When it emerged that Donald Trump had had a second, unscheduled and unsupervised chat with Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, the media’s already-overstressed conspirometer dialed up to 11. But what if the real story now is less one of collusion with the Russians as collision with everyone else?
In his formal meeting with Putin, Trump was accompanied only by an interpreter and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson—not National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster, or experienced NSC Putin-watcher Fiona Hill. For the unscripted “pull-aside” at a later dinner, he spent the best part of an hour with his Russian counterpart without even his own interpreter, only a Russian one. (Generally both sides have interpreters just to make certain meanings aren’t lost or muddled, and also as an additional source of record.)
By now, one might assume that Trump actively courts controversy over his relationship with Russia. As more and more behind-the-scenes meetings before the elections of last November come to light, he hardly seems cautious or chastened. True, he’s toughened his rhetoric on Russia slightly, but still seems locked into a spiraling orbit around Putin.
Trump is not above trolling his critics, of course. But a 3 a.m. tweet is more his style than a sustained love-fest with the president of a country that has meddled in U.S. elections and power plants, supplied the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria with tanks and missiles, and hounded and harassed American NGOs. This almost enters the realms of surreal and satirical performance art—president as provocateur.
And yet, even as Trump seems determined to play the role of Putin fanboy and patsy, what is striking is how little the Russians have actively gotten from his administration. They want some new grand bargain, a Yalta 2.0, that would fracture Europe into spheres of influence and at once elevate Russia to the status of a peer power, while confirming that Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, and most of the other post-Soviet states fall within its “sphere of privileged interest.” None of that is on the table.
What Putin wants is the lifting of sanctions, whether those enforced under the Magnitsky Act that Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya was lobbying Donald the Younger on at their now-infamous meeting in June, or the personal and economic sanctions applied after Moscow annexed Crimea and invaded south eastern Ukraine. Although some voices are calling for a new policy (often code for “lift the sanctions”), Congress is actually doubling down on them. In the political equivalent of putting a child-lock on the medicine cabinet, they are also limiting Trump’s capacity to interfere with the sanctions.
Moscow would love to see NATO disbanded or simply rendered redundant. Yet precisely because of Washington’s oscillation between disinterest and demands, the alliance’s European members are at long last getting their acts together and increasing their defense spending. Even the European Union is talking more seriously than ever about the need for security cooperation.
None of this is that surprising. While there are areas where Russia and America can and should cooperate—dealing with North Korea or fighting the Islamic State, for example—Putin’s goals and values are squarely opposed to those of the West. Russia’s interests are largely not America’s. Furthermore, Trump’s bizarre determination to love-bomb Putin at almost every opportunity, his cavalier approach to the facts, his tone-deaf responses to genuine concerns about his and his team’s contacts with Russians, all inevitably raise hackles and worries across the political spectrum.
Nonetheless, it is likely that the Russians were at first out not to elect Trump through their hacks and leaks, but to weaken what they considered an inevitable Hillary Clinton presidency. After all, Putin seems to believe that American politics is controlled by an institutional “deep state”; as one Russian Foreign Ministry official airily asserted before the election, “the American establishment will not let Trump win.”
Moscow may often get democracies wrong, but America misunderstands its intelligence tradecraft at its peril. Even the most mediocre agent handler would know that, were Trump really some suborned asset, it would be crucial to keep this fact secret. He would be told to avoid any appearance of partiality towards Putin and to maintain a hard line, such that if and when he did offer the Russians any concessions, no one could question his motives.
As it stands, when Trump does do something that works to the Russians’ favor, like the recent decision to halt the CIA’s program to arm and train so-called “moderate rebels” in Syria, it is widely interpreted not in terms of the move’s merits, but as a sop to Moscow. Increasingly, there is a political price tag on any policy that might even seem “Russia-friendly.”
Nonetheless, Trump’s antics do indirectly help Moscow and hurt the United States in a number of important ways.
First of all, they place stresses on alliances and relationships crucial to America’s interests and also to the wider West. NATO members are scrambling to build up their own defenses, in part, because they are no longer certain that they can fully trust Washington, something Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel acknowledged in May.
Meanwhile, Trump goes out of his way to encourage divisive moves and governments, from supporting Brexit to throwing his weight behind a Polish regime engaged in a sustained democratic rollback. Despite his later claims that he thinks the EU is “wonderful,” it is clear that Trump regards it as an obstacle to U.S. interests. This hardly helps a union already under strain.
How long before a European country wavering on Russian sanctions breaks with the pack, because it assumes Washington will not care? Or some other wannabe-authoritarian decides that Trump has signaled that he is more interested in flattery and loyalty from his allies than adherence to the rule of law? And how does the EU cope with such stresses, when countries decide they must choose between Brussels and Mar-a-Lago?
Secondly, the very appearance that Putin has the U.S. president tucked in his pocket empowers him. The president of a country whose economy is smaller than that of New York state and condemned seemingly to “eternal stagnation,” whose military is stretched to the limit, and whose soft power is minimal, Putin is not so much a geopolitical chess grandmaster as a poker player, bluffing for all he is worth. In this context, truth often matters less than appearance. The more Putin looks like the shadowy master of a thousand trolls, a dozen schemes, and one incumbent of the White House, the higher his global stock.
And meanwhile, America’s global stock tumbles. Polls demonstrate that the respect in which the United States is held is falling around the world. It finds itself aligned only with Syria and Nicaragua abandoning the Paris Accords on climate change. Leaders of allied and hostile nations alike find him embarrassing or laughable.
Here’s the irony. Were the Russians running Trump, they probably would have been cautious, unwilling to burn an asset on anything less than a major score. But as is, they can sit back, enjoy the show, and watch his one-man Putin tribute act.