Some of the basic premises of what Russia’s (Putin) viewpoint towards T…
Is he a useful tool, or something else? We all feel Russia has the upper hand with playing T.
“Putin runs the country based on trying to keep the rich people rich and compromised so that if they step out of line, he can crush them,” says John Sipher, a former CIA station chief in Moscow. The trick of this system is that the rich needn’t even be told that they’ve been compromised and that embarrassing details of their lives are kept in dossiers in the Lubyanka. The oligarchs simply assume that to be the case and act accordingly. The members of the Russian business elite are manipulated but uncontrolled assets whose outsize personalities and public profiles are best managed with a hands-off approach from the state.
It is in this light that questions uppermost since the peculiar spectacle of the Helsinki summit—“What do the Russians have on Donald Trump?” or “Is Donald Trump an agent of Moscow?”—are better examined. An American oligarch is the best way to define how the Russian establishment and security organs view Trump, according to Steven Hall:
Since Helsinki, this has been firmed up in my mind. I’d be very surprised if Trump was a standard intelligence recruit, the type of guy who’d meet his handler under a bridge in Vienna and who’d be paid for influence. There’s almost a commercial aspect to how the Russians deal with him rather than an asset-running one. It’s a trusted relationship with someone they can nudge without having to instruct or order.
Burton Gerber, a thirty-nine-year veteran of the CIA and mentor to both Hall and Sipher, agrees with this assessment. The notion of Trump in certain precincts of the media as a Manchurian candidate, a Russian asset owned and run by the Kremlin, is ridiculous, he argues:
Trump is basically a man with low self-esteem, which he has worked against by being a bully and a narcissist. His actions scream, “Take me, I’m yours if you’ll admire and compliment me.” The Russians would never want to recruit him, just continuously have access to him and be able to influence him.
Gerber compares Trump to Harry Hopkins, an architect of the New Deal whom the Soviets cajoled because of his closeness to Roosevelt, rather than to Alger Hiss, whom the KGB actively recruited as a spy within the US government. “If you’ve got someone like Trump, an agent of influence,” he asks, “why would you then try to make him more than what he is? It would be irresponsible from an intelligence point of view.”
After Helinski, a former Russian official told me that the Kremlin was actually worried now. They were expecting a statesmanlike and uneventful summit with platitudes but little by way of substantive agreements. However, so deferential was Trump toward Putin, the diplomat said, that the Russians were worried the White House or Congress would have no choice but to retaliate by passing more sanctions. (In the event, the president seemed to opt for threatening all-caps war with Iran on Twitter, perhaps to distract from his self-abasing performance in Finland and his own party’s embarrassment from it, which forced him to postpone a proposed follow-up meeting with Putin at the White House.)
Trump was reportedly livid that his Putin-hugging in Helsinki had not played better at home. Unlike Harry Hopkins, Trump cares nothing for social safety nets and is not motivated by ideology, only ego and a self-image as the great deal-maker, the ultimate winner. “The world is made up of people with either killer instincts or without killer instincts,” he told TV presenter Rona Barrett in 1980. “And people that seem to emerge are the people that are competitive and driven and with a certain instinct to win.”