My new Telegraph piece just up (££) looks at the big forces in play as President Trump sits down with President Putin today. A free highlight or two:
Vladimir Putin was sworn in as Russia’s President in May 2000. He has led Russia as either President or Prime Minister since then. He’s still only 64. Maybe another 17 years in power? How’s he doing at this half-way stage?
… One undoubted success of President Putin has been his ability to rattle Western leaders by creating a new form of diplomacy based on exploiting imbalance. Do the unexpected. Promote theories of ‘asymmetric warfare’. Pump unsettling ideas into Western public life through social media memes. Erode distinctions between democracy and not-democracy.
Steely and strategic as President Putin is, even he must be impressed by the drastic clamour in Washington over Russia’s role (or not) in the latest US presidential elections. Did Russia meddle to skew the result against Hillary Clinton? How? Where? Did it affect the result? Why wasn’t it stopped? Emails! Wikileaks! Trump is in the pocket of Putin! Illegitimate! #Notmypresident!
… Insofar as anyone can discern what Donald Trump likes, it is deals. Is there in that Trump speech the hint of a New Deal with Russia? Why don’t Washington and Moscow indeed work together as ‘responsible nations’ against ‘common enemies’?
The basic problem that has bedevilled Western relations with Moscow for a century now is working out what Russia gets as part of any such deal. Thanks to communism, Russia starts any discussion of this from a position of acute strategic weakness. The combined economic weight of the USA, EU and Japan is a colossal 30 times bigger than Russia’s. Joining that club as a junior partner with the economic clout of, say, Spain, is unattractive.
Moscow instead strikes out on a distinctive course, siding with the most useless regimes on the planet to put clear water between itself and ‘Western’ policies. Moscow’s core policy aim is simple: identify what the West wants, then go for something as far from that as possible. By using its UN Security Council veto power and emphasising differences in outcomes and philosophy wherever possible, Russia gets some international prestige and hard negotiating leverage.
So far so obvious.
What might Donald Trump offer Vladimir Putin to try to steer relations in a more constructive direction?
Ah, now you’re talking.
First and foremost, recognition. A willingness to listen to Russian points of view and maybe modify US positions accordingly.
The very fact of the dissolution of the Soviet Union is seen by Vladimir Putin as a disaster, dividing the Russian nation itself across many different new countries. He reads that Trump speech in Warsaw, extolling Poland’s heroic national identity. Don’t those lofty words apply all the more to Russia and Russians? Double standards!
Western leaders see the force in that view, but they also see that the Ukrainian, Estonian, Latvian, Georgian and Kazakh nations and many others have gained hugely since the USSR collapsed, and that they too now deserve their international identity. Western governments have hugely raised the cost to Russia of messing with post-Soviet borders by imposing sharp sanctions…
The cost to Russia of its machinations in Crimea/Ukraine is quite startling. Look at THIS graph to see what it means, and what is really going on when Russia and the USA sit down for a chat.
What might it take for those sanctions to be lifted and serious new forms of cooperation to be tried?
Thus a subtle long-term game of Who-Moves-First?
Western governments can’t contemplate serious changes while Russia is interfering directly in Ukraine. Russia can’t stop interfering in Ukraine, (a) because Moscow wants to interfere to assert Russian psychological hegemony beyond its borders, and (b) because it does not trust the West to respond generously if it does stop.
Today Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin are eyeing each other warily. Should I trust him? What does he know about me? What might he do with it? Best case scenario for Vladimir Putin? That Donald Trump echoes President George W Bush in 2001:
“I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy.”
Trust. Always the key factor in diplomacy.