Vladimir Putin’s motives

Update, March 14, 2018: I have previously expressed deep skepticism regarding accusations that Russia meddled in the 2016 U.S. election in favor of Donald Trump.[1] While proof for these claims remains yet to be had, it is much less reasonable[2] to think that Rex Tillerson’s termination[3] is unconnected to his comments on Russia’s culpability in a nerve agent attack in Britain.[4] I am now compelled to accept as probable the worst suspicions about Trump’s alleged relationship with Russia which, by the way, do not necessarily involve voluntary collusion, but may rather entail collusion under duress. And because Trump is so shameless, I’m now deeply suspicious that this involves something rather more serious than “golden showers.”[5]


This is the kind of topic I never really want to get into. I’m not a psychologist. But for me, claims that the Russian government interfered with the U.S. presidential election require a demonstration of evidence and motive.

The evidence is shaky at best. First, it’s all classified, which means we can’t examine it, the methods used to obtain it, or the reasoning used to reach its conclusions.[6] Then there’s the whole Cold War history, of which this smells too much like a continuation, of demonization of then, the Soviet Union, and now, Russia.[7] Then there’s the oddity that the claim is that the Russians “hacked” into Democratic National Committee servers, of which the National Security Agency should have hard evidence, when the evidence is reportedly circumstantial.[8]

In my previous blog post, I also wrote that I hadn’t seen “a plausible, compelling motive for [Russian President Vladimir] Putin”[9] In an update (which I will now change to point to this posting), however, I wrote,

It turns out that Fiona Hill covered the question of Putin’s motive in Vox in July.[10] I have been distrustful of Vox in recent months on anything having to do with the U.S. presidential election because, like other outlets, it appeared to have degenerated to functioning as a propaganda organ for Hillary Clinton’s campaign,[11] and I am dissatisfied with some of Hill’s evidence, how she pulls it together, and with her reliance on innuendo with regard to Putin “still think[ing] and act[ing] like a KGB operative,”[12] but there is substance here. Is this substance compelling? I’m still thinking about that.

So here I am, attempting to evaluate the motives of someone I don’t know. Oh, joy.

Fiona Hill offers three major reasons for Putin to interfere in the U.S. election. First, she says, “Putin thinks the US already did it to him first;” second, she says, “Putin thinks and acts like a KGB operative;” and third, she says, “Putin wants a weakened US presidency.”[13] We may immediately discard the second of these as innuendo and speculation. From an intellectual perspective, this is garbage, and Hill ought to be ashamed of herself for writing it. Her supporting text doesn’t help.

The first reason, that “Putin thinks the US already did it to him first”[14] is a bit more interesting. Mainly because the Clintons’ relationship with Russia is more complicated than Hill allows. It seems “the Russian atomic energy agency, Rosatom, had taken over a Canadian company with uranium-mining stakes stretching from Central Asia to the American West . . .  in three separate transactions from 2009 to 2013.” That Canadian company, Uranium One, apparently “control[led] of one-fifth of all uranium production capacity in the United States.” And so the U.S. government, including Hillary Clinton’s State Department, had to approve the deal. Meanwhile, “a flow of cash made its way to the Clinton Foundation. Uranium One’s chairman used his family foundation to make four donations totaling $2.35 million” and “[Bill] Clinton received $500,000 for a Moscow speech from a Russian investment bank with links to the Kremlin that was promoting Uranium One stock.” Naturally, the Clintons’ advocates deny that there was any connection between donations to the Clinton Foundation and U.S. approval.[15]

But Hill claims that

As far as Putin and his inner circle are concerned, it was the United States that moved first to meddle in Russian politics when Putin decided to return for a third term. In 2011-’12, Russian demonstrators took to the streets to protest electoral violations in the parliamentary elections and the lack of alternative candidates to Putin in the presidential election. Putin and his inner circle believed the US was to blame. Putin even asserted that then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had either incited or directly financed the demonstrations.[16]

Please notice the timing. Putin is allegedly furious with the Clintons at the same time his government is funneling money to their foundation.

The supporting text for the third of Hill’s reasons, that “Putin wants a weakened US presidency,” really amounts to Putin holding misogynistic attitudes toward Hillary Clinton and having a grudge toward her. Whatever we may think about whether or not Putin is misogynistic, we’re really back to Hill’s first reason.

The uranium deal was apparently of some considerable importance to Putin.[17] So it’s possible he expresses his fury in a cold and calculated way, waiting until the deal has been fully consummated before sticking a knife in her presidential ambitions. It’s possible that because he had this sweet deal going on with the Clintons, he felt all the more betrayed by rhetoric about the Russian election. But, Hill writes,

Whatever his personal preferences, though, Putin cannot reasonably expect to influence the outcome of the US presidential election. The best he can hope for is to reduce the ability of whoever comes into the Oval Office to pursue policies that are detrimental to Putin’s and Russia’s interests.[18]

She goes on to argue that Putin wants economic sanctions, imposed following the Russian annexation of Crimea and its support for rebels in eastern Ukraine, lifted.[19] Undoubtedly, he does, although these sanctions are also imposed by Europe and to regard European governments merely as U.S. puppets, especially in this matter, is surely far too naïve and far too simplistic.

The thing is, Putin doesn’t need to lift a finger to weaken the U.S. presidency. The current polarization in U.S. politics likely stems from the U.S. Civil War and needs no stoking from outside. Indeed, an external threat can only help to unify the country, ameliorating that polarization. The smartest thing Putin can do to advance this end is to keep the fuck out.

My own judgment here relies on my personal estimation of Putin. I’m inclined to credit him with some intelligence, some ruthlessness, and certainly some cold calculatingness that Hill’s first reason would seem to require. But the available evidence that he actually did intervene falls short and I’m leaning toward thinking he’s wise enough to let the U.S. political system churn. I can’t see how this system can continue to hold together with two sides each determined to deny the legitimacy of the other. Pointing fingers outside, as Hill seems inclined to do, is simply a diversion from this very real, profound problem.

  1. [1]David Benfell, “Blaming the Russians,” Not Housebroken, December 17, 2016, https://disunitedstates.org/2016/12/12/blaming-the-russians/; David Benfell, “Vladimir Putin’s motives,” Not Housebroken, December 17, 2016, https://disunitedstates.org/2016/12/15/vladimir-putins-motives/
  2. [2]John Cassidy, “Rex Tillerson Gets Fired the Day After He Criticized Russia,” New Yorker, March 13, 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/rex-tillerson-gets-fired-the-day-after-he-criticized-russia; Jonathan Chait, “Trump Denies Russian Guilt in Murder. Tillerson Admits It, Is Fired. Hmm,” New York, March 13, 2018, http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2018/03/trump-russia-innocent-rex-no-guilty-trump-youre-fired.html
  3. [3]Ashley Parker et al., “Trump ousts Tillerson, will replace him as secretary of state with CIA chief Pompeo,” Washington Post, March 13, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-ousts-tillerson-will-replace-him-as-secretary-of-state-with-cia-chief-pompeo/2018/03/13/30f34eea-26ba-11e8-b79d-f3d931db7f68_story.html
  4. [4]British Broadcasting Corporation, “Russian spy: UK to expel 23 Russian diplomats,” March 14, 2018, http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-43402506
  5. [5]Greg Myre, “A Russian Word Americans Need To Know: ‘Kompromat,'” National Public Radio, January 11, 2017, http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2017/01/11/509305088/a-russian-word-americans-need-to-know-kompromat; Jeff Stein, “Trump, Russian Spies and the Infamous ‘Golden Shower Memos,’” Newsweek, January 10, 2017, http://www.newsweek.com/trump-russian-spies-infamous-golden-shower-memos-541315
  6. [6]David Benfell, “Blaming the Russians,” Not Housebroken, December 15, 2016, https://disunitedstates.org/?p=9151
  7. [7]Andrew Cockburn, “The New Red Scare: Reviving the art of threat inflation,” Harper’s, December, 2016, http://harpers.org/archive/2016/12/the-new-red-scare/
  8. [8]William Binney, et al., “US Intel Vets Dispute Russia Hacking Claims,” Consortium News, December 12, 2016, https://consortiumnews.com/2016/12/12/us-intel-vets-dispute-russia-hacking-claims/
  9. [9]David Benfell, “Blaming the Russians,” Not Housebroken, December 15, 2016, https://disunitedstates.org/?p=9151
  10. [10]Fiona Hill, “3 reasons Russia’s Vladimir Putin might want to interfere in the US presidential elections,” Vox, July 27, 2016, http://www.vox.com/2016/7/27/12304448/putin-elections-dnc-hack
  11. [11]Thomas Frank, “Donald Trump is moving to the White House, and liberals put him there,” Guardian, November 9, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/nov/09/donald-trump-white-house-hillary-clinton-liberals
  12. [12]Fiona Hill, “3 reasons Russia’s Vladimir Putin might want to interfere in the US presidential elections,” Vox, July 27, 2016, http://www.vox.com/2016/7/27/12304448/putin-elections-dnc-hack
  13. [13]Fiona Hill, “3 reasons Russia’s Vladimir Putin might want to interfere in the US presidential elections,” Vox, July 27, 2016, http://www.vox.com/2016/7/27/12304448/putin-elections-dnc-hack
  14. [14]Fiona Hill, “3 reasons Russia’s Vladimir Putin might want to interfere in the US presidential elections,” Vox, July 27, 2016, http://www.vox.com/2016/7/27/12304448/putin-elections-dnc-hack
  15. [15]Jo Becker and Mike McIntire, “Cash Flowed to Clinton Foundation Amid Russian Uranium Deal,” New York Times, April 23, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/24/us/cash-flowed-to-clinton-foundation-as-russians-pressed-for-control-of-uranium-company.html
  16. [16]Fiona Hill, “3 reasons Russia’s Vladimir Putin might want to interfere in the US presidential elections,” Vox, July 27, 2016, http://www.vox.com/2016/7/27/12304448/putin-elections-dnc-hack
  17. [17]Jo Becker and Mike McIntire, “Cash Flowed to Clinton Foundation Amid Russian Uranium Deal,” New York Times, April 23, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/24/us/cash-flowed-to-clinton-foundation-as-russians-pressed-for-control-of-uranium-company.html
  18. [18]Fiona Hill, “3 reasons Russia’s Vladimir Putin might want to interfere in the US presidential elections,” Vox, July 27, 2016, http://www.vox.com/2016/7/27/12304448/putin-elections-dnc-hack
  19. [19]Fiona Hill, “3 reasons Russia’s Vladimir Putin might want to interfere in the US presidential elections,” Vox, July 27, 2016, http://www.vox.com/2016/7/27/12304448/putin-elections-dnc-hack

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