Trump, Tillerson, and Putin: A Politics of Pipelines, Power, and Ethnonationalism


Image result for russia south eastern europe

Eurasian map centered around Russia. Get used to it.

The selection of Tillerson may have been haphazard, but it is exactly what Putin wants, and it is the culmination of his triumph.


The selection of Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State was at the end of a long and darkly comic opera written by buffoons. Rudy didn’t want to have to compete, and Trump didn’t like that he was trying to be a star. Mitt would grovel, but not apologize. Petreaus was probably too independent. So there is a reading here that when Tillerson’s name was floated, it stuck with Trump for the same reason basically anything does: that is, no real reason at all.

Marshall thinks the whole thing is strange. Trump may or may not have even known who Tillerson was before he was recommended by Gates, Condi, and Baker, none of whom, as he pointed out, had any relationship with Trump. So why go with him?

The only thing I can think of is that none of the other prospective nominees – Romney, Corker, Giuliani, Petraeus, et al. – were willing to sign on to Trump’s desire for something between rapprochement and strategic alliance with Russia. Sources close to both men say this conflict did come up between Romney and Trump, whether or not it was the deciding factor.

And he’s right–the whole thing is deeply weird. It’s pretty clear by now that, at the very least, Putin tried to influence the election with the promotion of news stories muddying the waters. It is clear that an anti-Hillary, pro-Trump hacking campaign was meant to humiliate her and create confusion in the election. It is growing more and more clear that these efforts were directed from the top, and may have all been of a piece.

It’s pretty clear that they were fed to the sinister Julian Assange, whose quest for “radical openness” has transformed (or at least shown itself) to be essentially anti-Europe and against liberal democracy, if not outright pro-Putin. And that’s really the heart of it. Everything that Putin has done has been to undermine liberalism in order to advance Russian national interest. It doesn’t matter with whom he is forced to work, “left” or right. Or Trump.

That’s why Tillerson is the key to understanding the direction of global politics over the next four years, at least. This is not America’s world, or Obama’s world. It isn’t Merkel’s world or Trump’s. It’s Putin’s. And that means it is about ethnicity and pipelines. And it all starts in Transdniester.

(OK, nothing starts in Transdniester, a restive separatist movement in Moldova and the Ukraine. But wasn’t that a dramatic sentence?)

Understanding What Putin Wants in Europe

In his latest book In Europe’s Shadows, Robert D. Kaplan looks at Romania and parts east, like Moldova. These are essentially forgotten areas, coming up sometimes in the context of the Ukraine, but far from the headlines. When we think of swaggering Russian expansion, we jump from Odessa to Riga, skipping over the vast ethnic tangle in between.

But that’s not the way Putin thinks, or sees the world. Southeastern Europe and the Balkans are key to his Eurasian strategy, reclaiming Greater Russia, if not de jure, then de facto. 

A Romanian national security advisor reminds Kaplan that “Putin is not an apparatchik; he is a former intelligence officer”, and so relies on what they call subversion:

….that is, intelligence activities, reliance on Russian natural gas, the running of criminal networks, the buying up of banks, strategic assets, and media organs to undermine public opinion. It (Nato Article 5) does not protect against the funding of right-wing, anti-NATO, and anti-EU parties in each country, or the bribing of parliamentarians.

This is his strategy across Europe, especially with natural gas. Pipelines politics are how Russia controls its sphere. The problem is that, after the invasion of Ukraine, crippling sanctions imposed by the Obama administration tanked some of their projects, especially the “South Stream” that would have made Russia the indisputable energy boss of the Balkans, pulling them even further away from the EU, and trapping the Ukraine, Romania, Hungary, and Moldova inside its sphere of influence.

So, when the US screws up your plans? Screw up the US.  Kaplan further describes what “subversion” means:

It was all about taking over countries from within. And because sowing confusion could be a deliberate tool of agression in this kind of warfare, Russia’s oh-so-suave foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov…seemingly contradicted himself from week to week, complaining about problems that he and his side had, in fact, just created.

Sowing confusion to take over countries from within it what Putin has worked to do all over Europe, helping the National Front in France, the Leave campaign in England, and most successfully Viktor Orban’s neo-fascist anti-liberal Hungary. Orban has established himself as a Putin figure, shredding democracy by playing to ethnic fears and resurgent nationalism.

That’s what Putin knows works. Like Stalin, he sees the world through an ethnic lens. He knows that the wounds of the past can be easily reopened, stoked to anger and violence, and in that hideous confusion, he can assert authority. He’s exploited that in Western Europe, and in the East as well, where well-meaning politicians are terrified that any economic issues can be skillfully turned toward violence.

Romania has a large ethnic Hungarian population, which Orban and Putin believe can be turned against the government at any time. Moldova, already deeply poor, has been dealing with Transdniester secessionists propped up by Russia since independence (see Timothy Garten Ash’s A History of the Present for more info on the beginning of that). All over Eurasia, in the Balkans, in the Caucuses, in Germany and France and England, there are ethnic groups that can have their ideas inflamed and their hatred stoked by a deliberate sowing of false ideas and violent rhetoric. Confusion is the key.

And now it worked in the US.

Trump and Tillerson’s Ethnonationalism

In Trump, Putin found the perfect candidate on every level. Trump is a natural showman who knew exactly what angry white people wanted to hear. This isn’t to say he was a phony, or that he doesn’t believe it. He believes it as much as he believes anything, because when people applaud him for saying something, in his mind, it is alchemially the truth.

Trump’s politics, such as they are, line up with Putin’s. They are based around ethnicity and anti-immigration, and they posit that great powers can do whatever the hell they please.

But more than that, he’s a goddamn fool who Putin can ply with flattery. And, very possibly, a terrible fraud of a businessman who is leveraged to the hilt with Russian banks, and so can’t make a move against Russia.

This puts him happily in line with the GOP. Sure, there are some who are still reflexively anti-Russian, like Lindsay Graham, maybe Tom Cotton, and certainly John McCain, who has visions of Munich every time Putin crosses a room. But while that is still a reflex in the Republican party, Putin himself is frequently called a great leader. They could clear their throats and say he’s a bad guy, but it was usually to sneer at Obama for not being as strong as Putin.

But now that Trump is embracing him, they don’t have to pretend anymore. As the horrorshow in North Carolina proves, they are instinctually anti-democratic. Putin stands up for Christianity, stands against Muslims, and helps anti-modern white power groups across the world.

That’s where Tillerson comes in. It beats me if he himself is racist, or a white nationalist. I’d bet not; he’s just a money guy. He’s just an energy guy. He’s just a pipeline guy. And that’s the whole point.

His geopolitics are entirely based around pipelines. In theory, it isn’t bad to have an SoS who deeply understands the role of energy, but not one who is fully oriented toward a Russian vision. Chances are, sanctions will be eased. The South Stream will be built. Russia will continue its dominance, and have the ready cash reserves to continue to sow confusion and stoke ethnonationalist movements across Europe and the United States. Tillerson’s politics are entirely in line with Putin’s, which makes him essentially an amoral accomplice to ethnic nationalism. This also makes him Putin’s crowning achievement.

Confusion. Chaos. Anti-democratic strongmen bending the system to grip to power. White nationalism empowered in the streets and in the statehouses. Spheres of influence growing darker and stronger. This is Putin’s world, and terrifyingly to people who believe that the United States can actually be a force for good in the world, we’re suddenly just a part of it.

10 thoughts on “Trump, Tillerson, and Putin: A Politics of Pipelines, Power, and Ethnonationalism

  1. The depth with with your information is based is beyond mine… yesterday I read of an interview with Obama by NPR and was once again impressed by the diplomacy and truthfulness of our acting President. He claimed that the resistance he has had in working with the Republican Party is for their party’s propaganda or as he said it: “political expedience.” He claimed that the Republicans complained back in 2011 that he was not hard enough on Russia and now are coming around to embrace Trump’s ideas that Putin is not an enemy

    I love the article-
    Thanks Brian

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