Trump Is Coming Off as Putin’s Poodle, But That Actually Undermines Russia’s Main Goal
Trump isn’t as useful to Putin as one might think.
The broad consensus among U.S. and Western commentators is that Vladimir Putin “owned” Donald Trump at the U.S.-Russia summit in Helsinki this week. Trump echoed Russian talking points on meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, disowned his own intelligence community, and abstained from even the slightest criticism of his Russian counterpart—a marked contrast from his fierce attacks on America’s close allies in London and Brussels last week. So, score one for Putin.
But Putin seems to have already noticed that winning Trump amounts to a sort of catastrophic success. The extent of Trump’s isolation on Russia within the United States is a problem for Putin and one that he surely recognizes.
Putin’s deep state
Putin has had good personal relationships with U.S. presidents before, but those relationships have often failed to deliver on policy outcomes. Too often, as Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy document in their insightful study of the Russian president, Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, “[w]hat seemed to be a commitment in a bilateral meeting by the president or a cabinet member would be walked back almost immediately after the U.S. principal presented the decision to other domestic stakeholders.”
Putin concluded as far back as 2007 that the United States as a country, Hill and Gaddy write, “was actively hostile—engaged, along with its European allies, in subversion and covert warfare against Russia.” To him, hostility toward Russia is deeply rooted in the U.S. political system, so it doesn’t matter very much what the current U.S. president thinks of it.
Putin’s structural view of U.S. policy has likely been reinforced by the events of the Trump administration thus far. Trump is supposedly the American president of Russia’s dreams, but U.S. policy toward Russia has, if anything, hardened under his watch. The United States has increased its troop deployments in Eastern Europe, expelled Russian diplomats, closed Russian consulates in the United States, and toughened sanctions against Russia. And the U.S. Congress’s latest sanctions against Russia (the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, otherwise known as CAATSA sanctions), which Trump reluctantly signed into law, do not contain the usual provision that allows the president to waive them.
Worse, U.S. domestic politics have taken a decisive turn against Russia, in large part because of the country’s covert support for Trump in the 2016 election. Democrats hate Russia because they blame it for Trump’s election; Republicans hate Russia because they always have; the State Department hates Russia because it mistreats U.S. diplomats and breaks agreements; and the Defense Department hates Russia because it’s a peer competitor. Trump’s own advisors hate Russia because they all come from one of those communities. At this point, Trump is very nearly Russia’s last friend in Washington. The fact that he is president of the United States is some compensation—but not as much as one might think.
In this sense, the Helsinki summit was an effort to explore how useful Trump can be to Russia. As my European Council on Foreign Relations colleague Kadri Liik noted, Moscow’s agenda for the summit was not so much to produce any specific deliverable but rather to help Trump get out from under the Russia meddling scandal and facilitate the acceptance of Trump’s approach to Russia among the Republican establishment. Only once Trump could bring along at least a portion of the U.S. establishment could they make any progress on issues such as Syria, Ukraine, and sanctions that matter to the Russian government.
This goal required Trump to demonstrate that he could simultaneously protect U.S. interests even while working with Putin and Russia. By instead appearing as Putin’s poodle, Trump undermined that goal. As the Russian state TV host Olga Skabeeva put it, “When Trump says our relations are bad because of American foolishness and stupidity, he really smells like an agent of the Kremlin.” If they can smell it even in Moscow, it must reek in Washington.
At the Helsinki press conference, one could almost see the moment that Putin realized that Trump had gone too far and that it would blow back against Russia in U.S. domestic politics. At the very end, after Trump had failed to even mention America’s opposition to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Putin felt the need to spell out Trump’s position for him: “The posture of President Trump on Crimea is well known, and he stands firmly by it. He continues to maintain that it was illegal to annex it.” Even after Putin’s helpful prompt, Trump failed to step up and condemn the annexation, instead choosing to use his final intervention to once again bash the FBI. From the standpoint of the operative in the Kremlin, this episode neatly encapsulates the difference between a useful idiot and just an idiot.
No one in the West should take comfort in Putin’s Trump problem. Even if the Helsinki summit did not go precisely according to the Russian script, it still demonstrated that the U.S. president does not support the NATO alliance or his own intelligence community in disputes with Russia. This undermines Western unity and fosters incoherence in U.S. policy, even if it also reinforces anti-Russian narratives in the West. The result, from a Russian standpoint, is a more hostile but also more ineffective adversary. The structuralist in Putin probably always saw limits in how effective Trump could be against America’s deep state anyway. An image from the summit of Western disarray and Russian confidence is a pretty good second-best outcome.
But forget the U.S.-Russian horse race. The greater tragedy is that worsening relations between Russia and the West won’t help Putin, Trump, or the world. As Trump emphasized, U.S.-Russian enmity is a threat to the world. It is in everyone’s interest for the leaders of the two countries to talk and make hard compromises. To do this, a U.S. president needs to both convince America that he will protect U.S. interests and convince the Russian president that he can get the country to accept certain concessions. It is always hard to reconcile these two competing goals. Impressively, Trump is failing at both.