Nina Khrushcheva is 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.
President Trump does love President 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 initially 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 administration 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 Intermediate-Range 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 commitment 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.