Russia reaps windfalls of Trump’s chaos

In Roman times, judges would ask: cui bono — who benefits? When asked of Donald Trump’s erratic foreign policy, the answer is troubling. The biggest winner of Mr Trump’s “America First” doctrine is Russia, not the US. Mr Trump’s own yardstick yields poor results. It is hard to measure whether he has made America great again. But he is missing his specific goals.

America’s trade deficit with China last year was a fifth larger than in Barack Obama’s last year in office. Its global trade gap last year was $148bn higher than in 2016. Germany’s defence spending, meanwhile, is set to fall. At 69 per cent, America’s share of Nato spending is unchanged.

Such results offer little to brag about. The same applies to the diplomatic coups Mr Trump is trying to pull off. The biggest are a nuclear deal with Kim Jong Un’s North Korea, a new Iran agreement to replace the nuclear one struck by Mr Obama and the “deal of the century” between Israel and the Palestinians. Each is in trouble.

North Korea has said it will resume long-range missile tests unless the US lifts sanctions before the end of the year. Mr Trump would be hard pushed to confront a dictator with whom he has exchanged “love letters”. Iran shows no signs of buckling to US sanctions. Hassan Rouhani, Mr Trump’s counterpart, has rejected overtures to meet. Likewise, the first effort to spark regional interest in an Arab-Israeli deal fell flat in Bahrain this year.

By Mr Trump’s calculation — and as he declared to the UN general assembly — his presidency is the most successful in US history. That is certainly true from Russia’s point of view. Mr Trump’s two current crises — the fallout from withdrawing US troops from Syria and his impeachment inquiry — are big windfalls for Russia.

It is hard to imagine a better public relations coup for Vladimir Putin than America’s whirlwind exit from northern Syria. Russian television cameras lingered over “emergency exit” signs and half-eaten meals in the evacuated US bases. The Kurds, America’s most loyal regional ally, quickly switched their fealty to Russia. Bashar al-Assad can now cement his control over Syria, while Turkey is moving closer to Russia (and nearer to quitting Nato). In chess terms, Mr Trump has just handed Mr Putin a bishop. The Kurds are mere pawns.

Mr Trump’s impeachment battle is a political crisis in the US. It is an existential one for Ukraine. The latter is barely an after-thought in Washington DC but is at the forefront of Russian minds. A week after “Ukrainegate” erupted, Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, conceded elections in the Donbass, the country’s eastern region, which is riddled with Russian proxy forces. Until now, the move was resisted by Ukraine since there could be no free elections without Russian withdrawal. The concession has tarnished Mr Zelensky’s young presidency and damaged Ukraine’s chances of thriving independently. Yet Mr Trump left Kiev with little choice. Ukraine borders Russia. It can only stand up with America’s help. In Russian eyes, Ukraine is a far bigger chess piece than Syria.

Both these events took place in the past fortnight. Taken as a whole, Mr Trump’s presidency has been a dramatic advance for Russia. In August, Mr Trump said Russia should be readmitted to the G7. Russia was kicked out in 2014 after it annexed Crimea. Its most valuable gain is strategic rather than geographic.

Under Mr Trump, the US looks like another big power that no longer pretends to be exceptional. As William Burns, a former senior US diplomat, and head of the Carnegie Endowment, wrote in Foreign Affairs this week: “Trump has affirmed Putin’s long-held conviction — shared by autocrats the world over — that Americans are as venal and self-absorbed as they are, just more hypocritical about it.” Mr Trump has simply dropped the pretence.

Many Americans are convinced that Mr Putin holds kompromat — blackmail material — over Mr Trump. That is possible. It offers a clean explanation for Mr Trump’s un-American foreign policy. That is also the most comforting theory. The alternative is the stuff of insomnia. Instead of suffering an aberration, which can be remedied with Mr Trump’s removal, America is turning into a normal big power. Whichever explanation is true, Russia is happily benefiting.

edward.luce@ft.com

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