Editor’s Note: Sarah Lain is a research fellow in Russia and Eurasia studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
The plot seems to thicken on a daily basis in Washington.
We have also recently learned that in 2016, Donald Trump Jr. met with a Russian lawyer who claimed to have damaging information on Hillary Clinton useful to the Trump presidential campaign.
And in an interview with The New York Times, the President launched a strange attack on Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whom Trump has criticized for stepping aside from the investigation into possible Russian collusion with the Trump campaign after Sessions failed to disclose a meeting with the Russian ambassador.
The seemingly constant lack of detail and alleged breaking of protocol increases suspicion that Trump and Putin have a master plan to fix the US-Russia relationship, possibly at the expense of European security or for lucrative business deals. The contradictions and backtracking from members of the Trump team – particularly the younger Trump’s change of story over the purpose of the 2016 meeting – adds to the lack of trust that in turn feeds the assumption for some that something far more sinister is taking place behind the scenes.
Although understandable, the nonstop US media coverage of the intrigue is also doing Putin a favor, showing a loss of faith in democratic processes and adding to the panic that the liberal elite is losing control of America.
The signs of Russian influence in the US election are clearly of grave concern. But the constant speculation and anger about how far the relationship between Trump and Putin goes only add weight to Russia’s power projection in international affairs and further the mythologizing of Putin as a master of control. It creates the impression that US democracy is in crisis as a direct result of a seemingly all-powerful, foreign political entity.
It is immensely frustrating that Trump is playing by the Russian “fake news” rules, dismissing any truth he does not like.
Part of the difficulty comes from not knowing exactly what has been said in the Trump-Putin exchanges, thus adding to speculation that some behind-the-scenes deal-making is being done.
The obvious one would be Trump’s lifting or easing of US sanctions on Russia. At the second meeting at the G20, they discussed the ban on adoption of Russian children – Russia’s response to the Magnitsky Act in 2012, which placed sanctions on individuals believed to be responsible for the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who died in prison having uncovered a corruption scandal.
Trump’s former national security adviser, Mike Flynn, had also discussed sanctions with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak – something Flynn had originally denied.
Yet it is clear the Russia-US relationship has not been easily reset and sanctions cannot yet be lifted. There have been some signs of frustration on the Russian side around this. Putin showed restraint in December by not responding when the United States expelled 35 diplomats and seized two properties used by Russian diplomats, likely because there was the view that there would be a reversal once Trump was in power.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has recently raised the issue again. Not only has he threated retaliation if the assets are not returned, but also compared US pre-conditions for the return of the compounds as “daylight robbery,” indicating frustration that cyber-related sanctions were still in place.
The FBI investigation is not yet complete but may shed light on the ties between the two men. But this is less about Putin and Trump and more about the ways in which, particularly through financial ties, collusion and multiple levels might have taken place.
Trump is of course highly useful for Russia. But the idea that the Kremlin had a concrete plan and knew it could manipulate Trump the minute he was in power has been exaggerated and credits Putin with more power and influence than maybe even he believes in.