Shahid M Amin
THE new US President Donald Trump has had a Russian connection; and he has repeatedly expressed admiration for President Putin. This is a curious situation, considering that the US and Russia under Putin are seen as antagonists and are presently at loggerheads in Syria, Ukraine and elsewhere. Opinion polls in both countries show that the two sides see each other as rivals or even as enemies. Against this background, how is it that Trump has a soft corner for Russia and speaks admiringly of Putin? Likely explanation for this paradox is business interests of Trump. Investigative journalism in US and elsewhere has traced some financial dealings during last two decades involving Trump and businessmen from ex-Soviet Union. These businessmen are either from Russia or from Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, which were formerly part of the Soviet Union. Trump is a billionaire who has made his fortune mainly in real estate. However, many of his business deals had ended in failure and some of them led to bankruptcies. Fact that he still managed to survive these business failures could well be because he found Russian financiers.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia went through a painful transition, from a state-controlled economy to a free enterprise system. Under President Yeltsin, the first few years saw great hardship in Russia as prices shot up and savings were wiped out. State enterprises were privatized in a chaotic manner, allowing many individuals with government links to make big fortunes. Big sectors of the economy were sold out at throw-away prices. Overnight, huge profits were made and about 25 oligarchs/billionaires emerged, some of whom had mafia links. Yeltsin’s popularity was abysmally low but, in the 1996 election, the Western-dominated financial institutions bailed him out to help him win the presidential election. The West had clearly intervened in the domestic affairs of Russia to prevent the return of Communist rule. After power passed from Yeltsin to Putin, the economy has stabilized but big Russian businessmen have learnt to their cost that even physical survival is difficult if they run foul of Putin. In the process, many experts believe that Putin has made a personal fortune through shady links with big businessmen.
Another important development after the collapse of the Soviet Union has been the massive flight of oligarchic capital to other countries, not only from Russia but also from some ex-Soviet republics, which process is continuing even now. Such capital has gone to Dubai, USA and elsewhere. The evidence collected by journalists shows that Donald Trump benefitted from such capital flight to resurrect his own dwindling business. Around 2000, Trump had suffered a string of six successive bankruptcies. The illicit outflows from Russia and oil-rich former Soviet republics provided precisely the kind of undiscriminating investors that he needed to boost his real estate and casino ventures. This seems to be the reason for Trump’s soft corner for Russia and its autocratic leader. It should, however, be noted that Trump has repeatedly denied any shady business dealings with the Russians. He claims that he admires Putin as a strong, decisive leader (which is a dig at Obama’s allegedly weak leadership).
Putin also made no secret of his liking for Trump and his distrust of Hillary Clinton during the recent US presidential campaign. This was a clear breach of an established principle in international relations of non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs. But much more serious are the recent allegations of Russian efforts to influence the US election in favour of Trump. American intelligence agencies and other sources have confirmed that there was Russian hacking of Hillary’s emails, sent during the period she was Secretary of State (2009-2013). The release of some of these emails did hurt Hillary and could have been a contributing factor in her narrow defeat. Hillary reportedly used personal email accounts on the government channel and some of the emails contained classified State Department information. Russia has also been accused of resorting to other actions to defame Hillary such as hacking the Democratic Party office and leaking its documents to WikiLeaks. Moscow has categorically rejected these allegations and Trump has dismissed them out-of-hand as a fabrication.
Russian interference in favour of Trump during the election has angered US opinion and even some top Republican leaders have condemned Moscow’s role and called for a bipartisan investigation of these accusations. Obama has also spoken personally to Putin to protest against this Russian interference. On December 29, 2016, the US imposed the most extensive sanctions against Russia since Cold War. Obama’s decision, in the last few days of his presidentcy, to declare 35 Russian diplomats as persona non grata and order them to leave US within 72 hours has jolted US-Russia relations. Obama stated that “these actions follow repeated private and public warnings and are a necessary and appropriate response to efforts to harm US interests in violation of established international norms of behaviour.”
The expulsion of Russian diplomats would normally have brought a tit-for-tat response from Moscow. Instead, Putin has decided not to retaliate, probably in the expectation that Trump, after he takes over, would cancel these orders. Putin’s restraint drew praise from Trump who stated that “I always knew he was very smart.” However, the issue of Russian interference is not likely to disappear from the horizon and the US Congress would continue its investigations. In case Russian involvement is proved, this could become very embarrassing for President Trump. However, it should not be forgotten that there was also US interference in favour of Yeltsin in the 1996 Russian election.
The more important point to note is that, under Trump, US-Russia relations might improve significantly. That would be good for global peace, as the present trajectory has been pointing towards increasing tension between Russia and the USA, with some analysts predicting a new Cold War or even worse. In the immediate context, any improvement in US-Russia relations could help end the terrible bloodshed in Syria. The civil war in that country has turned into a war of proxies by regional powers as well as the US and Russia. However, there remains much uncertainty as to what will happen under President Trump.
— The writer served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, the ex-Soviet Union, France, Nigeria and Libya.