As we barrel into the second week of 2018, there is one relationship that everyone on Earth can’t stop talking about. No, its not Meghan Markle and Prince Harry. It’s the other international, tabloid-worthy romance between two powerful global figures: President Donald Trump and Russian President/Dictator Vladimir Putin. Since Trump’s election, it seems that the geopolitical bromance is constantly in the news. Admittedly, I didn’t understand the relationship, or exactly with the So who is Vladimir Putin? As president/prime minister of Russia for longer than any other figure since Stalin, Putin remains persists mostly as an enigma and meme-worthy celebrity to most Americans. Born in Leningrad in 1952, Putin began his career as a KGB officer, retiring a Lieutenant Colonel after serving in East Germany until 1990. His first major political appointment came in 1999, when President Boris Yeltsin made him deputy head of management.
After several cabinet purges and a few years, Yeltsin resigned and appointed Putin as acting president until elections several months later. He won slightly more than half the vote in March 2000, and has served as the president (or prime minister, thanks to the manipulation of constitutional term limits) to this day. Ever since Trump’s inauguration, his administration has been plagued with reports of collusion with Russian politicians. In the months prior to the election, U.S. intelligence agencies unilaterally agreed that Russian operatives were directly responsible for the email hacking of Democratic National Committee and DNC Chairman John Podesta. But should we really be worrying about a Putin puppet regime? Is he really the mastermind we make him out to be? While on the surface it might appear that Trump’s relationship with Putin began during the election, his ties stretch back decades and are not only political, but financial.
In a 2017 Vox article, Seva Gunitsky, a politics professor at the University of Toronto, unveils a history of peculiar connections linking Donald Trump’s businesses to Russian oligarchs. You can actually view these in a very concise, articulate series of tweets (take notes, Donald!) on Gunitsky’s page outlining the report. Essentially, he posits that rather than being the victim of a vast, Putin led conspiracy, Trump’s business ventures created ties to Russian banks and oligarchs decades ago that are now coming back to haunt him. When his empire began going bankrupt, it was Russian investors that prevented him from collapsing, a point which Donald Trump Jr. made clear in a 2008 statement, saying that “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.” Gunitsky suggests that compared to interests by Russian financiers, Putin’s involvement was cursory and rather superficial, but still improvised to seem like he was playing 4-D chess with the White House. This hasn’t stopped the president from continuing diplomatic bridge building with the Kremlin.
In December 2017, Trump spoke to Putin personally on the phone twice over the course of three days. On the first call, the two discussed rising tensions with North Korea and in the second, Putin thanked Trump for the CIA intelligence which led to the foiling of a planned terror attack in St. Petersburg. Since this time, Trump has developed the startling habit of speaking to Putin on the phone – without his advisors present. To those around him, the prospect of Trump having unsupervised communication with a very effective former KGB operative presents obvious concerns. Now Trump’s administration faces an investigation into his campaign’s possible collusion with Russia, headed by special counsel Robert Mueller. The allegations further intensified on January 9th, when news broke that an anonymous source inside the Trump campaign reported their concerns to the FBI during the campaign.
This new information was drawn from a transcript of a congressional interview with Glenn Simpson of Fusion GPS, the research firm which compiled the report on suspected contact between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives. The picture seems to get blurrier and clearer at the same time, as often do political investigations full of anonymous sources and hearsay. But we are sure to learn more in the coming days and weeks about Russia’s involvement, and whether or not Trump’s coziness with Putin could result in harm to American security.