Putin and Trump’s tainted love

Nina L. Khrushcheva / Khmer Times No Comments Share:
Face to face at last, Russia’s Vladimir Putin (left) and the United States’ Donald Trump at the G20 meeting in Germany. AFP

US President Donald Trump must be giddy: on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, he finally met his Russian counterpart and strongman-hero Vladimir Putin.

It is rare for someone who has reached the exalted office of President of the United States to retain the capacity for, much less interest in, hero worship. But it is also rare – if not unprecedented – for someone in that position to owe so much to a single foreign leader.

For Mr Trump, Mr Putin’s likely intrusions in the 2016 presidential election may well have contributed to his victory, even as they have also done considerable damage to his presidency.

Mr Trump expressed his admiration for Mr Putin well before the election, and, it seems, fantasised about meeting him – a dream so potent, apparently, that it drove Mr Trump to claim that he actually had, at the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow. (Before the pageant, Mr Trump took to Twitter to ask his followers whether they thought Mr Putin would attend, and, if so, whether he would be Mr Trump’s “new best friend.”)

That story was debunked, but Mr Trump wasn’t ready to give up on his dream. In 2015, he seemed to indicate that he and Mr Putin had shared the “green room” on the US news program 60 Minutes, for which they were both interviewed, though he quickly backtracked on those claims, as their interviews had actually taken place on different continents, which was easily verifiable.

Mr Trump then claimed to have spoken to Mr Putin by phone – a story he later revised to say that he had spoken with members of Mr Putin’s inner circle.

In any case, Mr Trump’s fantasy has now become reality. But, at a time when a special counsel is investigating whether Mr Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia’s election meddling, lifting any of the sanctions, even the most trivial ones, that Barack Obama introduced to punish Russia for its interference in the campaign might not be the most sensible idea.

One must ask whether, from Mr Putin’s perspective, Russia’s apparent efforts to help Mr Trump get elected have paid off.

Mr Trump is certainly sowing chaos across the West. Russia’s generals, we can assume, rejoice each time Mr Trump refuses to endorse Nato’s Article 5 – the alliance’s bedrock collective defence clause – and instead poisons the alliance by railing against its leaders for their inadequate defense spending.

Mr Trump’s disagreements with German Chancellor Angela Merkel – who declared after the G7 summit in May that the US can no longer be considered the “reliable partner” it once was – have also fueled deep uncertainty. Left to lead efforts to resolve the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, Germany no doubt is feeling somewhat exposed – and Russia is feeling somewhat heartened.

But Mr Trump’s evident belief in the chaos theory of government is, overall, probably not good for Russia, especially at a time when its economy, after three years of sanctions and low oil prices, is gasping for air.

Mr Putin is failing to uphold his end of a tacit bargain with the Russian middle classes – “you keep quiet, and I keep improving your lifestyle” – and the resulting disquiet is increasingly on display on the streets of Russia’s cities. Another source of uncertainty is the last thing that Mr Putin wants or that Russia’s economy needs.

Of course, it is unlikely that growing dissent will dissuade Mr Putin from standing for re-election next spring. In fact, he probably feels that he has little choice but to remain president for the rest of his life, for the sake of his own safety.

But without that all-important bargain – which provided Mr Putin with a kind of legitimacy more durable in Russia that any vote could ever be – it will become increasingly difficult to keep the various factions of the Russian elite in line.

Instead, those factions’ ever-suspicious members may well begin to question the long-term viability of the system that Mr Putin has constructed.

No one knows what will happen as those questions attract more attention. In 1998, a year before Mr Putin first became president, few outside Russia – or within the country, for that matter – had ever heard of him. It was the implosion of Boris Yeltsin’s legitimacy in his last year in office that put the thin-skinned ex-KGB colonel on Russia’s political map.

At the root of the affinity between Mr Trump and Mr Putin is the sense that both are essentially strongmen. But that affinity – and their relationship, whatever it may be – could be what weakens them.

Just as Mr Putin’s suspected intervention in the US presidential election has undermined Mr Trump’s presidency, reflected in record-low approval ratings, Mr Trump’s chaotic behaviour has damaged Mr Putin’s position, already undermined by his own economic mismanagement.

Mr Putin must now look over his shoulder even more often – for challenges from the street and, perhaps, for challenges from within.

At the G20 summit, Mr Trump savoured his long-awaited handshake with Mr Putin. Before long, both Mr Trump and his autocratic hero could be regretting that they ever sought each other out.

Copyright: Project Syndicate

Nina L. Khrushcheva, the author of “Imagining Nabokov: Russia Between Art and Politics” and “The Lost Khrushchev: A Journey into the Gulag of the Russian Mind”, is Professor of International Affairs and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at The New School and a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute.

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