Whilst US President Donald Trump battles the US intelligence community and the US elite, the foreign leader he most wants to deal with – Russia’s President Putin – has been addressing the senior staff of the organisation he once headed, Russia’s counter-terrorism and counter-intelligence agency, the FSB.
Whilst it is all too tempting to contrast President Putin’s complete control of his government and intelligence services with President Trump’s struggle to achieve mastery over his own, that temptation should be resisted. President Putin did not always have the undisputed mastery of his government and intelligence services that he has now. Only in 2003, following the arrest of the once all-powerful oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and the subsequent expulsion from the government of individuals like former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and former Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov who were beholden to Khodorkovsky and the other oligarchs, did President Putin achieve the undisputed control of the Russian government and intelligence services that he has now.
The US and Russian political systems differ profoundly from each other, and the parallel between President Putin’s struggle with the oligarchs and President Trump’s current struggle with the US elite should not be pressed too far. Nonetheless it does show one important fact which those frustrated by some of President Trump’s recent actions need to bear in mind: mere possession of the office of President in any political system does not automatically translate into control of the government. A President who really wants to become master of his government – as opposed to being a mere cypher for his bureaucracy – has to fight to achieve it.
However, if President Putin did not always have undisputed control of his government and intelligence services, he certainly has it now, and his meeting with the senior staff of the FSB serves to illustrate the fact.
The meeting however also illustrates two other things: (1) the pressure Russia has been under; and (2) what President Putin and the Russians actually want from US President Trump and the deal they want to make with him.
On the question of the pressure Russia has been under, during his meeting with the FSB President Putin made this quite extraordinary comment:
Counterintelligence services also face greater demands today. Operational data show that foreign intelligence services’ activity in Russia has not decreased. Last year, our counterintelligence services put a stop to the work of 53 foreign intelligence officers and 386 agents.
(bold italics added)
It bears saying that over the course of the whole hysterical scandal in the US about the DNC and Podesta leaks, the fake “Trump Dossier”, and the telephone conversation between the Russian ambassador and General Flynn, not a single person has so far been arrested or charged with anything. Yet here we have President Putin blandly saying that over the same period that this wave of hysteria and scandal has been underway in the US, the FSB in Russia has “stopped the work of 53 foreign intelligence officers and 386 agents”.
This astonishing claim (imagine the FBI announcing it had uncovered 386 foreign agents working in the US in the space of a single year) is not merely made calmly and almost in passing, with no special emphasis given to it, but it has attracted almost no publicity either from the Russian media or internationally.
President Putin’s comments on the pressure Russia has been under also highlight a further point: unlike the US and the states of the EU, Russia – with no assistance from the West – has had to fight a homegrown Jihadi insurgency on its own soil.
It has proved remarkably successful in doing so, so that whereas when Putin became President jihadis physically controlled large areas of Russian territory, today they barely control any, and have been reduced to a sporadically functioning but still dangerous terrorist movement. Nonetheless, as President Putin said, there is no room for complacency or relaxation in the struggle against them:
The events and circumstances I have mentioned require our security and intelligence services, especially the Federal Security Service, to concentrate their utmost attention and effort on the paramount task of fighting terrorism.
We have already seen that our intelligence services dealt some serious blows to terrorists and their accomplices. Last year’s results confirm this: the number of terrorism related crimes has decreased.
Preventive work has also brought results. The FSB and other security agencies, with the National Antiterrorist Committee acting as coordinator, prevented 45 terrorism related crimes, including 16 planned terrorist attacks. You deserve special gratitude for this.
You need to continue your active efforts to identify and block terrorist groups’ activity, eliminate their financial base, prevent the activities of their emissaries from abroad and their dangerous activity on the internet, and take into account in this work Russian and international experience in this area.
The murder of our ambassador to Turkey was a terrible crime that particularly highlighted the need to protect our citizens and missions abroad. I ask you to work together with the Foreign Ministry and the Foreign Intelligence Service to take additional measures to ensure their safety…..
Our priorities include firmly suppressing extremism. Security methods must go hand-in-hand with constant prevention work. It is essential to prevent extremism from drawing young people into its criminal networks, and to form an overall firm rejection of nationalism, xenophobia, and aggressive radicalism. In this context, of great importance is open dialogue with civil society institutions and representatives of Russia’s traditional religions.
(bold italics added)
Again one is astonishing to hear President Putin calmly say that his anti-terrorist agencies have prevented 16 planned terrorist attacks on Russian territory in one year, as this was something everyday and normal. One is driven to ask what Western country has to face a terrorist assault on this scale?
Over and above these ‘traditional’ threats to Russia, the Russians must now also face the threat of cyber attacks, something openly talked about by former US President Obama and former US Vice-President Biden.
Putin’s comments about this to the FSB are especially interesting in that they effectively confirm – though they do not quite say – that though individual Russian agencies are responsible for ensuring their own cyber security, it is the FSB which has overall responsibility for protecting Russia’s cyber security as a whole:
I would like to note that the number of cyberattacks on official information resources tripled in 2016 compared to 2015. In this context, each agency must develop its segment of the state system for detecting and preventing cyberattacks on information resources and eliminating their consequences.
Whilst these comments give a fairly clear idea of the range of the FSB’s work – showing once again that it is an internal security agency and not an agency tasked with collecting foreign intelligence – President Putin also took the opportunity of his meeting with the senior staff of the FSB to touch on foreign policy questions:
The global situation has not become any more stable or better over the past year. On the contrary, many existing threats and challenges have only become more acute.
Military-political and economic rivalry between global and regional policy makers and between individual countries has increased. We see bloody conflicts continue in a number of countries in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. International terrorist groups, essentially terrorist armies, receiving tacit and sometimes even open support from some countries, take active part in these conflicts.
At the NATO summit last July in Warsaw, Russia was declared the main threat to the alliance for the first time since 1989, and NATO officially proclaimed containing Russia its new mission. It is with this aim that NATO continues its expansion. This expansion was already underway earlier, but now they believe they have more serious reasons for doing so. They have stepped up the deployment of strategic and conventional arms beyond the national borders of the principal NATO member states.
They are provoking us constantly and are trying to draw us into confrontation. We see continued attempts to interfere in our internal affairs in a bid to destabilise the social and political situation in Russia itself.
We also see the recent serious flare-up in southeast Ukraine. This escalation pursues the clear aim of preventing the Minsk Agreements from going ahead. The current Ukrainian authorities are obviously not seeking a peaceful solution to this very complex problem and have decided to opt for the use of force instead. What is more, they speak openly about organising sabotage and terrorism, particularly in Russia. Obviously, this is a matter of great concern.
These comments highlight the Russians’ key areas of priority, and it is striking how far they differ from those Western commentators continuously attribute to them.
There is not a word here about lifting sanctions, dissolving NATO or the EU, “treating Russia as an equal to the US” on the global stage, recognising a Russian sphere of interest in Eastern Europe, “restoring the USSR”, conquering the Baltic States, or even arms control.
Instead the Russians’ stated priorities are the three which I identified in my article of 19th January 2017: (1) ending NATO expansion especially into the territories of the former USSR; (2) the West’s deployment of anti-ballistic missiles in Eastern Europe (“the deployment of strategic and conventional arms beyond the national borders of the principal NATO member states”); and (3) the West’s regime change policy, first and foremost as it pertains to Russia (“we see continued attempts to interfere in our internal affairs in a bid to destabilise the social and political situation in Russia itself”).
As I discussed in my article of 19th January 2017, it should not in theory be difficult for President Trump to agree to all these things if he wants to do a deal with Russia because none of them affect the US’s essential interests:
Setting out these central Russian concerns shows how a deal between Russia and a Donald Trump administration might be possible.
None of Russia’s concerns on any one of these issues affects Western security or impinges on the US’s national interests. Donald Trump has called NATO “obsolete” and expressed indifference about the EU’s future. He is clearly uninterested in expanding either into the territory of the former USSR, so he has no reason to feel that he is making any serious concession by agreeing not to do so. Similarly Donald Trump has already foresworn the whole policy of regime change. If so then he is already in agreement with the Russians over this issue too.
The major sticking point will be arms control, with trust badly damaged as a result of Obama’s actions, and the Russians almost certainly insisting on the dismantling of the anti ballistic missile systems in Eastern Europe in return for nuclear weapons cuts. It may not be a coincidence that it was precisely on the issue of arms control that Trump homed into in his interview with The London Times and Bild-Zeitung.
Securing however an agreement to dismantle the anti ballistic missile systems in the teeth of what is likely to be furious opposition from the Congressional leadership, much of the Republican party, and the powerful US armaments lobby, will however be a titanic challenge.
A complex and difficult negotiation lies ahead. Even on the assumption Donald Trump succeeds in consolidating his control of the US government, it is far from clear it will succeed. There is however one overwhelmingly point which argues in its favour: on any objective assessment what Russia wants from Donald Trump it is in the US interest for him to give.
The US loses nothing by agreeing to the things Russia wants because they in no want threaten the US’s security or that of its allies. On the contrary it has been the pursuit of the grand geopolitical strategies of the neocons, with the policies of NATO expansion, anti ballistic missile deployment and regime that go with them, which have brought the US into an impasse. It is in the US interest and in the interests of the US’s allies to give up on them.
Donald Trump’s comments shows that he has at least some understanding of this fact. It remains to be seen how great understanding is and whether he will be able to put into practice.
If a deal can be done on these fundamental issues, it is not difficult to see how a deal could also be done on Ukraine, the issue which many people – wrongly in my opinion – treat as the sticking point.
As it happens, it is not at all difficult to see how a deal on Ukraine could be done. In his comments to the senior staff of the FSB President Putin made clear that Russia wants complete implementation of the Minsk Accords. That of course is precisely what the various officials of the Trump administration – Pence, Mattis, Tillerson, Haley and of course Trump himself – also say. Given that this is so, provided the good will were there, it should not be difficult to agree a deal on Ukraine involving the complete implementation of the Minsk Accords.
The true reason – as everyone knows – such a deal has not happened up to now is not because the Russians don’t want it. It is because the good will has not been there on the part of the Western powers, who have instead colluded with Ukraine’s non compliance with the Minsk Accords.
Were this to change – and it would be something which would be easy to do since everyone says they want to see the Minsk Accords implemented – a breakthrough could quickly happen.
Of course it is true that Ukraine, at least in its present form, would be unlikely to survive the full implementation of the Minsk Accords. That is why Ukraine is refusing to implement them. That however is not something which – based on the things he has said – ought to concern President Trump.
The key point is that if President Trump genuinely wants a deal on Ukraine, the elements for it are all already there.
If the Russians – as Putin’s comments to the senior staff of the FSB show – are not actually asking for very much – and nothing which President Trump should in theory find it impossible to concede – what they are offering – as Putin’s comments to the FSB also show – is what has been flagged up for a long time: cooperation in the fight against Jihadi terrorism, the issue which President Trump says is his foreign policy priority
You must also work to take our counterterrorism cooperation with partners abroad to a new level, despite the difficulties that we see in various areas of international life. It is a priority, of course, to intensify work with our partners in organisations such as the UN, the CSTO, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.
It is in our common interests to restore dialogue with the US intelligence services and with other NATO member countries. It is not our fault that these ties were broken off and are not developing. It is very clear that all responsible countries and international groups should work together on counterterrorism, because even simply exchanging information on terrorists’ financing channels and sources and on people involved in or suspected of links with terrorism can substantially improve the results of our common efforts.
Rarely in the history of international relations have the contours of a deal been easier to see: the Russians are asking Trump for what he should have no trouble giving, and in return they actually want to give him exactly the thing he says he wants.
The biggest sticking point is not Ukraine but anti-ballistic defence, though even on this issue with the necessary goodwill it should be possible to finesse some sort of agreement, probably based on the old 1970s concept of arms limitation rather than the contemporary one of arms reduction.
Whether the deal will be done is another matter. Not only is it unclear whether Trump realises how easy the deal he wants with the Russians is, but he has to face down his many critics who don’t want a deal at all. But the outlines for a deal if he wants one are there.