Trump prides himself on his negotiating skills, but he may meet his match in Vladimir Putin.
Putin thrives on chaos and considers the U.S. irrelevant; Trump must make him care.
“Double, double, toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.” — Macbeth
Vladimir Putin is always plotting. It’s his defining passion. The KGB lieutenant-colonel who took his organization to the heart of the Kremlin, Putin is the supreme incarnation of Russian espionage.
In the same vein, alternating between political seduction and vicious brutality, Putin has two strategies for dealing with his opponents:
Manipulation and murder.
These are realities that Donald Trump should heed.
After all, Putin has a record of manipulating U.S. presidents.
Before leaving office, President Bill Clinton praised Putin, telling British prime minister Tony Blair, “I think we can do a lot of good with him.” In another call, having fallen for Putin’s calculated charm, Clinton gushed, “He was very anxious to impress me.”
Similarly, in his first term, President George W. Bush was wowed by Putin’s deceptive claims to faith. Bush explained that he had “gained a sense of [Putin’s] soul” and found him “trustworthy.”
President Obama has veered between falling for Putin’s manipulation of his self-belief (the reset) and overt acquiescence (Syria).
It’s a trend Trump must avoid joining.
But to do so, he needs a three-pronged diplomatic strategy.
First: Recognize that Putin Isn’t Interested in a Mutually Beneficial U.S. Relationship He’s far more interested in improving relations with states in the European Union (EU) and the Middle East.
That’s because Russia’s energy exports and other economic interests in those areas are the keys to its economic future.
And, critically (and unlike the United States), the EU, the U.K. (due to Russian financial interests in London), and Middle Eastern governments lack the resolve to challenge Putin’s grand strategy:
namely, his desire to replace America as the preeminent geopolitical power broker.
As I noted recently, Putin senses particular opportunity in the Putin-friendly governments that are likely to take power across Europe in 2017.
These elections are where Putin has his eyes set. Moreover, Trump’s plan for a grand alliance with Russia against Salafi jihadism is dead on arrival.
The Russians see ISIS as a useful idiot with which to pressure the West into accepting Assad as the better of two bad options. And even if Trump agrees to Assad’s retention of power, the Russians will hedge their counterterrorism support for America.
Such coordination would make the world more stable, and it is in conditions of instability that Putin finds opportunity.
That’s because instability creates a fear that inclines international actors to desperate relationships, and Russia offers those relationships.
Take the Middle East.
Today, supporting Iran’s rearmament, its nuclear ambitions, and its revolutionary agenda in Syria, Putin has made Khamenei his quiet buddy. But that’s not all, because America’s allies (and Iran’s arch-enemies), the Sunni monarchies, are also gravitating towards Russia. They are doing so not because they like Putin, but because they sense they must.
Without American leadership, they see a choice between bowing to Russia and hoping for the best, or rejecting Russia and encouraging Putin to empower Iran against them.
Second: Present an Unequivocal Commitment to U.S. Interests
Last September, interviewing former NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen, I asked him what advice he would give to a leader meeting Putin for the first time.
His response was unequivocal:
“I would tell him or her that a firm stance is necessary, because that’s the only language Mr. Putin understands.”
Trump must always remember that Putin is the king of opportunism. If Trump walks into his first meeting with Putin adorned with his dealmaker-in-chief cap and pretends that everything is on the table, Putin will seize the moment. And with Putin’s interests focused on dominating Eastern Europe, ruling the Middle East, and pursuing a bear-dragon alignment against America, the stakes are great.
Trump must always remember that Putin is the king of opportunism. In his first meeting, Trump should listen more than he speaks. And when he does speak, he must be firm.
The extended risk here is that any early manipulation will reverberate in U.S. foreign policy. Just as President Obama’s red-line collapse diluted his ability to influence global events in the U.S.’s favor, were Trump to yield an early victory to Putin (for example, allowing the recently deported Russian spies to return to the U.S.), he would degrade his ability to win U.S. allies to his future foreign-policy agenda.
That includes his positive intent to persuade NATO members to increase defense spending.
Third: Until Otherwise Verified, Assume Any Deal with Putin Is a Trojan Horse.
During Trump’s first weeks in office, he should expect Putin to offer some kind of minor American victory.
That might, for example, include a Russian commitment to stop harassing U.S. aircraft. Or perhaps a public Putin warning to Iran to abide by its nuclear commitments.
Regardless however, these victories will be veils. As proved by his many fake ceasefires in Ukraine and Syria, Putin is the grand master of Trojan horses.
His word cannot be trusted. Correspondingly, Trump must ensure that any deal with Putin is verifiable right from the start. Absent verification, Putin will do to Trump what he has done to Obama.
He will offer deals, then break those deals, then offer new deals, then repeat the process. And each time he breaks a deal, the U.S. will look weaker and Russia will grow stronger. Trump will also have to get U.S. allies on board with any deal. Putin knows that many of America’s friends are already deeply doubtful of Trump.
Putin will seek to deepen these doubts and turn them into policy gaps. Just as he adores political chaos in the Middle East, Putin loves political uncertainty in the West.
Ultimately, Trump must accept Putin’s identity for what it is. He must realize that, like him, Putin is a man obsessed with personal dominance.
He doesn’t just like to win, he likes to send a message in doing so. Sometimes, as with Trump’s tweets, there’s a casual quality to this intent.
Such examples include Putin once telling President Bush that that his dog was “bigger, stronger, and faster” than Bush’s dog, Barney.
Or when Putin used his dog to scare German chancellor Angela Merkel during a press conference.
But at other times Putin’s identity renders itself in far darker forms:
In the form of a blood-soaked Boris Nemtsov lying under the lights of Moscow’s Saint Basil’s Cathedral.
Or of Alexander Litvinenko’s fatally irradiated body lying in a London hospital bed.
Or of bombed aid convoys scorched on a Syrian street.
Putin is the spy who never came in from the cold. Mr. Trump must guard his hand closely.