Putin spies an opportunity for some sorely-needed conversationsby Mary Dejevsky / November 14, 2016 / Leave a comment
Guess who was one of the first national leaders to congratulate Donald Trump on his victory? Why Vladimir Putin, of course. Never one to hang around when opportunity calls, the Russian President found the necessary accoutrements of national flag, crested lectern and microphone, and expressed his best wishes for Trump in his new high office and his hopes for establishing a “constructive dialogue” between Moscow and Washington.
Now there are some good reasons why Putin was so quick out of the blocks. Moscow is eight hours ahead of New York time, and he had just attended an unrelated event in the Kremlin that supplied both the media audience and the backdrop appropriate to such a message. Putin is a stickler for protocol, especially when it serves to remind everyone that Russia is the equal of the US (sort of). Putin was the first leader to ring George W Bush with Russia’s condolences after 9/11, a gesture Bush remembered with due gratitude and Putin traded on ever after.
But there are other explanations of a more conspiratorial nature—favoured perhaps by Hillary Clinton in her defeat, and certainly by Cold Warriors the world over. According to these, a Trump victory was not merely desired, but maybe even engineered, by former agent Putin and his operatives in the FSB. Hence his rush to claim the credit. Supporters of this view say there is “evidence” that the hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s emails was carried out by Russian intelligence, and that Russia effectively accompanied Trump on his lonely way. And the supposed motive? The fear that, as president, Clinton would be tougher on Russia and its many misdeeds than a crassly politically inexperienced Trump, whose naivety would soon turn him into appeaser-in-chief.
Personally, for all the intrigue of allegedly Russian-backed groups with names like “fancy bears,” I find such a theory hard to buy. This is not because my family name (by marriage to an American) ends in a suspect “-sky.” Nor is it because Putin himself has ridiculed the idea. Denials about intelligence are never worth anything, and—for those with the power—it will always be tempting to delve into a foreign election campaign. Betting on the next “leader of the free world”, if you were able to make the punt with condifence, could supply an advantage in the great political game. So I do not dismiss the cyber-malice possibility out of hand; if, when the archives are eventually opened, it turns out that Trump’s success was the crowning achievement of Russian intelligence—the capture of the world’s most powerful state, then I will be dazzled, but not in denial.
There is, however, a much more down-to-earth explanation for Putin’s swift overture to the President-Elect. He believes that Trump offers a prospect of improved east-west relations, and was concerned not to let the chance slip. Interest in “restoring relations,” as Putin put it, would appear to be mutual. One of the few consistencies in Trump’s campaign was the clear sense he gave that US relations with Russia were needlessly bad and that, if he became president, he could improve them.
“Via his Czech ex-wife and current Slovene wife Trump has a particular perspective on the Slavonic world”
Contrary to some reports, he never lavished praise on Putin; he cited him rather as an example of strong national leadership in order to show up the inadequacies in that department, as he saw it, of Barack Obama. He was disparaging about Russia’s political and economic system. But, on the positive side, he did say that he believed—like Margaret Thatcher after her first encounter with Mikhail Gorbachev—that Putin was a man he could do business with. Even this practical approach, however, spelled political trouble. It was seized upon by the Clinton camp as evidence of a softness towards Russia that verged on treachery. That charge remained a vulnerability until the moment Trump finally emerged as President-elect.
Now the tycoon’s instinct that he could barter brilliantly with Putin will be tested. How will he fare? Trump appears to have recognised something in Putin that makes him think they could somehow find a common language. And he could be right in that. He may also be right to see better understanding between the US and Russia as the key to solving at least some of today’s most intractable conflicts. At its crudest, it could simply be one strongman thinking he knows what makes another strongman tick. Then again, it could just be that his business background will become a defining asset here.
One of Putin’s most frequent complaints about the current US administration—voiced most recently at the Valdai group meeting of international Russia specialists in October—is that Washington makes promises that it does not, and perhaps cannot, honour, and then accuses Russia of bad faith. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, has complained bitterly that the US shows a lack of respect, in contrast to what other Russian officials see as the more collaborative approach of China.
As a political novice, but a business veteran, Trump can be expected to take a transactional approach to Russia, without any of the Cold War baggage carried by many officials of so many US administrations. This might not make him a softer touch for Putin; it could make him tougher. But Russia would be left in no doubt where it stood, and there would be less of the ideological element that Putin and the Russians resent.
While often dismissed during the campaign as an ignoramus, Trump has built up knowledge of a different and perhaps equally useful kind. He has travelled extensively and surely has—via his Czech ex-wife and current Slovene wife—a particular perspective on the character of the Slavonic world.
Among international leaders, Putin felt most at ease with Silvio Berlusconi, and their families holidayed together. Since the Italian Prime Minister’s departure, Putin has lacked anyone he can chat to on the international stage. Could he now find something of a kindred spirit in Trump?
These observations amount, of course, to a comment on all three men—and no compliment is intended. But personal relations inevitably play a part in international relations. And where institutional dialogue has broken down, or never really existed in a mutually accepted way—as could be said of US-Russia relations since the Soviet collapse—personal rapport can help bridge the gap. At worst, Putin-Trump could be a dangerous alliance; at best, it could be the start of a new east-west détente.