Changing Putin’s Mind

How Trump Can Reshape Russian Foreign Policy

Russian President Vladimir Putin at a meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim in Moscow, Russia, December 2016. Sergei Karpuhkin / REUTERS

With a U.S.-Russian summit almost certainly in the offing, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump should act now to establish the right tone for relations between the two countries. In particular, he will want to move beyond the “Russia acts, the United States reacts” model of the past four years and encourage Russia to become less confrontational. It also stands to reason that Trump will want to accomplish all this without declaring (and then having to retreat from) red-line ultimatums or risking coming to blows with the Kremlin. The president-elect should start by working to understand the key drivers of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy and accepting them as hard realities, instead of wishing them away or pretending that Putin can be shamed into abandoning them.

During the Trump presidency, as in outgoing U.S. President Barack Obama’s second term, four factors will shape the strategic framework within which the U.S.-Russian bilateral agenda will unfold: the extent of Putin’s commitment to his ideological beliefs and to his self-imposed historic mission to restore what he considers Russia’s rightful place in the world; Putin’s perception of the domestic political imperatives of his regime’s legitimacy and survival; the degree of popular support for his foreign policy; and, finally, the U.S. reaction to Russia’s external behavior. 


Contrary to conventional wisdom, which Putin himself encourages, Russia’s foreign policy—and especially the country’s relations with the United States—is not made ad hoc in a fit of rage, pique, or petulance. Although tactical surprises are clearly Putin’s preferred method of foreign policy implementation, the ideological foundations of his strategy have been obvious and constant from virtually the first day of his presidency.

Although he has assiduously advertised himself as a Russian patriot (and may in fact consider himself one), this trait is relatively recent. Putin is, first and foremost, an ardent Soviet patriot. With his family history, it is

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