The president will be meeting with Russian President Putin on Monday, July 16, and an already eagerly-awaited meeting will only become more so due to the Justice Department's interestingly-timed indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officers (GRU: Glavnoye Razvedyvatel'noye Upravleniye — Russian military intelligence) on charges of cyber theft, etc.
Despite the prior mainstream hysteria on the very idea of meeting with Putin, it's appropriate that the U.S. and Russian presidents meet after 18 months of a Trump administration. The president has already met with all of the G-7 members on an individual basis — and Russia, as a strong regional power, deserves the same attention.
Given our many bilateral issues, and most critically, Russia’s historic ability and willingness to act as a "spoiler" on important transnational issues (North Korea and Iran), I am hopeful that some progress can be made on at least one of these pressing issues. The first step in any such resolution is a personal meeting — particularly with someone as obsessed with image as Vladimir Putin.
Criticism of President Trump’s "tone" and perceived relationship with Putin notwithstanding, Russia sees a formidable rival in Trump. The president’s criticism at the NATO summit of European defense spending and Germany’s too-cozy relationship with Russian energy interests are both issues that must be dealt with. They do not represent a policy based on befriending adversaries and alienating allies — that in fact was Barack Obama’s spineless foreign policy, which always "went along to get along."
Things have changed.
President Trump has publicly brought up the inherent contradictions of German foreign policy, which, while uncomfortable and disruptive, is exactly what is needed for a stronger NATO. NATO’s leaders are not used to such frankness, but as a sailor who spent years operating with NATO, I have been wanting to say the same to them for years.
Trump directly brought up the subject of energy security at the conference. We must note that the U.S. administration’s decision to encourage exportation of U.S. natural gas is a little-heralded key victory.
This bold new U.S. initiative undercuts a Russia heavily dependent on energy exports to Europe. Previously our government sought to entangle U.S. energy exports in red tape; not any more. President Trump is as quick to see the benefits of an aggressive energy policy much as the Kremlin did way back in the 1980s.
By the year 2022 the U.S. will be a net energy exporter. Vladimir Putin is more aware of this than many in the U.S. State Department, which historically has been slow to grasp this potential diplomatic leverage.
A stronger, reformed NATO and reduced Russian economic leverage are, in short, not in Russia’s security interests. This is a far cry from the Obama/Clinton era "Reset"!
U.S. energy exports in a competitive market will mean more domestic high-paying jobs and reduced European gas prices. This means less money in Putin’s coffers for mischief-making adventures abroad, and when combined with the sanctions already levied against Russia, further constrict Putin’s range of action.
So what should Americans (and American leadership) understand about Russia and President Putin going in to the summit?
As a CIA station chief who held many personal, official meetings with Russians and former Soviets educated in Moscow (Ukrainians, Tajiks, Azeris, etc) I offer the following:
The dynamics of NATO reform and energy, among others, make clear that the strong party in this summit is the United States, not Russia. Previously, Putin, despite a weak hand, commonly outwitted the Western globalist elite — who despite a few outcries, were happy to conclude deals not in their own national interests — or could be bullied into doing so.
Prior European or U.S. vacillation on the world stage gave Russia an opportunity to do what it does best — frustrate and block the West and its institutions.
Russia over the past decade, as it rode roughshod over Western leadership, cleverly glossed over its ominous demographics, outrageous corruption, population brain drain and other unpleasantness with adventurism in Ukraine and Syria along with "wonder" weapons saber-rattling.
Targeted assassinations abroad, such as the Skripal case — a former GRU officer — hint at a less confident regime than we would expect. Despite Russian State media assurances and Putin’s telegenic confidence, Putin is very concerned about losing control over his vast nation; he often talks about his own and Russia’s control over events to a level not usually seen in world leaders.
With only one term remaining, there is no clear "successor" to Putin in the political vacuum of Russia.
Russia’s president is less a grand strategist than a shameless opportunist — much like any trained intelligence operations office. Gleb Pavlovsky, a close Putin associate, notably said, "Putin is good at tactics. He has a vision — but there is no strategy in between."
Americans must remember Putin is not a dictator — he is a wily, ruthless survivor presiding over an oligarchy. That he has remained in power so long is due to his mastery over, and coopting of, state monopoly oligarchs through reward and punishment (ask Boris Berezovsky!
While President Trump is answerable to a national constituency — Putin feels the pressure from a much smaller, dangerous (and richer ) circle of influence.
Much as maintenance of control is a key part of Putin’s persona — Russian national legitimacy is the sugar coating that can allow the bitter pill of control to be swallowed by the Russian people.
Putin is very sensitive, much as anyone who nervously sits upon a throne, to image and perception. U.S.-Russian negotiations, which allow Russia to maintain "face," even if concessionary, must be pursued — the U.S. (or anyone else) dictating terms would prove a disaster. U.S. negotiation must be framed by appealing to Putin’s need for control and recognition of Russian legitimacy — while this will not ensure success — not framing our position in this way guarantees failure.
Russians and Putin want to know in any negotiation that their adversary respects them —toadying, however, will earn their contempt; this is why the "Russian Reset" was such a tone-deaf disaster. Russians respect and practice straight, blunt talk more than Western Europeans — and so President Trump’s verbal style is not as offensive to them as the mainstream media would like to believe.
Unlike European elite leadership who went to all the right schools of privilege, Putin is from humble roots.
President Trump's life spent in the rough and-tumble New York real estate world ensures that as men, Putin has more in common with the U.S. president than with any other western world leader (save perhaps Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu).
The two will — and in fact, already have — easily established commonalities.
Putin is already pushing the public narrative as a summit between equals (that control again!) and will try to co-opt Trump through subtle flattery — which the president will have to deflect with some of his famous self-deprecating wit. Putin’s desire to be seen as a global mover and shaker can hopefully be leveraged to broaden Russian support for Iranian Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) withdrawal and/or ongoing Korean talks.
Mr. Trump must be wary of any Russian appeals for counterterrorism cooperation.
While this lowest common denominator issue always has sounded good to the mainstream media, (until Russia became the Bete Noire post-Trump), the devil is in the details — and Russia has often not acted in good faith in this area.
Agree to it, but don’t expect very much.
Resumption of Russian G-8 membership? Trump has spoken of it — but lets hope we get some positive movement on the diplomatic front before Russia is invited back (that legitimacy thing again.)
Russia in Ukraine? Trump’s decision to provide lethal aid (Javelin Anti-Tank missiles) has enhanced his negotiation position. The conflict has bogged down, and is costing Russia blood and treasure. Trump may be able to secure an agreement to mutual talks — but Crimea is likely non-negotiable (for now). If Russia is willing to move forward on Ukraine, Putin will instinctively link this to an "unrelated" area — like Syria. Or, even some other issue.
In the end, progress is not assured, and given some of the "landmines" I have mentioned, most will not envy the president sitting down with Putin.
As the U.S. is holding the cards, however, we can afford to be patient; time is, after all, working against Putin, not the United States. Perhaps the summit's purpose can be summarized by answering the old case officer’s question, "What’s the most important part of a first (potential agent) meeting?" Answer: "Getting a second meeting . . . "
Part 2 of this article will appear in this space next week.
Scott Uehlinger is a retired CIA Station Chief and Naval Officer. A Russian speaker, he spent 12 years of his career abroad in the former Soviet Union. In addition to teaching at NYU, he is a frequent Newsmax TV and Fox Business TV commentator, and has a weekly podcast, "the Station Chief," that can be found on iTunes or at www.thestationchief.com. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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