatively inexperienced Presidency that makes the situation in Kvyv even more uncertain. This weekend, for example, Zelensky is under fire for a proposed peace plan for the eastern regions of the country which protesters contend would give the east far too much autonomy and essentially give Russia free hand in the region. To the extent that the controversies in the United States weaken Zelensky’s reputation back home, that helps Putin and his allies in eastern Ukraine.
Finally, it continues to accomplish what I have contended from the start has always been the real purpose of Russian interference in American politics specifically and, more generally, in democratic elections in the United States and Western Europe. Specifically, that purpose has been not to support one candidate or one political party or the other, but to exploit the hyperpartisanship that has developed in American politics thanks largely to the rise of the Tea Party.
Judged by this standard, of course, Putin’s plan has arguably been more successful than he probably thought it would be. The past eighteen months have seen partisanship in the United States become even more bitter and divisive than it was during the Obama Era, and given the wide disparity between the way that Democrats and Independents judge the President’s performance on the job compared to Republicans, that’s only likely to continue. Indeed, public opinion on the Russia investigation itself is becoming ever more sharply divided to the point where it’s clear that most Republicans simply won’t accept Special Counsel Mueller’s conclusions no matter how much evidence there might be to support it. This will just mean more hyperpartisanship, and more division, as we head into the 2018 midterms and, beyond that, the 2020 Presidential election. Given that, one could say that Putin has already succeeded even if there is no further interference in our electoral process.
In other words, the outcome of the election doesn’t really matter to the Russians or other nations that may be involved in such campaigns. What matters is taking advantage of the already existing hyperpartisanship and the political divide to create chaos in the targeted nation and give people like Putin something to point to when they argue that there is nothing about western representative democracy that makes it superior to the way things are done in Russia. Such chaos also has the advantage of distracting Americans and their leaders from what Russia is up to in nations such as Ukraine and other areas of the so-called “near abroad” and allows Putin to get away with whatever it is he has in mind there.