5 Questions with Foreign Policy Expert Steve Sestanovich on the Trump-Putin Summit

Columbia News
July 13, 2018

After upending the NATO meeting with American allies and then sharply criticizing the British prime minister Theresa May while visiting the United Kingdom, President Donald Trump ended his foreign travels with a one-on-one meeting in Helsinki with Russian president Vladimir Putin that created a firestorm.

Before the Russia-U.S. summit, Russia expert Steve Sestanovich assessed the Trump-Putin relationship, and what they seek from one another. He is the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of International Diplomacy at the School of International and Public Affairs and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. 

Q. Why does Trump have such an affinity for Putin?

A. We can’t rule out the more sinister and sordid explanations of their “bromance” that are out there. But some reasons for the mutual attraction between these guys aren’t mysterious at all. Putin got along poorly with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. For Trump, that’s a plus. Russian trade with the U.S. is minuscule – and that’s another plus, since Trump hates countries that sell us a lot of things. Putin’s also got this record as a bad-boy statesman that puts him outside the bounds of polite society in Europe and America. Trump admires that. And finally, Putin has conducted a brutal military campaign in the Middle East and justifies it by saying he’s killing terrorists. For Trump, that’s completely cool.

Q. What does Trump seek from Putin?

A. In Trump’s presidential campaign, he often talked about how the U.S. and Russia should work together in the Middle East against ISIS. Getting Russia to switch sides and oppose Iran was another theme. Both of these goals reflected Trump’s ignorance of the region and of U.S. policy. It’s turned out to be very difficult to do anything more than avoid direct clashes between Russian and American military activities in and near Syria. That’s a pretty limited form of cooperation. Trump and his advisers now seem to want to find something more meaningful – to put the question of constraining Iran at the top of the Russian-American agenda.

In Europe, Trump has made clear that he doesn’t like the allies that history has dealt him. He wants new ones. Putin fits the bill of a partner on Trump’s wavelength. They share a deep disdain for the EU.

Q. What does Putin want out of his relationship with Trump?

A. That’s a little harder to say. Some people believe Putin’s goal is to break up the American-led global order, because Russia will gain power and influence in the wreckage. Others see a more conventional détente-like aspiration -- to interact with the U.S. on the basis of equality. Both of these are ambitious goals, but the former involves a greater acceptance of risk and instability. The latter might actually include a preference for stability. We don’t really know how Putin would choose between these paths. And a few hours of discussion in Helsinki aren’t likely to enlighten us. They may not enlighten Trump either.

Q. What’s the biggest mistake Trump has made in his dealings with Putin?

A. Without a doubt, his biggest blunder has been to think that he could ignore the issue of election meddling—or even worse, put it aside by announcing that Putin had pleaded not guilty. This was completely block-headed. The signal Trump sent with such statements undermined his own credibility so completely that he lost control of Russia policy. If he had been blunt and direct about interference in our elections – if he had said that it was unacceptable, would not be allowed, and would not bring any benefit to those who attempted it –Congress would not have taken away his ability to relax sanctions on Russia. This was a major loss of presidential authority – and totally self-inflicted.

Q. What has Trump done right?

A. One may scoff at this , but Trump’s buddy-buddy approach to dealing with Putin might have looked kind of shrewd if he’d made it part of an otherwise tough strategy. If, for example, Putin saw that there was no way to dent Western unity on Ukraine, he might then use his bromance with Trump as a cover for retreat. Trump’s mafia-style “respect” would make it easier for Putin to back down. But I admit it: this would seem clever and effective only if Trump’s overall policy made more sense.