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How the West’s isolationism may benefit Putin

Our columnist, Robert Amsterdam, who currently represents the Republic of Turkey in the investigation against Fethullah Gülen, the US-based imam who is the alleged mastermind behind last month's coup attempt, writes about why Putin has many reasons to celebrate 'renewed calls for isolationism' in the West.

Autumn may be quickly approaching, but judging from the bounce in his step, it’s springtime for Vladimir Putin. Recent events have been unambiguously favourable to the Russian leader. After years of attempting to disaggregate Europe and upend the post-World War II transatlantic security model, everything finally seems to be falling into place.

In the United States, the surprising and rapid rise of Donald Trump to seize the candidacy of the Republican Party has been a boon to Putin. Leaving aside for a moment the similarities of their flamboyant political style, or their shared admiration for spray-tans and Silvio Berlusconi, what Putin gets from Trump is actually a very frightening weakening of European security.

In an interview with the New York Times in late July, Trump declared that if he were president, Nato would not unconditionally come to the defence of Baltic ally nations in the event of an invasion by Russia. Asked to clarify his position, Trump doubled down: he even mentioned at one point he would be willing to recognise Crimea as part of Russian sovereign territory, thereby officially encouraging Russia’s dangerous expansion ambitions.

The risk is immeasurable. According to Nato’s former Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Sir Richard Shirreff, the alliance depends totally on US leadership and US willingness to come to the aid of allies unconditionally. ‘Therefore, to have a president in the White House who is not necessarily prepared to do that weakens the alliance immeasurably and may well lead to [the] decoupling of America from European defence,’ Shirreff said in a recent interview with the Atlantic.

Closer to home, other events have played to Putin’s favour. The Brexit vote has created a sense of division and fraying ties between UK and the continent. Boris Titov, Russia’s commissioner for entrepreneurs’ rights, celebrated the Brexit vote on social media by commenting that ‘this is not the independence of Britain from Europe, but the independence of Europe from the USA’. The Kremlin couldn’t be more pleased.

Then, as though things weren’t bad enough in the West in 2016 amid several deadly terror attacks, mass shootings, and race riots, there came the attempted military coup in Turkey, a hugely important Nato member. This coup attempt, believed to have been masterminded by the US-resident imam Fethullah Gülen, which my law firm is investigating on behalf of the Republic of Turkey, has placed strain on US-Turkey relations, which unfortunately benefits Moscow.

But Putin’s winning streak wasn’t finished there. On the evening before the opening of the Democratic National Convention, a hacker released to WikiLeaks a trove of emails from the party, inciting an internal scandal designed to rip apart the party. The source of the hack, of course, was eventually allegedly traced back to Russia.

There is a temptation to view Putin, who is now going on sixteen years of de facto rule of Russia, as a strategic mastermind. But we should not. Donald Trump is absolutely a home-grown problem. The Brexit vote was the culmination of legitimate frustrations coupled with an incompetent Remain alliance. As for Turkey, just weeks before the attempted coup, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and President Putin had mended fences after months of acrimonious exchanges.

Far from being a chess grandmaster, Putin is mostly playing a game of chance. Russia analyst Mark Galeotti has pointed out that the DNC email hack is as likely to backfire with unintended consequences on Russia, and Hillary Clinton’s team has pivoted from this moment to become the ‘anti-Russia party’, while Trump will now be cast as ‘Putin’s man’. Neither is true, but it will not be helpful to the Kremlin.

Putin is largely a distraction from the more difficult questions of what forces have put us in the place we find ourselves. The broad rejection of EU membership and the surge of popularity of Trump are both driven by a renaissance harkening back to the economic and social conditions behind Lord Goschen’s ‘splendid isolationism’ or even Stimson Doctrine. Having failed to make friends or cultivate allies, Russia instead is depending upon these renewed calls for isolationism. From its point of view, Russia is safest when the West finds itself in chaos.

But we do not exist in a theoretical world. Our interconnected economies, societies, and infrastructure require a predictable framework and a united front. Experiences of isolationism have almost always led to crises that beget renewed commitment to international cooperation and institutionalisation of relations. In terms of relations with Russia, I hope we don’t have to pay such a high price to learn this same lesson yet again.



 

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