President Trump made many mistakes during Friday’s summit with Vladimir Putin, beginning by saying it was an “honor” to meet with the Russian strongman.
But the most disheartening takeaway from the meeting is that, like Barack Obama and John Kerry before them, Trump and his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, fundamentally do not understand the nature of the man they’re dealing with. Putin is not an “unpredictable” crank or a “bored kid in the back of the classroom,” as Obama called him, or a mindless spoiler for a fight. Trump has given Putin “an ‘A’ for leadership,” but apparently has given little thought as to where Putin was leading Russia and why.
Yet there is no mystery here. Putin is a Soviet patriot to the core, guided by deeply held beliefs, a self-imposed historic mission and domestic political imperatives. The failure of successive U.S. presidents goes a long way toward explaining the present situation—we’ve been getting Putin wrong since he first took power nearly two decades ago.
Putin believes that the fall of the Soviet Union from conspiracy abroad and treachery inside was profoundly unjust and immoral—“the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century”—and thus has to be avenged on the West, primarily the United States. He believes the post-Cold War world order is unjust and immoral, especially in the “uni-polarity” of U.S. dominance, and thus must be re-balanced in a zero-sum game in which the West’s loss, whether in Syria, Iran or North Korea, is Russia’s gain. And Putin knows that with the Russian economy hobbled by the toxic domestic investment climate rife with outsized state ownership and control, corruption, and shameless and ubiquitous bureaucratic racketeering, his popularity (and thus the legitimacy of his state, otherwise vastly detested) depends almost exclusively on his ability to sustain patriotic mobilization by constantly updating the propaganda meta-narrative of protecting the Motherland and recovering for Russia the superpower glory of Soviet Union: being feared and thus respected by the world.
Unless, in Putin’s analysis, the benefits continue to exceed costs (as they have so far, lopsidedly) he will continue to act on these beliefs and save his regime by external adventures, not systemic domestic reforms. He does not want to be liked by the West. He wants to stay in power in Russia.
Trump had to accomplish two things at the summit with Putin: He had to give the Russian president a detailed and unvarnished tableau of Russia’s infringement on U.S. national interests, which include the security of our allies, respect for the independence of post-Soviet states and the maintenance of the civilized norms of international behavior. Secondly, and even more important, Trump’s job was to present Putin with just as vivid, forceful and credible description of what it would cost Russia to continue its present behavior and what benefits would come from moderating it.
It appears that Trump did touch on all, or almost all, key areas of concern for the United States. Yet judging by what seeped out of the black box, the second half of the job was badly compromised: a combination of short-sightedness, moral obtuseness and sheer ignorance rendered the entire exercise at best useless and at worst—and more likely—harmful.
This outcome began to take shape as Trump declared that it was “an honor to be with” Putin. Since his election, Trump has held at least half a dozen summits, yet, as far as we know, none of his interlocutors— including the leaders of such close allies as the UK and Israel or that of the world’s most populous democracy, India— has been awarded so exalted a status. But in Hamburg, the freely elected chief executive of the world’s oldest continuous democracy, which leads the world in technology and science, was “honored” to sit down with the strongman from a repressive autocracy, which derives half of its budget from oil and gas exports; which is among the world’s most corrupt regimes; where, by the latest count 15 percent of the population (22 million people) earn less than the “subsistence minimum” (that is, do not have enough money for food); and where, ruling single-handedly for 17 years, Trump’s negotiating partner is busily engineering his fourth Potemkin re-election next year to extend his dictatorship by another six years to rival, by 2024, Stalin’s term in office.
In the same fog of moral amnesia (or ignorance) Secretary Tillerson declared after the meeting, as he briefed journalists: “We are unhappy, they are unhappy”— let’s just move on.
“They” bomb hospitals in Syria and fight to keep in power a man who poisons his people with sarin. “They” occupy and annex a chunk of a European country. “They” have precipitated a seemingly endless war in Europe that so far has killed 10,000 people. “Their” missile shot Malaysian Airlines flight 17 out of the sky, killing 298 people. And for the past 10 years “they” have hacked governments and institutions of the U.S., its allies, and newly independent nations of Eastern and Central Europe. And “we”? Well, “we” must have done something equally nasty. What’s the difference? Unhappiness is unhappiness; “theirs” just as valid as ours.
Regarding the areas of U.S. concerns, according to Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s version— the veracity of whose account the U.S. side did not dispute—Trump “did not have any distinct plan” for the “settling of the Ukraine crisis.” Instead, the U.S. president confirmed his “commitment” to the Minsk-2 agreement. (Signed by Russia, Ukraine and Russian proxy forces in February 2015 under the aegis of France and Germany, and almost immediately violated, the agreement called for immediate ceasefire, the restoration of Ukrainian border with Russia, withdrawal of Russian troops and greater autonomy for the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.) Thus, the new U.S. president has signed off a Kremlin version of reality in which “aggression” and “occupation” are a “crisis,” and endorsed the flogging of the dead horse of the “Minsk agreements,” while Russia consolidates its gains in the occupied territory, kills Ukrainian soldiers and possibly gears up for another massive attack in Ukraine or Belarus next door.
Trump has hailed the ceasefire for southwestern Syria as a great breakthrough. Unlike past such agreements—which have all been violated by Assad or his backers, Russia and Iran—this time the truce will be enforced, according to Lavrov, by Russian military police. If true, this is the first official U.S. endorsement of Russia’s presence on the ground in Syria. But not to worry: According to Tillerson, “by and large, our objectives [in Syria] are exactly the same.” Good news, to be sure, but slightly unclear: does the U.S., “by and large,” now support Assad? Or has Moscow switched sides, abandoning its alliance with Assad and Iran?
As North Korean missiles come closer and closer to U.S. shores, Putin apparently did not back off his position of protecting Pyongyang, including by vetoing new U.N. sanctions as he had done shortly before the Hamburg summit Russia “sees things a little different than we do,” was Tillerson’s reaction, and, he continued, “the U.S. will continue to attempt to persuade Russia” on the matter.
Finally, when it came to Russian hacking, some U.S. officials—but notably not the president— disputed Lavrov’s assertion that Trump accepted Putin’s denial of involvement. But then, according to Tillerson, Trump and Putin talked about how the two countries could “secure a commitment that the Russian government has no intention” of interfering in future elections. And, as if this were not bizarre enough, Lavrov announced that the presidents agreed that “these questions” would become a “subject of bilateral interaction” and a special “working group” would be created for this purpose. So if Trump did not “accept” Russian innocence, in Hamburg he agreed to invite a burglar to “work” with the owner of the house. The president is now claiming that he and Putin merely discussed the idea of a U.S.-Russian working group on cybersecurity and that it “can’t happen”— never mind that his Treasury secretary was hailing it as a major accomplishment only hours earlier.
“Make sure Khrushchev believes you are a man who will fight!,” the wily French President Charles de Gaulle advised Jack Kennedy before the latter’s disastrous summit with First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna in June 1961. Kennedy ignored the advice, relying instead on his charm and charisma. Khrushchev, who in the previous three decades had climbed the greasy (and very bloody) pole to the pinnacle of Soviet power, was not impressed. A year later he decided to install nuclear missiles on Cuba.
Although his climb was not nearly as long or as bloody, Putin is an equally tough customer. A street urchin from the slums of post-WWII Leningrad, growing up in the abject poverty of a “communal apartment” with 11 families sharing a kitchen and a toilet in the stairwell, he had to show every day a readiness to fight in order to be respected (and left alone) by bigger boys. «Я специалист по общению с людьми» (“My specialty is communicating with, or reading, people”) was Putin’s answer to the question about what exactly he considers himself an expert on. And, thus far, both inside and outside the country, he has lived up to the billing. The crude flattery of “an honor to be with you” has been wasted.
“Lancing the boil” was the expression that my beloved and much-missed Columbia professor (and President Carter’s National Security Adviser), the late Zbigniew Brzezinski, used to describe situations where blunt talk is needed to let both allies and adversaries know where the US “stands” in terms of rewards for good behavior and punishments for bad.
Last Friday was Trump’s chance to lance the Russian boil. Instead, he and Tillerson dispensed anodynes, palliatives and outright placebos. We won’t have to wait long for the boil to grow larger and darker.