The West feels betrayed. Worse, it is bewildered. There are even dark hints about Donald Trump’s possible secret links with Moscow, and about his Czech-born wife. No one is willing to give him credit for a practical and positive rather than doctrinaire approach to international relations.
All this has cropped up because instead of issuing a clarion call to arms, he seems to have concluded that the United States and Russia can live together in peace. It’s a crucial moment in history when the head of what Westerners call the “Free World” publicly distances himself from all its institutions. Instead of reviving the Cold War with vituperative abuse, Mr Trump came away from his meeting with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki expressing satisfaction with the status quo. Reiterating his “America First” policy, he had already identified the European Union as America’s “biggest foe globally”.
This change of priorities could prove to be a gain for world peace and stability. If the president can carry Congress with him and resist the pressure of what an astute predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, called “the military industrial complex”, it will bring relief to billions of people in Asia, Africa and Latin America who took no part in the old global polarisation between the US and the erstwhile Soviet Union, and whose only interest is to work quietly for their own economic survival.
But in the West it seems like treason. Instead of defending all the things he is supposed to defend, the US commander-in-chief seems to sing to Russia’s tune. He seems to accept Mr Putin’s plea that Russia has no dirt on him, that Russia did not meddle in the US presidential election even though Mr Putin makes it clear he detests Hilary Clinton.
Mr Trump’s conciliatory attitude brings dismay to leaders like Britain’s Theresa May who are prisoners of the old mindset, and whose domestic compulsions demand keeping alive East-West animosity. Mr Trump was expected to pitch into Mr Putin at their first official summit about invading Georgia, annexing the Crimea, attacking Ukraine, and inciting Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, to unleash a vicious campaign (including using chemical weapons) to annihilate peaceful democratic movements among his people. Western commentators complain that Mr Trump has implicitly accepted Moscow’s pre-eminence in Syria, its right to run centres like Deraa where talks with rebel groups are held, and also Iran’s participation in the civil war with Russian approval.
Mrs May saw the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian double agent settled in the UK, and his daughter, Yulia, visiting from Moscow (and the subsequent death of an uninvolved British civilian) as the handiwork of Russian intelligence agents. She retaliated by announcing Britain would boycott the World Cup football games in Russia. Western powers rallied to her cause. Sixteen EU countries expelled Russian envoys, as did Canada, Ukraine, Norway and Albania. Mrs May exulted in “the largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers in history” when more than 100 Russian diplomats in Western countries were deported.
According to her, the Kremlin’s effort to divide and intimidate the Western alliance had “spectacularly backfired.” What did backfire was her attempt to ban travel to Russia –thousands of British fans paid grossly inflated prices for World Cup tickets. Mrs May’s second snub from Mr Trump was curious because the signs were initially so propitious. The president had readily expelled supposed Russian spies after the Skripal controversy. He seemed to acquiesce in the indictment by the US special counsel, Robert Mueller, against 12 Russian military intelligence officers for attempting to suborn the 2016 election. He sharply attacked Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, for supporting a Baltic Sea gas pipeline deal with Russia, saying Berlin had become “a captive to Russia”. He also criticized Germany and other members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation for not raising more funds for defence.
The business lobbies, arms manufacturers and strategic lobbies were delighted. There was every indication that East-West relations were returning to the freeze of the years when Harry Truman and John Foster Dulles led the US. Now, some Western critics fear Mr Trump might even approve the passing of sensitive information on the Mueller inquiry to the very sources of malfeasance. Others are beginning to wonder if he will sign away Nato commitments or arms control deals. American Republicans are incensed by Mr Trump’s public disdain for reports by the US security services and linked indictments.
His view that nothing was supposed to happen at the summit beyond the warming up of relations with the Kremlin seems naïve to commentators who argue that the president’s fate may well lie, in one way or another, in Moscow hands. The investigation into alleged Russian manipulation of the 2016 US election can touch on his personal life and business interests.
All this draws attention to Mr Trump’s first visit to Moscow in 1987. A dossier by a former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele asserts that the Kremlin had been cultivating Trump for “at least five years” before his stunning victory. This would take us back to around 2011 or 2012. Other evidence suggests that the Soviet Union was actually interested in him two or three decades before that. It’s alleged that the top level of the Soviet diplomatic service arranged his 1987 Moscow visit with assistance from the KGB. General Vladimir Alexandrovich Kryuchkov, head of the First Chief Directorate, the prestigious KGB arm responsible for gathering foreign intelligence, was then seeking to improve the KGB’s operational techniques in a particular and sensitive area: it wanted to recruit more Americans.
In addition to Moscow’s shifting politics, Kryuchkov faced problems with intelligence gathering. The results from KGB officers abroad had been disappointing. They often pretended to have obtained information from secret sources but in reality, had only recycled material from newspapers or picked up gossip over lunch with a journalist. Too many residencies had “paper agents” on their books: targets for recruitment who had nothing to do with real intelligence.
It is suggested the KGB opened a file on Donald Trump as early as 1977, the year he married Ivana Zelnickova, a 28-year-old model from Czechoslovakia. Zelnickova was a citizen of a Communist country. She was therefore of interest to the Czech intelligence service, the StB, as well as to the FBI and CIA.
Much of the saga appears in Mr Trump’s own 1987 bestseller, The Art of the Deal. The rest is recounted in a book titled Comrade Kryuchkov’s Instructions: Top Secret Files on KGB Foreign Operations 1975–1985 by Oleg Gordievsky, a senior KGB operative formerly based in Denmark and then in Britain, jointly with a British historian, Christopher Andrew.
It’s all too well-known in circles that matter to precipitate a scandal. But it does indicate the human side of a leader who is known for bluster, showmanship and downright rudeness rather than concern for a stable peace.
Sunanda K Datta Ray is the author of several books and a regular media columnist.