In 2016, Putin didn’t expect Trump to win. Now, he needs him to.

Jackson Diehl
Vladimir Putin is suffering through his worst year in two decades in power. The coronavirus is raging across Russia, which has reported more than half a million cases and 8,100 deaths and is suspected of hiding many more. The economy is crashing so steeply that the government failed to issue a monthly gross domestic product report in May for the first time in 15 years. Putin’s foolish launching of an oil price war with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman made a bad recession worse.
Forced to postpone a referendum that would allow him to remain in office until 2036, Putin is now going ahead with it on July 1, and no doubt it will be rigged to produce the right result. But his poll ratings are the lowest they have been since he was installed as Boris Yeltsin’s prime minister and successor in 1999.Worst of all, from Putin’s point of view, his vaunted foreign policy, aimed at restoring Russia’s global influence with bold gambits and deft maneuvering, has hit a wall. Since February, Russian forces and their proxies have suffered sharp reversals in both Syria and Libya, turning both interventions into quagmires that Putin cannot easily escape without humiliation. Ukraine’s new president has rebuffed his plan for ending the long-simmering conflict in the country’s east on Moscow’s terms, even while the parts of Ukraine controlled by Russia’s proxies drain billions from an already-stretched budget.

Putin needs help. He badly needs a win. He needs, specifically, the reelection of President Trump. In ways both more blatant and more subtle than in 2016, he is trying to make it happen.

It’s true that some in Putin’s circle have been disappointed with the Trump administration. Under the influence of hawkish advisers such as John Bolton, Trump has pulled the United States out of two important arms control treaties with Russia and appears on his way to scrapping the accord limiting strategic nuclear weapons. He has complied with congressional mandates for sanctions on Russia, and — also under heavy bipartisan pressure — has reluctantly supplied Ukraine with defensive weapons.

Yet consider the gifts Trump has given Putin in the past 3½ years. Trump has all but wrecked Putin’s nemesis, the NATO alliance; this month he abruptly decided to withdraw more than a quarter of U.S. troops from Germany. He opened the door for Russian meddling in the Middle East, and to greater influence over Turkey, Egypt and even Israel. He has poisoned the once-close relations between Washington and Ukraine; President Volodymyr Zelensky has still not been invited to Washington.

Most importantly, Putin has learned that, as Bolton put it in a television interview last week, he can play Trump “like a fiddle.” The whole world watched as Putin induced Trump to announce at their 2018 Helsinki summit that he believed Putin’s denial that Russia intervened in the 2016 election. In private communications, according to Bolton, Putin managed to persuade Trump that Venezuela’s opposition leader was comparable to Hillary Clinton, and thus not worthy of support.

A reelected Trump could be expected to continue his campaign to restore Russia as a member of the Group of Seven nations, providing Putin with an enhanced global platform. He could pull the United States out of NATO once and for all. And he could advance Putin’s most important geopolitical goal, returning Ukraine to Russia’s sphere of influence, while opening the way for the lifting of U.S. and European sanctions on the Russian economy.

So yes, Putin will do what he can to help Trump. Any doubt about that was removed by a television interview he gave a week ago that appeared aimed directly at the White House. The “deep internal crisis” in the United States, he declared, was caused by anti-Trump forces, who rather than accept that he “obviously won” the 2016 election “in an absolutely democratic way . . . came up with all sorts of fables to cast doubt on his legitimacy.”

While Putin publicly strokes the incumbent, his minions are endeavoring to supply Trump’s campaign with ammunition. There is, for example, the tape recording that surfaced in Kyiv last month, released by a politician with ties to Russian intelligence, that purportedly captures then-Vice President Joe Biden pressuring Ukraine’s president to fire a corrupt prosecutor — and is meant to revive the Trump camp’s false charge that the Democratic candidate did so to help his son. Networks of Russian-run social media accounts are, as the New York Times recently reported, systematically amplifying conspiracy theories spread by Trump’s kookier followers.

At the moment, the Russian interventions aren’t getting much traction — and Trump’s prospects in November are trending downward. But Putin is resourceful. Like Trump himself, he is willing to take risks and break norms. In 2016, he didn’t expect Trump to win. Now, he needs him to.

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