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