Can Donald Trump relight the fire with his Russian brother Vladimir Putin?
Once upon a time they were a mutual admiration society. In 2013, Trump expressed hope that Putin would attend his Miss Universe contest in Moscow and wondered if he would become "my new best friend." In 2015, he compared Putin favorably to President Obama.
“In terms of leadership, he [Putin] is getting an 'A,'" he told Bill O'Reilly. Putin returned the favor in 2016 by calling Trump "talented and brilliant."
Today their relationship is less chummy. The multiple investigations of Russian meddling in U.S. elections have made Washington more hostile, much to the Russian leader’s annoyance. Trump’s aides now want him to keep his distance from the Russian president, advice Trump seems unlikely to follow.
The two leaders plan to meet at a multinational conference in Germany next month. Trump is reportedly eager for a meeting with all the pomp and circumstance of a bilateral meeting. Putin seems less enthusiastic about the idea.
That’s a signal that Trump and Putin’s differences are getting harder to paper over. Those differences are the product of complex geopolitical realities and a legacy of the 200-year-old relationship between the two countries. Putin bristles with resentment over the way the United States ran roughshod over Russia in the 1990s. Trump presides over a divided and dysfunctional government that is actively investigating Russia's role in the 2016 election.
Over time, national interests have a way of trumping personalities. Witness the latest headlines from Syria.
On Monday the White House announced the Syrian government would pay a "heavy price" if it launched another chemical weapons attack against its enemies.
Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said "such threats to Syria's legitimate leaders are unacceptable."
This is not the language of mutual admiration, but of cold geopolitics. Russia is Assad's patron. Putin’s use of the Russian air force turned the tide in a civil war that Assad was losing. Putin sided with Assad when he denied responsibility for a reported chemical weapons attack that killed dozens of people in Idlib province April 4. Putin is not going to abandon an ally under fire for the sake of a friendship, no matter how chummy.
One of the Russian goals of intervening in the 2016 election was to prevent a more aggressive U.S. policy in Syria touted by Hillary Clinton. Putin has long sought U.S. help for a peace agreement that will preserve the Syrian government, if not President Assad, in power.
Durng the campaign, Trump seemed amenable. He savaged the Bush family for lying about the disastrous invasion of Iraq. He denounced Clinton for her hawkish agenda in Syria. When Trump mused in the first week of his presidency about joint U.S.-Russia action against ISIS, Putin had reason to think he would be helpful.
Trump inherited the same policy options as his predecessor. He could do what Obama did: argue long and hard behind closed doors to limit U.S. intervention in Syria and to explore the possibility of a peace talks. Or he could do what Hillary Clinton did: side with Pentagon and CIA officials who advocated aiding anti-Assad rebels and taking control of Syrian air space.
Trump did not hesitate. He jettisoned his campaign views and is now doing exactly what he told voters he would not do. He is pursuing Clinton’s aggressive Syria policy agenda in service of Bush’s dream of “regime change” in the Middle East.
The 45th president has discovered the eternal Washington truth that deferring to the global military machine (now active in 137 countries) is much easier than trying to restrain it. He has also learned that the Washington press corps, agressive with questions about Russian interference in the 2016 election, tends to go soft when it comes to "beautiful" cruise missile attacks on Arab tyrants suspected of having weapons of mass destruction.
Trump’s policy of escalation, however, challenges Putin’s primacy in Russia’s proverbial backyard.
Putin played the kingmaker in Syria. His goal was — and is — to prevent the emergence of a jihadist bastion or a failed state that could serve as a platform for terror attacks in Russia. Now that success is in sight, Trump is threatening to disrupt Putin's accomplishment with a war on Iran fought on Syrian soil. That’s not what geopolitical friends are for.
Perhaps the primary reason Putin backed Trump in 2016 was the hope — no, the expectation — that he would lift the sanctions Obama imposed after the Russian invasion of Crimea. The sanctions, which isolate Russia from the international economy, pose a long-term threat to Putin’s autocracy.
Trump has not only failed to lift the sanctions, his Russia-related problems have nervous Republican looking for ways to distance themselves from the erratic chief executive. On June 15, the Senate voted 98-2 to slap new sanctions on Russia and limit the White House’s power to lift them. Putin’s goal of sanctions relief is growing more distant, not more likely.
Putin has every reason to be happy about Trump’s indifference to America's treaty committments to European allies. He can count on Trump's support in his efforts to undermine German prime minister Angela Merkel. But as a transactional politician, Putin is looking for results, not love. On Syria and sanctions Trump has delivered nothing but trouble, and that is not good for the future of a bromance.