Does Putin Have Buyer’s Remorse Over Trump - Probably Not
Two facts about Trump’s Russia saga are clear.
First, the Trump administration can’t shake off the specter of Russia. Forced to devote airtime to countering still unproven suggestions that his circle collaborated with Russia in its intervention in the 2016 election, President Trump lost his first National Security Adviser to the Russia saga while Attorney General was forced to recuse himself from Russia-related investigations after misleading the Senate on his meetings with Ambassador Kislyak. Calls from legislators in both parties for an independent investigation are growing. While no “smoking gun” proving a link between Trump’s circle and Russia has been identified, if proven, it would precipitate the most serious constitutional crisis in the nation’s history.
Second, it’s well-established why Russian intelligence, operating at the behest of Russia’s political leadership, intervened in the US presidential election. President Trump repeatedly denigrated NATO, expressed admiration for Putin, and voiced openness to closer ties with Russia, while articulating distaste for democracy building efforts. Considering the personal animosity Putin harbored for Hillary Clinton, blaming her for large protests against his reelection in 2011, Russia believed it had reasons to oppose Clinton apart from Trump’s openness to closer ties.
Since Flynn’s resignation, though, numerous developments raise questions about whether Trump can actually realize a rapprochement. Trump and senior officials such as Defense Secretary Mattis have expressed strong support for NATO. Speaking at the UN Security Council, UN Ambassador Haley denounced intensifying violence in Ukraine by calling Russia to task for its intervention there. Trump’s commentary about NATO unleashed strong bipartisan defense in Congress of America’s transatlantic commitments, with figures in both parties opposing the lifting of sanctions. Finally, Trump’s appointment of H.R. McMaster as National Security Advisor and Fiona Hill, a widely respected Russia scholar, as the NSC’s top Russia official signals the administration won’t be taking steps to fulfill Moscow’s wish list.
Russia is now toxic in Washington, so Trump is constrained from pursuing a “grand bargain.” Even Trump’s understanding of where bilateral interests align is suspect; despite his interest in arms reduction, Trump would find that Russia’s appetite for it is low. Also, Trump’s denunciation of Iran would conflict with Moscow’s growing strategic alignment with Tehran. Does this mean that Putin was naïve about Trump’s ability to alter U.S. foreign policy, rally Republicans around a “grand bargain,” or deliver a wish list that includes dividing NATO? No one knows how well the Russian establishment understands American politics. It’s possible that Russia is indeed leery of Trump and maybe regrets supporting him. But it’s also possible the situation in Washington is exactly what Russia wanted. Flynn resigned in disgrace after only a month. Sessions faces legal quandaries for misleading the Senate. Despite concerted efforts to reassure them, America’s allies are still uncertain about Washington’s reliability. A sense of paralysis permeates the transatlantic security architecture, from Washington’s divided political scene to European capitals rattled with questions about their defense. In this atmosphere, could the West muster the will to respond to Russian provocations? Is there still appetite for expanding NATO? How long will the West stand with Ukraine, which is not a NATO member and whose inclusion in the European Union or NATO would raise fears of another spiral in bilateral relations?
It seems inconceivable that Russian officials didn’t at least consider the possible blowback of being found out. If Clinton had won — which Russia could never dismiss as a possibility — she likely would have taken Moscow to task. But even in a scenario where Trump won, Russia must have understood it would provoke denunciation in Congress, the media, and the defense establishment. Russian officials also understand America’s defense establishment is deeply skeptical of Moscow, so there would be profound institutional barriers to realigning relations. Presidents come and go, but certain principles endure, such as America’s leeriness about Moscow’s ambitions in Europe. It’s possible Russian officials believed Trump was uniquely able to realign this basic reality in Washington, but it seems likelier they know that Presidents are limited in their flexibility in the face of Washington’s foreign policy consensus.
It could be that Russia has resigned itself to being a pariah in the West, so its intervention in European and now American politics is aimed at managing this reality in a way that is advantageous to Moscow’s interests: namely, paralyzing Western decision making, dividing political institutions, and elevating fear of escalation with Moscow. If that is the case, then Putin may not be having buyer’s remorse about Trump at all. In fact, everything could be going according to plan.