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Trump-Putin: Chemistry and Comity or Win-Lose Antipathy?

by Gordon M. Hahn

A few months ago I was asked to give an interview, which never took place. The prospective interviewer sent the following question among several others: “How will President Donald Trump interact with Putin?”

In preparing for the interview I jotted down the following notes:

Realist + Realist >? Realist v. realist

Personality compatibility that can lead to conflict – large egos, tough negotiators.

Could get along and transform relationship, but if their relations go bad – will go VERY BAD.

Trump’s doubts about NATO expansion and revolutionism in Ukraine and elsewhere could become the foundation for a major rapprochement, since this is the main bone of contention for Russia.

Let me elaborate on some of these notes in anticipation of the much anticipated Trump-Putin ‘summit’ at the G-20 meeting this week.

The view that we are dealing with a pair of realists I believe is basically accurate, given both actors’ lack of a fundamentally ideological approach to politics. However, in both cases some caveats are in order. In Trump’s case even more than in Putin’s the absence of ideology is replaced by another ‘ism’ – egoism. Trump’s chief concern will be his image, reputation, popularity, and legacy as a ‘winner’. For Trump, neither party nor even country can trump Trump. To be sure, Trump’s popularity depends on Republican and American well-being to one degree or another, but Trump’s interests and that of ‘his’ party and country diverge. In the event, Trump will privilege Trump. The same is true on a smaller scale for most other politicians, including Putin.

Putin is more ideological than Trump in foreign affairs in that he is imbued by Russian traditionalism tempered by contemporary imperatives. Nevertheless, Putin is essentially a practical foreign policy realist and one with a more well-developed sense of what that means conceptually and strategically. Regarding the latter, Trump is more tactical, instinctive, and emotional. He shoots from the hip figuratively – as when he speaks – and even literally – as Bashar Assad and Putin found out from Trump’s retribution rocket attack on the Syrian military base after Assad’s alleged chemical attack.

More importantly, Trump is quick to change course to further his interests and the well-being of the entities with which they are tied. He quickly found it in his interest, for example, to compromise with the Washington crowd, despite running – somewhat deceptively – as an outsider. In domestic politics, for example,  conservatives are also bemoaning Trump’s succumbing to the ‘Washington swamp’ when it comes to domestic politics. For example, they are distraught over the new president’s attempt to place the largest welfare program ever passed by a Democratic administration – ‘Obamacare’ or Obama’s Affordable Healthcare Act — with the largest welfare program ever proposed by a Republic administration. In foreign policy, Trump’s Russia-friendly promise – exaggerated by the strategic communications efforts of Obama holdovers, Democratic Party operatives and their allies in the liberal-leftist media – has quickly proved to be empty.

Add in Putin’s preference for leaving room to maneuver and occasional changes of course — recall the Medvedev presidency’s liberalizing thaw in Russian domestic and foreign politics — could provide the kind of mutual flexibility necessary to make deals of some importance.

Unfortunately, the parties’ egos will make for tough negotiations, even if both parties were not tough cookies. But they are.

The two personalities’ and their behavioral history suggest that if they do not have a positive personal chemistry on the basis of mutual admiration for each other’s toughness or some other compatibility, the relationship could sour rapidly and deeply, imparting even more negative impulse to the Russian-American, Russian-Western tensions. This dynamic is already underway in tensions between Washington and Moscow over Syria. How far it will go is anybody’s guess at this point, but it could go very, very far.

One way to look at the Trump-Putin interaction is to ‘game theory’ the problem a bit, looking at whether the parties are inclined to seek a win-lose outcome or satisfice their own side with a win-win solution. Given that both personalities are so-called ‘A-type’, one can expect potential for tough ‘win-lose’ negotiating. Each will certainly play win-lose if he suspects the other is doing so or has ‘dissed’ him. Thus, Putin has been able to do business with his BRICS colleagues, most post-Soviet states, Middle East states, Israel, Japan, and others. However, relentless NATO expansion and Western meddling along Russia’s borders has provoked Putin to play hardball with the West through cyber warfare, intensifying propaganda, and limited meddling in Western politics the extent of which has been intentionally overstated in Washington. No better example of Putin’s inability to let Western slights slip by without a tough response came in 2014 in Ukraine, when he answered the West’s endorsement of opposition elements’ violent seizure of power in Kiev with a coercive, if largely non-violent countermove in Crimea.
For his part, Trump himself has acknowledged his preference for winning and taking risks to do so:
“[W]hen people treat me badly or unfairly or try to take advantage of me, my general attitude, all my life, has been to fight back very hard. The risk is you’ll make a bad situation worse, and I certainly don’t recommend this approach to everyone. But my experience is that if you’re fighting for something you believe in — even if it means alienating some people along the way.”
“I fight when I feel I’m getting screwed, even if it’s costly and difficult and highly risky.”
I’ll do nearly anything within legal bounds to win. Sometimes, part of making a deal is denigrating your competition.”
“My style of deal-making is quite simple and straightforward. I aim very high, and then I just keep pushing and pushing and pushing to get what I’m after.”
The above approaches may not exclude the possibility that some of Trump’s tougher-than-expected Russia-targeted actions are a bluff — part of setting the stage for future negotiations. But this tactic does not amount to a strategy for Russian negotiations or policymaking.
Putin’s responses to US and NATO meddling in Georgia and Ukraine make the Russian leader’s toughness clear.
Another danger is that Trump’s recent moderate talk on Russia during the presidential campaign, despite some of the bad apples who had those overdramatized Russia ties and were appointed to, but are now departed from the administration and the president’s inner circle, was just that – talk. That would mean Trump’s actual policies will only increase Moscow’s distrust and quasi-paranoia, already exacerbated by the unmet and seemingly now crushed expectations Trump’s campaign and early presidential talk inspired in the Kremlin.
Additional dangers can lie in decision-making processes and styles of the two leaders. If recent reports that Trump is being presented with few if any options when being briefed by administration officials are true, then real dangers lie on the American side ( On the Russian side, authoritarian regimes are often plagued by over-centralized, even individualized decision-making, making the knowledge and abilities of the top leader pivotal in determining the adequacy of decisions. However, Putin appears to be a careful decision-maker, who makes sure to hear differing points of view before coming to a final decision. For example, Putin often sets up competing teams and solicits alternative policy proposals from opposing ideological orientations to flesh out options before making major decisions. On the other hand, if recent reports that the Russian Defense Ministry was caught presenting Putin with a video showing a US air operation and claiming it was a successful Russian op are accurate, then Putin may be subject to the same manipulation Trump is allegedly experiencing.
One positive is that Trump is attracted to complicated deals. He wrote: “I have an almost perverse attraction to complicated deals, partly because they tend to be more interesting” (Art of the Deal, p. 200). Given the now arch-complex network of Russian-American tensions across a host of bilateral and multilateral issues, a complicated deal – explicit or implicit – may be the only way to affect a rapprochement. Right now, however, a rapprochement appears a bridge very much too far. If anything, the relationship appears poised to deteriorate according to a win-lose mutual alienation scenario. Nevertheless, the pressing need for a de-escalation of tensions and both parties’ occasional flexibility leave some hope that the parties can find an off ramp from the present crash course, de-escalate tensions in Ukraine and Syria, and renew and deepen areas of cooperation such as the war against jihadism.

About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Analyst at Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation (Chicago),; member of the Executive Advisory Board at the American Institute of Geostrategy (AIGEO) (Los Angeles),; and Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California.

Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book from McFarland Publishers Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the ‘New Cold War. Previously, he has authored three well-received books: The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.

Dr. Hahn has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia. He has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution. Dr. Hahn also has been a Contributing Analyst for Russia Direct ( and an Analyst and Consultant for Russia – Other Points of View (San Mateo, California) (

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