I attended this interesting meeting/presentation by Russian refugees Ilya Budraitskis and Ilya Matveev. Important issues were raised, but on one issue there is a serious question. But first a summary: The main theme of both of them revolved around the view that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stemmed primarily from the domestic dynamics of his rule. US “intervention” hardly merited a mention. I don’t remember which speaker (possibly both) pointed out how Putin’s rule started to change around 2010 as he perceived that he had to develop more of a base at home. The main reason for this was some protests at home as well as protests in nearby countries. This, and other similar remarks, confirm the view of Oaklandsocialist in our pamphlet Putin, Assad and the Syrian disaster
The discussion period was interesting first because of what wasn’t raised. Prior to the meeting I’d gotten into another discussion with the leader of the California Green Party, Laura Wells. Our discussion ended with her saying that it was the US that provoked Putin to order the invasion. But both the presentations entirely refuted this claim. I’m sure Wells was not the only one in that audience who held that point of view, yet she and the others of that opinion were quiet as a churchmouse during the Q & A – not a comment nor question did they raise.
Fascism and Russia
There was also interesting commentary on whether Russia is fascist or not. Ilya Budraitskis seemed to be saying that it was headed in that direction but not quite there yet, although I might have misunderstood him. One of the most interesting points came around a discussion on the links between Putin and the Russian oligarchs – what amounts to Russia’s capitalist class.
Ilya Matveev commented on Marxist theory of the capitalist state. He pointed out that Putin – who is the state in Russia – rules over the oligarchs, not vice versa.
Was Trump subservient to Putin?
He also disputed the commonly held view in the US that Trump had been subservient to Putin, claiming that Trump had not made any real concessions to Putin during the four years of the Trump presidency. The evidence Matveev cited was the increased military budgets under Trump, which were a threat to Russia. Another supposed piece of evidence is that Trump did not renew the nuclear treaty with Russia. I have heard similar comments from other Russian critics of Putin, and I suspect they may be overly influenced by their experiences in Russia under Putin. There, what Putin says goes and whatever Putin determines to be Russia’s foreign policy is the foreign policy.
Difference between the rule of Trump and Putin
Here in the US, things are different. Although Trump tried to achieve such direct personal control over all aspects of the US government, he fell far short. He was stymied by several factors:
First, he had not yet acquired complete control over the Republican Party. In fact, to this day he is close but not there (yet), and the foremost example is exactly on the issue of Ukraine. A large sector of Republican members of congress (both senators and representatives) advocate even greater arms for Ukraine. This is opposed to Trump’s position of ending arms donations and negotiating with Putin over the head of Ukraine. The former position is the traditional Republican orientation, as reflected in the position of the Wall St. Journal editors.
Second is the fact that no president entirely sets foreign policy on their own. They are both aided and abetted but also somewhat held in check by various branches of the government. The most obvious is the legislative branch. But even in the executive branch, the military wing, the diplomacy wing (for example the State Department) and the intelligence wing all have something to say on the matter, and although the president picks the very top people in those wings (e.g. the Foreign Secretary, the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the military and Director of National Intelligence), even those people are somewhat constrained by the lifetime bureaucrats who serve below them. All of this serves to pressure the president in the form of “advising” him. And if that’s insufficient, then they can resort to other means. That is exactly what Trump’s underlings did by famously “slow walking” the various orders of his that they really didn’t like. In other words, they simply didn’t get around to carrying them out!
Throughout his presidency Trump struggled to break free of these constraints. He succeeded to an unheard of degree, but in the end he fell far short. In June of 2020, Mike Mullen, the former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff harshly condemned Trump’s involvement of the military tops in putting down Black Lives Matter protesters in Washington DC. He also issued a veiled warning to Trump when he said that the U.S. military would obey every “lawful order”. The implication was that it would disobey unlawful orders! Then in November, the most clear example came when Trump moved to call for martial law and mobilize the National Guard to seize the ballot boxes. Mark Milley, the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff spoke at a military event. “We take an oath to the Constitution…. In the event of a dispute over some aspect of the elections, by law U.S. courts and the U.S. Congress are required to resolve any disputes, not the U.S. military,” he said.
It is exactly because of these arrangements that the capitalist class prefers to rule through democratic means when possible. That’s because it enables them to better control their top executive – the president.
How was this contradiction between Trump’s links to Putin and the constraints on Trump expressed during the Trump presidency?
It’s true that while he was president the US military budget went from $583 billion to $738 bn. (for fiscal 2020). All wings of his party and many in the Democratic Party supported that increase. But the military budgets for a huge number of countries, China included, has ratcheted up, so Trump’s increase in military spending should not be necessarily seen as a threat to Russia.
Trump’s intention was made clear by his attitude towards what is probably the single most important US alliance, NATO. Throughout his presidency, Trump campaigned against NATO. That he did not get very far in his four years in office is simply explained by the factors that limit any president’s sole power. These are explained above. What he did accomplish was to weaken popular support for NATO at home as well as to weaken the US allies’ confidence in NATO and in the US’s commitment to defend them. That is partly why the allies all breathed a huge sigh of relief when Biden got elected.
Then there was the Trump withdrawal of troops from Syria in 2019. Widely condemned by the foreign policy bureaucracy in Washington, even that withdrawal showed the limitations Trump faced. That’s because according to now retired diplomat Jim Jeffrey, Trump had tried to withdraw the troops several times in 2018, but his own appointees routinely mislead him into thinking that there were far fewer troops there than there actually were! But in the end, Trump finally had his way. The order came just one or two days after a private chat with Turkish president Erdogan, who was on very close terms with Putin, and Putin was very pleased with the move. The US military establishment wasn’t, and then Secretary of Defense, former general Jim Mattis resigned in protest.. Nor was his own party pleased. Mitch McConnell called the move “precipitous” and said that Russian allies Iran and Assad and most importantly Russia itself would benefit.
Today, the war in Syria is almost forgotten, except by the Syrians. But at that time, that was the single major foreign policy issue for the United States. Trump’s troop withdrawal came as a tremendous shock to the entire foreign policy establishment in the U.S., and it was clearly seen as a move to placate Putin.
Another example of how Trump’s policies aligned with those of Putin was his encouragement of Brexit and his opposition to the EU in general. It’s true that this was partly a reflection of Bannon as well as Trump’s general political approach, but that is just another way of saying that Trump and Putin were often aligned in general.
Then we have Venezuela. In March of 2019, Trump reportedly warned Russia to stay out of Venezuela. Then in May, Trump went on record saying “I had a very good talk with President Putin — probably over an hour. And we talked about many things. Venezuela was one of the topics. And he is not looking at all to get involved in Venezuela, other than he’d like to see something positive happen for Venezuela. And I feel the same way.” In other words, after talking directly with Putin Trump welcomed Putin’s intervention in the US’s backyard. The Wall St. Journal editors commented “It’s also the opposite of what the rest of his Administration and nearly every outside observer believes.”
Putin, Trump and the US intelligence establishment
The real relationship with Putin can be best seen in Trump’s taking Putin’s side in whether or not the Russian government had intervened in the 2016 elections. We must not underestimate the extreme importance of Trump’s performance in Helsinki in July of 2018 when he met privately with Putin. The entire security establishment was absolutely outraged. We quote from Oaklandsocialist’s coverage: ‘Not in the last 100 years and more have we seen such harsh mainstream attacks on a sitting president. Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of ‘high crimes & misdemeanors.’ It was nothing short of treasonous. [!] Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican patriots: Where are you???” tweeted John Brennan, former CIA director under Obama. He was not alone. “Enemy of the people” commented lifelong Republican Max Boot. “The president essentially capitulated,” said James Clapper, former Director of National Intelligence under Obama.’ The Wall St. Journal called it “kowtowing to the Kremlin.”
Now out of office, Trump is harshly attacking exactly this wing of the US government. Of course, he’s largely doing it to defend himself against the criminal charges he’s facing, but that’s not all. If he returns to power, he will step up his drive to seize direct personal control first and foremost over this wing of the capitalist state. (It should be remembered, by the way, that although Trump had appointed more former generals to top posts in his administration than any previous president, by the time Trump left office nearly every single one of them had abandoned him and those that remained did so purely in order to keep him in check.)
Reason for Trump’s link with Putin
Trump was and is not purely a puppet of Putin. He also had to play to his base, which sometimes meant his actions did not simply reflect Putin’s wishes. Probably his ending of the treaty with Iran was an example of this. Having come into office based in part on his Islamophobic rhetoric, Trump had to abandon that treaty. But he went as far as he possibly could to carry out Putin’s interests. The reason is that for many years Trump has been a money launderer for the Russian oligarchs. The capitalist media largely ignored this because money laundering is so rampant in the US real estate industry. However, the evidence is there for those who care to find it. Oaklandsocialist has compiled a list of those online articles which document this.