This article originally appeared in Ricochet.
As Democrats and media continue their campaign to discredit President Donald Trump, no question is more potentially toxic – nor more misperceived – than the direction Mr. Trump hopes to take US-Russian relations.
You know the list of accusations: Trump has said nice things about Russian President Vladimir Putin; his new national security advisor, retired general Michael T. Flynn, is too cozy with Putin; as head of Exxon/Secretary of State designate Rex W. Tillerson did business and developed an apparently warm relationship with Putin.
In response, it is easy enough to ask, what does anyone think the President should have said about Putin before taking office? Critics seem to have wanted full-throated denunciations — odd, at least coming from critics in the major media. These media maestros are sensitive enough to the president’s criticism of them. This morning’s New York Times ran an angry, whiny, front-page defense of the inaugural coverage, coverage the president strongly criticized yesterday before a highly enthusiastic and approving audience at the CIA. Watching that event on television, it was impossible not to sense that those leaders and soldiers of the intelligence community knew a thing or two about one-sided, agenda-driven journalistic treatment. But with the people at the Times so touchy about presidential barbs thrown at them, do they really advocate that Mr. Trump treat his Russian counterpart as roughly as he has treated them? Right off the bat? Really?
Still, what about Flynn?
The fact is that the media has got Flynn’s views on Russia 180 degrees wrong. Not that those views are any secret. Flynn laid them down directly and unambiguously last July in his book (co-written with global strategy guru Michael Ledeen) The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and its Allies. On page 171 the two men wrote, “The two most active and powerful members of the enemy [that is, anti-U.S.] alliance are Russia and Iran….”
The fact is that from Flynn to the new Defense Secretary James Mattis to every other national security appointment, Mr. Trump’s cabinet is full of men who are utterly without illusions about the Russian president and his purposes.
So what about Tillerson?
Before answering, ask yourself, what about Russia?
That is, to what strategic facts or factors is Russia most sensitive? The answer is that Russia is a great power for only two reasons: nuclear weapons and hydrocarbons, meaning oil and natural gas.
On nuclear weapons, Mr. Trump is such a pushover that when Putin announced he would beef up his nukes, the then president-elect tweeted (to the consternation of his you-are-too-close-to-Putin critics), “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” He added in an MSNBC interview, “[L]et it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.”
But this is just where secretary-designate Tillerson comes in. Who better understands the role of oil and gas in the Russian economy, and the subtleties of using that dependence as a lever in the broader relationship? And while we are at it, who better understands the implications of the Russian dependence on the arctic as a major source of future hydrocarbon supply?
Here is what I am driving at. Mr. Trump’s good-cop, bad-cop appointments suggest that he is looking to merge previously siloed economic and security relations with Russia to create a large and more flexible arena for negotiation. He intends to put into play incentives as well as penalties as a means of confronting Putin and turning him from his destructive course. He wants to get away from the seemingly exclusive dependence on sanctions as levers in the relationship. No secretary of state pick could have a better grasp of the economic side of that strategy than Mr. Tillerson.
Here is a question for Trump critics to consider: How does Mr. Trump stack up as an apparent patsy for Putin against his predecessor, Barack Obama?
Yes, Mr. Obama repeatedly trotted out sanctions. But he also cancelled the missile defense systems planned for Poland and the Czech Republic, continued his party’s determination to deny a missile defense shield for the US, and allowed, some experts charge, our nuclear deterrence capacity to deteriorate in the face of Russian upgrades. Meanwhile, he blocked the Keystone pipeline, waged a war on coal, started a similar EPA attack on fracking, and put vast amounts of potential offshore oilfields off limits to exploration and development — all actions that will work to push global energy prices higher, strengthening the Russian economy. Mr. Trump has indicated that he intends to reverse all of these Obama Administration security and energy actions.
Now, which President is Putin’s friend?