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US midterms make Putin’s rocky road to Trump even rockier

Why We Wrote This

Americans weren’t the only ones closely watching US midterm results. Much of the world was too, including Russia. A Democratic House will complicate Vladimir Putin’s efforts to cut deals with President Trump.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
President Donald Trump and Russia's President Vladimir Putin shake hands during a joint news conference after their meeting in Helsinki, Finland, July 16, 2018.

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By all accounts, Vladimir Putin won’t be having any substantive meetings this weekend with President Trump in Paris at a ceremony marking the end of World War I. But that’s not for lack of interest. Mr. Putin appears keen to do so, despite what many Russian foreign policy experts say has been a relationship largely toxic to the Kremlin. Their meeting in Helsinki in July set off a storm of recriminations in the US media that painted the US president as a Kremlin stooge, and Congress ramped up sanctions on Moscow. Later the White House announced that it will pull out of the landmark INF treaty, which ended the cold war. And the US midterm results, which brought the Democrats back into control of the House, will only make it more difficult for Putin to negotiate with Mr. Trump. “Putin and Trump have met twice, in Hamburg and Helsinki, and it’s hard to find any reason to believe that the Russian investment in those meetings brought any benefits at all,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs. “I am baffled why the Russian side continues to initiate any dialogue with Trump or see it as a desirable thing to do. The sad fact is that Russia has become a meme in US politics, and as a meme you can’t change much.”

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin will most likely meet in some fashion this Sunday at a World War I memorial event in Paris. It will probably be brief and light on substance – perhaps no more than a handshake and a greeting.

But all eyes will be on the chemistry between the two leaders whose oft-stated joint goal – to improve relations between their countries – has been so profoundly frustrated at every turn in the past two years.

A lot has changed since they last met in Helsinki in July – and not in Russia’s favor, according to much of Russia’s foreign policy community.

They have come to regard contact with Mr. Trump as toxic for Mr. Putin, after a storm of post-Helsinki recriminations in the US media painted the US president as a Kremlin stooge and Congress ramped up sanctions on Moscow.

Later, the White House announced that it will pull out of the landmark INF treaty, the deal that ended the old cold war. Then, the US midterm elections brought Trump’s Democratic opponents roaring back into control of the House, where they appear almost certain to raise the heat still further on Russia.

Russian analysts familiar with the US political process say that is not because Democrats are significantly more anti-Russian than their Republican counterparts – punishing Russia is one of the few areas of strong bipartisan consensus. Rather, they will be in a more effective position to challenge any Moscow-friendly initiatives made by the White House. Trump, the analysts point out, is almost unique among US politicians in advocating better relations with Russia, and he will now be under far more pressure to abandon that position.

“Most Russian observers think the split in the US leadership will only deepen. We cannot hope for any positive changes for at least two years,” says Andrei Kortunov, head of the Foreign Ministry-linked Russian International Affairs Council. “Some also think the divide in US society will also get worse, making it almost impossible to predict what might happen next.”

Putin’s persistence

Yet Putin seems very keen to meet Trump in Paris. Experts say the Kremlin is actively preparing for a more substantive discussion between the two later this month at the Group of Twenty summit in Argentina, perhaps followed by a Putin visit to Washington next year.

The sources of his enthusiasm are difficult to explain. A few analysts argue that Putin sees a rare opportunity for Russia in Trump’s unilateral nationalism, even if he has delivered some hard knocks to Russia. These analysts say that Putin believes Trump will emerge as the long-term victor in the political struggle over the place of the US in the global order.

But other Kremlin-watchers fear the damage being done to cold-war-era stability – always rooted in equal arms-control accords between the world’s two nuclear superpowers – is becoming irreversible. They argue there is no reason for Putin to assist Trump in accelerating that process.

“Putin and Trump have met twice, in Hamburg and Helsinki, and it’s hard to find any reason to believe that the Russian investment in those meetings brought any benefits at all,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow foreign policy journal. “I am baffled why the Russian side continues to initiate any dialogue with Trump, or see it as a desirable thing to do. The sad fact is that Russia has become a meme in US politics, and as a meme you can’t change much.”

But a few suggest that Putin’s sunny attitude derives from a belief that Trump is actively demolishing the long-standing liberal global order, aiming to replace it with a system closer to the one Putin has long advocated. That would be a multipolar world, in which strong nations pursue their own self-interests on the world stage, competing or combining according to what suits them best.

“The perception is that Trump is a like-thinker who projects himself as a strong national leader, much like Putin himself, and that they basically speak the same language,” says Sergei Strokan, foreign affairs columnist with the pro-business Moscow daily Kommersant. “So, the Kremlin’s thinking is that we just have to persevere and wait for a moment when Trump is not hamstrung by Washington politics and can act freely. Then the two leaders will work out the issues between Russia and the US in a rational, bilateral way.”

Love is blind?

Meanwhile, other Trump initiatives are opening up significant opportunities for Russian diplomacy. The unilateral US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear accord has made co-signers of the deal, Russia and the European Union, unexpected partners in seeking ways to confound Washington’s unilateral sanctions. It might even accelerate the long-term Russian goal of toppling the US dollar from its throne as the world’s reserve currency. Trump’s trade wars have also helped to push Russia into the strategic embrace of China, a process that was already happening but has been greatly sped up.

The US intention to leave the INF treaty hands a moral victory to Russia, while making Europeans feel vulnerable to the threat of hair-trigger nuclear conflict in ways they have not been since the treaty abolished the entire class of medium range nuclear missiles that menaced the continent in the 1980s.

“There is no doubt that this creates new opportunities to talk to Europe in the language of mutual security,” says Vladimir Batyuk, an expert with the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow. “And you can bet that Russia will use it. It’s an opportunity to split NATO, an old and unfulfilled goal of Soviet diplomacy.”

Russia has actually been reducing its military spending, while Moscow digs in for what could be a long and painful political and economic confrontation with the US.

“This new cold war is a battle that Russia has been mostly losing so far. The damage to Russia is huge, unprecedented, and yet Putin wants to continue,” says Mr. Strokan. “Maybe love is blind, and we are still in love with the idea of doing a deal with Trump. But it is obviously not going to end anytime soon.”

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