Putin Is Getting All He Ever Wanted From Trump
The resignation of U.S. national security adviser Michael Flynn shows how toxic any connection with Russia has become in Washington. It would be tempting to say the alleged help in getting Donald Trump elected has backfired for Russian President Vladimir Putin, but that is not the case: So far, he's been getting exactly what he wants from the U.S.
Flynn was forced to resign ostensibly because he had inaccurately described the content of his phone calls with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, which took place before Trump's inauguration. He was a liability to the administration in any case, because he seemed unable to get along with the Central Intelligence Agency. But it will stick in the public mind that Flynn went because he was too close to the Russians. "Russian for the Exit," trumpeted the front page of the New York Daily News.
Trump may be erratic, but it should be clear to him -- and to less mercurial people in his administration such as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson -- that any sign of engagement with Russia will be magnified by the media and used against the White House. It's unlikely that he will now reach out for talks with Russia on any all-embracing deal that would include, for example, expanded cooperation in the Middle East in exchange for U.S. inaction on Ukraine.
Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes wrote in Foreign Policy that the political revolution unfolding in the U.S. has thrown the Kremlin off balance:
Putin has become a hostage to Trump’s survival and success. This has seriously restricted Russia’s geopolitical options. The Kremlin is perfectly aware that Democrats want to use Russia to discredit and possibly impeach Trump while Republican elites want to use Russia to deflate and discipline Trump. The Russian government fears not only Trump’s downfall, of course, but also the possibility that he could opportunistically switch to a tough anti-Moscow line in order to make peace with hawkish Republican leaders in Congress.
That's wishful thinking. Putin is too experienced, and too steeped in KGB-bred anti-Americanism, ever to expect a friendly U.S. administration.
It's predictable that some Russian commentators would decry Flynn's firing. "Either Trump has not obtained the independence he sought," Konstantin Kosachev, head of the foreign affairs committee of the Russian parliament's upper chamber, wrote on Facebook, "or Russophobia has afflicted the new administration, too, top to bottom." But Putin himself and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov -- the two people who matter -- have always shown restraint when talking about Trump and his administration.
Before Trump held his first telephone conversation with Putin last month, a rumor circulated -- retweeted by many Washington policy experts, journalists and foreign politicians -- that Trump would lift U.S. sanctions against Russia, imposed for its aggression in Ukraine and its alleged interference in the U.S. election. That hasn't happened, and Putin apparently never mentioned the sanctions to Trump. The official Russian position is that Moscow will not bring up sanctions first because they "do not hinder us from building and continuing a dialog on matters of interest to the Russian Federation." The more recent rumor, that Russia is considering the handover of National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden to the U.S. to curry favor with Trump, will likely prove as baseless.
Putin is not looking to offer any gifts to Trump in exchange for any immediate gain. He's playing a long-term game, in which both Trump and the anti-Russian interests in Washington are now actively aiding him.
As far as Putin is concerned, the biggest problem with the U.S. is its willingness to interfere in situations far away from its borders -- in the Middle East, in Europe, in the former Soviet Union. Trump, regardless of what he thinks about Russia, is an isolationist: "America first" is his slogan. Neither he nor his voters appear willing to back direct military interference in any country where Russian interest is strong. Putin is testing Trump's sincerity by encouraging the flare-up of fighting in eastern Ukraine but making no decisive moves there. The U.S. appears to be relatively unconcerned, except for routine condemnation in the U.N. Security Council. If this pattern holds, Putin -- whose understanding of Russian national interests is transparent and predictable -- will proceed unilaterally to safeguard those interests as he sees them.
The U.S. has never had enough of a trade relationship with Russia for its own economic sanctions to be more than a mosquito bite for either side. U.S. exports to Russia never rose higher than $11.1 billion (this record level was reached in 2013). Russia's meaningful economic relationship is with Europe, and it's the political restrictions affecting that relationship that hurt a bit more. And in the European Union, Trump -- like Putin, but for different reasons -- supports euroskeptic nationalists who work against the bloc's cohesion. He is not an advocate of the European project, and he has signaled the possibility of a military disengagement in response to Europeans' unwillingness to pay more for U.S. protection. He may even be about to slap punitive tariffs on European goods -- something that will only make Europeans eager to sell elsewhere, including in Russia. Even if Trump suddenly adopts an anti-Russian course, he has so few friends in Europe that his opinion on sanctioning Russia may not be particularly important to the EU.
In fact, the political establishment's allergy to Russia is preventing the U.S. from pursuing its interests. If engaging with Russia weren't so toxic to the entire U.S. political and media establishment, Trump might have pushed for talks with Russia that would have required give and take. Refusing would make Russia look unreasonable and overly aggressive. Putin wants to be an equal partner to the West, not a perennial "Mr. No." On the other hand, compromising with the U.S. would weaken his domestic position by undermining the villain image Putin's propaganda machine has painstakingly created for the United States. It's great for Putin that there's such pressure on Trump not to seek a rapprochement. It's just the kind of drama Russian state television wants.
For Putin's Russia, a Trump-led U.S. is an adversary with diminished moral standing and no appetite for meddling in far-off regions. Putin is enjoying all the benefits he could expect from the Trump administration without having to pay for them. Even if Trump were inclined to sit down for meaningful talks with Putin about how they could address global issues, America's aversion to Russia would prevent that. So, for the first time since he came to power, Putin appears free to play his geopolitical game.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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