Putin the Recruiter and Trump the Potential Asset? Agent-handling and the Helsinki Summit
Any political leader meeting another is seeking to get something out of the exchange, whether a specific deliverable or simply developing the relationship. In this respect, the Helsinki summit will be no different from any other. What makes it more noteworthy is the personalities of the two interlocutors and that one was trained to recruit and run assets – and the other seems almost custom-built to be managed and manipulated.
Of course one can push the fact that Putin was a KGB case officer too far. Not every KGB officer is the same, it was a long time ago, and by all accounts he was at best an adequate one. He was not a high-flier, and former foreign intelligence chief and then KGB chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov once tellingly said that he had never heard of Putin when he was in service.
Nonetheless, when Putin said that his particular talent was “working with people,” there is more than a little truth in that. He has managed his own elites very effectively, and also has had considerable successes framing relations with other leaders, as well as leveraging his carefully-created ruthless, cool, macho image.
It is not that Putin (and the team working for him; this is not a one-man operation: it is worth remembering Gleb Pavlovsky’s observation that “he was like a talented actor who reads the script but does much more than is written in it”) appears to have a single, standard approach so much as – like any competent case officer – he looks for what will work, depending on both the target and the objective.
When Angela Merkel needed to be put in her place, the notoriously dog-fearing German found herself in a room with Putin’s Labrador Koni, or she was kept waiting for 4 hours; when he needed to woo her, there were flowers and warm words about cooperation. When Putin met Obama in 2009, there was no expectation that the two men would bond, so the Russian treated his American counterpart to an hour-long harangue, more than anything else to show the world that he could.
It is very hard to believe that Trump is some bought-and-paid-for Russian agent (or if he is, then Moscow is unexpectedly clumsy running him). Moreover, the Russians are sufficiently aware of how the US political system works not to expect some concrete gains – he cannot himself legally recognise Crimea’s annexation. At the same time, there is much they can gain from both framing the relationship as one between equals (which flatters and empowers Russia) and also encouraging and directing his splenetic and seemingly unstoppable stream of bilious comments about America’s notional allies.
So how might they seek to handle him? Flattery is clearly crucial to winning over the Donald, but it can also make the flatterer appear weak. Instead of jumping straight into obsequiousness, Putin is likely to seek to appeal to Trump’s sense that he is one of the great movers and shakers of the world, precisely by framing the meeting as a discussion between two of the three (China’s Xi being the absent friend) titans. That manages to flatter Trump and elevate Putin at one stroke.
Trump, like so many insecure men who have never served, also has a shallow fascination with the military and all things martial, so Putin is likely also to play to that. Being in Helsinki rather than Moscow, he cannot whistle up a military parade, Macron-style, but he can regale the president with promises of terrorists whacked if only America cooperated. “Fighting terrorism” as a euphemism for fighting the Syrian civil war may well prove a powerful way to whitewash the bloodshed there.
Above all, Putin is likely to seek to try and get Trump to woo him, to make himself the cool kid whom the insecure narcissist wants to emulate and befriend. The best way to get a good deal, after all, is the make the other person more eager to conclude it.
Of course, none of this means that America is coming under Russian domination, nor even that Trump is going to be brainwashed. If nothing else, a president long on ego and short on attention span cannot be bought, only borrowed. Besides, his promises and his loyalties do not appear to be worth counting on. But nonetheless, even if just in order to sharpen his anti-NATO and Europhobic rhetoric – something that delights the Kremlin – and to present supporting Ukraine’s democracy and sovereignty as a “bad deal,” Putin and his people will be carefully crafting their messages and approaches between now and the summit.
This article was originally posted in In Moscow’s Shadows.