What Vladimir Putin really wants from Donald Trump
When Kremlin officials talk about a new security architecture for Europe what they mean is the end of the US presence.
A man photographs a mural showing Donald Trump blowing marijuana smoke into the mouth of Vladimir Putin in Vilnius, Lithuania. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty
Cuddle up to the Kremlin and do not be surprised when you are burnt. There is no need to believe the lurid, unverified tales about Russian efforts to cultivate and compromise Donald Trump to recognise the danger in the president-elect’s infatuation with Vladimir Putin. Mr Trump is a wealthy property developer; the Russian president a former head of his country’s ruthless Federal Security Service, or FSB. This is not a balanced match-up.
Mr Putin has pocketed one significant victory even before Mr Trump reaches the White House. The next time US intelligence agencies flag up a security threat - another Russian incursion into Ukraine, say, or the subversion of elected governments in eastern Europe - the Kremlin has a riposte. If the occupant of the Oval Office has no faith in the CIA, the National Security Agency or the Federal Bureau of Investigation, why should anyone else believe them? Mr Trump broke all the rules of politics to win the White House, but a president at war with those charged with keeping America safe?
Intelligence agencies do not always get it right. The CIA will pay the price for its flawed judgments on Saddam Hussein’s weapons programmes for years to come. But the spooks could scarcely have been more confident in saying that the Kremlin hacked into Democratic party computers during the presidential election campaign.
Leading Republicans in Congress have taken the agencies at their word. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, says it is a “fair assumption” that such cyber attacks could only have taken place with the authorisation of Mr Putin.
Mr Trump prefers to shoot the messenger: this week’s leak of allegations that Moscow had gathered personally compromising material was proof of the witch-hunt against him by America’s own agencies. When Mr Trump asks rhetorically whether he is living in Nazi Germany, the adjective that comes most readily to mind is “unhinged”.
No one watching the president-elect’s rambling, petulant press conference on Wednesday could claim to know where this leaves his proposed reset of US relations with Russia. He still insists he wants to get on with Mr Putin. But then adds that maybe they will fall out. Yes, the Kremlin was probably responsible for the hacking of the Democratic National Committee, but the leaks from US intelligence agencies were the really disgraceful thing. A good relationship with Moscow would help in the fight against Isis. But no, he will not roll back President Barack Obama’s latest sanctions against Russia.
There would be little to quarrel with in a show of White House “respect” for the Russian president to reduce tension. Mr Putin craves recognition as a leader with a place at the top table of global affairs. He shares Mr Trump’s desperately thin skin. They are brothers in narcissism. If some Trumpian backslapping succeeds in salving Mr Putin’s wounded pride, all well and good.
The world is a safer place when the US and Russia find a way to manage their differences. They did so with some effect at the height of the cold war. Neither side has benefited from the renewed military build-up in eastern Europe and the Baltics. There are too many nukes around. The risks of accidental confrontation are not negligible.
The danger arises when engagement becomes a synonym for submission, when necessary deterrence is mistaken for provocation and when “talking” to Moscow turns into a brand of geopolitical realism that says it is always for the west to give ground.
As vague as Mr Trump is about what he wants from the Kremlin, Mr Putin’s goals are crystal clear. They start with western acquiescence in Russian revanchism in Ukraine and in the merciless bombing of civilians to prop up Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. They continue with the lifting of economic sanctions against Moscow, and end with eventual US disengagement from Europe and the establishment of a Russian sphere of influence in the territories of the former Soviet Union.
When Kremlin officials talk about a new security architecture for Europe what they mean is the end of the US presence. The cold war is over so the Americans should go home. Through this prism, Georgia, Belarus, and Moldova and central Asia as well as Ukraine “belong” to Moscow. For its part, Nato has outlived its purpose and certainly has no place in the former states of the Warsaw Pact.
If these ambitions sound fanciful, Mr Trump’s public disdain for Nato and his temperamental aversion to propping up allies has given Mr Putin an opening. Mr Trump is less interested in preserving the Pax Americana than in striking “deals” with other great powers. Europeans can pay for their own security.
Mr Putin’s world is Mr Trump’s world, one where narrow national interests are substituted for international rules and norms, and weaker nations submit to the will of the powerful. The balance of power, Europeans used to call it.
There are checks on Mr Trump. The hacking scandal puts a cloud over his motives and judgment. And if Mr Tillerson’s Senate confirmation hearing told a story it was that Mr Trump’s own party has a rather different view of Mr Putin. But the Kremlin will not be content with its early success. And who knows what Mr Trump will do once he is in the White House? Dangerous times seems something of an understatement.