Brian Whitmore is a senior fellow and director of the Russia program at the Center for European Policy Analysis, a Washington-based think tank.
They’re already declaring victory in Moscow.
The mere fact that Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin will finally get his one-on-one meeting with President Trump in Helsinki on Monday is seen by the Russians as a validation of everything they have been up to in recent years.
The hacking. The election meddling. The troll farms. The export of corruption. The support for xenophobic, extremist and all manner of disruptive movements in the West. The bullying of neighbors. The poisoning of U.K. citizens with a nerve agent. The kidnapping of an Estonian law-enforcement officer. And, of course, the illegal annexation of Crimea and the invasion of eastern Ukraine.
And yeah, I get it — the Russians would never openly admit their responsibility for most of this. But that doesn’t change the fact that they view the summit as the United States giving them a pass on whatever they’ve done.
Moscow-based foreign affairs analyst Vladimir Frolov, one of the more astute observers of the Kremlin’s thinking, succinctly summed up the conventional wisdom in a recent column: “This one decision — turning the page — will be an important victory for Putin, who so far has not given an inch and who has patiently waited for the U.S. to begin to restore relations.”
The subtext of this narrative is simple: Extortion pays. The American and Russian presidents will meet as equals amid the trappings of superpower summitry. And from Moscow’s vantage point, that means bygones are bygones. Is this really the message the United States wants to send? Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov underscored the sentiment by stressing that any challenge to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea will be off limits in Helsinki.
In Moscow they’re already gloating. The Russian propaganda machine is already preparing to spin whatever comes out of the summit. The Trump administration should be on its guard.
One op-ed in the Kremlin mouthpiece Izvestia claimed that the famously hawkish U.S. national security adviser, John Bolton, was forced to “step on his throat” — the Russian equivalent of “eat his words” — and take a more conciliatory public line during his recent visit to Moscow.
Another, penned by Andrei Bystritsky, chairman of the Valdai Discussion Club and a leading Kremlin surrogate, gleefully noted that the current world order is in crisis, citing the migration problem, divisions within the European Union and the widening transatlantic rift. Russia, he added, now occupies “a unique position in the world,” and constructing a stable order without it is impossible. Well, that’s one way of putting it.
A more accurate one would be that Putin has turned Russia into a global protection racket that is prepared to wreak havoc and chaos until he gets what he wants: a free hand in the former Soviet space and an exemption from the rules of international conduct.
The problem with Trump’s approach to Putin is that it assumes the Russian leader shares the West’s desire for stability in the international system. He does not. Rather, the Kremlin has persistently fanned the brush fires plaguing the post-Cold War world order.
Russia’s bombing campaign in Syria has exacerbated Europe’s migrant crisis. Its disinformation campaign and support for extremist parties have undermined European unity and transatlantic solidarity. Its encouragement of corruption has established networks of influence across the West and undermined faith in democratic institutions.
Given the Kremlin leader’s background, this should not be surprising. Putin cut his political teeth facilitating relations between the state and organized-crime groups when he was deputy mayor of St. Petersburg in the 1990s. Among other things, he helped the infamous Tambov group, a major crime syndicate, take over the city’s gaming and fuel distribution industries.
Putin has since expanded. He now runs the biggest mafia syndicate in the world: the Russian government. And he has applied the skills he mastered in the St. Petersburg underworld — things such as extortion, blackmail and confidence tricks — and applied them to international politics.
Sometimes this involves childish and disrespectful power plays, such as showing up hours late for appointments with other world leaders. Sometimes it involves thuggish stunts such as bringing his dog to a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
But Putin is most effective at playing the role of the international grifter. And his big con is getting his protection racket recognized as a “respectable business.”
The Kremlin views this summit as the beginning of the process. Small wonder Putin’s entourage regards the meeting with Trump as a huge victory.
There’s one way to prove the conventional wisdom in the Russian capital wrong. Trump should refrain from granting Putin any concessions and should convey an unambiguous message: We are not turning the page, bygones are not bygones, and extortion does not pay.