Espionage is a dangerous game. Even the attempt to suborn one senior official of a foreign power is filled with danger for all involved. Allegations of the mass compromising of members of the United States Executive Branch are unprecedented. Usually, this is the kind of thing bad novels are made of. Except, alas, there is abundant evidence in the public sphere that, at the very least, the attempt was made, beginning many months ago. Considering the business ties our current President has enjoyed in Russia over recent years, it hardly seems outside the realm of possibility those ties could lead to some attempt at turning what may well have been considered a valuable “asset” in the United States.
At the same time, something as massive as what at least appears to have happened to key people in the Trump Administration, up to and including the President himself, begs many questions. The most important, of course, is “Why?” Why expend the energy and resources working with a series of what should appear to anyone outside the twisted minds of the American far right as people of dubious character and even more dubious intelligence? While it would certainly be a coup de main to alter the outcome of an American Presidential election, in and of itself that hardly seems like a goal the Russians would pursue. For months now, I have been wondering about their end game. What in the world do the Russians get by nabbing senior American officials at this moment in time? There has to be more than just some kind of espionage gold medal.
It certainly couldn’t be just having such highly placed assets. Ever since Aldrich Ames, I’m quite sure the US Intelligence Community has instituted all sorts of changes and checks to make sure such a deep penetration of our spy agencies is far more difficult. That senior American officials might well be under scrutiny makes more than a little sense. When it comes to turning foreign officials, spies, and other people, the Russians have always been the best. That whole “constant vigilance” thing certainly applies. So having low-level persons, mid-level persons, providing information to Russia is kind of to be expected. Nabbing a group of folks inside the White House and Executive Branch? That would be great, but such persons so dangerously exposed and (as it turns out) easily discovered it makes sense only if the goal isn’t, or isn’t only, gathering information.
Ever since the Russian invasion and annexation of The Crimea, Russian military adventurism has expanded a great deal. For several of the past years, Russian fighters have been playing chicken with our polar borders, seeing just how close they could get before tripping American ROE. It hasn’t been just the United States, however. Russian jets have been buzzing the Nordic and Baltic states as well, with Russian military maneuvers a tad too close to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania for them to rest comfortably. While the invasion of the Crimea went like clockwork for the Russians, getting facts on the ground ahead of any serious attempt at Ukrainian reprisal, their larger efforts following attempted invasions of eastern Ukraine, have been abysmal failures. Enlisting ethnic Russians who are sympathetic to a possible Russian annexation has only brought more problems, including allegations of shooting down passenger jets. It’s important to look carefully at all aspects of Russian military capability. They are certainly a menace with a very large conventional army and sophisticated air assets, in particular their helicopters and fighter jets. They also possess nuclear weapons, which should make anyone considering the possibility of Russian military action nervous.
This past week, I heard the Sweden has reinstituted the draft.
In recent years, Sweden has alleged breaches of its airspace by Russian fighter jets and aggressive Russian activity in the Baltic Sea. In 2015, Wilhelm Unge, the head of Sweden’s intelligence agency Säpo, estimated that one-third of the diplomats working in the Russian embassy in Stockholm were spies. Following the publication of a similar report by Säpo last year, Sweden reportedly sustained a series of cyberattacks that it attributed to Russia.
In addition to the renascent conscription, regional hostilities are also having an effect on public opinion in Sweden. In 2014, a poll found that a majority of Swedes supported joining NATO for the first time ever. Two years earlier, that figure had been a paltry 17 percent. Meanwhile, military spending in the country, which dropped from 2.6 percent of the GDP in 1991 to 1.1 percent in 2015, went up 11 percent last year.
It isn’t just Sweden.
After scrapping conscription in 2008, Lithuania, which is a NATO member, reinstituted the draft in 2015 for men in the 19-to-26 age group. (Facing a pro-Russian insurgency in the east, Ukraine also reintroduced conscription in 2014, just months after suspending it.) Unsurprisingly, Sweden’s new conscription protocol will take some of its inspiration from neighboring Norway, which features one of few gender-neutral fighting forces in the world. Its first enlistment begins in July and will draw from a pool of men and women born in 1999.
So nerves in Northern and Northeastern Europe are taught. American forces have moved to join their NATO allies in Poland, as a direct response to Russian aggression, according to the UK Independent. While relatively small in number – only about 4,000 – Russia promptly denounced the deployment as “aggressive”, to which I’m quite sure the then-Obama Administration probably shrugged and smiled. It seems clear the Russians are looking toward some kind of attempt at a military restoration of the old Soviet borders. Putin has been pretty clear throughout his years in office this has been a goal. The one thing preventing him from moving west through the Balkans and Nordic countries is, at it has always been, NATO.
Since last summer when candidate Trump started questioning the relevance and necessity of NATO, including criticizing those NATO countries he insisted weren’t “paying their fair share”, it’s been clear to most who connected the dots between his public flirtations with Putin and Russia and a far-too-casual dismissal of NATO effectiveness, this would portend poorly for NATO cohesion and effectiveness. Now, with a threat looming to their east, NATO needs the United States prepared, united, and resolute to deter any Russian aggression.
Alas, we are without a doubt in the midst of some of the worst political chaos in our history. The Executive Branch, from the inner workings of the White House down through the various departments, are in obvious turmoil, lacking both direction and upper-level Assistant and Under-Secretaries necessary for the smooth operation of government. Meanwhile, Congress is currently led by two men hopelessly compromised by their own weaknesses. House Speaker Paul Ryan has never been an example of strength. Indeed, his entire adult life has been one of sycophancy toward those in power. In a position of power himself, he is utterly lost. The only person to whom sycophancy makes any sense for Ryan is the President. This leaves the third highest Constitutional Office effectively useless as a check on the Executive. Meanwhile, in the United States Senate, Mitch McConnell is little more than a latter-day Stanley Baldwin*. The legislative branch of government, designed by our Constitutional framers as primer inter pares among the three parts of our federal government, is for all intents and purposes incapable of any effective action.
Meanwhile, from the Office of the President on down, the White House is a mixture of imbecility, ridiculousness, infighting, and utter confusion. We have a President who is almost comically unsuited to the office. His senior advisors include conspiracy mongers, white nationalists, and sycophants quite willing to sell their souls in order to hold positions of authority. Our National Security apparatus is hobbled, despite the recent appointment of Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster as National Security Advisor. More than capable, appointing Russian hawks as some of his key advisors, he does not yet have direct access to the Office of the President.
It was yesterday, however, when there was a little “click” in my head. In the early morning hours, Trump took to Twitter to accuse former President Obama of “bugging” Trump Tower prior to the election. Over the course of the day, what was little more than yet one more of Trumps ridiculous Tweets became the political story of the day. People on the left ranged from those who insisted a FISA warrant for Trump Tower, or Trump, or Trump’s associates, or something else, was old news just revealed by the President to those who insisted this is nothing more than a planned distraction from “the real issue”**. On the right, of course, are demands that President Obama be “investigated” for what people are already calling “Obamagate”. The Washington Press Corps is all over all of this, which leaves so much that needs attention outside anyone’s line of sight.
Yes, the reality of our Executive Branch compromised by Russian intelligence is serious business. There is more than abundant evidence the outcome of the 2016 Presidential election was undermined by Russian intelligence. In a normal time, the impeachment and removal of President Trump would be swift and easy. The combination of weakness in Congress, chaos in the Executive, and a significant minority of the public somehow believing that Obama is plotting a coup against Trump, however, makes the events of yesterday only more fuel to the chaotic fire that rages in Washington.
Putin’s end game is, or should be, pretty clear. He doesn’t care about any information the folks in the Executive Branch can grant him. Russian state media has not been shy echoing the Trump Administration’s line regarding alleged press and Democratic “persecution” of the President, leaving little doubt they do not care in the least about looks. They have what they want: A United States at all but fighting war with itself.
Any deterrence the United States might pose for Russian military action is now lost. Our Commander-in-Chief is a hopeless, helpless child. There is no direction from the top; if there were, the lack of any coherence would make such direction extremely difficult to push through a broken bureaucracy. Not only are the Russians happy to leave compromised American officials dangle in the wind; eight Russian diplomats, including long-serving, high-ranking people like the Russian Ambassador to the United Nations, have died under mysterious circumstances (please read: “They were murdered”) since the election. These officials are alleged to have been connected to various people in the former Trump campaign, Trump transition team, and Trump Administration. Russian President Vladimir Putin isn’t shy about leaving no loose ends.
What was Putin’s end game? Quite simply, neutering any effective American participation in a NATO response to Russian military action in the Nordic countries and Baltic States. Trump and company’s only benefit as assets is the chaos we currently live with each day. The US State Department has few senior diplomats capable of dealing with what might well become an impending crisis in Europe. The command and control of our military is hobbled. The American press and public are utterly absorbed and distracted by the shenanigans in the White House.
And the clock seems to be ticking. The window during which effective American diplomatic and military action and preparation would prevent what might well turn into a broad war in Europe is closing fast. Most of America is unaware of the impending danger. It might still be possible to act to prevent such a horror from occurring, but we aren’t blessed with anyone capable of cutting through the nonsense to make that point clearly and loudly. As self-absorbed and unbalanced as our Chief Executive, the United States – the one essential country – is at a point of weakness not seen since the years leading up to World War II. This is a threat to the whole world. We need to pay attention lest we are caught off-guard by a sudden cataclysm.
*Stanley Baldwin was the British Prime Minister during most of the 1930’s. As the Germans began to regain strength, Baldwin did all he could to ignore the evidence before him. Famously, after the Anschluss of Austria, as Parliament debated the issue, Baldwin revealed quite baldly and honestly, that he had put the Tories above the nation, fearing the loss of seats should he begin to warn the British of possible German military adventurism. Baldwin’s fiddling while Rome burned left Britain woefully unprepared for what was to come.
**My rule, to which I so wish others would assent, is that neither Trump nor his advisors are either intelligent or savvy enough to think up something as clever as “distractions” from “real issues”. These folks are, to be blunt, pretty fucking stupid and cleverness is not one of their virtues.