The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What does Trump see in Putin anyway?

Russian President Vladi­mir Putin shakes hands with President Trump in Osaka, Japan, on June 28.
Russian President Vladi­mir Putin shakes hands with President Trump in Osaka, Japan, on June 28. (Susan Walsh/AP)

I keep expecting President Trump to ditch Vladimir Putin for a younger, more glamorous autocrat, but apparently this is the marriage he intends to take to the grave. What other conclusion can we draw from his obsession with restoring Russia to the Group of Seven?

Reasonable heads of state can see that Putin is a spent force. His popularity is plunging. Protesters routinely swarm the streets of Moscow. The Russian economy is as dead as a Siberian winter. The lame coverup of a recent nuclear accident rings echoes of Chernobyl and the dying gasps of Putin’s beloved wreck — the Soviet Union.

At this point, Putin fits better in a Group of Three alongside his friends Bashar al-Assad, the barrel-bombing butcher of Syria, and Nicolás Maduro, from the failed state of Venezuela.

Russia’s inclusion in the group of leading industrial nations in 1997 was intended as a carrot to lure the limping post-Soviet nation toward democracy and free markets. At the time, a case could be made that the former superpower had at least the prospect of becoming an important economic player.

President Trump said Aug. 25 that it is “certainly possible” he will invite Russian President Vladimir Putin to the 2020 Group of Seven meeting in the U.S. (Video: AP)

Instead, the overmatched alcoholic Boris Yeltsin permitted the looting of the Russian economy and, in 1999, gave way as Russian president to the former spy from St. Petersburg. Putin brought order to the looting by creating a mafia of oligarchs. He kept the people happy for a while with promises to restore a glory that never was. At 20 years, he has reigned longer than any Russian leader since Joseph Stalin, but with the usual dreary results.

Follow David Von Drehle's opinionsFollow

Today, the case for including Russia at the table of major players is nonexistent. Measured by total gross domestic product, Russia is not even among the top 10 countries in the world. Measured by per capita GDP, it doesn’t make the top 60. And it’s going backward. The purchasing power of the average Russian has fallen by more than 10 percent over the past five years. In the same period, foreign investment has dropped to virtually nothing while more than $300 billion of Russian wealth has been shifted out of the country. These financial trends are a clear vote of no confidence in the future of Putin’s leadership.

Moreover, what puny powers Putin does possess are marshaled in direct opposition to the interests of the G-7 members — and to the G-7 itself. The point of the annual meetings is to encourage cooperation; Putin seeks to encourage division in the Western alliance. Hackers linked to the Russian military have interfered in elections in the United States, Britain, France and Italy, according to intelligence agencies. They’ve targeted energy firms in Germany and stolen cryptocurrency in Japan. The Aspen Security Forum recently heard from Microsoft that only Iran and North Korea are in Russia’s league when it comes to being state sponsors of digital mischief.

It’s unfortunate that the Trump-Putin romance has been encumbered with so much of the most polarizing baggage in America today: the Mueller report, the Steele dossier, the stolen Democratic National Committee emails and so on. While one senses there must be some connection, the exact wiring diagram — if there is one — has not been discovered, despite lots of people looking for it.

During his rambling post-conference remarks, Trump suggested the affection stems somehow from their shared antipathy to former president Barack Obama. It was Obama, after all, who kicked Russia out of the club in 2014 as punishment for Putin’s annexation of Crimea. In Trump’s telling, Putin “outsmarted” Obama with the move — but I don’t see what’s so smart about inviting international sanctions at a time when prices for your nation’s leading exports — fossil fuels — are plunging.

For that matter, what was so smart about the Trump administration’s halfhearted encouragement of Juan Guaidó’s April attempt to oust Maduro in Venezuela? The Trump administration recognizes Guaidó as the troubled nation’s true leader yet sat by while Putin’s team on the ground reportedly ordered Maduro to hang tough. In the aftermath, Putin instructed the United States to stop interfering in Venezuela, while James Monroe turned somersaults in his grave.

Looking at such an unlikely couple, we wonder what keeps them together. What does Trump see in Putin? Where’s the spark?

Some theorize that it’s all about money. The Putin mafia has funneled billions into high-end real estate in major cities around the world, and a pile of it wound up with the Trump Organization. During his investigation, then-special counsel Robert S. Mueller III found that Trump was secretly angling to build a Trump tower in Moscow at the same time that he was running for president in 2016.

But maybe they stay together for the sheer outrageousness of the thing, like the retail heiress Chloe Green’s now-ended relationship with Jeremy Meeks, a guy Internet-famous for his police mug shot. Nothing turns Trump on like getting people to buy balderdash. If he can sell the world on Vladimir Putin’s greatness, he can sell anything.

Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.

Read more:

David J. Kramer: Trump wants Russia to join the G-7. Here’s why that’s a terrible idea.

Eugene Robinson: Trump’s Obama envy is getting even worse

B.J. Lee: Forget Putin and Kim. Trump’s real soulmate lives in Tokyo.

The Post’s View: What does Putin fear?