What might Russian President Vladimir Putin get out of U.S. President Donald Trump at their summit today?
On Sunday, I posed this question to my long-time go-to-guy on Russia matters, Professor Nick Hayes of Saint John’s University, who is steeped in Russian history and current Kremlinology and who, as often before, took me to school, deepening my thinking on the topic.
Thanks, in significant part to the presidency of Donald Trump, Putin has already achieved (or had handed to him) most of the big foreign policy goals he set for himself when he successfully won a six-year term earlier this year, Hayes said.
Even before the summit convened, Putin had advanced toward so many of his key goals that “I would say he gloats,” Hayes said.
NATO is dramatically weakened by the ascent of a U.S. president who sees the NATO allies as a bunch of weaklings, takers and freeloaders. The unity of NATO, a bedrock Western foreign policy — and most especially Western policy for combatting Soviet-and-now-Russian expansionism — has sprung some leaks. The recent NATO summit, airing unprecedented strain between Trump and the European allies, was “a prize Putin could only have dreamed of,” Hayes said.
The idea that NATO might consider adding Ukraine to join the Western alliance, which would be a nightmare for Russia, is in full retreat, Hayes said.
In fact, Hayes said, Putin no longer worries that NATO will do much to force Russia to disgorge the Crimea region, which was legally part of Ukraine when the Soviet Union broke up, but is important to Russia both for strategic and historical reasons.
When Putin occupied and annexed Crimea to the Russian federation in 2014, Hillary Clinton compared it to Hitler’s actions in Czechoslovakia before World War II. The Trump-controlled Republican convention of 2016, by contrast, watered down its tough language on standing up for Crimea. When asked before the summit whether he would confront Putin on Crimea, Trump told reporters, “We’re going to have to see.”
Hayes’ colorful final word on that topic: “Crimea will not go back to Ukraine any more than Texas will go back to Mexico.”
In Syria, where Russia has fought long and hard to preserve control by its best Mideast ally, Bashar El-Assad, the Trump administration policy is muddled, but Hayes says Trump doesn’t threaten Putin’s ability to sustain Assad in power.
Hayes predicted that Trump will declare the Helsinki summit a huge personal success, which would hardly be unprecedented. Trump may dwell, as he often does, on the importance of the personal connection he established with Putin. He craves favorable reviews from the international media as a statesman and anything else that projects an image of competence, proving his detractors are wrong.
“With Trump, you have to keep in mind his ego politics, and he’s anxious to get good reviews, especially in comparisons to previous presidents,” Hayes said, especially previous Republican presidents.
Trump will be upset if the reviews suggest that he was “played” by Putin. But, considering the level of Putin’s experience both in geopolitics and as a long-time KGB man, it’s quite possible that Trump will be played.
And lastly, I just have to mention that Hayes currently holds what sounds to me like the greatest academic gig anywhere, occupying “the University Chair in Critical Thinking” at Saint John’s University.