Putin is no ordinary threat to America

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There is insufficient proof to lay the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Novolny at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s doorstep. Nor is there proof that Putin directly ordered the March 2018 attempted assassination of former GRU officer and British double agent Sergei Skripal and his wife, Yulia, in Salisbury, England, any more than his having been behind the 2015 death of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov within a stone’s throw of the Kremlin. 

Putin did not have to give a direct order. All he had to do was to echo Henry II’s musings regarding his Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas a Becket: “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” His agents did the rest.

That was not the case when Russia sought to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. Putin was not only directly involved in the attempt to undermine the election and American democracy, he was in charge of the entire effort. Although it devotes considerably more space to the activities of the likes of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his Russian henchman, Konstantin Kilimnik, the Senate Intelligence Committee’s bipartisan report nevertheless points the finger directly at Putin. 

In language that is unequivocal, the report states that the committee found that Putin directed the hack-and-leak campaign by the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence, targeting the Democratic National Committee (DNC), the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), and the Clinton campaign. Moscow’s intent was to damage the Clinton campaign, help the Trump campaign after Donald Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee, and generally undermine the U.S. democratic process.

Naturally, Putin and the Russian government deny any such activities. That is hardly surprising. That President Trump elected to believe Putin is probably not very surprising, either. Nevertheless, it is well known that Trump unsuccessfully pursued Putin for years, hoping to win his support for Trump Organization projects in Russia. The Russian leader simply ignored him. 

But Trump was persistent. As both the Mueller Report and the Senate Intelligence Committee report make clear, between 2013 and 2016 the Trump Organization sought Russian agreement to develop what came to be called “Trump Tower Moscow.” This was an ambitious project that involved the development of a combination of commercial, hotel and residential properties in one building in the Russian capital. Indeed, while he was seeking the presidency, Trump signed a letter of intent for the project and his organization continued to pursue its realization well into 2016.

The Mueller Report did not finger Putin directly. It referred only to the Russian government, Russian intelligence, and shady Russian businessmen and lawyers. But it strains credulity to accept that the Russian president was unaware of the strong desire on the part of a candidate for America’s presidency to further his business interests in Russia. After all, Putin may have ignored Trump’s entreaties for years, but he was hardly ignorant of them. 

The 2016 election, and Trump’s candidacy, likely afforded the Russian leader and former KGB operative an opportunity that he previously might never have imagined. The fact that Putin jumped at the opportunity that American politics presented to him, and directly ordered his intelligence minions to disrupt the U.S. election, demonstrates the degree to which the government that he leads must be seen as a most serious threat — not only to America’s interests in Europe, the Middle East, and Venezuela, in particular, but to America itself, both in the upcoming election and beyond.  

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

Tags Donald Trump Konstantin Kilimnik Mueller report Paul Manafort Russian interference in 2016 election Senate Intelligence Report on Russian interference Trump Tower Moscow Vladimir Putin

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