'Macho v macho': what to expect from Putin-Trump negotiations
Russians and Americans share hopes and fears about the future relationship between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin
Picture the scene: it is March 2017 and President Donald Trump emerges from the White House with Russia’s Vladimir Putin after several hours of talks. The body language is good; they slap each other on the back and cackle with laughter. Russia, Trump tells the gathered media, is a valued partner in the fight against Islamic State and a key strategic partner.
For President Putin, this kind of man-to-man deal making, free of moralising on democracy or human rights, leaving him a free hand in his “near abroad” of Ukraine and other former Soviet states, is what he had always hoped for in relations with his US counterparts. Until now, it had seemed an impossible dream.
The election of Trump means the best-case scenario for Putin suddenly got a lot better. But sober heads in Moscow are also aware that the worst-case scenario just got much worse. Relations between Putin and Hillary Clinton would almost certainly have been chilly, but would have operated within a predictable framework. The usual rules of the game may now be irrelevant.
The dramatic souring of the relationship between Putin and Turkey’sRecep Tayyip Erdoğan, after Turkey shot down a Russian plane last year, is a small taster of how quickly things can deteriorate in a personality-based relationship between two leaders for whom displaying strength is everything.
There is also the issue of some of the hawkish Republican old guard around Trump. Alexei Venediktov, the editor-in-chief of Ekho Moskvy radio station, said: “Maybe in the Kremlin they’re happy about the result now, but later it could hit home that this may not be a good thing. Imagine if [the former US ambassador to the United Nations] John Bolton is made secretary of state! Imagine it!”
Despite some in Russian policymaking circles being uneasy about Trump’s unpredictability, he appears to have been the Kremlin’s preferred candidate all along. Russia was directly accused by the current US administration of trying to interfere in the elections on his behalf, through a network of shadowy links to members of Trump’s entourage, and alleged hacking of emails from Democratic party servers, released by Wikileaks.
Publicly, Russia has denied all accusations of meddling in the elections, with Putin describing them as “hysteria”. The pro-Kremlin political analyst Sergei Markov told the Guardian on Wednesday he did not believe Russia had tried to intervene, although “maybe we helped a bit with WikiLeaks”. He did not elaborate on what exactly he meant or how he knew.
There have also been a number of Russian establishment voices openly gleeful about the result. Margarita Simonyan, the head of the Kremlin-funded Russia Today television channel, tweeted “Democracy R.I.P.” on election day, only to launch jubilant celebrations in the aftermath of Trump’s victory and say she wanted to drive round Moscow waving a US flag.
Alexey Pushkov, who until September was the top foreign policy official in Russia’s upper house of parliament, wrote: “We shouldn’t expect love or gifts from Trump: he’s a patriot and a businessman. But he’s not an ideologue, he’s a realist. And a realist understands the language of bargains.”
He added: “Сlinton offered the USA and Russia an alarming certainty of conflict. Trump offers an opportunity to escape this conflict. A big difference.”
Putin was one of the first world leaders to congratulate Trump, dispatching a telegram before using a Kremlin speech to profess hope for a new golden period of Russia-US relations.
“We understand that it will not be an easy path given the current state of degradation in the relations,” he said from the Kremlin. “And as I have repeatedly said, it’s not our fault that Russian-American relations are in such a poor state. But Russia wants and is ready to restore fully fledged relations with the United States.”
Part of the appeal of Trump is his status as a “chaos candidate” who will shake up the established order of things and break down western unity.
Vladimir Frolov, an international affairs analyst, said: “It will plunge the US into a period of turmoil and diminish US power in the world. The expectation is that US relations with its allies would become more fraught and there would much less unity in opposing Russia.”
Aside from the chaos, there is also hope in Moscow that Trump and Putin could get real business done. Trump’s statement in his victory speech that “we will get along with all other nations willing to get along with us” will have been music to Putin’s ears, while causing horror in Kiev and the Baltic capitals.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the two men had “phenomenally similar” approaches to foreign policy, in an interview with Russian television this week. “If you remember Putin’s speech at the recent Valdai forum and compare it with the speech by Trump … they had identical key messages about foreign policy.”
Outside the Kremlin and the Trump White House, there will be fears about what such rapprochement could mean for the world, but also about what happens if it all goes wrong.
Both leaders like talking tough. Putin has claimed he was ready to put Russian nuclear forces on high alert during the annexation of Crimea, while Russian state television has issued reminders to the US that Russia is “the only country capable of turning America into radioactive ash”. For his part, Trump has refused to rule out the use of nuclear weapons, even in Europe.
Much of this is doubtless bluster, but neither Trump nor Putin is renowned for having thick skin, and with the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals under their control, the potential to be backed into a rhetorical corner by an unforeseen crisis is real.
As pro-Kremlin analyst Markov put it, “Putin is a macho, Trump is also a macho. Maybe it could be a problem.”
In the coming weeks, Moscow would be sending high-level emissaries to sound out Trump on his priorities and limitations, analysts said. Russian officials said earlier this week that such contacts had already been made during the campaign; something Trump’s spokeswoman denied.
Influence over Ukraine and an abandonment of US missile defence would be the Kremlin’s key priorities in Europe, though it is unclear what Putin could offer Trump in return.
“These don’t have to be formal agreements,” Frolov said. “It’s very hard to imagine a written agreement over Ukraine, for example. But they can be informal understandings. That’s the sort of conversation Russia will be looking for.”