There have been an enormous number of stories regarding the relationship of Trump and many of his sidekicks and family members to Putin’s Russian kleptocracy1.
In one of the most recent developments, it has been alleged that a Russian think tank (Russian Institute for Strategic Studies; RISS) developed a plan to interfere with the 2016 US presidential election. Details of this plan were contained in two documents obtained by US Intelligence. The upper levels of this think tank are staffed by Putin appointees, some of whom are retired Russian foreign intelligence officials2. The first of these two RISS documents was a strategy paper written in June 2016. It recommended a propaganda campaign to help get Trump elected as he was more likely to take a softer line on sanctions against Russia and would look more favourably on Russia’s military activities in Syria. The second RISS document, from October 2016, warned that Clinton was likely to win the election, and it therefore argued that rather than pro-Trump propaganda, it refocus its efforts on undermining Clinton’s reputation2.
The anti-Clinton activity included stories from pro-Russian bloggers using a twitter campaign and assorted videos to make it appear that Clinton was a criminal2. These stories were snapped up by the gullible right-wing media (Breitbart, Infowars, Faux) and portrayed as real. Neither of the RISS documents mentions the hacking of the Democratic Party e-mail system, and it is likely that activity was a covert intelligence operation, which was not part of the RISS plan.
Another recent development is the assessment that Trump is involved deeply with Russian organised crime figures. These started as business transactions in the 1990s and led to closer relations in the 2000s. Much of it stemmed from the desire of Russian criminals to get at least a proportion of their money out of Russia, so that if they fell out of favour with Putin, and had to leave Russia, they had a big enough stash overseas to hire bodyguards to protect them from the FSB. Donald Trump Jr stated at a conference that he had taken half a dozen trips to Russia in an 18 month period, and that Russian assets make up “a pretty disproportionate cross-section” of their (the Trump organisation) total assets, and “we see a lot of money pouring in from Russia”. Trump (senior) had relatively close ties to the Mogilevich criminal organisation3, having had direct financial dealings with some of its members. Mogilevich used to launder money for the Solntsevskaya Bratva criminal gang, the largest criminal organisation in Russia. After a falling out with Mogilevich, Solntsevskaya Bratva moved into banking, so it could launder its own money, and so it could get closer to the oligarchs who surround Putin4.
Much of the Russian organised crime money has flowed through one of the largest banks in Cyprus, the Bank of Cyprus. The Bank’s chairman, Wilbur Ross, is now the US Secretary of Commerce. When the senate examined Ross’ nomination, Ross told the committee that Trump had forbidden him to answer questions regarding the bank. Cyprus is also one of the foci of investigations into Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, with regard to suspected money laundering via real estate transactions3.
These troubling developments are suspected to be the reason behind the recent cruise missile attack on al-Shayrat airfield. Trump hopes that his voters will believe it is a strike against the old cold war enemy. However, the slightly muted and short-lived outrage by Putin over the missile attack on al-Shayrat also seems a little suspicious. Parts of the airfield were severely damaged, but released photographs indicated that it was only old Syrian aircraft which were destroyed in their shelters, and not all the aircraft shelters were damaged, which is surprising because it was stated by Trump that 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired, which were presumably far more than enough to hit all shelters5. There were also no Russian aircraft damaged or destroyed in the attack, despite the Russians regularly using the airfield. However, Trump apparently warned the Russians at least a day beforehand, ostensibly to prevent Russian deaths. It is clear that the Russians also warned the Syrians, which is probably the reason that a convoy of trucks was reported leaving the airfield the day before the attack. There are also reports of the Syrians moving some of their aircraft out of the targeted shelters to prevent their destruction. The damage to the airfield was minimal, with supposedly only six old MiG 23s being destroyed and with most of the aircraft and the runways undamaged6. Indeed, the airfield was back in operation a couple of days after the attack.
The Russians have suggested that this attack on al-Shayrat airfield was largely for Trump’s domestic political benefit. This may be the case, but perhaps not for the reasons many have assumed: i.e. that bombing people is popular among those who voted for him. It is more likely that it is a way to distract voters’ and perhaps other gullible republicans’ attention from Trump’s links to Russia. It could also have been a way to ensure that the nervousness felt in Russia7 is decreased enough to prevent Putin contemplating throwing Trump under the proverbial bus.