Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin are operating together in plain sight. Their actions raise questions at the heart of the Trump-Russia scandal: What is the source of Putin’s leverage over Trump? And what is Trump receiving — or hoping to receive — as a reward?
The answers could explain why a brief new entry in the Trump-Russia Timeline may turn out to be among its most momentous, historically. It illustrates the ongoing global repercussions of Putin’s successful bet on Trump. And it focuses on Ukraine.
US policy concerning Ukraine was one reason that Russia supported Trump’s election. Obtaining relief from economic sanctions — including those imposed after Russia’s illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014 — has been among Putin’s highest priorities. Apart from their impact on Russia’s international standing and domestic economy, Putin has taken them personally because they affect his own wealth and that of his oligarchs. Shortly after announcing his candidacy, Trump offered — in plain sight — to lift them.
At a town hall session on July 7, 2015, an audience member made her way to a microphone and asked Trump about US-Russia relations. Trump said that if he became president, “I don’t think you’d need the sanctions.” The audience member was Maria Butina, who was later convicted of being a Russian agent seeking to influence senior Republican leaders via the NRA.
For Trump, removing Russian sanctions is still a work in progress. He has done what he can to resist and minimize the newer penalties imposed on Russia for interference in the 2016 presidential election. But he’s also helping Putin win more significant prizes: Ukraine itself and the destruction of the Western alliance.
Undoing “Geopolitical Catastrophe”
In 2005, Putin called the breakup of the Soviet Union (which had included Ukraine), the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. Now he’s trying to rebuild that empire. Trump has spent his first two years in office attacking the Western alliance that has been a bulwark against those Russian ambitions.
In January 2017, Trump blasted NATO as obsolete, saying, “We should trust Putin.” Heading into his first NATO summit in July 2018, Trump lashed out at Germany. Days later in Helsinki, he sided with Putin, who acknowledged in their joint press conference that he wanted Trump to win the 2016 election. In Ukraine, the world is seeing why.
Ukraine in Peril
As Trump weakened NATO, Putin became bolder. On Nov. 25, 2018, Russians again violated Ukraine’s sovereignty, this time by illegally blocking the Kerch Strait, the waterway between Russia and Crimea. Russians seized three Ukrainian vessels and detained 24 Ukrainian seamen. On Jan. 15, 2019, a Russian court ordered eight of those sailors to remain in custody until late April.
Meanwhile, beginning on Dec. 17, 2018, Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, repeatedly pushed the unsubstantiated Kremlin line that Ukraine is planning acts of aggression. In response to that concocted threat, Putin has been moving ground forces and weaponry to Crimea. On Dec. 22, he added fighter jets to the mix. Also in the picture — literally, from satellite photos — are short-range nuclear-capable missiles within striking distance of war-torn eastern Ukraine.
And now add the latest Trump-Russia Timeline entry relating to Putin’s assault:
Feb. 21, 2019: “Russia Says It Won’t Let Ukraine Stage New Provocations.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his spokesperson say, again without evidence, that Ukraine is preparing another provocation in the Kerch Strait.
Russian rhetoric continues to look like a pretext for worse things to come. As Putin destabilizes the world order, Trump is helping him. The mortal peril facing Ukraine is becoming a vivid illustration of the consequences. And it’s all happening in plain sight.
Here’s a complete list of the latest updates to the Trump-Russia Timeline:
EARLY DECEMBER 2016: Russians Arrest Intelligence Officers and Cybersecurity Experts for Treason (revision of previous entry)
FEB. 14, 2017: Trump Considers Public Explanations for Flynn Resignation, Tells Christie ‘Russia Thing Is All Over’
FEB. 14, 2017: Spicer Denies Any Contacts Between Trump Campaign and Russia, Makes Numerous Misstatements at Press Briefing; White House Does Not Correct Record (revision of previous entry)
MAY 6-7, 2017: Trump Decides to Fire FBI Director Comey (revision of previous entry)
SHORTLY AFTER MAY 11, 2017: McCabe Opens Counterintelligence Investigation Into Trump, Briefs Congressional Leaders
MAY 17, 2017: Former FBI Director Robert Mueller Named Special Counsel, Assumes Control of Counterintelligence Investigation into Trump
OVER THE JULY 4, 2017 WEEKEND: Trump Calls Lewandowski About Sessions
JUL. 9, 2017: Trump Tweets About Forming Cyber Unit With Russia, Then Walks It Back
JULY 27, 2017: House Republicans: ‘Time to Go Play Offense’; Demand Second Special Counsel
AUG. 15, 2017: Russian Claims He Hacked DNC for Russian Intelligence Agency
REVISED: JUL. 16, 2018: In Helsinki, Putin Pushes Cooperation on Cybersecurity; Trump Sides with Putin (revision of previous entry)
REVISED: DEC. 12, 2018: Cohen Sentenced to Three Years in Prison (revision of previous entry)
LATE 2018: NYT: Trump Asks Whitaker to Have US Attorney in NY ‘Put in Charge of Cohen Case
FEB. 14, 2019: Senate Confirms Barr as AG
FEB. 18, 2019: Trump Quotes Supporter: ‘Illegal Coup on the President’; Tweets About Senate Intelligence Committee, Sessions, McCabe, Rosenstein, ‘Treason!’, ‘Leakin’ James Comey’ (revision of previous entry)
FEB. 18, 2019: Stone Posts Photo of Judge in Crosshairs
FEB. 19, 2019: Trump Tweets: ‘Witch Hunt’
FEB. 19, 2019: Judge Orders Stone to Explain His Instagram Post
FEB. 19, 2019: Trump Tweets About Andrew and Jill McCabe
FEB. 19, 2019: Trump Announces Intent to Nominate Rosenstein’s Replacement
FEB. 20, 2019: Trump Retweets and Quotes Supporters Attacking McCabe; Attacks NYT
FEB. 20, 2019: Cohen to Testify Publicly Before House
FEB. 21, 2019: Rosenstein: ‘My Time as a Law Enforcement Official is Coming to an End’
FEB. 21, 2019: Russian Foreign Ministry: ‘Russia Won’t Let Ukraine Stage New Provocations’
FEB. 21, 2019: Judge Imposes Broad Gag Order on Stone
FEB. 22, 2019: Trump Tweets Burr’s Earlier Statement, ‘Witch Hunt’; Retweets Supporter ‘Desperate Farce’
FEB. 22, 2019: NY Prosecutors Preparing State Charges Against Manafort
FEB. 22, 2019: Russian Prosecutors Seek 20-Year Sentences For Former Cybersecurity Officer and Private-Sector Expert Charged With Treason
FEB. 22, 2019: Mueller Memo in DC Case: Federal Guidelines Equal 17 to 22 Years in Prison for Manafort
FEB. 23, 2019: Trump Quotes Supporter: ‘No Evidence’ That Trump Has Done Anything Wrong; Retweets Another Supporter: ‘Lawsuit to Expose Coup Against Trump’
FEB. 24, 2019: Trump Tweets That Clinton and DNC Colluded With Russia; Attacks Lisa Page and Strzok
Steven J. Harper is the creator and curator of the Trump-Russia Timeline appearing at Dan Rather’s News & Guts and at Just Security. He is an attorney, adjunct professor at Northwestern University Law School, and author of four books, including Crossing Hoffa — A Teamster’s Story (Chicago Tribune “Best Book of the Year”) and The Lawyer Bubble — A Profession in Crisis. He blogs at The Belly of the Beast. Follow him on Twitter (@StevenJHarper1).