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David A. Andelman: The focus of the Trump-Putin relationship has been its detriment to America

But President-elect Trump has been known to exploit weaknesses, Andelman writes

Editor’s Note: David A. Andelman, editor emeritus of World Policy Journal and member of the board of contributors of USA Today, is the author of A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAndelman. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

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It’s not impossible that the United States, much of the world, or even the Kremlin have been looking at the Trump-Putin lovefest through the wrong end of the telescope. Why not examine just how Donald Trump might play Vladimir Putin?

Everyone assumes the Russian President has been and will continue to be calling the shots in a Trump relationship. Certainly, as the US Intelligence Community Assessment released Friday observed, “Putin and the Russian government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.” Which should suggest that Putin holds all the cards – he arguably played a major role in electing Donald Trump as president.

But if Trump and his new team are smart, they’ll look to turn the tables and put Putin himself at a disadvantage. It’s worth exploring just how that might work.

David A. Andelman
Courtesy of David Andelman
David A. Andelman

Putin, with a backbone of steel tempered in the blast furnaces of the KGB, and as tough an operative as global intelligence has ever seen, does have some real and, in the right hands, exploitable weaknesses.

It’s become quite clear over the 17 months since Trump rode down the escalator in Trump Tower to announce his candidacy that there are few politicians more adept at unearthing and exploiting weaknesses than America’s president-elect.

Putin’s weaknesses are abroad and at home, but his domestic weaknesses – less clearly apparent, yet potentially existential – are central to any understanding of how to attack the Kremlin leader.

The first weakness is that, at least for the moment, Putin does have to stand for reelection, and that’s coming along early next year. What he does not want is any repeat of the demonstrations in the heart of Moscow, with tens of thousands of protesters challenging his landslide victory and effective coronation as unchallenged leader of Russia. Indeed, one key motive behind his embrace of Trump, as Friday’s US intelligence report observed, was his belief that Hillary Clinton was responsible for “inciting mass protests against his regime in late 2011 and 2012.”

Putin also wants to rack up no less than the 64 percent of votes (nearly four times the tally of his nearest challenger) that he scored in the 2012 election.

Until now, a real threat to Russia from abroad has been an important component of Putin’s efforts to position himself as the only individual who can keep the Motherland safe at all costs. Certainly, President Obama has served such a purpose, at least since the “reset” with Russia and the brief era of good feeling collapsed early in Obama’s first term.

In this respect, a lovefest with the Trump administration would hardly be useful. But even here, there’s the other end of the looking glass.

Imagine, for a moment, the contrary – the world beating a path to the Kremlin to pay homage to the new master of the universe. That kind of respect is an attribute Russians have longed to see for their leader since the days of the czars.

Over the next year, there will be national elections across Western Europe – especially in France, Germany and the Netherlands, not to mention Albania, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Norway, Serbia and perhaps Italy. Those elections could bring to power leaders substantially more friendly, even subservient, to the Kremlin – especially if Russia is able to put its thumb on the scales in many such contests through the very kind of cyber-influence it exerted on the US election.

Indeed, the US intelligence report suggested that “Moscow will apply lessons learned from its campaign aimed at the US presidential election to future influence efforts in the United States and worldwide, including against US allies.” A friendly Trump and America would only be the frosting on the cake and might indeed help tilt many of these contests as well.

What price might an adroit Trump exact to play such a role for Putin and the forces of populism that are on the advance across Europe?

Russia’s domestic economy is an important pressure point. Putin is in desperate need of an economy that will work for all his people – particularly a guaranteed revenue stream that can cement the loyalty of his various supporters.

Until global oil prices collapsed in 2008 from more than $140 a barrel to less than $40, the Russian economy was riding high. The oligarchs who served as Putin’s most sturdy and loyal bedrock of support were able to pocket billions. And the vast mass of voters found themselves with a more vibrant consumer economy than they, their parents or grandparents could ever have imagined.

Since then, it’s been tough sledding. Russia has no viable revenue source other than oil. When Putin last stood for reelection, in 2012, oil prices had recovered to just above $100 a barrel, but today they again hover at barely half that level.

An OPEC agreement that Russia has reluctantly joined aims to boost these prices. But if a Trump administration should choose to open the spigots of American oil production, putting further pressure on prices, that could explode this pipe dream. Indeed, the Kremlin-backed TV network RT broadcast anti-fracking programs, which, according to the US intelligence report, provides an indication of how much the Kremlin wants to curb American oil output.

Still, there is more to Putin’s dream than simply assuring his electoral prospects. It’s becoming quite clear that Putin’s ultimate aim is restoring Russia to the superpower status it enjoyed during the peak years of the Soviet period – an equal competitor with the United States.

What this means is that Russia must show itself to be a central player in sensitive global regions from the Middle East to the Caucasus and the Baltics. Already, Putin has been adept in easing the United States out of the Middle East and establishing himself as a peacemaker in Syria, an effective foe of ISIS and an ally of Turkey – still a member of NATO – which has emerged as a central, if metastable, force in both these conflicts.

Putin’s goal has been, and may continue to be, keeping the United States on the outside, its nose pressed against the glass. But an adroit President Trump can make good use of his understanding of Putin’s ultimate desires to force his way back into areas where America has been marginalized.

Indeed, the United States must find a way back into its lost role, especially if it is to be of any help in supporting Israel as its only real friend in the region. It can hardly do that from the sidelines, where Turkey and Russia have relegated the United States to in recent months.

At the same time, America needs Russia at least acquiescent if it is going to face down China economically or militarily, as Trump has suggested he is inclined to do; enforce restraints on Iran’s nuclear program; maintain the continued draw-down of both American and Russian nuclear arms; and hold North Korea and its missiles at bay. A Russian veto in the United Nations Security Council could be a decisive weapon.

Under communism, the Soviet Union held onto most of its friends by force or threat of arms. Its wealth came from impoverishing the bulk of its citizenry. Its esteem derived from its nuclear arsenal. Putin clearly understands the perils of such a policy and how destructive they were to the Kremlin’s hold on power.

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As it happens, Trump and Putin share a common fact set. Both define their own reality. Until now, Trump has appeared perfectly willing to grant Putin the recognition he so deeply desires in exchange for a few rhetorical pats on the head.

Trump must come to understand, however, the full price that Putin is prepared to exact to achieve his goals. An adroit Trump, with an understanding of Putin’s needs and desires, could find a way to exploit his adversary’s most sensitive weaknesses, on behalf of the interests of the United States, rather than the other way around.