Russia has yet to collect much of what it hoped for from the Trump Administration, including the lifting of US sanctions and recognition of its annexation of Crimea.
But the Kremlin has got a different return on its effort to help elect Donald Trump in last year’s election: chaos in Washington, DC.
The President’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey was the latest destabilising jolt to a core institution of the US government. The nation’s top law enforcement agency joined a list of entities that Trump has targeted, including federal judges, US spy services, news organisations and military alliances.
The instability, although driven by Trump, has in some ways extended and amplified the effect Russia sought to achieve with its unprecedented campaign to undermine the 2016 presidential race.
In a declassified report released this year, US spy agencies described destabilisation as one of the Russian President Vladimir Putin’s objectives.
“The Kremlin sought to advance its longstanding desire to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order,” it said.
Russia’s “active measures” campaign ended with the election last year. But Comey’s firing triggered a new wave of Russia-related turbulence.
His removal was perceived as a blow to the independence of the bureau’s ongoing investigation of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. Even if that probe remains on track, current and former US officials said that Comey’s ouster serves broader Russian interests. “They feel pretty good overall because that’s a further sign that our political system is in a real crisis,” said Eugene Rumer, a former State Department Russia expert. “The firing of Comey only aggravates this crisis. It’s now certain to be more protracted and more painful.”
James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, offered a similar assessment in Senate testimony last week, even before Comey was dismissed, saying: “The Russians have to be celebrating the success of . . . what they set out do with rather minimal resource expenditure. The first objective was to sow discord and dissension, which they certainly did”.
Trump’s policies towards Russia have taken a harder line in part because of the influence of senior officials, including Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and CIA Director Mike Pompeo. Trump himself continues to send pro-Russia signals. One day after firing Comey, Trump welcomed Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, to the White House. US news agencies were barred from attending but a photographer for Russia’s Tass was granted access to the Oval Office.
Russian officials have denied the country meddled in the US election and while Trump’s defenders acknowledge that he seeks improved relations with Moscow, they insist his goals are designed entirely to advance US interests. They point to criticism of Moscow by senior officials, strained diplomatic relations on key issues and Trump’s decision to order a missile strike on an air base in Syria.
But critics argue that many of Trump’s foreign policy positions undercut US influence overseas and, as a result, strengthen Moscow – his effective endorsement of Marine Le Pen in France; his effort to impose an immigration ban on Muslim-majority countries; and his threats, since softened, to restructure Nato.
Trump tweeted: “The Russia-Trump collusion story is a total hoax, when will this taxpayer funded charade end?” The implication that the FBI would perpetuate an unwarranted investigation out of political animus echoes other instances in which Trump has disparaged US institutions or principles.
US intelligence officials said such comments bolster the case that Putin makes against Western democracies. “It plays into the idea that we are as corrupt as anybody else, that what the US is exporting isn’t something you want,” said a former senior US intelligence official.
“What [the Russians] are getting now is more positive than what they had under [President Barack] Obama and what they feared under [Hillary] Clinton. It’s not pro-Russia, but it’s certainly not anti-Russia. It’s more a kind of chaos. And that does benefit them.”
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