The conclusion of yesterday’s dinner between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin may have some pundits in the United States caught off guard. Given the ongoing debate about Trump’s Russia connections, and the still high stakes involved in Russia’s nearly two-year effort to intervene in the 2016 presidential election, the summit was apparently not expected to be a smooth ride. In the end, it was a constructive one. On the serious agenda — discussions of North Korea, Iran, terrorism and Ukraine — Trump and Putin acknowledged areas of agreement and ultimately agreed to work toward a de-escalation of existing conflicts.
Less visible, perhaps, but no less consequential, was Trump’s request that Putin end the country’s targeted assassinations of Russian critics abroad, one of the practices Trump disapproves of but Trump has not brought up during his brief term in office. There were at least three such killings this year — a nuclear physicist, a former Russian deputy defense minister and an outspoken member of the Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov — and both Putin and Trump made clear yesterday that they would work toward bringing an end to the actions. However, it’s far from certain that Putin will comply. This is especially true since yesterday’s meeting wasn’t an official summit and doesn’t mark the beginning of a formal diplomatic dialogue. It may or may not lead to anything more than a rhetorical exchange.
Trump and Putin have said a lot of warm things about each other — in Putin’s case, with great gusto — but the fact is that there are a lot of dangerous positions that the two leaders are each taking. At a minimum, they are making it clear that they do not value the legitimacy of American democratic institutions, values and tradition; that they believe in the power of a strong leader and denigrate institutions and institutions that they think are promoting weakness. Although some of the behavior appears innocent, Trump’s continued need to retreat to the vague phrases “I hope” and “When I say things, I mean them,” only suggests his eagerness to risk political annihilation by saying crazy things and then immediately quiting when more than one day pass without saying the words “I meant it.” Putin and Trump are not only putting out conflicting signals on the importance of democracy and its defense, they are actually speaking to the strength of their respective positions, with Putin openly hostile to democratic institutions and Trump giving tacit support to those who are willing to challenge American institutions and traditions.
And that is where they have been increasingly for some time. This is what Putin has said about American democracy: “It appears that the political opposition and the popular representatives are being stripped of their authority. This is one of the most brutal developments in our country.” This is what Trump has said about Russian democracy: “I really believe that President Putin was just kidding. That he has absolutely no idea what he’s talking about.” Although there have been many claims in the American press that both Trump and Putin are delegitimizing the American system of government, Putin appears to have been more emphatic than Trump in expressing support for the primacy of his country’s political system.
While the long view of U.S.-Russian relations suggests that it is impossible to accurately predict the course of things in Russia, it is not a far reach to suggest that Putin is far more optimistic about the potential of his regime than Trump is. It is extremely unlikely that Putin would even acknowledge the existence of real democratic values in Russia if the United States were a democracy and public opinion in the United States were weak and demoralized. This may be the end point of Putin’s attempt to reassert Russia’s place in the international community, trying to convince himself and his allies that their politics and political system are more legitimate than those of the United States. In that respect, Trump may only be exacerbating his power struggle with Putin, rather than playing a positive role in this discussion.
At the least, it would be sensible for Trump to take a step back from escalating the confrontation with Putin. To the extent that this threat to the possibility of conflict becomes part of the flow of rhetoric, it’s possible that Trump might continue the practice of repeating the things he says, even as others follow suit and as the threat of a confrontation becomes more public, including (likely) even more belligerent comments by Trump in the future. This will provide Putin with the weapon of the threat to pull back his friends and associates from the United States in retaliation for any perceived offenses. This is a pernicious development in American-Russian relations. It is not in the interests of either country, or of a world in which imperfect democratic systems are the common currency.