The Art of the (Trump-Putin) Deal
Immediately after Donald Trump was elected 45th President of the United States, many commentators have suggested that his policies toward Russia will not be as accommodating as his campaign rhetoric on Vladimir Putin, and that Trump may eventually become a difficult counterpart for the current Russian leadership. Arguments for that theory include, among others, persistent fundamental differences on certain issues, Putin's unreliability and unpredictability, Trump's focus on ‘America First’, pressure from certain anti-Putin forces in the GOP establishment, etc.
However, all these arguments consider only the bilateral U.S.-Russia dimension as if it existed in a vacuum. But if you put Trump-Russia relations in the broader global context that is about to emerge because of Trump's presidency, all these differences and problems don't stand a chance to outweigh a perfect global match between the common interests of both Putin and Trump.
Trump's foreign policy is largely uncharted waters, but one thing is very clear – he will be involved in many important global conflicts. Rearranging NAFTA and other trade agreements, dealing with China as a rising power, loads of issues in the Middle East (Syria and the potential scrapping of the Iranian nuclear deal to begin with, but there's always so much more in that particular region).
What do you do when you're about to engage in many tough battles of global significance, and want to cover your flanks and back? One of the first things – you look for important players with whom you can reach a solid ‘ceasefire’ to untie your hands for bigger things. This is what Turkish President Erdogan did a few months ago, almost simultaneously reaching out for a thaw with Russia and Israel, relations with both of whom were quite difficult recently, to untie his hands for multiple other ventures both at home and abroad.
In Trump’s case, Putin's Russia dangerously fits into this fundamental logic. There are clear signs in Moscow that Putin has been carefully preparing for ways to approach Trump. He'll appeal to his business logic (the flip side of which is his complete lack of experience in public governance and international affairs) and offer him a “deal” - the term so dear to the newly elected U.S. leader: Give me back some of the minor stuff which stands in the way of our relationship (Ukraine, human rights in Russia, financial sanctions) – and I'll support you in your bigger global efforts.
Given Putin's skills in psychology and recruitment inherited from his earlier profession – which were so brilliantly used initially with George W. Bush, for whom just one look into Putin's “soul” seems to have overshadowed all Russian authoritarian trends in the beginning of Putin's rule – that looks quite achievable.
Yes, on the other hand, there are established Republicans demanding sanctions for human rights violations – but Trump would easily answer by keeping in place the personal sanctions lists against Russian officials, such as the Magnitsky list, which, in fact, is not too much of a problem for Putin. The key problem for him are the financial sanctions imposed by the Obama administration – and here, there are huge U.S. corporate interests behind lifting those.
Lifting financial sanctions and keeping the window-dressing lists of Russian human-rights abusers banned from entry into the U.S.: Putin will be happy with that. What he wants most is to return to major borrowing in the Western financial markets, not allowing his prosecutors and judges to freely travel to Miami (in fact, Putin himself had recently prohibited all these people from travelling abroad).
Ukraine? Putin may even offer a real de-escalation in Donbass in return for a more general U.S. withdrawal from political and financial support for the current Ukrainian government. This would also give an opportunity to Trump to say ‘See, I’ve achieved what Obama couldn't – real peace in Eastern Ukraine’.
This is how a big Trump-Putin deal might look like – and nothing serious seems to stand in its way, given Trump's priorities focused on other things, and Putin’s apparent readiness to propose and psychologically ‘sell’ this new U.S.-Russia non-aggression pact.