Vladimir Putin’s ‘puppet strings’ on Trump are an illusion
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Moscow news editor Alexei Venediktov once remarked that Vladimir Putin is first and foremost a Brezhnev-era KGB officer. A KGB officer’s top priority is to undermine his main enemy: the U.S.  In a brilliant stroke of political judo, Putin is encouraging the belief that he installed President Trump as the real-life Manchurian candidate, feeding into the acrimony - on both sides of the aisle, and also overseas - provoked by the American populist revolt.    

[Note: This is the third in a series of articles about Trump and Putin. Click here to read about Putin’s Islamic problems, and here for his problems with the Russian nationalists.]


Like every political analyst in the world, Putin was convinced that Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe Hill's Campaign Report: Biden, Harris make first public appearance as running mates Trump campaign spox rips GOP congressman over rejection of QAnon conspiracy Biden hits back after Trump's attacks on Harris MORE was going to win the election. He had aimed to tarnish American democracy in the eyes of the world, portraying it as a farce in which the dead vote. He had expected to be dealing with a weakened, tamed Clinton as the American president. Instead, he got Trump.


So what does a smart KGB officer from the Brezhnev era do?  He turns to the tools of his trade: disinformation, misinformation, propaganda, and more. He pivots, and claims that he installed President Trump and controls him - and he leverages his propaganda machine in Russia and Europe to promote the claim. He manipulates the American media too, using half-truths and feeding into the narrative they are eager to write.  His claims undermine the confidence of the security structure in Washington, NATO capitals, and around the world.

First, Russian media brought out Russian experts on America to reassure worried Russians that the real purpose of Trump’s hard line national security appointments would be to negotiate deals.  Senator Alexei Pushkov, considered Putin’s mouthpiece, said it isn’t reasonable to “expect that Trump will agree with Russia on all issues, but he is at least a step up from the continual conflict with Obama.” Dimitri Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said it is natural that Trump’s cabinet should be anti-Russian, because “man is a creature of his environment, and the environment in the United States is now very hostile to Russia.”

In early December, Putin himself promoted the idea that Trump would be his man. In a double entendre worthy of The Sopranos, he told Russia’s NTV that “if Trump is a clever man, then he will fully and quite quickly understand another level of responsibility. We assume that he will be acting from these positions.”

Even entertainers got in on the act. Tigran Keosayan, television producer and partner of RT editor in chief Margarita Simonyan, jokingly asked why Hillary spent nearly a billion dollars on her campaign. “Half that much to Putin, and he would have gotten her elected for sure!” A Russian comedic “news” show features a satirical phone call in which ‘Trump’ calls ‘Putin’ “Boss” and promises to “dismiss the CIA and their reports to hell, and send the Pentagon there too!”

In Eastern Europe meanwhile, Lidovky, a Czech media outlet owned by Putin-aligned Finance Minister Andrej Babis, ran a story claiming that the Communist Czechoslovak Secret Police (the StB) had developed the Trump family from the day Donald met his first wife, Ivana (a Czechoslovak citizen at the time). The clear implication is that the KGB was engaged with the Trumps for 3 decades.  Someone knew where to look for the right StB files.

Putin actually doesn’t need to control Trump - he just needs us to believe he does.  If he can sow doubt among America’s allies, American voters, and the media, he already has won the game.  With even members of Congress and Trump’s own administration personnel unsure, Putin and his surrogates whisper to world leaders that there is no point in talking to the puppet, instead of the one pulling the strings. Come straight to Putin to make a deal - cut out the middle man! 

But if Putin were pulling the strings, we would see administration policy that favors Russian interests. Instead, Trump and Mattis are demanding an immediate increase in NATO defense spending, and Trump reiterated his demand that Russia give the Crimea back to Ukraine. After Gen. Flynn’s resignation, White House spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters on Feb. 14 that the president "has made it very clear that he expects the Russian government to de-escalate the violence in the Ukraine, and return Crimea. The irony of this entire situation is that the president has been incredibly tough on Russia. He continues to raise the issue of Crimea, which the previous administration allowed to be seized by Russia."

These are not the policy positions of a Russian puppet; they suggest that Putin is only posturing, hovering around Trump, pretending to be in control. Instead, it’s quite the reverse: Trump's actions are undermining Putin abroad and at home, where he has ordered media coverage of Trump to cease. Look at the results, and not the noise: Trump is forcing NATO to its greatest defense spending in decades and is demanding the return of Crimea. The bubble has burst in Russia, and Putin already is on the defensive.

Bart Marcois was the principal deputy assistant secretary of energy for international affairs during the Bush administration, and was previously a career foreign service officer.

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