Watch Out Vladimir: There’s a New Putin in Town
The Russian president has gotten a lot of mileage out of his “craziest man on the world stage” shtick. In a Trump White House, he may have met his match.
The constant temptation, when dealing with Russia, is to assume the other guy is much smarter than we are. From the European migrant crisis to Brexit to Donald Trump’s surprise victory this week, there have been those who see Vladimir Putin’s hand at work and, as a result, assume he has always been three steps ahead. The truth is that he was probably as surprised as anyone else at the results of the U.S. presidential election on Wednesday. And not entirely in a good way.
In all his trolling of the American political establishment over the course of this past year — not least the whole “who, me?” deniable-but-hardly-subtle email hacking efforts — Putin was not, as I’ve written before, trying to get Trump elected. Indeed, part of the reason for Russia’s intervention in the election was precisely because that country’s America-watchers were sure Hillary Clinton was a lock, and — fearing that she would be a more hawkish antagonist than her predecessor — they wanted to try and ensure that she would enter the Oval Office already weakened and distracted.
But it’s not just that they didn’t think Trump could win. It’s also that they weren’t so sure they really wanted him to.
Although the Russian parliament burst into applause at the news, and ultra-nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky toasted it with champagne, Putin was much more circumspect and simply said that he hoped to “work together” with the new U.S. president to address the “crisis” in relations. Likewise, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said the Russians “are not experiencing any euphoria,” and a Russian foreign-policy analyst I spoke to was equally cautious: “What do we really know about what a Trump presidency means? Honestly, I’m not comfortable.”
Over the course of the campaign, Trump was certainly saying the things Moscow likes to hear. From his repeated praise of Putin (“He is very much of a leader. The man has very strong control over his country.”) to his hints that he’d recognize Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in Ukraine to his promise to tell back-sliding NATO that “congratulations, you will be defending yourself,” the Russians could hardly have written better talking points themselves. They’re also, to be sure, enjoying the effect this is having on America’s allies and those who look to the country for example and support. In Europe, for example, the prospects for a renewal of sanctions on Russia for its intervention in Ukraine will be infinitely weaker if it looks as if Washington is wavering.
And yet, there are serious concerns in Moscow. First of all, like the rest of us, the Russians have learned not to take a candidate’s stump speeches on faith. Veteran Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pointedly noted on Wednesday: “This is life; this is politics. I have heard many words, but we will judge by actions.” Besides, there is an evident awareness that no president gets to do exactly what he wants, and Congress, the Defense Department, and State Department machinery, as well as all the other interlocking components of the American political establishment will constrain him, at least to an extent.
There is also the worry that Trump’s “America First” rhetoric, his impetuous ways, and his clear delight in grandstanding could easily be hijacked by other interests in a way that doesn’t suit Moscow so well. Sure, he’s a Putin admirer now — but one particular scenario that worries some is that Ukraine finds a way of making some kind of personal connection to the incoming president (the Russian analyst, tongue only partly in cheek, suggested the next ambassador to Washington ought to be a beauty queen). His Eastern Europe policy could flip-flop overnight.
And it is this last point that highlights the key problem for the Kremlin in a Trump presidency: He is unpredictable. Donald Trump is a man with no foreign-policy backstory from which to learn his tells and interests and no apparent commitment to consistency or ideology. He is driven by naked vanity and equally naked national self-interest.
In other words, Trump internalizes the very qualities Putin has affected. The austere master of the Kremlin, who even as a child was remembered as quiet and serious, and whose KGB training and martial arts passions emphasize discipline and control, has learned to assume a macho, unpredictable, risk-taking persona. He has come to rely on the West to play the role of the responsible adult, the party that will do what it can to avoid confrontation and avert conflagration. Trump, however, seems to be more genuinely Putin than Putin.
So for a start, the Kremlin is going to lose one of its favorite tactics: namely, periodically poking the West with a stick. On Putin’s orders, the Russians have simulated nuclear attacks on Sweden, flown warplanes low over American ships, launched a kidnapping raid over the Estonian border, and generally missed few opportunities to troll the Western world and see how it responds. By demonstrating Moscow’s will and ability to break the rules, with little real consequence from Washington, the hope is that the Europeans in particular will be unnerved and divided.
Now, though, it will no longer be able to count on American restraint and commitment to the etiquette and norms of proper diplomatic behavior. Rather, Russia may actually find its bluff being called. Let’s not forget that the new U.S. president-elect has said Russian aircraft buzzing American ships or getting too close to its planes should, if necessary, be downed: “When that sucker comes by you, you gotta shoot.” Can Russia really count on the impulse control of the new 3 a.m.-tweeter-in-chief?
It can’t be reassuring for Putin that much of his own foreign-policy strategy will now have to be determined on the basis of whether he can maintain his long-distance bromance with Trump after they meet in person. If they don’t hit it off, the strategy of geopolitical trolling he pioneered may start to be used against him. If U.S. Navy ships park themselves just off the Crimean coast, if U.S. Air Force planes start locking their missiles on Syrian bombers over Aleppo, will Moscow feel confident that this is a bluff it can afford to call?
In any case, Trump’s erratic rhetoric will probably have the effect of eroding the edges of Moscow’s precarious empire. Trump’s outspoken warnings to NATO allies that they cannot count on the United States for their defense might galvanize the Europeans into raising their military expenditure, even making the European Union a much more security-focused body. His suggestion that Japan and South Korea, both of which are neighbors of Russia to its east, ought to get their own nuclear weapons (on which, it’s worth noting, he has since backpedaled) definitely runs counter to Moscow’s vision for Asian security, which rests on limiting further proliferation. It likewise could encourage a similar rearmament in the Pacific, leaving Moscow outspent and overextended.
More generally, what happens if President-elect Trump comes to decide that Putin is a rival or Russia a threat?
For all that he criticized President Barack Obama and Clinton for their support of regime change in the Middle East, he also savaged them for not pushing for the utter collapse of the Iranian government when “sanctions were choking them.” Likewise, his proposed solution to Libyan strongman Muammar al-Gaddafi was assassination: “A surgical shot and you take him out.”
Trump is no dove, after all. His beef with the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is not so much with the fighting, as with the present delicacy of American tactics (“we’re fighting a very politically correct war”) and the paucity of profit involved. In Iraq and Libya, after all, he would have deployed U.S. troops to “take the oil.”
It is not that Washington never had options if it had wanted to move against Putin. As a former CIA officer put it to me, “We could mess Russia up, no question. But not knowing what happens next, we won’t.” It’s not clear that Trump would think things that far through. And, as commander in chief, he could authorize anything from covert funding for dissident movements or the freezing of more Russian officials’ assets all the way to deniable cyberattacks and support for elite conspiracies.
Besides which, if “America First” is Trump’s goal and The Art of the Deal is his doctrine, then doesn’t it make most sense for Washington to deal with rising, rich China, not impoverished, isolated Russia? Beijing already has high hopes for Trump, with his business-oriented approach, as they fear his threats of higher tariffs but instead think he will turn a blind eye to its adventurism in the South China Sea in the name of $659 billion in annual trade. This may be the biggest nightmare of all for a Kremlin that has recently realized that Beijing is neither friend nor client: a Trump presidency that leaves it locked out of the big boys’ club.
In sum, Russia now finds itself facing a president who doesn’t stick by the rules, who revels in unpredictability, who is willing to take a gamble rather than play it safe, and who is spitefully protective of his manufactured image as a man of action and authority. Putin, it seems, is about to spend the next four years getting a taste of how the West has felt in dealing with him.
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