Will Trump Outsmart Putin? Or Will Putin Outsmart Trump?

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A mural depicting Donald Trump blowing smoke into the mouth of Vladimir Putin on the wall of a restaurant in Vilnius, Lithuania on November 23. Sean Gallup/Getty

This article first appeared on the Wilson Center site.

Starting this week, it is not just Moscow that will be a player expected to rattle the international system and generate uncertainty. The Donald Trump-led U.S. is poised to be a match.

The actual policies that this new state of affairs will produce are, of course, uncertain.

Is united Europe a partner or a problem?

What will the U.S. policy toward China be—will the new Washington treat the “One China” policy as negotiable?

Is NATO “obsolete,” as Trump says, or is it “central to U.S. defense,” as Trump’s pick for the U.S. secretary of defense, James Mattis, said during his confirmation hearings?

And, of course, is Russia an adversary or a partner?

The U.S. and Russia are entering a new phase in their relationship, but its contours are unclear. The signs of personal rapprochement between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin are the subject of much talk, but the actual relationship is in fact distant and cautious.

Relates: Putin makes first move in his chess match with Trump

“If Putin likes Donald Trump, guess what, folks, that’s called an asset, not a liability,” Trump said during his press conference two weeks ago. “Now, I don’t know that I’m going to get along with Vladimir Putin. I hope I do. But there’s a good chance I won’t. And if I don’t, do you honestly believe that Hillary would be tougher on Putin than me?”

Putin has been even more careful with any advance pronouncements on policy. “I have never met Mr. Trump. I have no idea what he is going to do on the world stage and this is why I have no reason to attack him or somehow defend him,” Putin said.

That said, Putin offered Trump a defense of sorts in saying that recent news reports, including those about alleged Russian interference with the latest U.S. elections, could have been the work of Trump’s outgoing political opponents, who, “having practiced in Kiev, wanted to organize a Maidan in Washington.”

Then, alluding to unconfirmed reports about Trump hiring prostitutes in Moscow, and calling them fakes, Putin volunteered a social critique of both prostitution and attempts by malevolent opposition figures to meddle with legitimately elected politicians.

In offering his support, Putin sounded like a seasoned politician, a senior partner in a nascent relationship with a junior colleague, Julia Ioffe suggests in an astute comment after Putin’s press conference.

But even this does not bring us any closer to answering the big question: whether Russia will be seen in Washington as an adversary or as a partner.

Trump clearly breaks with most other Republicans and even with his own cabinet nominees, who consider Russia an adversary and a “principal threat” to U.S. interests, as James Mattis said recently. But the long-standing policy views of the Republican elite are not going to disappear.

Trump will have to compromise, and the Russia controversy is poised to continue. “A grand compromise is emerging among U.S. elites,” Carnegie Moscow Center director Dmitri Trenin recently said in a tweet. “Trump is legitimate, Russia is an adversary.”

Any specifics dissolve into ambiguities as soon as they arise. “They have sanctions on Russia—let’s see if we can make some good deals with Russia,” Trump told The London Times. “For one thing, I think nuclear weapons should be way down and reduced very substantially, that’s part of it. But Russia’s hurting very badly right now because of sanctions, but I think something can happen that a lot of people are gonna benefit.”

Many in Russia and beyond decided that Trump was suggesting a deal that would connect the lifting of U.S. sanctions on Russia to nuclear arms cuts. On hearing the news, Russian conservative commentators wrote angry missives along the lines that Russian power was not for sale.

“In essence, Trump is proposing to disarm Russia. Heeding such proposals would be a huge strategic mistake,” wrote Mikhail Khodarenok, military observer at Gazeta.ru, a respected online resource with a moderately pro-Kremlin editorial stance.

Meanwhile, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said that his own reading of the Times interview had not suggested any linkage between the U.S. sanctions and Russia’s nuclear arms. Still, he said, Moscow wanted to start talks with the United States on nuclear weapons anyway: “It’s one of the key themes between Russia and the United States. I am convinced we will be able to restart a dialogue on strategic stability with Washington that was destroyed along with everything else by the Obama administration.”

Lavrov followed up by stating what kinds of weapons he would be ready to discuss: hypersonic weapons, the anti-missile shield in Europe, space weapons. But it is clear that the U.S. side will have in mind something very different if ever the subject of arms cuts reaches the U.S.-Russian negotiating table.

It is likely that the U.S.-Russian relationship will recede into the background and the U.S.-Chinese dynamic will take center stage, as one would expect based on the American-Chinese codependence. Loud and visible debates on Russia and a relatively subdued conversation about China in the latest U.S. policy discussions raise questions.

In any event, the mutual U.S.-Russian uncertainty is here to stay for quite a while. The word “deal” is highly visible in Donald Trump’s interviews and statements. One would expect this self-professed master dealmaker to champion a transactional approach to foreign policy. A business on the lookout for deals has to keep its options open, thus creating a lot of uncertainty both for its partners and for competitors.

Arguably, at this early stage Vladimir Putin seems to be somewhat more predictable than Trump: Russia’s interests in Ukraine and the Middle East have been made clear during the past three years. Still, both Trump and Putin love to keep their options open, and this is a recipe for political uncertainty.

Maxim Trudolyubov is a senior fellow at the Wilson Center's Kennan Institute and editor-at-large of Vedomosti, an independent Russian daily. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.