Editor’s Note: Sam Kiley is a senior CNN international correspondent. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
Wriggling his backside further into the velvet luxury of the 19th Century armchair, Vladimir Putin could be forgiven a sigh of satisfaction.
He mirthlessly smiled at an exchange on Russia 1’s “60 Minutes” political panel discussion as it dissected his recent summit with Donald Trump.
Leonid Kalashnikov (Russian State Duma): “America is to blame for the deterioration in relations, he wrote this on Twitter even before the meeting!”
Evgeny Popov (host): “Look, it’s really strange, he’s the President of that exact country, how can he say that … It’s really odd, well, you can’t bash your own country, especially when you’re its President.”
Olga Skabeeva (host): “Well, yes, especially when he [Trump] says that because of the foolishness and stupidity of the United States, we have bad Russian-American relations. Indeed, this smells like he is a Kremlin agent…”
The dialogue is CNN’s verbatim transcription and translation of a part of Tuesday night’s show, the day after the Helsinki summit.
Of course, I’m speculating at Putin’s reaction. Perhaps he was a little put out at the suggestion that Trump was an asset. But sometimes (and as former director of the FSB, the successor organization to the KGB, he should know), hiding in plain sight can be the best place to seek invisibility.
But in any case, the Russian President’s resting face is one of self-confident self-satisfaction. Over the last few days he could be forgiven for being outright smug. Perhaps even allowing himself a conspiratorial wink in the shaving mirror.
After all, for Putin, things are falling into place.
No matter that a dozen of his alleged GRU (military intelligence agents) had been indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe for attempting to disrupt the 2106 US elections.
Nor that British investigators are closing in on who they believe were Russian agents behind the use of a globally banned nerve agent in the sleepy cathedral city of Salisbury.
No matter that human-rights groups were screaming “murder!” at his air force’s bombing of Syrian civilians.
No matter that this was the fourth anniversary of the killing of 298 people on an Malaysia Airlines flight shot down with a Russian BUK missile over Ukraine.
This “Tsar” had seldom seemed less vulnerable (another irony on the 100th anniversary of the murder of Russia’s last royals, the Romanovs).
No. Things were good.
After all, some useful idiots were rampaging around among his enemies sowing just the sort of discord and chaos that he would love to have ordered. It was as if they really were his agents.
Attributed, probably erroneously, to Lenin describing liberal supporters in the West who could be relied on to spread Bolshevik propaganda, the term “useful idiot” was often applied to members of groups like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
The Soviets sought to help and influence CND, left-wing politicians, trade unionists and artists into undermining the West, inside the West. The “idiots” were not traitors. They knew not what they did. They were dupes.
Now US President Donald Trump was being accused of treason by a former head of the Central Intelligence Agency. That, to Putin, is useful.
Why would the former FSB chief not chuckle? There’s nothing like universal distrust and doubt at the highest levels in the leadership of the enemy to ensure a good night’s sleep.
Twenty years ago, a younger Putin, an expert on Eastern Germany, had seen the Soviet-dominated nations like Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria the Baltic states, slough off the Kremlin’s yoke and embrace democracy, membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union.
Russia’s military might had been spent. Its prestige diluted. The very idea of the Cominitern – international communism – buried by capitalism.
Mother Russia was barefoot and humiliated after the rapacious collapse of the Soviet Union in the ’90s.
Russia was powerless, it seemed, to stop Georgia and then Ukraine (homeland of the original Russ tribes!) flirting with membership of the NATO and European clubs.
There had to be another way to restore Russian pride and regional power. To get its presence felt in the world. Perhaps the West’s own power was its greatest weakness.
Nothing rots armor plating like complacency. Now that the West believed it had won, it was going to learn otherwise.
Touring Europe, Trump railed at NATO. He threatened to pull funding from the military alliance that has protected the West for 70 years. He’d even cast doubt on the doctrine of “an attack on one is an attack on all,” which had bonded big nation to small throughout the years of the Soviet threat.
With “enemies” like Trump, Vladimir Putin hardly needed friends.
Add to that the idea that the US President disrespected US intelligence and then backtracked on his very clear statement a day after and the scene becomes surreal.
Trump’s full-blown praise of Putin had become embarrassing.
No wonder Putin had intervened during the Helsinki press conference to put across the American view of his annexation of the Crimean peninsula.
It had to be tempered even by the Russian President himself. There was a danger of global incredulity at these incredible scenes.
But this has been a week of rich harvest for the Kremlin.
Chaos in Washington matched with tumult in the Mother of Parliaments, in London.
If there is one organization he detested, and feared, as much as NATO it is the European Union. It knitted together disparate nations into a vast democratic behemoth capable of swallowing and infecting Russia’s neighbors with its free trade and freedoms.
But, thanks to the British, it was now pulling itself apart.
Led by men who were unwilling, or unable, to see that whatever benefits they thought Britain leaving the EU could bring, those advantages were going to be met with parallel strategic benefits to Russia.
The EU would be weakened. Its centrifugal forces (with a little encouragement) could be exploited through nationalism, especially among the young democracies of Eastern Europe, which could be turned to look nostalgically back towards Moscow.
These movements would need charismatic champions. Men for whom truth is mutable, expertise to be shunned.
Take Boris Johnson, a perfect foil for Russian interests. A performer loved at home and derided abroad. A symbol of the very Western decadence Russia nationalists were encouraged to believe Putin protected them against.
Inexplicably anti-European, he’d risen to become the UK’s Foreign Secretary before resigning in a bid to smash existing Brexit plans. Yet he’s not published a word, not one coherent word, of how he saw an “independent” Britain making its way in the world.
Johnson is backed up by Nigel Farage, who is alleged to have links to WikiLeaks – itself linked to Russian intelligence operations.
And his campaign funding is now under police investigation while darkness surrounds the role of Russia in the whole farrago.
How utterly exquisite. Putin could not make this up – surely?
For Putin, chaos in the ranks of his enemies is victory. And without a shot being fired directly at NATO or the EU, nor any violence against America, there is chaos in Europe, Britian and America.
All driven by men who one could not say were traitors, nor even idiots, but they have been most useful – to Putin’s Russia.