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Putin Would Eat President Trump for Lunch

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Donald Trump keeps saying that, as president, he would have a good relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He's probably deluded: Putin doesn't make deals with brash, showy businessmen. He eats them for lunch.

In June, Trump told Fox News host Bill O'Reilly why he'd likely have a "great relationship" with the Russian leader. "He’s got a tremendous popularity in Russia, they love what he’s doing, they love what he represents," Trump said. "I was over in Moscow two years ago and I will tell you — you can get along with those people and get along with them well. You can make deals with those people. Obama can’t." 

At a golf tournament in Scotland this week, Trump reiterated: "I think I'd get along very well with Vladimir Putin. I just think so."

Perhaps as a result of this imaginary rapport between the billionaire and the ex-spy, American writers are tempted to compare Trump with Putin. "Doesn't Trump resemble an American Putin?" Jack Shafer wrote in Politico this week. "The two share nativist views, both seem to be head-over-heels narcissists, believe in a strong executive branch and think a day wasted if they haven’t bullied somebody. If Putin isn’t as germophobic as Trump, I’d be astonished." He added, "Maybe the best way to counter a madman in the Kremlin would be to put one in the White House?" 

The Washington Post did its own comparison, pointing out that Trump's unfavorable rating in the U.S. is about as high as Putin's. Even Trump himself was once manipulated into comparing himself with Putin -- and he showed uncharacteristic humility: "I've just heard for the first time that he has 40 planes and yachts and all that stuff, I mean, he has more than I do, that's some impressive list or stable that he's got."

No Russian, however, would find any basis for comparing the two men. Rather, Trump reminds me of two other Russians, neither of whom fared well under Putin. 

One is Yevgeny Chichvarkin, co-founder of the Yevroset chain of mobile phone shops. Like Trump, he is flamboyant and outspoken. Trump sold a line of rather tasteless clothes under his name until Macy's discontinued it earlier this month. Chichvarkin is famous for dressing like a pop star -- all loud colors and improbable cuts. Trump hosted "The Apprentice" on NBC; Chichvarkin was one of the five hosts of "Kapital" on Russia's TNT channel, judging   investment pitches from young entrepreneurs. Trump likes to curse, and so does Chichvarkin. 

In September 2008, it became clear to Chichvarkin that he would have to sell his business, by then the biggest mobile phone retailer in Russia, or face jail on shaky criminal charges. He sold out for an undisclosed but probably very low sum to Alexander Mamut, an intermediary with strong ties to the Kremlin. Then Chichvarkin took a shot at a political career, taking a top post in a small liberal party. Bad mistake. In December 2008, warned that police might be after him, he rode on the floor of a Moscow cab to avoid detection and fled to London. He says he will only return to Russia after the Putin regime falls.

The other Russian businessman who Trump somewhat resembles is Boris Berezovsky, a member of the first cohort of Russian oligarchs. A mathematician turned car dealer turned political operator, Berezovsky was a publicity-hungry megalomaniac inclined to overstate his fortune. "I never make millions or tens of millions," he once said. "I only make billions." 

A worldly womanizer, Berezovsky believed that anything could be bought or sold. His close relationship to the family of former President Boris Yeltsin helped him become a legislator, a TV station owner and a senior government official. Berezovsky then claimed to have helped make Putin Yeltsin's successor. Soon after Putin became president, Berezovsky dared to criticize him over his handling of the separatist region of Chechnya. Prosecutors reopened an old criminal investigation of Berezovsky, who decided to remain in London. Eventually, he ran out of money; in 2013, he was found hanged in his bathroom.  The coroner failed to establish whether it was murder or suicide.

Chichvarkin and Berezovsky have something important in common apart from their resemblance to Trump. They lost their fortunes to the amorphous but deadly power of the state.

Topless photos and macho adventures aside, Putin is no showman. He's a colorless career bureaucrat with the steely core of a KGB man. The popularity he enjoys is nothing like stardom: It's a mixture of fear, love and submission. Putin doesn't do deals, as Trump does, or as Berezovsky and Chichvarkin once did, because he has never been a businessman. Putin is a man of the state. And the state can't be gamed or beaten. No deal is ever final until it takes its due. 

President Trump might believe for a time that he and Putin were getting along famously. President George W. Bush, who once said he had gained a sense of Putin's "soul," believed as much. Eventually, however, even Trump would come to understand that he was being mocked and manipulated, the Putin behavior that President Barack Obama can't stand. Trump's disappointment might produce an even more bitter confrontation than the one between Putin and Obama. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net