With a short high-profile meeting between Presidents Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump possibly happening this weekend in Paris and a more comprehensive session later this month in Buenos Aires, many in Russia are asking the question, why meet at all? After all, each of their previous meetings—in Hamburg in 2017 and then in Helsinki last July—seemed to leave Russian-American relations in even worse shape than before. Some are advising the Kremlin to stay clear of Trump’s White House, and not be drawn into America’s fractious and ruthless domestic politics. The operative theory behind that counsel appears to be, let America’s cold civil war blow over before re-engaging with the winner of 2020.
Yet Putin is determined to continue his face-to-face contacts with Trump. Why such seemingly illogical behavior? It may be that the Russian president has already picked the winner—and it is Trump. In his recent public remarks, before the Valdai Club in Sochi, Putin suggested that when Trump wins his second term in 2020, he will be freer to stabilize and normalize relations with Russia. Putin certainly hopes that the investment he is making in Trump will pay off, and he is prepared to be patient.
This is not to say of course that Putin will get Trump re-elected—to repeat the coup that many in the U.S. believe he has already performed in 2016. Rather, Putin’s insistence on dealing with Trump signals that he sees an opportunity in the U.S. president that others in Moscow do not.
For many in the Russian foreign policy community, there is a clear sense that Congress has already boxed in Trump on issues like sanctions, that the Kremlin’s high hopes for another reset are already dashed, and that Trump’s penchant for being unpredictable creates more than its fair share of risks. The new Congress promises more of the same: more sanctions, more investigations, more accusations about the Trump-Russia connection. Thus, they say, engaging with Trump is futile—and especially so if the Republican Party loses much ground in the midterms on Tuesday.
The problem with this line of analysis is that it totally misses what Putin sees in Trump. The Russian leader’s investment in the U.S. president has little to do with Congress, or with U.S. Russia policy, or whether or not the GOP gets a drubbing in the midterms. To Putin, Trump represents a new departure in U.S. foreign policy. What Putin considers positive for Russia is the disruption that Trump is creating for the global system that the United States has underwritten since the end of the Cold War. Trump is replacing liberal universalism with a version of great-power politics that is not focused on promoting U.S.-favored values. To be sure, it is a policy of strength, but it is clearly preferable to the policy of values, since it rests on a transactional approach to international affairs and allows for compromise.
In this, Trump, for all his idiosyncrasies and inconsistencies, is the most avowedly Russia-friendly American leader Putin is likely to encounter. This is not due to any special affection that the 45th president has for Russia. Simply put, Russia, to Trump, is not America’s major problem. Trump wants a “great America,” the world’s mightiest power that is focused mostly on what it regards as its own national interests. Putin does not mind it: In fact, such an America would be ideal for Russia. What is most important to Moscow is that Washington minds its own business, and does not seek to impose itself on others.
Even Trump’s focus on great-power rivalries, including with Russia, is welcome to Putin. One, because it agrees with his own realist view of international relations. Two, because it acknowledges Russia’s own great power status. America’s transition from the universalist to a more nationalist posture actually began with President Barack Obama’s retrenchment policy. It has greatly accelerated under Trump, whose actions are transforming the world in the direction of multipolarity. America’s European allies, who have long forfeited strategic sovereignty to Washington, are fretting. Putin feels vindicated by Trump’s efforts to reduce U.S.’s commitments to its allies. Putin also no doubt knows that this is how great empires end: invincible from without, those at the center lose interest in carrying the burden of hegemony or leadership. And so, they wither.
Thus, Putin, a consummate here-and-now politician, not only cannot afford the luxury of tuning out the Trump presidency and waiting it out: He has no reason to shun Trump. When Putin came to power nearly 19 years ago, it may have looked that while much of the world had exited the 20th century for the 21st, Moscow had chosen the other door. Now, much of the world is following Russia’s choice, including the Trump administration. This means that, for all the disparity in power and difference of interests, the Kremlin and the White House now talk the same language. And they talk.