Toward the end of his twelve-day trip to Asia, President Trump tweeted, “When will all the haters and fools out there realize that having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing. There [sic] always playing politics — bad for our country. I want to solve North Korea, Syria, Ukraine, terrorism, and Russia can greatly help!”
Trump has a point. Russia can, in theory, “greatly help.” But it probably won’t, at least not “greatly.” It won’t help because Vladimir Putin and his regime don’t think helping America is in their national interest.
Putin, a former ghoul of the KGB, subscribes to a theory of statecraft with deep roots in both Russian and Soviet history.
During WWI, Vladimir Lenin advocated “revolutionary defeatism.” The idea was that winning the war was pointless since it was a battle between competing capitalist ruling classes. It would be better if everyone — including Russia — lost. The masses, he hoped, would then wage a civil war to overthrow their masters. The idea was derived in part from 19th-century revolutionary socialist Nikolay Chernyshevsky, who coined the phrase “the worse the better” — which Lenin often quoted.
This basic strategy worked well enough for the Bolsheviks. Lenin became the founding father of the Soviet Union, which brutalized and enslaved its own people and its neighbors for 70 years.
The Soviet Union, despite its military might, was always a weak country. Any nation that has to rule by fear is by definition weak. If the Soviets could have invaded and defeated Western Europe and America, just as they had Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia, they would have. It’s what Marxist-Leninism demanded, after all.
But they couldn’t. So they adapted. Before they could export revolution, as Leon Trotsky wanted, they first had to export revolutionary defeatism. And so for a half-century, the Soviets did what they could to undermine the West by sowing discord and strife. The idea was, as Marxist theorists had long put it, to “heighten the contradictions” of capitalism to force it to collapse.
They developed a wide array of methods. Their propagandists fed conspiracy theories to gullible journalists and intellectuals in the 1930s and 1940s. In the 1960s, the Soviets tried to discredit Martin Luther King Jr. because his message of tolerance and nonviolence was inconvenient to their cause. The KGB wanted the violent radical Stokely Carmichael to become the leader of black America. It disseminated leaflets in black communities claiming that right-wing groups were “developing a plan for the physical elimination of leading figures in the Negro movement in the U.S.,” as Darien Cavanaugh of the website War is Boring recently recounted. In the 1980s, the Soviets spread lies about America inventing AIDS to kill blacks.
This is the world Putin grew up in. He was a KGB foreign-intelligence officer for 16 years. He’s called the demise of the Soviet Union one of the 20th century’s greatest tragedies. But he’s not a Marxist. In fact, it’s been speculated that he may be the world’s richest man.
But he is the man the KGB made him.
Forget about America for two seconds. Putin’s social-media army has been mucking around in Western Europe for years. He supports fringe radical groups — or creates fake representatives of them — on both the left and the right. They use WikiLeaks, and the useful idiots who love it, to undermine Western governments in the name of democracy and transparency.
The goal isn’t primarily to get a particular politician in power, but to sow chaos and doubt, to heighten the contradictions, and to weaken the strong countries and alliances that Putin thinks are holding down Russia. The Russians helped push for Brexit, not because Brexit was good for Britain (which I think it might be), but because it was bad for the European Union.
Some want to believe that Putin saw in Trump a useful ally, and that Trump volunteered for service. Again, that’s possible. But I think the answer is more straightforward and obvious. The Russians just wanted to cause trouble and wound the presumptive winner, Hillary Clinton. That’s why WikiLeaks encouraged Donald Trump Jr. to claim the election was stolen. But then the elder Trump won.
Trump believes that every country should follow its own narrow self-interest. That’s a defensible position. The only problem is that Russia’s — or at least Putin’s — definition of self-interest is at war with ours.