Trump should be wary of Putin’s ‘truth’-telling

Donald Trump, in his brief encounters with Russia’s president at the Asia Pacific Conference in the Philippines, got ensnared in a linguistic entanglement over Vladimir Putin’s declaration that he “believed” Russia did not intervene in the United States election.

Trump had to answer to a skeptical press whether he believed that Putin believed that Russia did not intervene, or whether he believed that Russia did not intervene. Talk about semantic confusion over a rather important issue of U.S. politics.

{mosads}When Trump gains more experience with Putin, he will come to understand Putin’s stance with respect to truth and untruth. For Putin, “truth” is whatever is convenient at the time. “Truth” is defined in terms of specific terms as dictated by Putin, and “truth” can be amended when circumstances require.


In the course of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Putin’s “truth” was that the Crimean people had spontaneously voted to join Russia out of fear of the new neo-fascist government in Ukraine. There were no Russian special forces disguised as “little green men” to enforce the March 16, 2014, annexation.

That was the official truth until Putin decided to brag a year later that he had ordered the return of Crimea to Russia on Feb. 22, 2014. Maybe Putin wanted credit for the immensely popular return of what Russians view as “their Crimea” to its motherland.

Similarly, Putin stubbornly insisted that there were no Russian troops fighting in eastern Ukraine since hostilities began in April of 2014. Putin declared in April of 2015: “On the question whether or not our military is in Ukraine, I am telling to you directly and clearly: There are no Russian troops.”

Putin’s military claimed that any Russian troops on the Ukrainian field of battle were patriotic volunteers, former soldiers who had formally separated from the Russian army, paratroopers who had gotten lost or Russian soldiers “vacationing” in Ukraine. 

After months of denials, Putin admitted during his Dec. 17, 2015, annual news conference that his country’s military is operating in separatist-held eastern Ukraine after all: “We never said there were no people there who were carrying out certain tasks.” 

Putin has based his denial of Russian hacking into the email accounts of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and John Podesta, chairman of the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, on similar logic.

He claims that Russia has hackers who are “like artists.” They have perfected all kinds of clandestine techniques that are almost impossible to trace and for the Russian government to control. Many have relocated to Nigeria where they engage in world-famous schemes to part fools from their money.

What can Putin do if “free-spirited Russian patriots” choose their targets depending how they feel “when they wake up in the morning and read that something is going on” in elections in Europe, America or elsewhere?

“If they are patriotically minded, they start making their contributions — which are right, from their point of view — to the fight against those who say bad things about Russia,” Putin said.

To complicate attribution of Russian electoral intervention further, Putin uses willing oligarchs to carry out state business. Gazprom paid for much of the Sochi Olympics. An oligarch is rumored to have paid for east Ukraine’s separatist forces.

Putin’s kleptocracy is a confusing maze that blurs the distinction between the state and criminal worlds. Russia’s “hackers in epaulets” combine crime and cyber warfare under the protection of something called “the state.” In Russia, the lines among business, government and the underworld are so blurred that they cannot be untangled.

Facebook has turned over more than 3,000 of the Russia-linked advertisements from its site over to the Senate and House intelligence committees, as well as the Senate Judiciary Committee. Notably, the suspected Russian material favors both sides of the U.S. political spectrum.

I would imagine few if any of the Russian Facebook clients are governmental agencies. Instead, they are shadowy store-front operations funded by who knows whom.

If Putin can claim with a straight face that Russia did not orchestrate the Crimean annexation and has not used regular Russian troops in Ukraine, he can solemnly assert to President Trump that Russia did not intervene in the U.S. election and “believe” what he says.

After all, what is the difference between a Russian hacker hacking the DNC from Nigeria, a “lost” Russian paratrooper in east Ukraine and a “little green man” minding his own business in Crimea? None, according to Putin, are the responsibility of Russia.

Let’s hope that President Trump understands what Putin is actually saying.

Paul Gregory is a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. The holder of a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard University, Gregory has written extensively on Russia and the former Soviet Union.

Tags 2016 presidential election Annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation Donald Trump Facebook Foreign relations of Russia Hillary Clinton Russian hacking Russia–Ukraine relations Vladimir Putin

The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

More National Security News

See All
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video