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Trump can't beat Putin at his own game

Trump can't beat Putin at his own game


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Before last Thursday, President Trump’s meeting in Helsinki with Russian President Vladimir Putin already promised to be interesting. Then special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s team indicted 12 Russian military intelligence officers on charges of interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and things got even more complicated.

Monday’s summit is now an obvious opportunity for Trump to take his Russian counterpart to task, but it doesn’t look like that will happen. On Saturday, Trump told reporters that he doesn’t plan to take a hard line against Putin on election interference — or anything else.

“What am I going to do?” Trump asked Thursday. “He may deny it. All I can say is ‘Did you?’ and ‘Don’t do it again.’ ” Over the weekend, he told “CBS Evening News” anchor Jeff Glor that he “hadn’t thought of” asking Putin to take any kind of action against the men and women accused of tampering with American democracy, adding that he has “low expectations” for the meeting.

It’s yet another signal that Putin will be in the driver’s seat when the two men hold meetings Monday. If Trump is trying to tamp down expectations, his Russian counterpart has already exceeded them.


Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a glass during a ceremony receiving diplomatic credentials from foreign ambassadors at the Kremlin in Moscow. (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters)

Many analysts believe the mere existence of the summit is a victory for Russia, which is economically weakened and increasingly isolated. That Trump allegedly requested a one-on-one meeting with Putin — only translators will be present — only adds to that. As Masha Gessen put it in the New Yorker, Monday’s events “will be a demonstration of power for Putin. He needs to deliver nothing else.”

But, she added, Putin may not have to struggle to get even more. Trump, for example, has seemed open to recognizing Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. If Putin can “nudge Trump toward a verbal acknowledgment of the legitimacy of Russia’s interests in its old sphere of influence . . . Russians will perceive it as Putin restoring Russia’s superpower status,” Gessen wrote. If he were able to persuade Trump to agree to pull all U.S. troops out of Syria (another move the president has already signaled he’s open to), it would be an even bigger coup for Russia.

It’s almost certain that Trump will be far less ready to fend off such tactics than Putin will be to use them. Former Putin adversaries told the Guardian over the weekend about the Russian president’s penchant for extensive research and preparation ahead of major meetings with world leaders. Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia who has met with Putin nearly a dozen times, issued a similar warning about Putin’s knowledge of international issues. “His theories are flawed; his prescriptions are dangerous. But he knows the details of these issues way better than Trump,” McFaul wrote for The Washington Post on Sunday.

Putin, McFaul noted, is a masterful storyteller, able to spin compelling yarns that seduce listeners into following his advice. “Putin will be waiting for concessions, rhetorical and substantive, from Trump to get our bilateral relationship on track. Putin, though, will never offer a real concession,” McFaul explained. “He rarely even engages in negotiation. The idea floated by Trump recently that Putin might do him a favor and get out of Ukraine or Syria is laughable. Putin does no one any favors. Geopolitics for him is a zero-sum game.”

Putin is also not above a dirty trick: He once brought a dog to a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is notoriously canine-averse; in 2006, he seemingly tried to sabotage a NATO summit in Latvia by proposing to stop in for a birthday visit to then-French President Jacques Chirac.

All of this, as former CIA officer John Sipher wrote in the Atlantic, suggests that Putin will have no trouble playing to Trump’s weaknesses. “He will fawn on Trump and play to his ignorance. He can easily appeal to Trump’s predilection to save money, antagonize allies, and disconnect from NATO obligations,” Sipher wrote. “This is not a meeting of equals but a summit between a con-man and a man who is easily conned. One orders his opponents killed; the other tweets at his.”


Putin and Trump meet on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Hamburg last year. (Michael Klimentyev/Sputnik)

But no matter what preparations Putin makes, the real danger is that Trump may be hungry for a result after his time in Helsinki. Mark Galeotti, a senior nonresident fellow at the Institute of International Relations Prague, noted that Trump fancies himself a master dealmaker, and he’ll probably want to walk away with something that allows him to claim success.

“For Trump, with his trademark blend of arrogance and insecurity, and aware of the derision with which much of the U.S. and indeed global political classes regard him, the requirement is all the more pressing,” Galeotti wrote for the Atlantic. “This immediately gives Putin the advantage. Simply meeting with the U.S. president as an equal is a win for the head of a near-pariah nation with an economy smaller than the state of Michigan’s. He is ahead the moment he gets to shake Trump’s hand. And it helps him further that he knows Trump wants a deal, or at least the appearance of one.”

The danger, as was the case when Trump met with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un last month, is not that he makes no deal — it’s that he makes a bad one. “It is hard to see that Trump would be satisfied with the anodyne lowest common denominator of a joint communiqué making requisite noises about collaboration against terrorism, deconfliction in Syria, and maybe even talks about talks on arms control,” Galeotti wrote. “Putin, too, will no doubt push for more.”

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