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“Lucky in cards, unlucky in love,” they say, but Russia is proving that you can be lucky in both. At the football World Cup, Russia has found itself the recipient of love from the rest of the world for the first time in years. And the upcoming summit between presidents Putin and Trump in Helsinki on July 16 is the payoff for some successful card play by the gamblers in the Kremlin.
President Putin is benefitting from the whimsical foreign policy of a U.S. leader who, having met face-to-face with a provably cruel tyrant in Kim Jong-un, can allow himself a meeting with an authoritarian leader of the milder sort in Putin.
The meeting comes as the Kremlin is seeking ways out of its international isolation without crossing its own red lines. Trump no longer embodies the Western international order, so Putin must now meet a man who represents an increasingly isolated America. No matter—even though Trump is reviled by most of the rest of the Western world, the man who happens to be president of the United States still de facto fills that role of leader of the West, if only by default. Even though Trump is Trump, he can still confer legitimacy on Putin by meeting him as president. The summit is a great symbolic boost for Russia’s objectives.
Despite the smiles we will see between the two men, the sky behind them in Finland will be gray with storms. The political establishments of the United States and Russia are engaged in a new Cold War, fought without rules. The new war did not start in Georgia in 2008 or in Crimea in 2014. It started with the election of Trump in 2016.
Putin’s Russia behaves as if it’s afraid that the world wants to deny it its victory in the Second World War in 1945. The American political elite is focused on the loss of a more recent historical triumph. It worries that Washington is now being denied the victory they believe it won in the Cold War in 1991. In the last few years, Russia not only tore up the rule book with a military intervention in its close neighbor, Ukraine; it then intervened in a more distant land, Syria, and overturned American plans in the Middle East. Then, in 2016, Russia celebrated a victory it may or may not have helped engineer: the election to the U.S. presidency of a maverick anti-establishment politician who opposes the post-Cold War order that America had masterminded.
Having said that, for all the lucky breaks the Kremlin has won recently, the skies over Russia are not so bright either. The Putin regime is now almost twenty years old. Russia is governed by a group of aging security officials, siloviki, and another band of macroeconomists, who are slightly younger but also feeling their age.
This is a kind of coalition government of isolationist patriots and (in the junior role) pragmatic globalists. The first group are in charge of security and both domestic and foreign policy. They entrust the second group with managing the economy, so long as that does not compromise Russian sovereignty.
Vladimir Putin is the pivot in this grand coalition and does not allow one group or the other to dominate fully. Since Putin’s reelection for a fourth term earlier this year, this coalition faces one overriding and immense new challenge. It must reinvigorate the economy, stimulate growth, bridge the technology gap between Russia and the rest of the world—but do this without setting as a precondition improving relations with the West or liberalizing domestic politics.
For the Russian establishment, normalizing relations with the West is not necessarily a taboo. They understand the virtues of de-escalating tensions. But the siloviki live with the memories (in some cases, constructed memories) of Mikhail Gorbachev naively trusting Western promises in the late 1980s. They want to return to a world without Western sanctions, but they want to do so by making deft and clever deals. The goal of any deal is that Russia must be rid of its most painful global problems while making only minimal concessions in return.
That goal becomes a lot easier if the West is no longer united in a consolidated anti-Russian front. So the men in the Kremlin look out with pleasure at a West divided by Brexit, migration challenges, and Trump’s tweets; a West in which Germany and the United States are undergoing a breakdown in relations that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
So, in pursuit of that goal of de-escalation without compromise, many pin their hopes on Trump and the prospect of a different and productive conversation with a man who is the enemy of his own post-Cold War anti-Russian political establishment. At the same time, that foreign policy establishment—including, it seems, Trump’s own national security adviser John Bolton—is in a high state of vigilance for what Trump says and does. They harbor the same kind of suspicions about their president as their Soviet predecessors did about Gorbachev in the late 1980s.
Expectations of the Helsinki meeting are different in Moscow and Washington. For the Russians, it is enough that it is happening at all; and the symbolism of a meeting is highly satisfying in itself. Trump, however, needs more than some joint photos of himself and Putin. He needs to deliver something.
From the Western point of view, there are three main trouble spots in the relationship with Russia: Ukraine, Syria, and alleged Russian intervention in Western elections. Trump would like to be able to trumpet a success on one of these issues—and preferably on more than one. And the Kremlin is working on ways of giving him a helping hand.
Ukraine is the issue of least interest to Trump, as his own remarks make clear. Although he is more favorably disposed to the Russian position on Ukraine than the previous administration, he seems prepared to let the Europeans make the running. We can expect more discussion of a possible UN peacekeeping operation in Donbas—an issue on which Russia has its own set of conditions.
Syria is a different matter, as the conflict there touches on fundamental U.S. interests in the Middle East, from Iran and Iraq to international terrorism. The Trump administration is closer to Russia than its predecessor, no longer insisting so vehemently that Bashar al-Assad must “get out of the way.” It seems likely that Trump wants to declare victory and leave, having declared that so-called Islamic State has been defeated, Raqqa captured, and Iran is facing new sanctions.
On the third issue, Putin will again declare that he had and has no intention of interfering in the domestic affairs of Western countries. That declaration of course will again be music to Trump’s ears. We can expect pledges from Putin—no less generous than those of Kim Jong-un—not to engage in cyberwarfare and to work on establishing common rules of behavior in cyberspace.
Trump loves springing surprises and bringing home results, as he claims to have done in the meeting with Kim Jong-un in Singapore. To pull this trick off with Putin, he can try two different approaches. He can announce that all problems with Russia are the result of the Obama administration and its failure to talk properly to Putin, while he, by contrast, is the man to make Russia a partner and not an adversary.
Or Trump can try the opposite tack, saying that the former weak administration and its weak European allies who are dependent on Russian gas are the ones who are soft on Putin, and that he is the only one who can tell the Russian president unpleasant truths to his face. As it prepares for Helsinki, the Russian side is getting ready for both friendly overtures and words of punishment from Trump—or indeed some combination of the two.
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