Elephants in the Room

Don’t Blame Russia. Blame Putin.

The U.S. president has strong personal reasons to remain in the Russian leader’s good graces.

Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on April 5. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on April 5. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AFP/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump’s reported invitation for Russian President Vladimir Putin to visit the White House surprised most observers — even more than the phone call itself, which occurred over the objections of the U.S. president’s senior advisors. Of course, there are very few things Trump does that should surprise anyone anymore, since he clearly does not feel bound by rules. Nevertheless, at a time when his own administration was in the process of expelling Russian diplomats in solidarity with Britain’s outrage over the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England, the invitation seemed out of bounds even for Trump.

Analysts and foreign officials have postulated that the invitation reflects the administration’s policy divide when dealing with Russia. Trump, they argue, has one policy, while his officials have another. They point to Washington’s increased budget for what is now being called the European Deterrence Initiative — in 2019 it will amount to 50 percent more than what former President Barack Obama’s last budget called for — which is designed to hold the Russian military in check. They note the major upgrade in strategic nuclear forces that is also part of the current administration’s budget, again, clearly designed to deter Russia, as well as China. In addition, the congressionally mandated sanctions against Russian people and entities have come into force after approval by an admittedly hesitant Trump. Yet the president is not willing to utter a negative word about Putin.

Trump, however, may have no problem with his administration’s policies that target Russia. His only concern is Putin; he seeks to maintain excellent personal relations with the Russian strongman at all costs. His reasons for this have little to do with Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, though of course he continues to deny, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that any such interference took place.

Trump’s interest in cultivating Putin may be purely a matter of business — specifically Trump’s real estate and hotel business. Trump has been chasing business in Russia for three decades. His first foray into what was then the Soviet Union was in 1987, when the Communist Party was still very much in charge. Nearly a decade later, he applied for trademarks for Russian real estate development deals. Over the years, he has traveled to Russia numerous times, including for his sponsorship of the 2013 Miss Universe pageant held in Moscow. So too have his children. The family objective has never changed: a gleaming Trump Tower in Moscow and Trump hotels or resorts elsewhere in Russia.

As many analysts have demonstrated, there is only one decision-maker in Russia: Putin. Trump therefore recognizes, as he has for years, that to realize his personal ambitions in that country he needs only one man’s approval. It should come as no surprise that Trump has had nothing bad to say about a man who has presided over the invasion of neighboring countries; the attempted or actual murder of dissidents and political opponents, both in and outside Russia; the stifling of the media; and the attempted disruption of elections in both Europe and United States.

It did not take either prophecy or genius for Trump to anticipate that Putin would be elected to another term as Russia’s president. He will now be in office until 2024 or until near the end of Trump’s second term, if there is a second term. By then, Putin could have granted Trump or his family the trademark and real estate approvals — and introduced the investors — the Trumps have sought for years. And in the meantime, Trump will continue to withhold any criticism of Putin, no matter what he does, even as the rest of the U.S. government finds itself forced to react to what will no doubt be an ongoing series of Russian outrages and predations, whether in Europe, the Middle East, or in the United States.

Dov Zakheim is the former Under Secretary of Defense.