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Saturday, February 22, 2020

Why the Trump-Russia Intelligence Report Doesn't Quite ADD UP

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Tom Rogan

The New York Times reported on Thursday that "intelligence officials warned House lawmakers last week that Russia was interfering in the 2020 campaign to try to get President Trump re-elected."

I'm not convinced that gives full context to the briefing. I suspect a Democratic member asked a briefer something along the lines of, "Do you assess that Russia is trying to reelect Trump?" The briefer then probably offered a hedged response in the affirmative. I believe the core of the briefing was likely situated around an assessment that Russia is preparing to ramp up efforts to undermine the election and U.S. civil society.

That's very different from that which the New York Times report implies: a high-confidence national intelligence assessment that Russia is interfering to see Trump triumph over any and all of the Democratic presidential primary field.

First off, any intelligence assessment that Russia is interfering to reelect Trump would require a wide depth of diverse, high-value sources. At the very least, any intelligence product offering that conclusion would be based on highly reliable human source and signal intelligence reporting from or on people close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, the GRU, and each Russian government/contractor arm the United States believes is engaged in the interference effort. Considering the sensitivity with which any Russian 2020 interference operation will be regarded in Moscow (which is keen to avoid new U.S. sanctions or other retaliatory measures and so will work to maintain deniability), it is unlikely that the full degree and election-outcome intent of Russia's interference campaign are yet known. At least to the degree, that is, that would allow the intelligence community to come before the assembled mass of the congressional intelligence committees and offer a high confidence assessment to that effect.

There's another critical factor to consider here: Putin's strategic intent.

The Russian leader has three key objectives vis-à-vis America: undermining NATO and the U.S.-led international order, usurping American leadership in the Middle East, and ensuring Russian political and energy dominance in Central and Eastern Europe. Considering that baseline, there is simply no way that Putin has decided Trump will be better for those outcomes than any and all of the Democrats trying to unseat him.

Joe Biden? Likely yes, due to his longtime record of support for NATO and his former access to the highest level intelligence briefings (Biden knows what Putin is like). The rest of the Democratic field?

Well, consider the contrasting records.

Yes, Trump has made misguided comments with regards to his personal relationship with Putin. But he has also presided over very significant increases in U.S. and NATO defense outlays, the unified alignment of that alliance in resistance to Russian ballistic missile proliferation, more aggressive intelligence operations against Russia, and the deployment of U.S. nuclear strike capabilities specifically designed to challenge Russia's evolved strategic doctrine. The scaled nuclear development and defense spending programs here are collectively opposed by the Democratic presidential field.

On Ukraine, aside from the obvious impeachment issues, Trump has provided Kyiv with lethal weapons and high-value intelligence support. Crucially, he has also provided diplomatic support against significant Franco-German pressure on President Volodymyr Zelesnky to accept a cease-fire on Russian terms.

On the associated issue of energy policy, only Trump stands in favor of that economic weapon Putin most fears: fracking and expanded U.S. energy exports. In contrast, the 2020 Democratic Party is a Putin dream world on this energy issue.

Similarly, Trump's strengthening of the U.S. alliances with Israel and the Sunni Arab monarchies is a major obstacle to Putin's effort to usurp America as the key international power broker in the Middle East. While Trump's abandonment of the Syrian Kurds has undermined U.S. credibility in the Middle East, he has restricted the confidence hemorrhage by retaining some U.S. military forces in Syria. The collective Democratic presidential field disagrees with Trump's approach, at least as applied to the Sunni monarchies.

One final issue here?

Bernie Sanders. Because the idea that Putin would prefer all the above to a president who took his honeymoon in the Soviet Union, likes many of Russia's allies, and wants to gut U.S. defense spending, end or greatly diminish U.S. alliances with the Sunni monarchies, and ban fracking?


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