I put that question to Twitter when I saw this morning’s news. Admittedly, it is very strange that Trump has met with Putin multiple times without any written record of what was said, with POTUS going as far as to confiscate his interpreter’s notes afterward in one case. We all watched the spectacle in Helsinki when he sided with Putin against his own intelligence services over what happened during the 2016 campaign. We’ve all noticed his uncharacteristic reluctance to criticize Putin despite the fact that his political persona is bound up in dominance, typically practiced by belittling adversaries. If you’re looking for a “Manchurian candidate” explanation for the Trump/Russia relationship, the worst-case scenario for Russiagate, you have a few things to point to.
But then you run into the question of when Putin will supposedly get his big payoff from his puppet. Trumpers routinely and justifiably point out that Trump’s policies haven’t been pro-Russia in all cases. He greenlit arms sales to Moscow’s nemesis in Ukraine. He attacked Russia’s ally, Bashar Assad, twice. He appointed super-hawk and Russia skeptic John Bolton as his NSA. Now here he is tearing up the INF treaty and making it crystal clear that persistent cheating by Russia is the reason. You could scoff at all of that if you like and say, “It’s not Trump who’s driving all of that, it’s his neocon advisors,” but that’s no answer. The point of having a puppet as president is to have him take direction from Moscow, not the Pentagon. If your “Manchurian candidate” theory somehow boils down to John Bolton steering the ship of state then it ain’t much of a theory. It’s odd that Putin would wait so long for his payoff too considering how Trump’s political capital has diminished since the midterms. If the endgame here is him pulling out of NATO, it would have made more sense to do that early in 2017, when the GOP was terrified of crossing him, than in 2019, when Mueller’s report is due and Democrats are in a position to impeach.
The Occam’s Razor explanation for all of this is obvious: Putin doesn’t own Trump. Trump has a gross admiration for fascist strongmen and bends over backward to disclaim Russia responsibility for 2016 meddling because he thinks it makes his victory look illegitimate, but the Kremlin’s not pulling anyone’s strings. The INF decision is further evidence.
Adherents of the “Manchurian candidate” theory aren’t giving up, though. I got a lot of replies to my question. Their leading explanations for the demise of INF:
1. It’s a red herring. Trump and Putin are planning a big sellout, possibly a U.S. pullout from NATO. They need some plausible deniability that Trump is acting at Putin’s behest for that. Voila — Trump tears up the INF treaty, a big show over a relatively minor disagreement but big enough to produce just the sort of argument questioning his complicity with Russia that I’m engaged in here.
But almost any confrontation between Trump and Russia short of actual war could be spun in these same terms. We could dismiss the arms sales to Ukraine on the same grounds: “Ukraine’s no match for Russia even with American weapons. The arms sales are just a PR stunt to manufacture phony antagonism between Trump and Putin.” No matter how many times Trump shows hostility towards Russia, it’ll always be dismissed as “for show” unless Moscow is nuked.
2. It’s what Putin wants. Russia’s been cheating on INF for years. What does Putin care if Trump dissolves the agreement? Russia will go on building intermediate-range missiles and now they can fairly say that they’re not violating any agreements by doing so thanks to the White House. If the U.S. starts an arms race with them, well, so much the better. That’ll give Putin a new reason to tighten his grip on the country: “The Americans are a threat like never before.” Plus, there’s no risk of actual hostilities with a puppet on the other side. It’s a Potemkin arms race!
Of course, if Trump had decided *not* to tear up the INF but rather to go on impotently warning Russia not to cheat, that would itself be explained as “what Putin wants.”
3. Three-dimensional anti-NATO chess. This one’s not so much what Putin wants as what Putin and Trump both want. Putin wants free rein in eastern Europe, Trump wants American forces everywhere to come home. Voila: Tear up INF, encourage Europe to substitute nukes for troops, and call it a day on NATO.
1: US terminates agreement, opens up possibility of US/Rus missiles throughout Europe
2: NATO allies no longer unified as this will obviously be a major split issue for them
3: NATO weakens, making it easier for Russia to pull more Crimea-ish shenanigans
4: This isn’t hard to get
— ExileOnDaytonStreet (@ExileOnDaytonSt) February 1, 2019
National-security expert and ardent anti-Trumper Tom Nichols connected the dots in an op-ed published in October:
This is why scrapping the INF Treaty plays right into the favored Russian scenario, in which the burden of nuclear escalation would rest, once again, upon NATO. Right now, Russian strategy in Europe is likely centered on seizing a small piece of NATO territory, sitting on it for an extended period to prove that Article V is a sham and then threatening tactical nuclear use if NATO tries to drive them out.
Proponents of re-nuclearizing the theater would argue that this is precisely why the United States must have a symmetrically configured theater deterrent, so that any Russian threat could be balanced with a corresponding American threat.
That would be a better argument if it were still 1985. The problem for these nuclear enthusiasts—one they omit by selective memory or poor strategic judgment—is that there is no longer a central front between NATO and Russia on which such exchanges would take place. NATO’s only choices (as Russia knows) would be to respond with nuclear use on our own allies or on Russian territory, which would raise the escalatory danger far beyond whatever was at stake in a small, localized conflict. The Americans would blink, Russia’s point would be made, and NATO would eventually dissolve.
I don’t quite follow that, or at least how it implicates INF. If Russia were to seize, say, Montenegro to test America’s and NATO’s commitment to Article 5, odds seem very, very good that we’d blink whether or not INF is in force. Nichols’s point, I think, is that NATO would *surely* blink if its only option in retaliating against Russia was nuclear whereas it would only probably blink if it had a conventional military alternative in the form of a robust, unified alliance. But even Nichols doesn’t think today’s decision was driven by some “Manchurian candidate” scenario. He doesn’t seem to believe it’s being driven mainly by Trump, in fact. He blames it on China hawks in the government, who view the INF as an impediment to countering Chinese expansionism in the east with a regional nuclear deterrent. (Which he thinks is logistically infeasible.)
Did I miss any other theories? The “Manchurian candidate” theory ain’t going away until Bob Mueller declares it bogus.