No important decisions are made in Russia without the blessing of President Vladimir Putin and members of his ruling cabal. This is especially true of Russia’s foreign policy.
Thus, when 13 Russians, including a very wealthy businessman close to Putin, were charged last week in a plot to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the involvement of the Kremlin loomed large.
The indictment brought by Special Counsel Robert Mueller alleged the Russians’ conspiracy was designed, in part, to help Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump and harm the prospects of his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
Mueller was appointed last year by Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein to investigate Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the probe because he was involved in Trump’s presidential campaign.
The indictment alleged that the Russian scheme was run by the Internet Research Agency, a troll farm based in St. Petersburg, Russia. It used bogus social- media postings and advertisements fraudulently purchased in the name of Americans.
Internet Research Agency was not only committed to undermining Clinton’s candidacy, but it also sought to denigrate Trump’s primary election rivals Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz , both U.S. senators.
One of the 13 defendants is Yevgeny Prigozhin, known as “Putin’s chef,” who used the companies he controlled to finance the operations against the U.S.
The operation at one stage had a budget of $1.2 million a month, according to Mueller, which paid operatives’ salaries and bonuses.
Prigozhin once ran Putin’s favorite restaurant in St. Peterburg, after which he received multibillion dollar state catering contracts.
It is inconceivable that the ironfisted leader of Russia would not have had a key role in developing the cyberattacks against the United States. To believe Putin’s claim of innocence is to believe in the tooth fairy.
The former KGB operative is up to his eyeballs in fomenting trouble around the world, and Trump’s failure to call him out is both revealing and disturbing.
The two men have had a bromance for quite some time.
In December 2016, shortly after he won the general election, Trump praised Putin as “very smart” and applauded him for not retaliating against the U.S. for imposing economic sanctions against Russians for the cyberattack on the American electoral system.
“Great move on delay (by V. Putin) – I always knew he was very smart,” Trump tweeted.
During the presidential campaign, Trump described Putin as a “strong leader” and promised warmer ties with Russia. By contrast, Clinton, former U.S. secretary of state, was blistering in her condemnation of the Russian dictator and his henchmen.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its military incursions into eastern Ukraine were major points of contention for the administration of Democratic President Barack Obama, who pushed for the sanctions.
Putin knew that Clinton’s election as president would not be good for him or members of his cabal. He, therefore, took the brazen step of publicly supporting Trump.
But that support was not surprising.
In December 2015, about a year before the election, Putin had this to say about Trump:
“He is a very flamboyant man, very talented, no doubt about that. But it’s not our business to judge his merits, it’s up to the voters of the United States … He is an absolute leader of the presidential race, as we see it today. He says that he wants to move to … a deeper level of relations with Russia. How can we not welcome that? Of course, we welcome it.”
It’s time for the president of the United States to send a clear message to his counterpart in the Kremlin: You will be punished for your interference in our democracy.
How should the U.S. retaliate? By going after Putin’s wealth, which undoubtedly is squirreled away in banks around the world, including the U.S. and Switzerland. The Treasury Department should find out where the assets are being hidden and freeze them.