WASHINGTON — With a single phone conversation this month, Donald J. Trump and Vladimir V. Putin have started talk of another “reset” in ties between Russia and the United States. A new president, of course, has every reason to seek improved relations. But what could make this “reset” work? Mr. Trump rightly believes there may be opportunities in the relationship. They’re just not the ones he thinks.
To succeed, the president-elect must see that there are really two Putins — one confident, cagey and effective; the other defensive, isolated and unsure of himself.
The confident Putin has used Russian power more boldly than any leader, Russian or Soviet, in many decades. In the last 10 years, he has doubled military spending, renovated his armed forces and deployed them abroad. His international exploits — especially the seizure of Crimea in 2014 — have brought him near-absolute political dominance at home. He has fashioned new tools (from cyberhacking to a lavishly funded propaganda machine) for meddling in other countries’ affairs. He mocks Western governments as weak and hypocritical, and seems to enjoy his role as bad-boy statesman.
Mr. Trump obviously relates to this strutting Putin. But there’s another Putin, too: the one who knows his country is entering the third year of a recession, one of the worst recent performances among major economies. With foreign direct investment in Russia down 90 percent in three years, future growth will be slow. Mr. Putin himself has said major reforms are needed. But he has not proposed any. How can he? Real reform would threaten the systemic corruption on which Putinism rests.
This second Putin knows his country’s living standards have dropped sharply. In 2013, 41 percent of middle-class Russians said they were in good shape economically; today, just 22 percent do. Russia’s government feels the pinch, too. Budgets for health, education, pensions, even the military are all on the chopping block.
Both Putins aim to restore respect for Russia as a great power. Yet neither has been able to do so. With other leaders, Russia’s president suffers from a reputation for dishonesty and double-dealing. And all over the world, polls show greater popular confidence in President Obama than in Mr. Putin. In Europe, the margin is a staggering five to one.
Mr. Trump will need to slow the aggressive momentum of the first Putin and play on the anxiety of the second. There may be room in such a relationship for strongman-to-strongman shows of “respect,” but Mr. Trump must not kid himself. The key to winning Mr. Putin’s respect — and to assuring his restraint — is to leave no doubt about America’s military, economic and diplomatic power.
It will surely surprise Mr. Trump to hear it, but the policies he inherits from the Obama administration provide the essential ingredients for such a relationship. Europe is the critical case. Russian aggression and confrontation there have not cracked trans-Atlantic unity. Western support has held Ukraine together and confined separatists to two small enclaves. Sanctions have deepened Russia’s economic downturn. All NATO members have pledged to increase military spending. And the alliance plans to deploy small military units to new members, creating a needed tripwire against Russian pressure.
Only by understanding this record, rather than disparaging it, can Mr. Trump achieve — and profit from — chummy personal relations with his Russian counterpart. Let’s imagine, for example, that the second, anxious Putin decided to accept an outstretched hand from Washington as cover for extricating himself from the stalemate he has created in eastern Ukraine. If so, President Trump would have a shot at reviving the long-blocked “Minsk 2” agreement, which obliges Russia to withdraw while Ukraine allows some form of autonomy for the eastern separatists.
Mr. Trump should know the risks of this respect-for-retreat strategy. Once Mr. Putin decides he wants out of eastern Ukraine, he’ll find a way to go ahead with the Minsk 2 deal. But he won’t even consider backtracking if he thinks he can get what he wants for nothing. That’s why the new president must insist on a real solution in Ukraine, not a cosmetic one.
Giving Russia relief from sanctions without a complete withdrawal would only make Mr. Trump look like a chump. He would have failed to check the first Putin, and let the second one off the hook. Russian-American relations would face new challenges. They would become less stable, not more.
If Mr. Trump plays the two Putins right, he has a chance to move forward on other issues. Russian officials have expressed little interest in new arms control talks. But that was before Russian military spending came under pressure. Having promised his own buildup, Mr. Trump is in a position to re-engage Mr. Putin on the broad issue of strategic nuclear stability. (Doing so will have will have the further benefit of making it easier for European governments to maintain Ukraine-related sanctions.)
Finally, Mr. Trump says he wants to work with Russia in defeating terrorists. It’s a worthy goal, but at least as difficult to achieve as real peace in Ukraine. The new president won’t get the Russians to cooperate against the Islamic State in Syria just by saying, as he did during his campaign, that he wants to bomb its forces just as ferociously as Mr. Putin does. Unless the United States has its own workable strategy and can begin to show results from it, Mr. Trump’s outreach to Mr. Putin is almost certain to fail.
For all the failures of his Middle East policy, President Obama leaves behind a better approach than his successor appreciates. The administration’s continuing effort to retake Mosul, the biggest Islamic State stronghold in Iraq, offers a more promising model for lasting regional influence than Mr. Putin’s bludgeoning use of air power in Syria. Its elements — the patient corralling of groups that have been unable to work together, the small-footprint use of advisers and assistance, the sensitivity to civilian casualties, the support of friends and allies in the region — all point up how America’s antiterrorism strategy differs from Russia’s, and is more likely to succeed.
Before the election, Russian commentators had begun to explain Mr. Putin’s milder tone in talking about the United States as a way of preparing for the next American president — that is, for Hillary Clinton. Mr. Trump should ponder this story. It seems the prospect of dealing with a new leader whom Mr. Putin knew to be tough made him more cautious. Perhaps he had heard what Mrs. Clinton, as secretary of state, said about how to deal with Russia: “I’m not giving up anything for nothing.”
Mr. Trump doesn’t have to say who gave him this idea. He just has to act on it.