Did the Russians Dupe Trump?
Putin has long used the pretext of counterterrorism cooperation to get what he wants from the West. It just paid off again.
In one way, it’s not exactly surprising that President Donald Trump reportedly shared with the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and ambassador Sergey Kislyak some “highly classified” information about a specific threat from ISIS, setting off alarm bells inside the intelligence community that the president himself had just “jeopardized a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State.” After all those kind words traded back and forth and awash in the good cheer that was evident in those now infamous photos of their meeting last week, he just seems to have overshared a little.
But one reason the alleged presidential disclosure is hugely significant—even aside from its likely impact on Trump’s already strained relationship with his own intelligence community, and the likelihood it will damage intelligence-sharing relationships America depends on—is that it is yet another fruit of a strategy the Kremlin has long stuck to: telling the West that Russia is its ally on counterterrorism. This was, after all, what the Kremlin said Putin and Trump had discussed on their call two weeks ago, and it is the one area of cooperation that Putin continues to hold out to the West.
It is a brilliant ploy. After every terrorist attack—Nice, Berlin, Paris—Putin reaches out and offers his empathy. He feels it, too, because he too knows the burden of fighting terrorists. Why not work together to defeat a common enemy? It is a difficult proposition to say no to. And it’s easy to see how Trump, who spent his whole campaign railing against the threat of “radical Islamic terrorism,” and who does not see the harm in being friendly with Russia, not only didn’t say no, but decided to really, truly cooperate and share some information he thought would be useful in their common mission. He seemed to say as much this morning, when he tweeted that, “As President I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety. Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism.”
It is brilliant because Putin has credibility on the subject. In fact, in some ways, Putin’s presidency was born out of the war on terror. He spent two years fighting the Islamist insurgents in Russia’s predominantly Muslim North Caucasus region before he felt the West really woke up to the issue. It is why, on September 11, 2001, he was the first foreign leader to call George W. Bush to express not just his concern, but his empathy and hope that the two countries could work together on this pressing issue. Throughout the following decades, both Russia and the West continued to do battle with the terrorism phenomenon, but Russia suffered the brunt of it: There were far more—and far more spectacular—attacks on Russian soil.
For a while, and especially as relations with George W. Bush and then Barack Obama soured, Putin and the Russians were deeply embittered by the West’s inability to understand the constant threat under which they lived. And there seemed to be little gratitude for the help that the Russian government did provide, like allowing NATO to use a transit point on its territory for Afghanistan-bound soldiers and materiel, and a Russian intelligence service’s warning U.S. authorities about the Tsarnaev brothers in 2011, two years before they detonated to bombs at the Boston Marathon.
But then Ukraine happened. Taking advantage of chaos in Kiev, Putin invaded and annexed Crimea in March 2014. The move, which shattered international law and norms, got some of Russia’s biggest companies—and Putin’s closest friends—slapped with U.S. and EU sanctions. Putin responded with counter-sanctions and, after years of trying to have a seat at the table, Russia found itself isolated from the West in a way it hadn’t been since Soviet times.
Desperate to break out of the isolation, Putin hit on masterful strategy just as Russia sent forces into Syria and a wave of terrorist attacks hit Europe in 2015. After the Paris attacks in November of that year, the Kremlin stopped obfuscating and dragging its feet, and admitted that the passenger plane full of Russians that exploded in the sky above Sharm el-Sheikh that October had in fact been downed by ISIS. The Kremlin also published part of a telegram Putin sent to then-French President Francois Hollande. “This tragedy is additional proof of the barbaric nature of terrorism that is posing a challenge to human civilization. It is obvious that to counter this evil effectively the entire international community needs to truly join efforts,” Putin wrote. “I would like to confirm the readiness of the Russian side to closely cooperate with our French partners in investigating the crime committed in Paris.”
The point was clearly that we are all facing one enemy, and it would be foolish to fight it separately. By July 2016, when a terrorist rammed a truck through a crowd in Nice, Putin cut to the chase and taped a video address to Hollande and the French. “Russia knows terrorism and the threat it creates for us all,” he said. “Our people have had to deal with similar tragedies many times, and we are deeply distressed at the news. We would like to express our sympathy and solidarity with the French nation. … I would like to stress again that only through a united effort can we defeat terrorism.”
Within the week, French jets were flying with the Russians over Syria, pounding ISIS targets. This reflected the achievement of one of Putin’s main goals in intervening in the Syrian conflict under the banner of counterterrorism: to force the West to grudgingly let him in from the cold in the common interest of fighting terrorism. Similar reasoning also explains why Russia—which mostly targets anti-Assad rebels, including those backed by the CIA, bombs UN aid convoys, and helps the Assad government lay siege to unruly cities—went after ISIS in only one place in Syria: Palmyra. The ancient monument of culture treasured and wept over by the West was chosen on purpose, as was the concert by the Mariinsky Symphony Orchestra among the remnants of Palmyra’s amphitheater. It sent a clear message: Russia is the only country willing to defend Western civilization from the savages. (At least until Russian and Syrian forces lost Palmyra.)
The point is, when Russia says it wants to cooperate with America on fighting terrorism, it is making a complex, and largely cynical, self-serving argument. But to realize that, one would have to understand the history and origins of this argument. The Obama administration mostly did, and it angered the Russians to no end. In Trump, the Russians have finally found an American president who will take their offer at face value and not ask too many questions. They also found an American president who simply wouldn’t know that, since 2014, counterterrorism cooperation with the Russians has been a one-way street.