If U.S. President Donald Trump’s talks with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, on Friday revealed anything, it was that Putin is at the top of his game.
He has spent almost two decades trying to force the West to accept his conception of foreign policy as a nineteenth-century competition over spheres of influence, primarily by subverting Western interests and values—including through his invasion of Ukraine in 2014, his obstruction of Western actions in Syria with a murderous bombing campaign, and his meddling in the U.S. presidential election last year. All the while, he has sought validation for such actions by winning acceptance as a major player at the international table. When Trump and Putin met for their first face-to-face meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Hamburg last week, that’s exactly what Trump gave him.
The meaningful handshake and conspiratorial denigration of American reporters was already a rich reward for Putin. But there was more for the Russians, as well as greater substance. Although no transcript of the meeting appears to be forthcoming, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that Trump was “rightly focused on how…we move forward” from the election. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, meanwhile, reported that Trump told Putin that he accepted the Russian leader’s denials of involvement and that some “circles” in the United States are exaggerating the topic of Russian cyber-intrusions. Although the White House issued a different version of the exchanges, it offered no evidence contradicting the Russian account. Agreements to set up a working group on cybersecurity and begin partnering in Syria—two areas in which Russian actions have run counter to U.S. interests—made it seem as if the Trump administration is actively seeking impunity for the Kremlin at the expense of U.S. leverage over Moscow. Trump later dropped the cybersecurity initiative after an avalanche of criticism from all sides. “It's not the dumbest idea I have ever heard, but it's pretty close,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said on NBC’s Meet the Press.
Not that anything else should have been expected. Many experts, such as former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul and, reportedly, members of Trump’s own administration, had implored Trump ahead of the meeting to stand up to Putin. Instead, he is reported to have urged his aides to come up with possible concessions—namely rolling back sanctions against Moscow—as if the world’s sole superpower, not Putin’s corrupt petrostate, were the weaker of the two. On sanctions, at least, the embattled U.S. president has very little room to maneuver, with Republicans in Congress and most of his administration set against any overtures to Russia and his presidency imperiled by the investigation into the Kremlin’s election hacking and possible collusion by the Trump campaign—with more evidence emerging almost daily.
Putin, by contrast, appears to be at or at least very near the apex of his power. He has spent eighteen years at Russia’s helm methodically building a law-enforcement regime that gives the authorities the discretion to declare virtually any action illegal, down to liking posts on Facebook. And whatever role Moscow’s meddling played in Trump’s victory in last year's election campaign, the perception that Putin helped plant a political nuclear bomb inside the White House is making him look all the stronger at home. Meanwhile, it distracts Western countries from addressing his domestic repression, forcing them to fight a rearguard defensive battle on Putin’s terms.
Given Putin’s apparent strength, it may be tempting for his opponents to give up. But in the absence of any discernible U.S. Russia policy—glaringly reflected by the administration’s lack of an agenda for last week’s talks—it’s more important than ever for progressive lawmakers, government officials, and other members of the foreign policy establishment to chart their own Russia policies that would pressure the administration and support Russian opposition figures, such as Alexei Navalny—who convinced thousands of protesters to risk arrest last month by holding rallies across the country—and Vladimir Kara-Murza, who survived an apparent poisoning attempt in February for the second time in two years.
They also include Nikolai Polozov, who visited Washington recently to encourage support for the opposition. One of the dwindling number of public figures still clashing with the Kremlin, the 37-year-old civil rights lawyer has defended the likes of the band Pussy Riot; Nadiya Savchenko, the kidnapped Ukrainian military pilot recently put on trial in Russia on charges of complicity in the deaths of two Russian journalists; and protesters involved in the 2011–12 demonstrations against the Russian authorities. He now spends most of his time in Crimea, where he represents two Crimean Tatars battling the persecution of their ethnic group following Russia’s annexation of the Black Sea peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.
His clients are deputy chairmen of the Mejlis, the representative body of the Turkic ethnic minority whose presence in Crimea long predated its first conquest by Russia in the late eighteenth century. Moscow has declared the Mejlis an “extremist” organization and banned its activities in Russia. One of the defendants, Akhtem Chiygoz, has been in detention since 2014, when he was accused of organizing a protest against Crimea’s impending annexation before it took place. The second, Ilmi Umerov, was charged with “public calls to action aimed at violating Russian territorial integrity” after he gave an interview to a Crimean Tatar television channel criticizing Russia’s occupation. Forcibly confined to a psychiatric hospital for three weeks in August and September 2016, he was released ahead of his trial.
Polozov hasn’t escaped entirely unscathed. The Russian Federal Security Service briefly detained him in January in a failed bid to force him off the case. He now calls Crimea Putin’s most vulnerable Achilles heel because of its blatant contravention of international law and the treatment of the Crimean Tatars the Kremlin’s most obvious injustice there. “Putin knows he will have to pay for Crimea someday,” Polozov says, adding that the Russian leader annexed the peninsula mainly to boost his popularity ahead of a presidential election next year. The Kremlin launched its campaign in eastern Ukraine soon after partly to deflect international outrage. Following the signing of the Minsk ceasefire agreement, which helped turn that conflict into a relative stalemate, “he began another adventure, Syria, trying to present himself as more powerful than he really is,” Polozov says. Putin seeks to prove “that he's able to talk to Obama or Trump on the international stage. And that he’s able to take the conflict from Russia’s backyard in Ukraine to somewhere far away.” The Kremlin’s intervention in North Korea may be next, he speculates. As in Syria, Moscow’s involvement in an international standoff over an isolated ally would put it at the center of another of the West’s most serious security threats.
Polozov believes, however, that focusing international criticism on Crimea—especially over the mistreatment of the Crimean Tatars—offers one of the best ways of pushing back. He has a point: although the annexation’s overwhelming popularity among Russians virtually rules out any foreseeable reversal, ongoing criticism would strike at the Kremlin’s impunity over what it sees as its brilliant fait accompli. Polozov also praises Navalny—whose protests are part of a campaign against the smothering corruption that defines Putin’s rule—for his use of social media to skirt an information blockade against him. Navalny’s blogging investigations go viral, and his broadcasts on YouTube reach more than a million subscribers, many of them young people Polozov says are tiring of Putin’s almost two-decade rule. “During that time, people have been born, educated and come of age seeing and knowing nothing besides Putin,” he says. “They don’t want him anymore; they want something else.”
Perhaps. For now, Putin’s authority remains hale. But it is exercised by the head of what Polozov rightly calls a “sorry version” of the Soviet Union. With Syria and North Korea among its very few bona fide allies, Moscow’s real global influence hardly lives up to the propaganda on which the Kremlin relies. Military spending, which comes to less than a tenth of the U.S. military budget, is set to drop this year. And although the country may be emerging from recession, the long-term outlook appears bleak, with a massively corrupt economy still heavily dependent on energy exports. Accordingly, Western countries don’t have to look far for models of how to respond to his campaign against them, he says. “They have the great example of the Soviet Union, which was huge and scary, with nuclear weapons, but eventually collapsed and democracy arrived.” Moscow’s currently diminished global presence partly explains why the Western sanctions regime against Russia is proving effective, he adds. He advocates further isolation with more targeted measures against the Kremlin elite.
Although the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly passed legislation last month to strengthen the sanctions and, crucially, require congressional approval for any attempt to roll them back, the bill is currently stalled in the House, thanks partly to efforts by the administration to water it down. Meanwhile, Trump could still ease sanctions unilaterally, the biggest prize Putin could immediately extract from him. Although the overwhelming political pressure on Trump means that’s unlikely in the immediate future, the Russian leader came out ahead last week and will continue to press his advantage. “Trump is a businessman,” Polozov says. “As a corrupt politician, Putin understands that if someone like him is primarily interested in profit, it's possible, somewhere, somehow, to squeeze him.”