Michael Flynn, then director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, testifies before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee in 2014. (photo: DIA)
President-elect Donald Trump's top national security adviser has expressed a variety of contradictory opinions about affairs in the former Soviet Union, making it difficult to assess what policies the next White House administration may pursue in the region.
Trump has appointed Michael Flynn, a retired three-star general and former top intelligence official, as his national security adviser. Flynn has been Trump's closest foreign policy adviser since early in the presidential campaign. Other key posts like the heads of the Pentagon and State Department have yet to be named, but Flynn seems to enjoy a high level of Trump's trust and appears likely to be the most influential White House voice on foreign policy.
Flynn, as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency from 2012-4, was obliged to give an annual tour d'horizon of the perceived military threats to the U.S., but these tended to reflect Washington conventional wisdom. After being fired from that job, an unleashed Flynn became significantly more extreme -- and erratic -- in his views.
Flynn's primary interest these days is radical Islamist terror groups, and he seems to see events in Eurasia almost exclusively through that lens. Much has been made of Flynn's 2015 appearance at an event in Moscow, where he gave a paid speech and sat next to Russian President Vladimir Putin at dinner. And he has argued that the U.S. and Russia need to cooperate to defeat Islamist terror, in particular in Syria.
"President Putin's decision to intervene in the [Syria] conflict and to do what he is doing there, in my view is connected to problems within Russia," Flynn told the Russian newspaper Kommersant Vlast during that same visit to Moscow. "Five or 10 thousand Russian citizens are fighting in Syria, which is partly why Russia wants to be there – so that these people do not return to Chechnya, Dagestan, Uzbekistan and Moscow. I think that we did not recognize and did not realize this – that President Putin is trying to solve a problem that really exists and that part of its solution lies in Syria and Iraq. The main problem is how we – I mean the great powers, Russia and the West – can work together."
But Flynn adopts a very different approach to Russia in a book he published in July, The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies. The thesis of the book is that the U.S. faces a global network of threats, both state and non-state, that makes the Axis of Evil pale in comparison. And Russia is a key part of this "enemy alliance," Flynn argues.
"We face a working coalition that extends from North Korea and China to Russia, Iran, Syria, Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. We are under attack, not only from nation-states directly, but also from al Qaeda, Hezbollah, ISIS, and countless other terrorist groups," he writes. "Suffice to say, the same sort of cooperation binds together jihadis, Communists, and garden-variety tyrants."
Later, he adds: "The two most active and powerful members of the enemy alliance are Russia and Iran."
And what of the idea that Russia and the West can work together in Syria and elsewhere to defeat Islamism? In the book Flynn, unlike in his interview in Russia, is skeptical:
[W]hen it is said that Russia would make an ideal partner for fighting Radical Islam [sic], it behooves us to remember that the Russians haven’t been very effective at fighting jihadis on their own territory, and are in cahoots with the Iranians.
Although I believe America and Russia could find mutual ground fighting Radical Islamists, there is no reason to believe Putin would welcome cooperation with us; quite the contrary, in fact.
In mid-January 2016, the Kremlin announced its intention to create new military bases on their western border, and to step up the readiness of their nuclear forces. These are not the actions of a country seeking détente with the West. They are, rather, indications that Putin fully intends to do the same thing as, and in tandem with, the Iranians: pursue the war against us. The other alliance members do, too.
Flynn's penchant for tailoring his message to his audience isn't limited to his Russia views. With respect to Turkey he has voiced even more contradictory opinions: While the coup in Turkey was underway in July, Flynn expressed unreserved support for the putschists, portraying Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as an Islamist (and claiming that he was a close ally to President Obama). But in November, Flynn published an op-ed calling for support of Erdogan, criticizing Obama for ignoring him, and supporting the extradition of the cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Erdogan blames for the coup. (What changed in the interim? One possible factor: Flynn's lobbying firm was hired by a Turkish client.)
I wasn't able to find any specific Flynn comments on Ukraine, the Baltics, or the South Caucasus, some of the key security issues around the former Soviet Union. In his book, he does briefly discuss Central Asia, of course in terms of the threat of radical Islamism. He cites historian Walter Laqueur ("one of the wisest analysts of Putin’s thinking") as arguing that "it seems probable that at least some of the militants of the Afghan war will invade the Central Asian republics."
"He [Laqueur] adds that Putin is reluctant (to fully integrate countries like) Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan into the Russian Federation, preferring governments with limited independence," Flynn writes. "Laqueur judges it is likely that 'parts of Central Asia will remain danger zones.' These are areas where the Iranians have been actively sponsoring Shi’ite radicalism." Readers of this blog will be able to identify several fallacies in that short statement: there is no discussion at all about "fully integrating" Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan into Russia. There is negligible, if any, "Shiite radicalism" in Central Asia. No parts of Central Asia can accurately be called "danger zones."
So, what to make of all this? It's still a fool's errand to make any firm prediction about what a Trump presidency will look like, as Trump -- who has no experience and little interest in foreign policy -- appears to be highly suggestible and susceptible to changing his mind. But several tentative conclusions come to mind.
First, the various autocratic governments of Eurasia, which have long sought to justify their dictatorial practices (and ideally, generous military aid from the West) by playing up the fear of Islamist radicalism, have to be cheered by Flynn's ideas.
Second, countries like Georgia, Ukraine, and the Baltics -- which rely on the U.S. as a bulwark against Russia -- may also be cheered by Flynn's distrust of Russia, and may hope that Trump's affection for Putin is limited to the latter's leadership style and doesn't extend to sharing strategic interests with the Kremlin.
And finally, countries around the region (and world) should invest heavily in lobbying. The White House is set to be occupied by people with a very thin understanding of affairs in Eurasia and who seem capable of changing their policies based on who's listening, and who's paying. Buckle up!