It should be obvious to even the casual observer that the new American president has something up his sleeve regarding how he engages with the Russian president. Part of that engagement clearly involves curious responses to observations about the Russian leader’s various sins.
In a presidency as volatile as Donald Trump’s, this will tend to drive people batty, generating much comment which is, as usual, projected through the lens of what everyone thinks of Trump in the first place. His detractors will wail that he is propping up an evil tyrant in Putin; his supporters will insist that there is a method to what others see as madness.
So what might that method be?
The way to understand Trump is to recognize his main motivating forces. One is a key reason he won: his drive to make decisions based on American interests first. The other is his well-established desire to be viewed as a success.
There would be no greater foreign policy success for Trump than the measurable suppression of ISIS, across the Middle East, Europe, and its tentacles that have reached into America. In a classic case of the-enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend, he makes frequent mention of Putin as a potential ally in the fight against global jihad.
Is this realistic? The answer lies in a deeper unknown: the level of interest Putin has in partnering with America to deflect ISIS’s advances. Russia has been a target of terrorism and will likely face further threats. But that doesn’t make Putin’s motives pure. His fingerprints may be on the 1999 Moscow bombings. As recently as the last few years, Russian-led forces have been blamed for targeted political terror attacks in Russian cities.
This is not a good guy. And his terrorism radar may be frustratingly selective. While it was encouraging after the 2015 Paris attacks for Russia to join a U.N. Security Council resolution backing “all necessary measures” against ISIS, its dark collaborations with Iran and Syria make Russia a reliable facilitator of arms to Hamas and Hezbollah.
So it becomes equally useful to discern what is the advantage to Putin of partnering with Trump? The goals are a mirror image: The Russian president wants to be able to claim his share of credit for declawing ISIS, and he wants to bolster his popularity by keeping his own citizens safe. Those instincts could prove useful.
But as Trump plots a cooperative path that could yield real progress in stifling ISIS with Russian help, he should keep his eyes wide open that one convenient partnership, even one as ambitious and vital as this, does not mean the Russian regime deserves broad praise.
Trump will pursue Russian help to fight global jihad, as he should. He knows that Putin could balk at joining the effort if he hears Trump taking the bait as people goad the U.S. president to savage his Russian counterpart.
This does not in any way mean Trump morally equates American actions to Putin’s sinister exploits; it simply means he will say what is necessary to keep the Russian president on the hook for a partnership that could help achieve the most important foreign policy goal of our time.
Imagine Trump calling Putin all of the nasty names people seem to want him to use, and which Putin surely deserves. Then imagine the Russian leader storming away from a potentially vital role in joining us to beat ISIS.
Would everybody be happy then?