Trump, Putin and the elephants in the room

Trump will seek his own version of a ‘reset’ in relations with Russia. What would that look like?

Trump Putin Reuters
On July 16, US President Donald Trump will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Finnish capital Helsinki [Reuters]

The Kremlin prefers the Republicans over the Democrats. Or at least that is what a Russian political insider told me back in 2008, as we stood on the rooftop terrace of a hotel overlooking the Red Square on the eve of the US presidential elections.

I found it a rather surprising statement considering the times. Republican US President George W Bush had been at loggerheads with the Kremlin over several issues: The US decision to deploy a controversial missile defence system in Eastern Europe, Russia’s invasion of Georgia, and the latter’s prospective membership in NATO. With all that, the Russians were still rooting for a Republican foreign policy hawk like John McCain?

In the end, the advent of Barack Obama and his insistence on a “reset” in relations with Moscow paved the way for a number of agreements with then-President Dmitry Medvedev, including a nuclear deal, and resulted in the opposite impression: That a Democrat president can, in fact, be far more agreeable for Russia than a Republican one.

But “agreeableness” was never the main criteria by which Vladimir Putin, who was lurking in the premiership office at the time, judged the relationship between his country and the United States. 

In the ring, Putin, the former KGB agent, prefers to be feared rather than liked. He abhors Democrats who provide hypocritical lectures about democracy, human rights, or international law.

This is why, in 2008, Putin preferred the Republicans. He liked where he stood with them – a recognised superpower, a respected nemesis. In Obama, he found an opponent who didn’t seem to think he was worth the fight.  

With the elections of a more confident and more popular Putin for a third term in 2012, relations began to deteriorate. They cooled when the US-led Libya campaign overstretched its mandate and overthrew former Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi.

They went into deep freeze a couple of years later when Putin ordered limited intervention into Eastern Ukraine and annexed the Crimean Peninsula. A year after that, he sent Russia’s military to support the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and refused to accommodate Washington’s view over his future.

The state of Russian-US relations at the end of the combined tenures of Obama and Bush invoked an eerie resemblance to a past era, and there was much talk in both liberal and conservative circles of a Cold War redux.

The Kremlin’s dream US president

Enter the Kremlin’s dream Republican presidential candidate, Donald J Trump. If he hadn’t existed already, the Kremlin would’ve invented him.

And perhaps it did.

The Kremlin never hid its preferences in 2016 – neither its utter dislike for Hillary and Bill Clinton, nor its admiration of Trump, and certainly not its support for him during the elections.


Since then, the US Congress has denounced and sanctioned Russia for its interference and the Justice Department appointed Robert Mueller as special counsel to investigate whether there was collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.

President Trump, of course, denies any such collusion at every possible occasion and tweet. Meanwhile, his administration claims to be tougher on Russia than Obama’s ever was, imposing sanctions, arming Ukraine, expelling Russian diplomats, and publicly accusing the Kremlin of hacking into US energy infrastructure.

But while the administration was pressured by Congress to take certain measures against Russia, Trump’s own instincts and his White House initiatives have been accommodating.

The president reportedly called to congratulate Putin on his landslide election victory in March this year, breaking a taboo among western leaders in appearing to endorse the Russian leader’s re-election. He also called for Russia to be readmitted to the Group of 7, and even appeared to support the Kremlin’s claim on Crimea, before being forced to make a U-turn.

Trump’s reset

At the risk of sounding irrational in a predominantly polarised ideological arena, let me say that Trump’s Russia policy is not that different from Obama’s in his first term. And the political reactions to their policies did not differ that much either.

Democrats are questioning Trump’s capacity, readiness or willingness to stand up to Putin the way the Republicans questioned Obama’s foreign policy experience and ability to confront Russia.

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Trump may be less eloquent and more personal in his style than Obama, but like him, he’s pursuing relations with US nemeses on the basis of “mutual interest and mutual respect”. And like Obama, he thinks that more problems could be resolved with Russia and China on board than without them. He’s just going about it in his own way.

But, unlike Obama, Trump seems to be delusional about his deal-making ability and the importance of his camaraderie with the Russian leader – so much that he reckons he could persuade Putin to “withdraw from Syria and stop preying on Ukraine” if he had dinner with him (He also had similar illusions about convincing the North Koreans to denuclearise and the Mexicans to pay for the border wall).

And, unlike Obama, who shunned Israeli and Saudi pressures in favour of a nuclear deal with Iran, Trump welcomed the Israeli-Saudi charm offensive, ripped up the nuclear deal, and made Tehran the target of his venom and US sanctions, paving the way for greater escalation in the future.

Iran for Ukraine

When they meet next week in Helsinki, Trump may try to convince Putin to cooperate with the US on Iran in the Middle East and beyond. After all, the Russian president has succeeded in carving an orbit of influence that has pulled in many of those who feel shunned by Washington, including Iran and Turkey.

His latest stunt, inviting Israeli and Palestinian leaders to watch the World Cup final with him in Moscow, is a sign that a super-confident Putin 4.0 has started to enjoy playing with his trump cards. And so it seems does his new friend, Donald Trump.


During the early days of his administration, Trump reportedly considered trading Syria for Ukraine – the US would accept Russia’s influence in Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea in return for Putin’s cooperation in Syria.

But Bashar al-Assad is no longer the high card. “Iran is the strategic issue,” US National Security Adviser John Bolton recently said. Following the US military’s rout of the Islamic State from Syria and Iraq and Russia’s defeat of the Syrian rebels, Trump is focusing on Iran and could seek Russian support for his hardline policies in return for concessions on Ukraine.

Trump can’t promise an official lifting of the sanctions or a blessing on Crimea’s annexation because of recent Congressional restrictions, but may well try to give Putin verbal assurances. This won’t suffice. There’s no strategic rationale for Russia to accept being co-opted by the US.

The opposite is also no more plausible. It makes little sense for Putin to side with Iran against Trump.

There’s a third scenario. They could agree to a division of labour over their respective zones of influence, where Russia restrains its clients and allies like Syria and Iran, and the US holds back or contains Israel and Saudi Arabia. This is what Trump refers to as “getting along”.

Such cooperation may be seen as duplicitous in places like Tehran and Ankara (and in Washington itself) and regional powers may reject superpower patronage publicly, but considering the chaos and conflicts of the Middle East, they’ll be forced to manage accordingly.

The elephants in the room

American-Russian relations always remind me of that old proverb, “when elephants fight it is the grass that suffers,” and when the elephants play, the grass gets crushed.

In other words, the main concern is not whether Trump and Putin will get along or not, but on what basis? Of course, it’s often better when world powers get along, but the Middle East and Europe have suffered from superpower complicity as well as conflict.

In Syria for example, their earlier confrontation over al-Assad led to much suffering, just as their later complicity over the rebels led to more of the same.

The US and Russia are the two foremost nuclear powers, with over 13,000 warheads between them, or over 90 percent of the world’s total. There’s no moral or legal argument for them to continue expanding their nuclear arsenals, but they have long been doing just that in contravention of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), while simultaneously demanding that Iran and North Korea abide by it.

It’s also wrong for them to swap control over other nations as if they were pieces in their brutal superpower chess game. Both Syria and Ukraine deserve to be free. And so do Palestine and Georgia.

Whether they play or fight or a combination of both, these two elephants have the power to crush a lot of grass. Agreements between them have to be not only in their own self-interest but also in the world’s best interest.

Once upon a Cold War, Moscow and Washington stood for more than just power and military alliances. They stood, rightly or wrongly, for universal visions and missions – communism vs capitalism or equality vs freedom. Today they seem to stand for little more than hyper-nationalism, state interest, and greed.

That’s why nations around the world large and small need not rush to get in line with their policies and demand. Rather they should hold both the US and Russia accountable for the damage caused by their agreements and disagreements in the past and future.