Amidst serious speculation that Russian hackers are aggressively meddling in this year’s contentious US presidential election, Republican nominee Donald Trump is doing little to cast out the cloud of suspicion hovering over his campaign. Instead, he’s doubling-down on his flirtations with his shirtless man-crush Vladimir Putin and peddling what appears to be pro-Kremlin talking points with unprecedented enthusiasm. Gift-wrapping his foreign-policy platform in Soviet red, Trump suggested at a news conference on Wednesday that he “would be looking into” the prospect of recognizing Crimea as a Russian territory if elected president.
International law still considers the Crimean peninsula to be a part of the sovereign state of Ukraine. In fact, the territory was incorporated as a constituent entity of Ukraine in 1991, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. For Putin, however, the Berlin Wall never fell. In March of 2014, the Russian dictator illegally annexed Crimea under the auspices of a supposed counter-coup against the newly-formed government in Kiev. Several months prior, pro-democracy protesters gathered in Maidan Square to take back control of their country. In the face of brutal anti-riot police dispatched by a desperately weak government, the Ukrainian people successfully forced Viktor Yanukovych, the fantastically corrupt Russian-backed plutocrat, out of the president’s office.
Putin’s puppet was gone and Moscow could no longer pull the strings of Euroskepticism in a country that was looking West and increasingly eager to bolster its economic and political partnerships with Europe. Through Putin’s looking glass, Russia never lost Ukraine, particularly Crimea and the Russian-speaking parts in the East. The fragmentation of Soviet satellite states at the end of the Cold War was simply a hiccup in the long, linear legacy of Russian empire. To Putin, Yanukovych’s ousting was an affront to the former superpower’s neo-Soviet imperial aspirations.
The Russian dictator’s audacity during the annexation of Crimea said it all. No one could imagine that in the 21st century, an assembly line of Russian troops in Russian uniforms with Russian armaments and tanks could simply waltz into a sovereign nation and steal land. But that’s what happened. Adding insult to injury, Putin trolled the international community, arguing that the allegedly rogue, spontaneously-generated, and highly-trained military forces occupying Crimea were not Russian, because they weren’t wearing Russian insignias. (Spoiler: The soldiers took off their insignia).
Fast-forward to 2016. Putin continues to claim Crimea as his own as poorly-equipped Ukrainian troops from Kiev exchange periodic gunfire with Moscow-funded Russian occupying forces peppered throughout Ukraine’s eastern provinces.
Although some in Congress have suggested arming the Ukrainians, the United States has been reluctant to offer direct military assistance to the Europe-friendly government in Ukraine because the country is not officially a member of NATO.
Instead, both the United States and the European Union have placed debilitating sanctions on major Russian banks and corporations, pouring salt in the wounds of a Russian economy already hemorrhaging from failed domestic policies.
That’s why Trump’s comments on Wednesday must have been music to the ears of Vladimir Putin. While the real estate mogul is often completely illiterate when it comes to foreign policy, his pro-Russian leanings appear far too calculated to be coincidental. Take his team of advisors: after leaving his role as Obama’s Director of National Intelligence under hazy circumstances, Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn flew to Moscow where he gabbed with Russian bureaucrats at a Kremlin-sponsored banquet. Since then, he has appeared on Russian-state propaganda television, RT (formerly known as Russia Today) spouting pro-Putin positions.
However, Flynn’s Russophilia doesn’t even come close to Paul Manafort’s disturbingly intimate connections with the Kremlin. Right off the bat, the guy looks like the heroin-addicted mob boss in every Mafia movie ever produced. So it’s no surprise that he actually worked as a political adviser to Viktor Yanukovych, the same Ukrainian president that was deposed by his own people for being in bed with the Russians. Even his hiring was shrouded with cartoonish criminality. Manafort was recruited to revitalize Yanukovych’s PR campaign after the Ukrainian politician’s presidential rival, Viktor Yushchenko, was suspiciously poisoned with TCDD dioxin, one of the chemical compounds used in Agent Orange.
That’s why Trump’s comments on Wednesday must have been music to the ears of Vladimir Putin.
Despite all the circumstantial evidence linking the Trump campaign to elements associated with the Kremlin, it’s important to stress to that no smoking gun has been found that clearly establishes a connection outside of the bounds of American treason law.
Still, somewhere in between suggesting the that Russian hackers “find the 30,000 [Hillary Clinton] emails that are missing” and implicitly greenlighting Putin’s annexation of Crimea, Trump may have become a spokesperson for Moscow.