Trump and Putin: Will the personal relationship matter?


The so-called bromance between President-elect Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin was given a jumpstart at Putin’s December 2015 news conference when he called Trump a “really brilliant and talented person,” and the “absolute leader in the presidential race.” Putin went on to say that he welcomed the candidate’s professed desire for a “more substantial and deeper” relationship between the United States and Russia.

During the campaign, Trump reciprocated by terming Putin’s leadership stronger than President Barack Obama’s, and by saying how good it would be if the two countries were able to work together against the Islamic State extremists.

While it would be in both countries’ national interests to try to find areas of cooperation, will the bromance overcome real and potential conflict in the current relationship? I am skeptical.

As a former officer of the KGB, Putin remembers and has nostalgia for the era of Soviet (read Russian) power. Coincidentally, his policies have been focused on “making Russia great again.” He wants Russia to be at the center of major events in world affairs, to be included and consulted on important international issues, to restore Russia’s leverage or outright hegemony in the now independent, former Soviet republics and to have greater influence over developments in the areas of central and Eastern Europe the Soviet Union once controlled.

Putin calculated correctly that he could move into Crimea and eastern Ukraine with little opposition from the West. He also cleverly inserted Russia into the civil war in Syria by judging that Obama’s “red line” was not so bright after all and that he could prop up his ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, again with little opposition from the West.

Putin has been courting Iran, a sponsor of terrorism, and is trying to play the China card much as we did during the Cold War. All these policies have made him popular at home and have taken much of the sting out of Ukraine-related sanctions imposed by the U.S. and the European Union. At the same time, they have created greater friction with the West and raised concern about Russia’s aggressive moves among the states that border Russia.

Leaders come and go, but basic national interests remain essentially the same. Russia’s actions on the international stage are largely inimical to U.S. interests. To borrow a phrase from the neo-conservatives, Trump will soon be mugged by reality, if he hasn’t been already.

Even now, I am sure his intelligence briefings are demonstrating that the present negative state of the U.S.-Russian relationship is due more to Russian assertiveness than, as Putin claims, to a U.S. attempt to fence Russia in. The president-elect’s stated desire to work with the Russians against the Islamic State is belied by the fact that ISIS installations in Syria have hardly been hit at all by Russian bombers. Rather, Putin’s forces have targeted anti-Assad groups that the U.S. supports. The Russians’ brutal, purposeful bombing has brought death and devastation to noncombatant civilian populations, particularly in Aleppo. In addition, the Russians have recently suspended their plutonium reduction agreement with the United States and are violating their commitments under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) agreement by producing a cruise missile banned by that treaty.

Congressional and public pressure will also likely temper any tendency by the new administration to ignore Russian human rights violations, including the mysterious deaths of a number of outspoken journalists and political opposition figures. And, after Jan. 20, President Trump’s desire to find common ground with Putin’s Russia will certainly be hampered by the traditionally strong anti-Russian feeling within his own party, an attitude that was clearly expressed by his own running mate during the campaign.

So what does this mean for the U.S.-Russian relationship?

First of all, we are not going to become friends, least of all allies, with the Russians overnight. Trump and his team need to have what diplomats call a full and frank discussion over the full range of potential areas of conflict I have described.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently said that actions, not words, are what count. This should be our approach as well. To bring about a more normal relationship, the Russians need to clean up their act and we need to be clear about our own bottom lines.

I’m confident the president-elect will not want to be or be seen as Putin’s patsy. Our true friends and allies in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and the rest of the world need to be assured that we will continue to support them with strength and resolve. Of course, we should continue to look for areas of cooperation with the Russians, but we should also make it clear that we will not abandon our friends, nor will we cede or defer leadership where our core national interests and values are involved.

Donald Trump often praised former President Ronald Reagan during the campaign. “Peace through strength” was the mantra of the Reagan administration. That approach was defined not only by military strength, but also economic, political and diplomatic strength. Adopting that kind of posture will do more toward making our relationship with the Russians productive than words of mutual admiration exchanged by the leaders of both countries.

Melvyn Levitsky, a former U.S. ambassador and U.S. assistant secretary of state, is professor of international policy and practice at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.