“Putin is the real world version of the person Trump pretends to be on television,” historian Timothy Snyder wrote in this space during the presidential campaign. A year after Snyder made that observation, the tables are turned: Trump has become the real version of the man Putin plays on television—an unpredictable, temperamental, impetuous man who will push reality past the limits of the imagination.
For years, Putin has cultivated the image of someone who will say the unspeakable—whether it’s an off-color joke told at a summit meeting or the oft-repeated threat to use nuclear arms—and do the unthinkable, like occupy Crimea and launch the occasional bloody and pointless war against an intimate neighbor. Putin’s madman-on-the-world-stage shtick forced saner world leaders to devise strategies for minimizing the damage Russia can do. But now that Donald Trump has demonstrated that he will not only speak without thinking but also fire missiles without interrupting dessert, he has one-upped Putin.
Trump’s rewards are readily evident. War is far more gratifying than domestic politics. After weeks of humiliating commentary about his chaotic administration and incompetent leadership, Trump has forced the world—including Putin—to listen to him and his surrogates. The president’s UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, who was booed and virtually laughed off the stage on Wednesday evening at the Women in the World Summit in New York’s Lincoln Center for sounding like she had just discovered that the world outside Oklahoma existed, had the screen to herself on CNN. The New York audience had outright laughed when she said, “We don’t do soft power.” Now that it was clear what she had meant, no one was laughing even as she struggled, incoherently, to express a policy that was itself incoherent: “Regime change is something that we think is going to happen because all of the parties are going to see that Assad is not the leader that needs to be taking place for Syria.”
War is consistently good for the Trump brand. When Trump compelled members of Congress to stand up and applaud the widow of a Navy SEAL, his CNN critic Van Jones said that Trump had become “president of the United States.” After the Syria strike, an even better-known CNN personality, Fareed Zakaria, repeated the phrase word for word. Zakaria managed to find logic in Trump’s inconsistency, likening him to presidents past, who also shouldered the burden of becoming the world’s policemen. So Trump dropped the “mother of all bombs”—the largest non-nuclear bomb in the US arsenal—on Afghanistan, because, surely, the reason ISIS has not yet been defeated is that America has not used a big enough bomb. The enormous bomb overshadowed even the Russian-election-conspiracy story. The Trump presidency finally looked good on TV.
Trump has struck more countries with more fire power in a week than Putin often does in a year. Where Putin’s unpredictable persona is a carefully cultivated one, Trump has given no evidence that his madman act is an act. For years, Putin has dealt with leaders, like German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US President Barack Obama, who had perfected the art of not engaging him. He was insulted when they shunned him, but he always had a way of getting their attention. In the end, he got to star in his own show. Trump, however unwittingly, has called Putin’s bluff. What happens now?
Standard political analysis would look for an answer in how Putin views his strategic interests in Syria and the Middle East, weighed against the costs they entail as a result of a newly engaged President Trump. It’s not clear that this kind of thinking—which assumes that not only governments but also autocrats are rational agents with long-term objectives—was ever useful. It is certainly not useful now. Neither Putin nor Trump are strategic thinkers. While Putin has been consistent in his tactics of cracking down at home and sowing chaos abroad, he has also shown a propensity for getting bogged down in endless expensive conflicts and a basic inability to move beyond Soviet-era ideas of Russia’s friends, enemies, and spheres of influence. The war in Syria, unpopular at home and inexplicable by conventional measures of strategic interests, is a quintessential Putin act: a war of ambition. Ambition, unlike strategy, is never limited by cost.
Strategy involves planning and has an end goal; ambition is self-perpetuating and insatiable. Ambition drives both Trump and Putin. But in this they have instructive differences. Until Putin was catapulted to Russian leadership in 1999, he had craved not celebrity but secret power: he wanted to be an invisible man pulling strings. Trump’s dreams preceding his own unexpected ascent were, quite obviously, the opposite: he wanted to be the man on the gilded throne, with all the cameras trained on him, transfixed by the spectacle of power being wielded. Putin, over his nearly seventeen years in the limelight, has grown to enjoy the television cameras, but his core ambition remains to accumulate more power than he is assumed to have. His favorite moments are those when that power is suddenly revealed—as in March 2014, when he flooded Crimea with undercover Russian troops and then drew the curtain to show that he had occupied the peninsula. It’s hard to imagine Trump deriving pleasure from an underhanded operation like that: he would have liked to see television footage of tens of thousands of soldiers parachuting in all at once.
The high point of the Putin presidency came in September 2013, when he hijacked Syria. President Obama had promised intervention if Bashar al-Assad crossed the “red line” on the use of chemical weapons—and then found himself paralyzed in the face of a recalcitrant Congress. Putin stepped in to save the day, promising to disable the chemical arsenal of his ally Assad—while simultaneously blaming the chemical weapons attacks on the Syrian opposition. Putin published an op-ed in The New York Times criticizing American exceptionalism and in particular the American tendency to act without the consent of the United Nations—this after Russia had spent a year and a half vetoing Security Council resolutions on Syria. In all, this was a perfect Putin moment: he was claiming more power than anyone had thought he had. There was little indication at the time that Putin had a genuine interest in Syria: the ravaged country was but a stage for a display of his power to both criticize and assist the American president.
Over the next year, however, Putin fell precipitously from international grace. His political crackdown at home, including his antigay campaign, and the occupation of Crimea and attack on Eastern Ukraine made him a pariah. In September 2015, Putin made an attempt to reclaim his perch of influence when he traveled to New York to address the United Nations General Assembly. His actual addressee, however, was President Obama: Putin offered to form a joint coalition against ISIS that would be modeled on the anti-Hitler alliance. Implicit in the offer was that Russia and the United States would once again carve the world into spheres of influence and regional captures such as Ukraine could be written off. Obama did not even meet with Putin to discuss this plan, and a week later Russia started bombing Syria. Now Putin was king of the Syrian conflict—not because he had developed a strategic interest in Syria but because he would not tolerate being rebuffed by America.
Ultimately, the US was forced to sit down with Russia to discuss Syria—fruitlessly. In addition, the continued carnage in Syria has ensured a continued refugee crisis, which has in turn destabilized European politics and even influenced the election in the US, which has barely accepted any Syrian refugees.
On the whole, though, the Russian intervention in Syria over the last year and a half has not served Putin’s ambitions well: the war fails to mobilize support at home and Putin does not command the respect he craves in the world. The Trump election should have changed all that—his avowed admiration of Putin and his clearly expressed disdain for foreign policy promised to give Putin another great power-reveal moment. Instead, in a double betrayal of his implied promise to the Kremlin, Trump fired at Syria on the eve of his secretary of state’s first visit to Moscow—demonstrating not only a sudden interest in the rest of the world but also utter disregard for Putin’s opinion.
Pundits and journalists have looked to Russian propaganda for clues to Putin’s reaction, but, as is usually the case with propaganda, they have found cacophony. Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, seemed to indicate that Russia might begin limiting its support for Syria. Then the Kremlin suggested that the chemical attack had been staged in order to justify US intervention. (This is a standard line that was deployed as early as 2013, even as Russia was promising to disarm Assad.) And on Wednesday the Russian representative in the UN, Vladimir Safronkov (who is acting as ambassador following the death of the Russian ambassador to the UN), went off on the British ambassador, Matthew Rycroft, whom he accused of stonewalling the UN Security Council process:
It’s all because—and many in the UN know this already—that you got scared, are losing sleep over the possibility that we will be cooperating with the United States. That’s what you are scared off! You are doing everything to undermine this cooperation. That’s why—you look at me now, look me in the eye, what’s with the looking away?—that’s why you said nothing about the political process today.
Safronkov, speaking Russian, used the informal pronoun while raising his voice at Rycroft—a pointed and intentional insult. “What have you ever done to ensure a cease fire?….You have insulted Syria, Iran, Turkey, and other states….Don’t you dare insult Russia ever again!” With that, Russia used its veto power yet again, to block a resolution condemning the Syrian chemical attack.
Kremlinologists usually work on the faulty assumption that the Putin administration is a well-oiled machine in which messages are formulated at the top and passed down through the ranks. Sometimes, that is how the Russian government and media work. More often, it is much less orderly than that. “We carry out emanations,” a Moscow bureaucrat once told me: the civil servant’s job is to catch whatever is in the Kremlin air and amplify it. The message that Safronkov—who was reading from a script even as he projected losing his temper—was that the Kremlin is livid and wants to keep its crazy-man prerogative.
As for the new madman on the world stage, Trump appears to be comfortable with the idea of enmity with Russia. “We may be at an all-time low in terms of [our] relationship with Russia,” he has said—a statement that may be contested by historians of the cold war—and NATO is “no longer obsolete”—a construction that may be questioned by linguists.
Traditional policy thinking sees the United States as choosing between realist and values-based approaches to Russia. Realists seek to cooperate with the Kremlin where possible and tend to look the other way when the Kremlin tramples human rights and, sometimes, when it tramples international law. Values-based politicians lend their support to the dissidents, often at the expense of the possibility of a more harmonious relationship. But whatever continuity Zakaria might have imagined, the Trump administration’s relationship with Russia falls into neither category. When Rex Tillerson traveled to Moscow, he refused even a meeting with Russian human rights activists, making him the first secretary of state in generations to do so. The new Russian-American confrontation is not about values or law: it is about power and ambition. Of course, the die-hard Russia conspiracy theorists continue to insist, as MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell did, that all the elements of the escalation, from the chemical attack to the Tomahawk missiles, were one giant cover-up of the Trump-Putin collusion. But the search for a hidden truth is, as ever, an attempt merely to avoid looking at the clear and evident one: both Trump and Putin are engaging in the politics of spectacle and gesture for no greater reason than that it makes each of them feel good and powerful.
Putin’s relationship to television is different from Trump’s because Putin controls Russian television outright. But war has been good for him, too. The occupation of Crimea brought up Putin’s poll numbers, and even the dead-end war in Eastern Ukraine and the unpopular intervention in Syria have not taken them down. It’s all about the ratings for both men, in the end. The problem is, the bomb Trump has dropped is only one step down from a nuclear one. When the madman option is what looks most presidential, the nuclear option may no longer be a metaphor.