The Russian and American media are full of stories in which various experts discuss what a deal between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump might look like, with almost all the attention going to the concessions Trump should make to Putin and much less to the issue of what Putin in fact can offer in exchange.
Thus, both Russian and US experts regularly talk about how the US could recognize Ukraine’s Crimea as legitimately part of Russia, end sanctions and recognize a Russian sphere of influence in the former Soviet space. But these same experts say much less about what Putin would offer in exchange.
On the one hand, many commentators, both Russian and American, point to things that Russia is going to do anyway regardless of whether there is any grand deal or not, such as continue to use the fight against ISIS and Islamist extremism more generally to defend its own interests, as somehow requiring American concessions.
Or, on the other hand, they point to things that Putin probably can’t deliver on given his own domestic constituency in Russia’s force structures, such as a serious reduction in the number of nuclear warheads, something that would reduce Russia’s status in the world significantly given that it is unable to compete in most other sectors.
And so the question arises: why should someone who like President Trump has made “the art of the deal” and his ability to get the most out of any exchange for his own country ever agree to make concessions to Russia for things he will get even if he doesn’t make concessions or for promises that Putin will never make good on?
That Russian experts are happy to push for a deal in which almost all the benefits flow in their direction is no surprise, and perhaps it is less surprising than it should be that some of their American counterparts are doing so out of a narrow professional interest in expanding contacts and exchanges regardless of the broader costs.
But if Trump does this, if he violates the principles of his own approach to negotiations and his promise to always achieve more for the United States than it has to give to anyone else, that raises some even more disturbing questions about why he is doing this when he isn’t getting much in exchange besides the praise of those who don’t want to punish Putin for his crimes.
It is possible that the new American president does not yet recognize this situation or that he has been persuaded that the US has to take the lead in making concessions, but it is difficult to imagine that Trump will continue down that path for long, given that the premise of his career is getting more than his opposite numbers and given Putin’s penchant for not keeping his word.
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