In front of the world, President Donald Trump was “recruited” by the Kremlin this week.
Seeing America’s commander-in-chief standing next to Russian President Vladimir Putin, a supposed adversary, was discomforting for U.S. politicians and national security experts alike. But was it shocking? Not for anyone paying attention.
For one thing, Trump has long mistrusted intelligence assessments — and not only about alleged Russian election meddling. He has, for example, also cited President George W. Bush’s faulty intelligence claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, a pretext used for war in 2003. Trump has also repeatedly dismissed as a “witch hunt” Robert Mueller’s investigation.
Trump‘s erratic behavior is equally well-known. In the past few months alone he has severely rattled fellow members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, insulted British Prime Minister Teresa May’s handling of Brexit and suggested that she should sue the European Union, America’s traditional ally. Meanwhile, he has repeatedly praised Putin and suggested the two nations work more closely together. (Trump’s comradery with Putin not coincidentally helps the U.S. president maintain his case that no one meddled in the 2016 election. Because why would a friend meddle in the affairs of another friend?)
Putin’s brand of power — a strong man in control of a giant country — is clearly attractive to Trump.
Given this pattern, it would be foolish to expect Trump to suddenly act differently in Helsinki. What was more shocking, however, was just how easy he made it for Putin. The chief executive of never-humble America looked incompetent and impotent. A humiliated nation watched as its president wilted like a flower on the world stage.
And Putin showed no mercy. He has, after all, been vilified by American leaders for years — Obama once referred to him as a “bored kid at the back of the classroom,” and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton compared him to Hitler.
Maybe Putin does really have “kompromat” (compromising material) on the U.S. president. If the Russians hacked the Democratic National Committee, they likely hacked the Republican National Committee, as well as other Trump-related materials.
But it’s also possible that Trump genuinely likes and is impressed by Putin — and Putin knows it. This is the phenomenon of leader affinity. Putin’s brand of power — a strong man in control of a giant country — is clearly attractive to Trump. The historian and brilliant political hand Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. once suggested that President Richard M. Nixon was fostering his own imperial presidency when he went to China to court Mao Zedong. Nixon, Schlesinger suggested, wanted to see how real emperors do it.
Since Monday, an embarrassed America has increased its attacks on both Trump and Putin. He is a tyrant, in Sen. John McCain’s words, a dictator according to the New York magazine. Yet, just like Trump, Putin did nothing more than just be Putin. He exemplified an “Operative in the Kremlin,” to cite the title of an excellent biography by Clifford Gaddy and Fiona Hill. Hill, now a White House National Security adviser on Russia and an attendee of the Helsinki summit, surely advised Trump on how to deal with the Russian president. Trump obviously didn’t listen.
In an addition to being a former KGB operative, Putin is a judo master, who carefully studies opponents and then attacks their most vulnerable points. Trump’s personality is easy to manipulate — he is highly susceptible to flattery, likes power and looks for affirmation. For Putin, a political pro who has been in power for more than 18 years, this isn’t much of a challenge. In Helsinki, the 6”1’ Trump showed himself unprotected against the 5’7” Putin. The U.S. president became a giant mini-me of the diminutive Kremlin leader.
The Soviet Union — and Russia by extension — was humiliated by the United States, after the collapse of the communist superpower in 1991. Almost three decades later, Putin is getting his revenge.
In an addition to being a former KGB operative, Putin is a judo master, who carefully studies opponents and then attacks their most vulnerable points.
The Russian leader has been celebrated for astutely reading opponents since his days as a Soviet intelligence agent in Dresden, East Germany. In one famous story, Putin fended off protesters at the KGB’s compound there in 1989, after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The protesters were about to seize the Soviet intelligence archives, and Putin had called Moscow for instructions. They never came. Mikhail Gorbachev’s Kremlin was not interested in the fate of the security apparatus.
Putin wasn’t ready to give up that easily, however. After gauging the mood of the crowd, he walked out the gates and shouted to the protestors that he would give the order to attack if they didn’t disperse. He was calm but firm. And bluffing — the KGB compound had no defense capabilities.
The protestors moved on. Singlehandedly, Putin became the savior of the Soviet secrets.
In comparison, reading Trump’s vanity can’t have taken much skill. No wonder Putin looked bored for much of their press conference.
Cornered by criticism, Trump may now decide to double down on his post-summit statement clarifying that he agrees “with the U.S. intelligence that Russia meddled in the election in 2016.” His just-announced invitation for Putin to visit Washington may well be designed to confront Putin on U.S. soil. Without expecting a full admission, Trump may be able to stare Putin down in his own White House. He may even suggest a diplomatic restart.
Or maybe not. But it’s clear that whatever happens next, it’s time for Washington to adopt a new approach. As the Cold War raged, diplomat and Soviet expert George Kennan devised the strategy of “containment,” a patient Russia policy that was neither aggressive nor appeasing. President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s touted his own famous “trust but verify” relationships with Gorbachev.
Washington needs to find a middle ground between unchecked outrage on one side and uncritical embrace on another. Instead, Americans must learn to speak about Putin in measured terms – he’s proven his diplomatic prowess, now they must show theirs.
Nina Khrushcheva is professor of international affairs at The New School and the author of “The Lost Khrushchev: A Journey into the Gulag of the Russian Mind.”