Since his reelection in March, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s public approval has slipped, according to a state-controlled polling service. This month, the Kremlin moved to raise the retirement age — a measure whose unpopularity even the World Cup fever in host nation Russia couldn’t conceal. Russia’s economy is stagnant, with low growth predicted through 2020. Western sanctions, imposed after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, have taken a toll by limiting Russian banks’ access to international financing. The Kremlin has had to dip into its foreign currency reserves, and the Russian central bank has had to shore up the nation’s banking sector, which increasingly looks like a Ponzi scheme.
Abroad, Crimea remains firmly under Russian control, but according to one Ukrainian poll, only 8 percent of Ukrainians have a positive view of Russia’s political leadership. Russian intervention has kept Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power but hasn’t produced peace in Syria’s civil war. Despite the West’s internal tensions — on display at the recent NATO summit, as President Trump traded barbs with European leaders — Russia’s position is insecure.
To appease his public, Putin needs Trump — and Russia needs the United States — more than Trump and the United States need him. But from the way Trump deals with Putin, you’d never know it.
In his book “The Art of the Deal,” in a section titled “Use Your Leverage,” Trump starts out with, “The worst thing you can possibly do in a deal is seem desperate to make it.” But in the past two weeks alone, he appeared to open the door to recognizing Crimea’s annexation, told a campaign rally crowd that “Putin’s fine, he’s fine, we’re all fine,” and said, in advance of his summit with Putin, “perhaps we’ll talk about” ending NATO military exercises in the Baltics. Trump’s heaping of praise on Putin, his stoking of an artificial crisis at NATO, and the interview with Britain’s Sun newspaper in which he undercut the authority of British Prime Minister Theresa May play right into Putin’s hands and suggest that he’s keen to gain Putin’s favor. On Friday, the Justice Department announced the indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence officers on charges of interference in the 2016 election, but this has not derailed the summit. Taken together, these moves look like an effort to approach Putin with a conciliatory tone belying the leverage Trump and his administration have in dealing with the Russian leader, if the president chose to use it.
Consider that in addition to sanctions, the United States has significant economic and military leverage at its disposal. At the NATO summit, Trump singled out Germany as “captive to Russia,” referencing Nord Stream 2 — a planned Russian pipeline project that would increase European dependence on Russia gas. The Nord Stream 2 pipeline would deliver Russian gas through the Baltic Sea, transiting through Germany. It would effectively allow Russia to bypass Ukraine as a transit route, cutting Ukraine off from billions of dollars in transit fees. Even before Trump railed against the project, Trump administration officials signaled that the United States would consider sanctioning companies involved in the project over concerns about European energy security. Such a move would effectively kill the pipeline, costing the main stakeholder — Russia’s state-controlled Gazprom — billions in investments and lost revenue. Russia’s vulnerable economy would feel the hit.
Trump is fresh from a NATO summit that, despite his fuming over European defense spending, made significant strides in deterring Russia. While only eight European countries currently meet the 2-percent-of-GDP benchmark for defense spending, according to the 2018 NATO communique, “two-thirds of Allies have national plans in place to spend 2% of their Gross Domestic Product on defence by 2024.” The communique, signed by all members, including the United States, contained strong language affirming NATO support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and condemning the “illegal and illegitimate annexation of Crimea,” which the allies vowed not to recognize. At the top of the Kremlin’s list of complaints is NATO’s growth and increased U.S. forward presence in the Baltic States and Eastern Europe. Putin will probably raise these grievances to Trump, but Trump should not bend: Ensuring European security through NATO is the greatest deterrent against Russian aggression. When he’s face to face with Putin, rather than entertaining his long-held concerns about NATO, Trump should emphasize NATO’s unity and the common transatlantic stance on Ukraine.
Putin knows that he needs to deliver a deal to Trump so that the president can declare the one-on-one summit a success. Probably with that in mind, Putin has stepped up efforts to mediate a deal on a pullback of Iranian forces from the Israeli border — a demand made by Israel and the United States. According to a Bloomberg News report, the agreement would replace Iranian militias with Syrian government forces, which is less objectionable to Israel. To broker the agreement, Putin met a top adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the day after meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But Russia’s ability to enforce such a deal is limited, as Russia would probably have to commit ground troops to monitor and enforce the arrangement — something Putin will be unwilling to do at a time when his popularity is shaky. Trump should remain skeptical of Russians bearing gifts. The Middle East deal looks less like a real deliverable and more like Kabuki theater. Rather than being taken in by Putin’s promises and repeating the mistake President Barack Obama made when he accepted Russian assurances on Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, Trump should be aware that Russia will not take any steps to endanger its alliance with Iran. Until that changes, U.S. and Russian interests in the Middle East will be at odds.
Ultimately, Putin sees Trump as a potential gateway for achieving what has eluded him with past presidents: American acceptance of Russian influence in what it considers its “near abroad” and a return to business as usual, despite Russian occupation of Crimea, war in Ukraine’s Donbas region, interference in U.S. and European elections, Russian violations of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, Russia’s cultivation of Syria as a client state, and other acts, such as the heinous, widely reported nerve agent attack in the United Kingdom for which NATO concluded the Russian Federation was “highly likely” responsible, with “no plausible alternative explanation.”
Business as usual would mean an end to sanctions, return of Russian diplomatic properties in the United States (some confiscated by order of Obama, some by Trump) and renewed bilateral dialogue on arms control and nuclear nonproliferation. Putin probably also dreams of the United States scaling back its security and defense commitment to Europe, which would leave the continent more vulnerable to Russian influence. These are all things that Trump has and Putin wants. With the Justice Department indictments adding extra political pressure on the summit, Putin is unlikely to get these concessions in Helsinki, but if he’s playing a long game, Helsinki is just the beginning. If he eventually convinces Trump that the U.S. stance toward Russia should be softened to match the kind words the president has offered about him, he will be closer to extending Russian influence in Europe and weakening America’s.
And that is Putin’s motivation for the summit: Just meeting with Trump is already a win for him at home, showing Putin on an equal footing with the American president, making joint decisions about global affairs. With Russia’s continued information warfare against democracies, European allies have been frustrated with Trump’s solicitous behavior toward Putin. Despite the policy successes of the NATO summit, allies are nervous that Trump will be swayed by the warm relationship building between him and Putin and go back on his commitments to Europe.
Trump doesn’t appear to appreciate that Putin has to keep an eye on his own domestic politics. It might seem strange to think of someone in power for 18 years as either president or prime minister, widely seen as an authoritarian who wants to be president for life, as someone concerned about approval ratings. And, clearly, data is limited and not always reliable when it comes to public opinion in Russia. But the Kremlin has learned that aggressive foreign policy can deliver big wins at home: In 2014, Russia’s annexation of Crimea gave Putin a major boost in approval ratings. He was already at 84 percent before Russia’s Syria intervention in 2015, and he still got a 4 percent boost. When ratings start to slip — even slightly, as they have recently — many in Europe worry that another act of aggression will be quick to follow.
Rather than trying to curry favor with Putin, Trump should realize that it’s Putin who needs to curry favor with him. Russia is in a weak position, and Trump should take advantage of this weakness — as he has done with European allies. At a minimum, he should avoid weakening his own position by encouraging Putin to grasp for more than he already has. We know Putin knows how to play this game. Trump calls himself the ultimate dealmaker. He should put some of his professed skill to use by withholding the concessions that Putin desires. It’s too late to withhold a face-to-face meeting, but he could double down on sanctions, increasing the cost to Russians of Putin’s Ukraine policy, and (though unlikely) he could confront the Russian president on election interference. If Trump treats this summit as transactional, it’s an opportunity to see what Russia, not the United States or its allies, is willing to do to, as he says, “get along.”