A mutual disregard for principled politics will unite Presidents Putin and Trump.
Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin have one thing in common: they are both unburdened by principles. Trump’s election threatens to bring America down to Putin’s level where only self interest counts. They both know the price of everything but the value of nothing.
Russia gave up its only principled attempt at policy-making after the death of Vladimir Lenin. Since then its dictators have pursued solely Russian national interests. This worked more or less until 1991. After that Russia lost its empire and its way, but Putin is turning the tide and again leading with the doctrine that Russian national interests come first—justice, democracy, human rights, rule of law, fair trading—and the rest all come second or not at all.
From its inception until the election of Trump, America put liberty, democracy and free trade at the forefront of its foreign policy. It did this in the belief that not only was this what the Founding Fathers intended and but also that democratic, free nations would be natural allies, lucrative markets and not a threat to the US.
Putin calculated that Russian interests would not be served by Hillary Clinton as president. Clinton’s belief in the rule of law, free elections and human rights would be a continuing obstacle to the Russian annexation of Crimea, the war in eastern Ukraine and the persecution of Russian democrats. Clinton would have continued American opposition to Russian intimidation of the Baltic States and—Putin’s ultimate ambition—the re-absorption of Kazakhstan into the Russian Federation.
So no wonder Putin authorized his special services to do all they could to sway the election toward Trump. Putin reasoned that if his actions could be framed as being in the American national interest, Trump, unlike Clinton, would not stand on principle but seek to close a deal. Trump boasts about his negotiating ability, so all Putin had to do is offer him something tempting to start bargaining.
Let’s Shake on It
Imagine a scenario where Putin offers Trump a free hand for America to overturn the failing regimes in Cuba and Venezuela. In return Putin wanted recognition of Russian annexation of Crimea, dropping of sanctions and a free hand to “guide” Kazakhstan back into the Russian Federation. Putin might even offer to reconcile Russia to the Baltics’ membership of the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
As Putin might put it: “My dear Donald—this is a win-win. It is in your interests: You get Cuba’s market, its strategic location and a wonderful place to build hotels. You get Venezuela’s oil. We get only what is naturally ours anyway, and we guarantee that China doesn’t get to dominate Kazakhstan. Let’s shake on it.”
The incoming Secretary of State Rex Tillerson would like it too: Venezuela owes Exxon billions and is causing problems for Exxon’s giant discovery off the coast of Guyana. What is good for Exxon is good for America, as the argument would go. Providing Exxon’s stake in the Kazakh oil fields was preserved, Exxon would also much prefer to deal with their friend Vladimir than the aggressive and unreliable regime of Nursultan Nazarbayev.
But before such big transactions are done, Putin will want to test Trump to see if what he has invested so much in is really what Putin thinks it is. Putin will try first with a minor issue to gauge Trump’s nerve and judgment.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey provides an opportunity. Suppose Putin proposes setting up a joint Turkish-Russian peacekeeping force to stabilize Syria and parts of Iraq after the Islamic State (IS) has been driven out. The headquarters of this joint force could be in Turkey and jointly staffed and equipped by the Russian and Turkish military. What could be better? Some real muscle to ensure IS does not creep back, no American boots on the ground, all the risks and costs borne by someone else, threats to Israel reduced.
In return Russia becomes a force for peace in the region. Will Trump sign up? It’s a deal! That would make Putin smile.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Photo Credit: BasSlabbers