Imagine you’re Vladimir Putin, and you’re prepping to meet President Trump in Helsinki next Monday. You’ve been keeping an eye on his rocky relations with Europe and the aftermath of his other high-profile summit meeting, with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
Your government long ago built a profile of the U.S. president. Millions of Americans would love to know what you know about him. Trump’s recent public comments that you’re “fine,” and that meeting you probably will be easier than his visits to NATO headquarters or to Britain are just icing.
What message does Putin want to get across? Leave aside the question of whether the Russians really have something on Trump. We don’t know. It still is possible to focus on how Putin will position his country, how he will critique U.S. policy and what he wants out of it.
While the two presidents will get into specific issues — Ukraine, sanctions, Syria, Iran, election meddling, nuclear arms, and perhaps the global oil market — major agreements are unlikely. If Trump wants to deal, well, he’s not usually interested in details. But Putin is, and he’s not about to give anything away.
In any case, Putin will want to create a framework. He’ll want to reinforce the idea that he, Trump, and nationalists and populists elsewhere are — to co-opt one of Barack Obama’s favorite phrases — on “the right side of history.” He’ll say that George W. Bush, and then Obama and his meddlesome secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, made a mess of things by sticking their noses where they didn’t belong. That seems to be Trump’s gut reaction anyway, but the more Putin can encourage it, the better for Russia.
Putin might start by pointing to the current state of Europe. Germany is experiencing a resurgence of right-wing populism. Angela Merkel is barely hanging on. Britain can’t decide what it wants. Meanwhile, nationalists and populists are riding high in countries like Hungary, Poland and now Italy.
A major factor in all of this is immigration. People are unhappy with how newcomers change their societies; they worry about crime and terrorism. A big factor in the wave of immigration into Europe, Putin would argue, is the chaos unleashed by Bush’s invasion of Iraq, and Obama’s encouragement of the Arab Spring. The overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, with a huge assist from the U.S. and allies, created perfect conditions for human traffickers to fill boat after boat on the Libyan shore and launch them toward Italy. The civil war in Syria displaced half the population and sent many fleeing abroad.
Putin also is convinced that the U.S. was behind the protests that forced out Ukraine’s pro-Russia president in 2014, and that Clinton in particular encouraged demonstrations in late 2011 and early 2012 against his return to the Russian presidency.
In Russia’s view, Washington and Moscow should cooperate to fight terrorism. Perhaps they could reach an understanding that would help keep U.S. gas prices down and boost production in Russia, which would help balance the national budget. The two countries’ nuclear competition, seemingly a vestige of the Cold War, appears to be getting more dangerous again.
But generally, everybody would be better off if Washington minded its own business. The U.S. can deal with its immigration problems as it sees fit; Moscow isn’t going to butt in (it might suggest however that some of Central America’s problems are the result decades of U.S. involvement).
Meddling does work both ways. If Trump wants a Russian pledge not to interfere in this year’s U.S. elections, Putin may be happy enough to issue a vague statement of non-interference — as long as Trump reciprocates. Each side could define non-interference however it wished, just as Trump and Kim walked away from their summit with different ideas of what “denuclearization” means.
Since Ukraine is much more important to Russia than to the United States, from Russia’s perspective it would make sense for Trump to accept Moscow’s annexation of Crimea. Plus, if “America First” means that traditional friends now are competitors, that weakens the Western alliance — and along with it the strength of sanctions imposed for Russia’s involvement in Ukraine.
In the Middle East, Trump is getting some heat because of Russia’s backing of a series of brutal Syria government offensives, most recently in Daraa, the cradle of the revolution. But Putin will remind him that Bashar Assad is still the president of Syria. He might be a despot, but getting rid of him is not crucial for America — the reluctance of both Obama and Trump to get more deeply involved illustrates the point. Nor is Russia likely to engage on a request to pressure Iran to leave Syria, as National Security Adviser John Bolton has suggested. Many U.S. experts acknowledge Russia doesn’t have that much influence in Syria. If Trump insists, cooperation would come at a high price.
Previous presidents may have stuck their noses where they didn’t belong, so some reshaping of U.S. foreign policy is not necessarily a bad thing. Trump’s nose is going to get him into a different kind of trouble. If he doesn’t wise up, Putin’s going to lead him around by it.