Is Trump dup­ing Putin?

The Globe and Mail (BC Edition) - - OPINION - NINA KHRUSHCHEVA

Mr. Putin seems to think that he has been us­ing the strate­gi­cally in­com­pe­tent Mr. Trump to ad­vance his ends. In fact, Mr. Trump has dragged ev­ery­one into his re­al­ity-TV world, in which sen­sa­tion, ex­ag­ger­a­tion, and mis­in­for­ma­tion all serve his only true goal: to be the last ‘sur­vivor’ on the is­land.

Now, more than ever, the Rus­sian Pres­i­dent needs the United States’ friend­ship – and the U.S. leader is tak­ing ad­van­tage

Pro­fes­sor of in­ter­na­tional af­fairs at The New School and a se­nior fel­low at the World Pol­icy In­sti­tute

Most of the world has spent the past two years think­ing that Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin is twist­ing his U.S. coun­ter­part, Don­ald Trump, around his lit­tle fin­ger. But it could well be Mr. Trump who is lead­ing Mr. Putin by the nose.

Mr. Trump does love Mr. Putin, or so he says. In his hy­per­bolic re­al­ity-TV-style, Mr. Trump has praised Mr. Putin’s strong­man lead­er­ship style and boasted that he could im­prove the United States’ re­la­tion­ship with the Krem­lin.

This sum­mer, dur­ing their bi­lat­eral sum­mit in Helsinki, Mr. Trump even sided with Mr. Putin, a for­mer KGB op­er­a­tive, over U.S. se­cu­rity of­fi­cials on the is­sue of Rus­sia’s now-doc­u­mented in­ter­fer­ence in the 2016 U.S. pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. Ac­cord­ing to Mr. Putin, he rooted for Mr. Trump (but of course did not in­ter­fere on Mr. Trump’s be­half) be­cause they shared a de­sire to im­prove bi­lat­eral re­la­tions.

Now, more than ever, Mr. Putin needs the United States’ friend­ship. Although he was re-elected Pres­i­dent in a land­slide in March, his ap­proval rat­ing has since plum­meted to 45 per cent. Rus­sians re­sent the mount­ing eco­nomic in­se­cu­rity brought about by the sanc­tions Mr. Trump’s pre­de­ces­sor, Barack Obama, ini­ti­ated af­ter Rus­sia’s an­nex­a­tion of Crimea in 2014 (a move that ini- tially bol­stered Mr. Putin’s flag­ging ap­proval rat­ings).

Pop­u­lar dis­con­tent in Rus­sia has also been in­flamed by the au­thor­i­ties’ widely reviled pen­sion re­form, which in­cludes an in­crease in the re­tire­ment age. It may be ex­ac­er­bated fur­ther by a gen­er­al­ized “an­i­mos­ity fa­tigue” among Rus­sians, who are sim­ply tired of Mr. Putin’s bel­liger­ent for­eign pol­icy in Ukraine and Syria, and his un­re­lent­ing anti-West­ern pro­pa­ganda.

Un­for­tu­nately for Mr. Putin, Mr. Trump has done lit­tle to im­prove the bi­lat­eral re­la­tion­ship, de­spite some diplo­matic over­tures, in­clud­ing sev­eral in­vi­ta­tions for Mr. Putin to visit the White House. Although Mr. Trump’s alien­ation of U.S. al­lies does serve Mr. Putin’s seem­ing de­sire to weaken the West, it is un­likely that he has taken th­ese steps for Mr. Putin’s sake. Mean­while, the United States un­der Mr. Trump has im­ple­mented ad­di­tional sanc­tions that Rus­sia it­self has con­demned as “dra­co­nian.”

In March, in re­sponse to a nerve-agent at­tack on the for­mer Rus­sian dou­ble agent Sergei Skri­pal and his daugh­ter in Bri­tain, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion ex­pelled 60 Rus­sian diplo­mats, the largest num­ber since the Soviet era. For Mr. Putin, the tim­ing of the move – which came im­me­di­ately af­ter Mr. Trump warmly con­grat­u­lated him on his elec­toral vic­tory – must have made it all the more galling.

The fol­low­ing month, the U.S. Trea­sury sanc­tioned more than 20 Rus­sian in­di­vid­u­als and com­pa­nies – in­clud­ing the oil and alu­minum ty­coons Oleg Deri­paska and Alexey Miller – caus­ing the af­fected firms’ share prices to fall.

In Au­gust, the Trump ad­mi­nis- tra­tion banned U.S. com­pa­nies from sell­ing gas tur­bines and elec­tronic equip­ment to Rus­sia, ow­ing to those prod­ucts’ po­ten­tial mil­i­tary ap­pli­ca­tions.

More­over, Mr. Trump’s de­ci­sion to im­pose tar­iffs on alu­minum and steel im­ports, while not tar­geted specif­i­cally at Rus­sia, will cost the Rus­sian econ­omy up­ward of US$3-bil­lion next year. More re­cently, Mr. Trump an­nounced his in­ten­tion to with­draw from the In­ter­me­di­ateRange Nu­clear Forces Treaty, a bi­lat­eral arms-con­trol deal dat­ing back to the Cold War. While both sides have long ac­cused each other of vi­o­lat­ing the INF, the idea of sim­ply aban­don­ing arms con­trol was al­ways deemed too dan­ger­ous, un­til Mr. Trump.

The Krem­lin has re­mained will­ing to be­lieve that Mr. Trump’s fail­ure to de­liver on his prom­ise to im­prove ties is the re­sult of op­po­si­tion in Con­gress, not to men­tion the de­mo­niza­tion of Vladimir Putin by U.S. Democrats and me­dia. Sus­pi­cious of any ac­tion that might seem to ben­e­fit Mr. Putin, the logic goes, they must be pre­vent­ing Mr. Trump from em­brac­ing Rus­sia on a pol­icy level.

But the truth is that nei­ther Democrats nor the me­dia have ac­tu­ally had much suc­cess in rein­ing in Mr. Trump. And with Mr. Trump hav­ing bul­lied his own party into sub­mis­sion, it seems un­likely that his fail­ure to de­liver for Mr. Putin can be blamed on oth­ers.

The more likely ex­pla­na­tion for Mr. Trump’s be­trayal of Mr. Putin is that his warm rhetoric was, like ev­ery­thing else that comes out of his mouth, driven by his de­sire for rat­ings, not any ac­tual in­ter­est in – let alone com- mit­ment to – help­ing the Krem­lin. Con­sider how Mr. Trump’s early over­tures to an­other strong­man, Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping, gave way to a full-blown trade war against that coun­try, which Mr. Trump now por­trays as an en­emy of the United States.

Of course, the world has come to ex­pect bro­ken promises and capri­cious­ness from Mr. Trump. What is sur­pris­ing is how Mr. Putin has mis­read the sit­u­a­tion so badly. How could such a keen ob­server of the United States, whose for­mer ca­reer as a spy honed his abil­ity to de­ci­pher peo­ple’s mo­tives and in­ten­tions, fail to rec­og­nize the false­ness of Mr. Trump’s promises?

If any­one knows that ac­tions speak louder than words, it is Mr. Putin, whose words of­ten in­clude trans­par­ent de­nials of doc­u­mented wrong­do­ing, from med­dling in the U.S. elec­tion to vi­o­lat­ing treaties. Yet, Mr. Putin con­tin­ues to ig­nore Mr. Trump’s ac­tions and seeks for more meet­ings “to touch base” with the ever-com­pli­men­tary U.S. Pres­i­dent, such as at this month’s First World War cen­te­nary in Paris or the Group of 20 sum­mit in Ar­gentina.

Mr. Putin seems to think that he has been us­ing the strate­gi­cally in­com­pe­tent Mr. Trump to ad­vance his ends. In fact, Mr. Trump has dragged ev­ery­one into his re­al­ity-TV world, in which sen­sa­tion, ex­ag­ger­a­tion, and mis­in­for­ma­tion all serve his only true goal: to be the last “sur­vivor” on the is­land. By the time Mr. Putin fi­nally re­al­izes that he has been duped, the world will prob­a­bly have paid a high price in terms of po­lit­i­cal sta­bil­ity, strate­gic se­cu­rity, and en­vi­ron­men­tal dam­age. And Mr. Putin will have to pay it, too.

PHOTO IL­LUS­TRA­TION: BRYAN GEE. SOURCE PHOTO: REUTERS

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