It was going to be Donald Trump’s “easiest” meeting, at least according to Trump himself. After a week of tense exchanges with allies in Brussels and then the U.K., the U.S president would head to Helsinki for his first formal summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Then on Friday, right as the president was settling down to tea with the Queen, the indictments came; the Justice Department accused 12 officers of Russian intelligence with specific crimes related to meddling in the 2016 election—the one U.S. intelligence says the Russians wanted to throw to Trump.
If Trump is worried this will cast a pall over the summit, American intelligence officials have plenty of other reasons to worry about the meeting. Notwithstanding any indictment-related awkwardness, the summit will still be a gift to Putin—an unearned opportunity for him to break out of his immediate struggles and achieve a variety of otherwise impossible goals. Indeed, through a number of aggressive and provocative actions that appeared to provide short-term wins, Putin has nonetheless gotten himself trapped. His country is heavily sanctioned, economically weak, overextended, and lacking in allies. His unprovoked land grab in Crimea, attack on neighboring Ukraine, electoral interference in the U.S. and Europe, assassination of opponents, support to Syria’s bloody dictator Bashar al-Assad and constant lies have left him ostracized in much of the developed world. He can no longer offer his people wealth or the vision of a better future. He instead relies on the tools of oppression and scapegoats to blame for his failures. The dynamic is unlikely to change anytime soon.
And yet despite all this, and even with the indictments, Putin walks into the summit with a distinct advantage. Just as Putin has unleashed his intelligence and security services, Trump has kneecapped and undermined his own.
Trump launched his presidency with an attack on the CIA, accusing CIA officers of leaking and behaving like Nazis. He ridiculed the unanimous conclusions of intelligence community related to Russian attacks on the 2016 election and began a long-running verbal assault on the FBI. Immediately prior to his trip, Trump again questioned the overwhelming judgment of his intelligence professionals, countering that Putin himself denied the charges. Trump added that Putin’s KGB background was “fine.”
For his part, though, during the summit Putin will certainly lean on the knowledge built up in his own intelligence services from years of studying Trump and the U.S. political landscape. He will fawn on Trump and play to his ignorance. He can easily appeal to Trump’s predilection to save money, antagonize allies, and disconnect from NATO obligations. Along with Putin’s tiresome history lessons on Russian victimhood and recitation of grievances against the West, we can expect commentary such as: “NATO has nothing to fear from Russia, so why are you wasting money on that Cold War relic?” “Just like in Korea, your constant war games are a useless and expensive provocation.” “Let us handle Syria. It's just a waste of U.S. money to support people who are terrorists.” “As a savvy businessman, you know that sanctions are hurting the West more than they hurt us. Think how many jobs we could create if only we could reinvigorate our commercial ties.” He will probably blame poor relations on Barack Obama.
It’s almost too easy for Putin. It does not take a trained intelligence officer to exploit Trump’s ego and ignorance. Trump’s vulnerabilities are on frequent public display. He is quick to anger, unable to control his impulses, loyal to no one, easy to flatter, easily influenced but loath to accept advice, a serial bluffer, and fully transparent about his vanity and congenital need for approbation.
This is not a meeting of equals but a summit between a con-man and a man who is easily conned. One orders his opponents killed; the other tweets at his.
Indeed, Putin has the survival instincts of a mobster, and the subversive skills built up from a career in the KGB. He knows how to play a weaker hand to his best advantage. Domestically, he has destroyed Russian independent media, as well as judicial and economic institutions that might have constituted a threat to his personal power. In the process he has made himself one of the richest men in the world and coopted his country’s elite by including them in the spoils. Those who have threatened this arrangement can find themselves dead. On the international stage, Russia does little to facilitate the smooth diplomatic and commercial interaction between states and is instead satisfied to seek attention through subversion and bullying. For Putin, “win-win” means “I beat you twice.”
And there’s another reason for America’s spies to worry about Trump. The most effective weapon available to America’s intelligence officers overseas is that they visibly represent the United States of America. Many a spy disgusted by the corruption in their own countries knows that America, built on the rule of law and respect for individual rights, is a powerful and glaring alternative. American and Western intelligence professionals know that many Russians are seeking an alternative future for Russia and are exhausted by the constant thievery, corruption, and lies of their leadership in the Kremlin. If your own president is a gangster and is hurting your country to satisfy his personal needs, the U.S. is the place to go.
At least it was.
For the intelligence collector, the worry is that the more Trump denigrates Western values and displays a sense of personal dishonesty, the less the U.S. looks like the better option. Why risk your life to provide information to a U.S. president who doesn’t understand the stakes and doesn’t respect the work of his security professionals?
In this case, the goals of the summit are not clear. What does America want from Russia? Why? What is Trump willing to concede? What role are allies expected to take? If the Putin summit follows the pattern he set in Singapore, it’s more likely to be a pageant than a means to solve real problems.
But for an unclear combination of reasons, the U.S. president appears willing to forgive Putin and welcome him to the big-boy table. Even the “summit” terminology gives the impression of a Cold War meeting of two equal and powerful nations, the outcome of which will require others to accommodate themselves. Putin hasn’t earned it, and there is little that he can provide the U.S. in any “deal” short of a complete change of behavior on the international stage. Not only is the administration offering Putin a way out of his self-inflicted international isolation, it’s also providing him a red carpet on which to walk toward the exit.
There is a long-running debate among those scholars and practitioners who follow Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin. Is he a master strategist, or is he merely a tactician, instinctually trying to stay one step ahead in a never-ending effort to remain in power? Trump’s gift to Putin is providing him a helping hand to pull him back from the brink and allowing him to appear an equal on the world stage with the president of the United States. Rather than being labeled as an outcast and thug, he can present himself as a modern-day tsar. Apparently, crime does pay.