President-elect Donald Trump is correct that he has a huge opportunity to improve relations with Russia. Under President Obama, they have soured to the point where Russia interfered in the presidential election and Russian jets routinely buzz U.S. Navy ships. Americans’ feelings toward Russia are the coldest in 30 years, according to a survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Trump could change all that by concluding a deal that committed Russia to stopping cyberwarfare, cooperating on fighting ISIS, getting tougher on Iran over its nuclear weapons program, and ending the deployment of intermediate-range nuclear missiles that threaten Europe.
In business terminology, a deal that met U.S. objectives such as those, in return for the lifting of sanctions on Russia and other concessions, would be a win-win. It would be a natural culmination of Trump’s extensive dealings with wealthy Russians as investors and customers. “The Russian market is attracted to me,” he once said.
The obstacle is Vladimir Putin. Trump may be showering praise on Russia’s president now, but he’ll discover in office that Putin doesn’t view the world in the same transactional, let’s-get-this-done way. Take it from Sergey Aleksashenko, who was deputy chairman of the Central Bank of Russia in the late 1990s when Putin was director of the Federal Security Service, which replaced the KGB. Putin, he says, isn’t a win-win guy. More of a win-lose guy, actually.
“Putin is a proponent of zero-sum-game thinking,” says Aleksashenko, who left Moscow when he began to worry that his antipathy toward Putin could expose him to harm. Now a senior nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, Aleksashenko says that in dealing with Putin “you should demonstrate your force, your mighty capabilities.”
Rather than showing steel, Trump has been bromancing Putin. He praised him on Dec. 30 for not retaliating after Obama sanctioned Russia over election meddling. “Great move on delay (by V. Putin) - I always knew he was very smart!” Trump tweeted.
Trump isn’t the first president to be overoptimistic about his ability to work magic on Putin. In 2001, President George W. Bush said, “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul, a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country.” President Obama never said anything that cringe-worthy, but he did promise in a speech in Moscow in 2009 that “the days when empires could treat other sovereign states as pieces on a chessboard are over.” Obama’s “reset” of relations actually kind of worked—until 2012. That’s when Putin reassumed the presidency from Dmitry Medvedev. Not long after came the seizure of Crimea, the undeclared invasion of the Donbas region of Ukraine, the positioning of advanced missiles in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, cyberhacking, and the bloody alliance between Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
What Trump will learn in the Oval Office is that in diplomacy, unlike business, there’s no higher authority to settle disputes and ensure adherence to agreements. Although the United Nations and other such bodies were created to play that role, ultimately each country is sovereign and can do whatever it wants if it’s willing to fight. Especially if that country has deployed 1,796 strategic nuclear warheads.
A new Cold War is in no nation’s interest, certainly not Russia’s. Not only is it expensive but it risks flaring up into hot war, and a hot war between nuclear powers could quickly become game over. It’s sometimes said that Putin, hailing as he does from the land of chess grandmasters, is playing a “long game.” That would be comforting if true, because playing a long game implies thinking holistically and judiciously. But Putin’s sport isn’t chess. It’s judo, which puts a premium on tactics, not strategy; surprise, not long-term thinking. Putin was awarded the rare eighth dan in judo in 2012 and co-wrote a book on the sport that was given to 7 million Russian schoolchildren last year.
Putin the judoka knows his position is weak. His economy is overdependent on oil exports, and his population is shrinking. But in judo a small competitor can bring down a bigger one by throwing him off balance. Putin is using every weapon he has to destabilize the West, including fake news, cyberwarfare, disguised military operations known as maskirovka, and veiled reminders of Russia’s nuclear capability. He’s unlikely to stop doing these things, because a quiet, peaceful Russia would be a nonentity on the world stage.
Past U.S. presidents and other world leaders, from German Chancellor Angela Merkel to French President François Hollande, have learned that Putin lies more or less habitually. He denied Russian involvement in the downing of a Malaysian passenger jet over Ukraine. In the face of abundant evidence to the contrary, he portrays the conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas region as a spontaneous local uprising. He continues to deny that Russia is behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee, even after the U.S. in December released a damning report including some of the computer code the hackers used.
Trump, for all his recent effusiveness, may not end up being the great friend of Russia that the American foreign policy establishment is worried about. The Kremlin itself remains wary. “The idea of warm relations between Putin and Trump was imagined in Hillary Clinton’s camp,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, a Kremlin foreign policy advisory group. “This is absolute propaganda.”
The question is how Trump will react if—or let’s say when—he realizes Putin has lied to him about something important. Their relationship could sour overnight. For Trump, having to acknowledge that his faith in Putin was misplaced could lead him to react emotionally, which raises all kinds of risks. As he wrote in Trump: The Art of the Deal: “When people treat me badly or unfairly or try to take advantage of me, my general attitude, all my life, has been to fight back very hard.”
To negotiate with Putin, Trump will have to set aside the habits and intuitions about dealmaking that he developed in his business career. They don’t apply well to superpower diplomacy, where no deal is ever really final. And he’ll need to suppress his emotions, which will only get him (and maybe the world) in trouble. Above all, he must understand his rival. “To succeed, the president-elect must see that there are really two Putins—one confident, cagey, and effective; the other defensive, isolated, and unsure of himself,” Stephen Sestanovich, a professor of diplomacy at Columbia University, wrote in a New York Times op-ed in November.
Ever since George Washington warned of foreign entanglements, American presidents have recognized that diplomacy must be based on strategic interests, not rapport. “Warm personal relations do not often translate into solid state-to-state relations,” says Dmitri Trenin, director of the Moscow Carnegie Center, part of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The really important question is whether they can speak the same language based on the two countries’ respective national interests.” Trump will soon discover that truth, either the easy way or the hard way.
—With Henry Meyer