The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump wants to be Putin’s friend. Putin doesn’t have friends.

A souvenir kiosk in Moscow offers a drawing depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin holding a baby with the face of U.S. President Trump on July 5. (Mladen Antonov/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)
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President Trump could really use a friend these days, and he seems to have set his hopes on an unlikely candidate: Russian President Vladimir Putin. Look through Trump’s public statements about Russia, and you will be struck by the obsessiveness with which he frames his views in personal terms. In one now-notorious tweet in 2013, he wondered if Putin would become “my new best friend.”

That was no exception. Periodically Trump circles back to the idea of establishing an amicable relationship with the Kremlin, sometimes with a bit of conspicuous flattery thrown in. (He has repeatedly praised Putin as a “strong leader.”) In August 2016, when Hillary Clinton accused Trump of aiming to befriend Russia, he responded: “And I’m saying to myself, what’s wrong with that? That’s good.”

But does Putin feel the same way? Most media commentaries seem to assume that he does — especially now that we’re just a few days away from the two men’s much-anticipated first meeting on Friday. Surely it would be only natural for Putin to reciprocate Trump’s expressions of esteem.

There’s just one problem: There is no evidence to suggest that the Russian president views international relations through the prism of personality. Putin came of age as a secret police officer in the Soviet Union, and he approaches his job through the lens of a centuries-old tradition of authoritarian power politics. It’s a framework that doesn’t really accommodate the notion of a bromance.

American presidents have a long history of trying to play personal politics with Russian leaders. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was convinced that he could charm Joseph Stalin. Ronald Reagan trusted his rapport with Mikhail Gorbachev to such an extent that he imagined the two of them joining to eliminate all nuclear weapons. Bill Clinton spent long chunks of quality time with Boris Yeltsin. And George W. Bush, of course, believed that he was “able to get a sense of [Putin’s] soul.”

This faith in the power of schmoozing has deep roots in American politics, where a lot depends on negotiation, dialogue and dealmaking. But Moscow doesn’t work that way. Russia’s long authoritarian traditions condition it to view its relations with other countries in terms of pure power.

Russia does not have friends. It has competitors and it has vassals. Vassals are countries that pay rhetorical tribute to Moscow and follow its lead on everything that matters — usually because they are deeply dependent on Russia for security, economic support or energy supplies. It’s no coincidence that its current vassal states — such as Belarus, Armenia and Kazakhstan — are themselves corrupt autocracies, which makes it easier for the Kremlin to work with them.

Competitors, by contrast, are to be combated or tolerated. Toleration is possible but it always comes at a price. Most importantly, such a competitor must effectively eschew any criticism of Russia’s domestic affairs and pledge to respect Russia’s freedom of action within its sphere of influence abroad. Once this principle is established, the two rivals can cooperate on other issues where they share common interests. This is the sort of relationship Russia cultivates with its frenemy China, and it is, presumably, how the Kremlin envisages its ideal policy toward the United States under Trump.

Putin wants Washington to accept its role as a meddler in Russia’s self-declared sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. In 2014, when Ukraine began efforts to pursue an independent, pro-European course, effectively threatening the loss of what had until then been a vassal in the making, the Russians responded by launching the war that smolders there today. (Georgia went through its own version of this during its conflict with Russia in 2008.)

Putin also wants the United States to lift the sanctions imposed in retaliation for Russia’s annexation of Crimea, thus restoring Russia’s freedom to act within the post-Soviet space as it sees fit. And he wants the United States to acknowledge Russia’s role as a power broker in Syria, which would be the effective price of a U.S.-Russian alliance against Islamic State forces there. (Russia’s primary interest there is bolstering its client President Bashar al-Assad, while it has done notably little to degrade the Islamic State.)

Meanwhile, Moscow continues to evade responsibility for its interference in the U.S. presidential election. The Russians have even been demanding, with increasing stridency, the return of the diplomatic properties confiscated by the Obama administration as part of its punishment for this meddling.

So yes, we could certainly have a closer relationship with Russia if we wanted one — what Trump might even call a “friendship,” though Putin wouldn’t look at it that way. But such a deal would come at a huge cost. It would jolt our already shaky ties with our allies, allow Russia license to continue undermining Western democratic institutions and call into question our commitment to our own democratic values — not to mention it would reward Assad for the deaths of about half a million of his own citizens.

Russia doesn’t want us to be its friend; it wants us to be its enabler. Trump may be incapable of understanding this (and if he is, the result could be a disaster). But the rest of us should never forget it.