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For Trump, the Russia problem will linger

Published : Feb 16, 2017, 3:26 am IST
Updated : Feb 16, 2017, 4:00 am IST

The new President’s refusal to utter so much as a word against the Kremlin is nonetheless most intriguing.

US President Donald Trump (Photo: AP)
 US President Donald Trump (Photo: AP)

A couple of weeks ago, in an appearance on his favourite news channel, Donald Trump was queried about his infatuation with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. “Well, I do respect him. Well, I respect a lot of people, but that doesn’t mean I’ll get along with them,” the US President told Fox News host Bill O’Reilly.

The Murdoch channel’s leading attack dog refused to be deflected. “Putin is a killer,” he persisted. A fascinating presidential response followed. “There are a lot of killers,” Trump accurately replied. “We have a lot of killers. Well, you think our country is so innocent?”

That inevitably served as a cue for predictable howls of outrage, including from the Republican side of politics. How dare the President points towards moral equivalence between American and Russian state operations! Which side is he on anyway?

Neither O’Reilly nor Trump clarified his context, although it’s likely that the Fox News host was referring to the tendency of Putin’s more potent opponents to come to a sticky end rather than, say, Russian military actions in Syria, Ukraine or Chechnya, whereas what Trump had in mind was indeed American operations abroad. After all, he had only recently authorised a US raid in Yemen that killed more civilians — including 10 children — than purported Al Qaeda terrorists.

Just a couple of months ago,  Barack Obama’s UN ambassador, Samantha Powers, had a go at Russia over its atrocities in Aleppo, citing a litany of massacres  but excluding any of the mass atrocities that her nation perpetrated or in which it was complicit.

Notwithstanding Trump’s offhand remarks to O’Reilly, there are no solid grounds for assuming that his presidency signifies a decisive shift from the monumental hypocrisy that has all too often guided American foreign policy in the past.

The new President’s refusal to utter so much as a word against the Kremlin is nonetheless most intriguing. It is possible that his shining admiration for Putin merely echoes that of other far-right outfits, from Europe and the Middle East to Australia. Even Trump probably knows that, unlike Putin, he cannot arrange for his inveterate opponents to be silenced with a bullet or a dose of poison, but it’s not hard to imagine him wishing he enjoyed the same clout over the judiciary that enables the Russian leader to hobble outspoken rivals.

Could there be some truth to the allegation that Putin possesses compromising recordings that, if revealed, would necessitate a prexit? We simply don’t know. Perhaps even Trump can’t be sure. But the suspicion alone would suffice for him to be extremely careful in what he says about Russia.

However, if relaxing sanctions against Russia over its capture of the Crimea and activities in Ukraine was part of any deal, it has been jeopardised by recent revelations that Michael Flynn, who subsequently became Trump’s national security adviser, discussed the issue during several phone conversations with the Russian ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak, late last year.

Embarrassed by the leak, the White House has refused to stand up for Flynn, who, on Monday night, became the first casualty in a demonstrably dysfunctional administration. As a loyal Trump supporter, though, he can probably be relied on to remain silent.

Either way, Trump will now find it exceedingly difficult to remove or ease the sanctions against Russia, whether or not that was part of his understanding with Putin.

He has threatened, meanwhile, to reinstate in some form the ban on visitors, immigrants and refugees from seven mainly Muslim countries that has been thwarted by three federal court judgments. In other spheres, though, the President has demonstrated an unexpected capacity for somersaults.

He has effectively vowed not to undermine the one-China policy, after indications that he would do the opposite. The desire to shift the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has been relegated to the too-hard basket for the moment, and the initial determination that Israeli land grabs in occupied Palestinian territory weren’t a barrier to peace has been somewhat more realistically reassessed.

The willingness to retreat from ridiculous positions is obviously welcome, even though it simultaneously points towards an unnerving indecisiveness, with the chief executive apparently swayed by the latest advice, but perfectly capable of going back on his word with little or no warning.

It could be a while before the consequences of his massive deregulation plan trickle down to his working-class constituency, but once they do the anti-presidential clamour could become deafening.

By arrangement with Dawn

Tags: vladimir putin, donald trump, fox news, barack obama