By Anna Arutunyan
July 10, 2018
IDEAS
Arutunyan is a senior analyst for Russia at Crisis Group and the author of The Putin Mystique. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin has a flair for understated drama. When he met with Donald Trump last July, his cool gaze at the floor contrasted with the more animated gestures of the U.S. president. And so when the two meet again on Monday, Putin is unlikely to greet Trump with a bouquet of flowers as he did German Chancellor Angela Merkel in May. But the Helsinki summit will nonetheless be a contest of theatrical power projection—and it’s one that Putin has perhaps already won.

The game Putin plays is not so much about practicing diplomacy or striking deals; it is about optics, both at home and abroad. Trump often seems to be playing a similar game—but Putin is by far the more experienced player. The fact that a state summit—the first between the two—is happening at all allows Putin to portray himself to Russians as indispensable to the U.S. president in resolving the world’s crises. Russian state television will revel in showcasing the country’s leader—fresh from hosting the World Cup—on an equal footing with the most powerful man in the world.

Moscow’s foreign policy advisers believe Putin is highly unlikely to score concessions from Trump on any of the major conflicts in which the two countries are involved. In private correspondences, they dismiss rumors of a breakthrough on Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014 to U.S. and global fury; or of Trump pledging any meaningful support for Russia (re)joining the G-8, the club of industrialized nations from which it was expelled after the Crimea invasion; or of the two presidents striking a lasting deal on Syria.

Trump might be an atypical U.S. leader. He may even make statements suggesting he would recognize Russian’s seizure of Crimea. But most observers in Moscow accept that—on Russia at least—he is still constrained by a Congress and foreign policy establishment deeply suspicious of Putin.

Moreover, Russia and the US have diametrically opposed perspectives on Ukraine, and, indeed, on what the Kremlin genuinely views as its sovereign right to throw its weight around within its historic sphere of influence. This view, in many respects, underpinned both its annexation of Crimea and its incursion into eastern Ukraine, contributing toward a conflict that has claimed 10,000 lives. Indeed, Russian and U.S. officials close to bilateral talks on a potential peacekeeping force in eastern Ukraine—arguably the best, if slim, hope of resolving the conflict in that region—describe the talks in private conversations as though both sides are operating in different realities.

For now, nor does it appear likely that the two presidents will cut any meaningful deal on Syria. Trump may have little sympathy for what remains of the rebels fighting Bashar Assad, who is backed by Moscow. But Trump’s main ask on Syria would likely be for Russia to curtail Iran’s role on the ground. The Kremlin has previously agreed that all foreign forces should leave Syria, by which it means that Iranian and Russian forces would leave only when all other foreign forces—which range from jihadists to Turkish troops—do so too. The two presidents might repeat similar pledges next week. But such statements will have no impact on the ground. Russia has no interest in the departure of Iranian forces, which are critical to Assad’s ability to reconquer the whole country. And Moscow probably has only a very limited ability to get them to leave even if it wanted to.

So if, in principle, the Kremlin might wish for a grand bargain—a Yalta 2.0, as has long been the case—in which the U.S. would recognize the annexation of Crimea in return for Russian support against Iran in Syria, in reality few Russian officials expect such a deal.

More likely is that Putin will look to get something else entirely out of Trump: the appearance of being the adult in the room. Trump’s pattern of incendiary and self-contradictory statements makes Putin look polished by comparison. That is just the image the Russian president wants to project. The choreography can work in many ways: get Trump to drop another offhand remark about recognizing Crimea’s annexation, stopping NATO exercises in Europe, or allowing Russia back into the G8. Any one of those would mean Putin will look to be playing the U.S. president. All the better if Trump makes statements about Eastern Europe or NATO that sow discord and confusion within Western alliances. Meanwhile, there’s little harm for Putin if Trump starts talking tough: Putin gets to look statesmanlike next to an unpredictable world leader who just contradicted himself.

Some agreement may well come out of the summit—a statement on Syria or pledges to deepen cooperation on counter-terrorism, for example. But such deals would be the type of token understandings that make Putin look conciliatory without committing to much.

There are many reasons why Putin relies on optics and power projection. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russians have felt palpable insecurity about the country’s status as a global power. Putin’s support at home hinges on his ability to project power abroad. Moscow’s haphazard meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, for instance, appears likely to have aimed at proving—with plausible deniability—that it could make life difficult for Hillary Clinton and undercutting the legitimacy of her win rather than necessarily delivering the White House to Trump.

The result? The Kremlin gets to present the U.S. as decayed and dysfunctional, while projecting itself at home and abroad as a force to be reckoned with—a potential fixer of problems that, more often than not, it helped create in the first place.

In private, Kremlin insiders say that Moscow prefers dealing with Republican presidents, who ordinarily prize realpolitik above liberal democratic values. Trump has proven to be neither an artist of the deal nor heavy on values. But at least Moscow can take advantage of the fact that whatever Trump is trying to do, Putin already looks better doing it.

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