What Putin Wants From Trump

The U.S. President wants better relations. The price will be high.

 
 

Russian President Vladimir Putin, July 12, 2018.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, July 12, 2018. PHOTO: ALEXEI DRUZHININ/ASSOCIATED PRESS
 

Donald Trump meets Vladimir Putin Monday in Helsinki, and if the U.S. President has an agenda beyond dominating the headlines and taunting his domestic opponents, it isn’t apparent. That won’t be the case with Mr. Putin, who has spent 18 months sizing up the American President and will be looking to get the most out of a weak Russian hand.

 
In 18 years running Russia, Mr. Putin has outfoxed two previous U.S. Presidents who sought better relations. The Russian makes promises to win concessions but then typically reneges or moves to exploit what he perceives as U.S. weakness. George W. Bush at least negotiated the end of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty that stifled missile defenses, but Mr. Putin rolled over Barack Obama like T-14 tanks in a Ukrainian corn field.

So let’s assess the summit in advance by what Mr. Putin wants now from Mr. Trump. The U.S. President considers himself a shrewd negotiator, so we can measure the results by how much of the Putin agenda the former KGB operative gets Mr. Trump to concede.

• Prestige. Mr. Putin’s top priority at all times is shoring up his political standing at home, where he lacks democratic legitimacy. This means striding the world stage as if Russia is again a global power, and Mr. Trump is helping Mr. Putin on this score merely by meeting him on equal terms. The Russian will also want Mr. Trump to endorse Mr. Putin’s denials about meddling in the 2016 election—which he will advertise as official absolution.

Mr. Putin has been persona non grata in Europe since he invaded Crimea in 2014, and he wants Mr. Trump’s help with rehabilitation. Expect Mr. Putin to flatter Mr. Trump for his willingness to disrupt global norms. He’ll also want Mr. Trump to repeat his recent comments that Mr. Putin should rejoin the G-7.

• Syria. Mr. Putin has accomplished what he sought when he barged into Syria in 2015. He’s saved Bashar Assad, fortified long-term military bases, and replaced the U.S. as chief power broker in the region. He wants Mr. Trump to validate these gains and withdraw U.S. troops from eastern Syria.

In return Mr. Putin may promise to help the U.S. contain Iran’s presence in Syria, though there’s no guarantee he can do so, given Iran’s investment in Mr. Assad. The Russian knows Mr. Trump is eager to bring U.S. troops home and might rely on assurances on Iran the way he did on the “de-escalation” zone in southwestern Syria. Mr. Putin has helped Mr. Assad bomb the opposition in that part of Syria despite the Russian’s assurances.

• Ukraine. Mr. Putin wants Mr. Trump to accept his Crimea annexation, perhaps in return for recommitting to the Minsk negotiation process for eastern Ukraine, where Russian forces started another illegal war. Mr. Trump has already blamed Barack Obama for losing Crimea, essentially a unilateral concession that Mr. Putin will pocket. The Russian will also try to get Mr. Trump to stop providing Kiev with lethal weapons.

• Lifting sanctions. This is Mr. Putin’s top near-term priority. He needs to be able to enrich his cronies, and U.S. and European sanctions have become a major problem. The Russian will play to Mr. Trump’s dislike for the European Union by suggesting Mr. Trump can come to an independent deal over Ukraine, Syria and sanctions. Mr. Putin knows that the Italian, Hungarian and Greek governments are wobbly on sanctions, and he’d like Mr. Trump to stir more dissension in the EU.

• The trans-Atlantic alliance. Mr. Putin knows that the stronger NATO is as a military force, the riskier it is for him to engage in foreign adventurism. The Russian’s long-term goal is to erode the West’s political will to add to its capabilities as the memories of Crimea fade. Mr. Putin will do whatever he can in Helsinki to underscore Mr. Trump’s frustration with Europe that was on display this week at the NATO summit, planting the seeds of future discord.

• Arms control. Mr. Trump has been floating the idea of new arms talks with Russia, though over what isn’t clear. No doubt Mr. Putin’s spies have told him that Mr. Trump wants to be known as a nuclear peacemaker. And Mr. Putin may try to exploit that desire by offering a new round of talks to reduce the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals.

The problem here is that the Pentagon believes Mr. Putin is violating his current arms treaties with the U.S. This includes deploying intermediate-range cruise missiles in Europe that are banned under the 1987 INF Treaty. But that might not stop Mr. Trump from thinking he can change Mr. Putin’s behavior.

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Mr. Trump clearly believes that Mr. Putin’s Russia is not the security threat that the Pentagon does, and he’s intent on showing that the two countries can get along. The wily Russian knows that too, which is why we should watch what he gains for smiling across the table.

Appeared in the July 13, 2018, print edition.

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