Russian leader Vladimir Putin got exactly what he wanted out of the US presidential election, but he may well end up ruing the day Donald Trump became the American president. Putin hopes the new US administration will enable Russian efforts to restructure the global order, but Trump’s rise stands a better chance of making it more difficult for Putin to rule at home and get his way abroad, prominent Russia experts assert.
Russia watchers assessed the budding Trump-Putin partnership at a wide-ranging forum, hosted January 18 by Columbia University’s Harriman Institute and the Graduate School of Journalism, as well as the Overseas Press Club. The general consensus among participants was that Putin’s recent streak of geopolitical successes may be coming to an end, and that his limitations as a strategist may soon be exposed.
Putin has a “brilliant nose” to sniff out opportunity, but he is not good at planning for the long term, said Masha Gessen, a featured speaker at the event and author of the book about the Kremlin kingpin, titled The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.
Putin’s ultimate prize is the destruction of the post-World War II system and the creation of a new world order in which Russia has a central role. Trump may be personally amenable to making Putin’s dream come true, but two factors, largely of the Kremlin’s own making, have created a quandary that could easily stymie the Russian leader – the Russian economy and the US hacking scandal.
In recent years, Putin has used the United States as a bogeyman to distract Russians from thinking too much about the Russian economy’s dysfunction. If Trump does what Putin wants, thus easing US-Russian tension, the Kremlin will lose its favorite whipping post. That, in turn, would allow Russia’s serious economic problems to move to the fore of public consciousness at a time when Putin does not have any quick fixes at his disposal. The potential lifting of sanctions cannot provide enough relief to cover the Russian economy’s strategic weaknesses, experts contend.
“Putin wants a ‘second Yalta’ to re-carve up the world,” Gessen noted, referring to the 1945 conference in which the victorious allies divided up Europe into spheres of influence. But “what is he going to do when the Russian economy is tanking and he doesn’t have the US to blame?”
Even if Putin can keep economic discontent from becoming a major headache, the hacking scandal – in which US intelligence agencies identified Russian-government entities as responsible for the pilfering and release of embarrassing emails from top Democratic Party figures – will seriously disrupt Putin’s designs for a new global order.
Kimberly Marten, the director of the Harriman Institute’s US-Russia relations program, characterized the Russia hacking operation as a botched, “ham-handed” job. “We have to remember who Vladimir Putin is; he’s a career KGB officer,” Marten said, adding that the Kremlin likely “never intended to have this [Russia’s involvement in the hacking] made public.”
The revelation of Russian involvement hurts Putin in two ways: it has fueled the ire of powerful foreign policy interests in Congress and the intelligence community, and it raises an alarm that will lead to intense scrutiny of possible Russian meddling in upcoming European elections, including in France and Germany.
Marten said that the US Congress may try to check Trump’s ability to appease Putin via the passage of legislation that punishes Russian leaders over the hacking. Experts pointed to the Magnitsky Act of 2012 as a prototype for future congressional action. “If they’re clever about it,” Marten said, referring to US legislators, they could put “real limits” on Trump’s policy toward Russia.
Any improvement in US-Russian relations seems likely to be short-lived, in part because of “hard feelings” over Russian meddling in the US election, predicted Will Englund, another featured speaker and a veteran Moscow correspondent for the Baltimore Sun and Washington Post. “It’s not going to be milk ‘n honey between the US and Russia forever,” he said.
Over the near term, there is a decent chance that Trump and Putin can find ways to improve bilateral relations, said Paul Sonne, who was Moscow correspondent for the Wall Street Journal from 2013-16. Both men embrace a transactional approach to politics, and share a desire to make their respective countries “great” again, according to Sonne.
The two also seem to have a good personal chemistry that onlookers find hard to explain. Marten said the source of the affinity that Trump and Putin have is a mystery. She noted that in televised interviews Trump as recently as 2014 took a highly critical view of Russian policies, then suddenly changed his views once he became a presidential contender, becoming a vocal admirer of Putin. “There’s no explanation” for the about-face, Marten said. “It [the cause] has got to be something individual.”
Gessen suggested that Trump’s decision to run for president caused him to reevaluate Putin. Maybe Trump “took a look” at Putin's leadership style and decided “he [Trump] wanted to be that man [Putin],” Gessen said.
Ultimately, a major stumbling block for the Trump-Putin relationship relates to their personalities. Both seem to have outsized opinions of their own prowess. Marten indicated that Putin will have a difficult time dealing with Trump’s ego.
“The incoming US president swaggers more than he [Putin] does,” Marten said, adding that Putin cannot “allow himself to be portrayed as” the weaker of the two.
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