Much has been made of Russian President Vladmir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump’s relationship, including suggestions of outright collusion between the two. With the two leaders having finally met in Germany and Trump having passed the six month milestone of his presidency, it is likely that Putin now has a firm measure of his American counterpart. In this piece, Eamon Driscoll examines exactly how helpful Trump may or may not be for Putin’s ambitions.
Two weeks ago, while stopped at an intersection near Moscow’s Yaroslavsky Station, I noticed a man walking between the lanes of traffic, displaying fidget spinner toys for sale. It was a strange sight to see: a man of about forty years, dressed in jeans, a T-shirt, and a red baseball cap with a backpack around his shoulders, presumably carrying said toys. He looked rather like an oversized school boy. He represented, in many ways, what it means to live in Russia: to survive, often in bizarre ways. In the past one hundred years the Russian people have survived two revolutions in 1917, invasion by the Nazi war machine, Stalinist purges, famine and failed environmental endeavours, shortages of basic goods, political repression, extreme corruption, and a transition to capitalism so painful that a former KGB agent was preferable as president over various potential reformers. Given all this, the Russian people learned how to survive, no matter the cost.
By extension, Russia itself has shown its ability to play a weak hand very well; that Russia is even in its current position is remarkable given that not even thirty years ago the state collapsed entirely and took the economy with it. Putin does rightly deserve credit for reconstructing Russia, both in bricks and mortar and in the hearts and minds of the Russians who suffered dearly during the 1990s. Since coming to power in 2000, President Putin has pursued the policy of rebuilding Russia’s greatness, something which means different things to different people. To NATO and many in Europe and America, that means an aggressive foreign policy from Moscow, coupled with a vision of restoring the Soviet borders and reestablishing hegemony over Eastern Europe. To an extent, this is perfectly true. Russia’s actions in Crimea and the Donbas speak loudly enough, and its use of Syria’s civil war as a training ground for its newly modernized military should not be disregarded by any observer.
A very different Putin, however, reaches out to the West from the past and looks for cooperation. In March 2000, Putin had his first interview with a Western journalist: the BBC’s Sir David Frost. He says that Russia should be a strong and powerful state, one “in which both its citizens… and all those who want to cooperate with Russia could feel comfortable [and] could feel protected.” He laments the notion that Russia was a potential aggressor and offered an olive branch to NATO and the EU, even going so far as not to discount the possibility of Russia joining those two bodies. At the time, Russia was engaged in the Second Chechen War after Islamic militants from the de facto independent Chechen Republic of Ichkeria invaded Russia’s Dagestan province, supported by foreign jihadist groups and individuals, including Osama bin Laden. Although at the time the Chechen militants were portrayed in Western media as freedom fighters opposing the Russian war machine, Russia and the United States would soon share a common enemy after September 2001, but Putin made it clear that NATO integration was on the table only “if and when Russia’s views are taken into account as those of an equal partner.”
Coming to the present year, the geopolitical atmosphere in Europe has shifted away from the once-hopeful rhetoric. NATO and the EU have expanded to within 150 kilometers of St. Petersburg and have begun to extend their range around Russia to Georgia. Russia, meanwhile, has violated Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty by sending military divisions first to Crimea to enable its secession from Ukraine and annexation into Russia, and then by supporting separatists in the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics following the overthrow of President Yanukovich in February 2014. As a result, Russia is now subject to sanctions and is blamed for hacking the 2016 US presidential election in support of Donald Trump.
Trump has shown that he is not as handicapped by domestic issues as Putin might have hoped.
Why is all this history important? Because politics does not take place in a vacuum. Much has been made about the alleged relationship that Putin shares with Donald Trump, which made their recent meeting at the G20 in Hamburg far more significant than otherwise, especially considering that any meeting between the Russian and American presidents is significant on the basis of their titles alone. Yet based on Putin’s past indications of a desire to cooperate with the West and even integrate with it, it is not hard to imagine that he might support whichever candidate he felt would be most helpful for Russia’s interests, and for his own.
As Fiona Hill writes, Putin does not trust the West and the United States. He runs a country which lost the capacity to engage in open warfare, leading to its embarrassing performance in Georgia in 2008, despite attaining a nominal victory. Putin wants the West to treat with Russia as an equal just as much now as he did as a young man in 2000. In that regard, it is little surprise that he would lend support for Donald Trump, who as a candidate in 2016 considered Russia to be an ally in the fight against ISIS and Islamic extremism. Certainly given these statements, Putin would see Trump as a valuable counterpart and a strategic advantage, but even that would not change the fact that nearly all predictions of the election gave a clear win to Hillary Clinton. He sees the world as a zero-sum game, in which a weak United States means a strong (or at least, stronger) Russia, and the weakness of Donald Trump as president comes not from Russia, but from the opposition which will stop at nothing to subvert Trump’s policies.
It is not for me to say whether or not Putin personally ordered the hacking and/or manipulation of the American elections, only that in the globalized world, states will always seek to influence other states for their own benefit. However, one of the key parts of Russia’s hybrid warfare is to effect a change in Western political environments which would hinder the ability of the West to respond to a more aggressive Russian foreign policy. Ergo, seeds of doubt in the American public over the legitimacy of the election provide Russia with just a bit more leeway to act while the American president is handicapped by having to justify his or her own presidency. Before the election, it was Trump who said that the election was rigged, while then-President Obama rejected the idea outright. Now, of course, the claim of election rigging is from the other side of the aisle, but the threat of illegitimacy is very much a present concern in American domestic politics, which has not escaped Russia’s notice. A match made in heaven?
Not quite. Trump has shown that he is not as handicapped by domestic issues as Putin might have hoped. The launching of missiles at a Syrian airbase in April 2017 following the use of chemical weapons by the government forces showed Putin that he would have to be more cautious now than he was while Obama was president. As a former KGB agent, Putin has been trained in how to read people, but he may have met his match in the often-unpredictable Trump. In contrast to the Syrian airbase strikes, Trump has made good on his election promise to withdraw support for the CIA-backed Syrian rebels, a move seen by many as a concession to Putin and Assad but is perhaps linked to the Turkish leak of the locations of US military bases in rebel-held territory in Syria. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) was quick to jump on the decision as subservience to the Kremlin’s wishes, giving Russia free rein to act in Syria. Meanwhile, Trump has been praised by General Stoltenberg for his commitment to NATO and in Warsaw denounced Russia’s behavior as “destabilizing”.
When the two leaders finally met for the G20 confederence in Hamburg, Germany, naturally all eyes were upon them. For all the claims of collusion and interference, both of these men are realistically expected to seek the best results for their respective countries. Trump was elected on the promise to “make America great again”, and Putin has most certainly made Russia great again, especially given the context of Russia’s situation when he took charge more than seventeen years ago. Trump made this clear when speaking with Pat Robertson: many things Trump seeks to accomplish are not good for Russia’s interests. The fact that the leaders spent two hours in their scheduled meeting and another hour speaking at dinner suggests that they both recognize the importance of working together – something that Putin made clear from the very start of his presidency.
There was something in Putin that I saw in that man on the street near Yaroslavsky Station. I saw a man who was clearly looking for any way to earn his keep. I saw a man who was pragmatic and would do what it took to keep moving forward, no matter how strange it might have seemed to an outsider such as myself. Given an American president who is willing to look at Russia not as an adversary but as a potential partner, Putin may have had his wish come true. President Trump might have been the counterpart he was looking for back in 2000 when he said that cooperation with the West would require the West to recognize Russia as an equal. But with the ever-unpredictable Trump in charge, Putin may have his work cut out for him. As the old adage goes, be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.
Eamon Driscoll is a graduate of the University of Ilinois who is currently completing his postgraduate studies in Geopolitics, Territory and Security at King’s College, London. Eamon has experience living and working in both Ukraine and Russia, and now focuses on issues in Russia and the wider Commonwealth of Independent States. His current academic focus is on the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and how its unique position has forced the region to develop differently from other Russian territories, especially in the shadow of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.
For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.
Photo credit: Kremlin.ru