In a brief high-profile meeting between Presidents Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, possibly in Paris this weekend, and a more comprehensive meeting in Buenos Aires later this month, many in Russia are wondering why meet? After all, each of their previous meetings – in 2017 in Hamburg and in Helsinki in July – seemed to leave Russian-American relations in even worse shape than before. Some advise the Kremlin to stay away from Trump's White House and not get involved in the fragmented and ruthless domestic policies of the United States. The operative theory behind this advice seems to be: Let the cold civil war in America survive before you re-engage with the 2010 winner.
Nevertheless, Putin is determined to continue his personal contacts with Trump. Why so apparently illogical behavior? It may be that the Russian president has already selected the winner – and that's Trump. In his recent public statements before the Valdai Club in Sochi, Putin suggested that Trump, when he wins his second term in 2020, have the freedom to stabilize and normalize relations with Russia. Putin certainly hopes that the investment he makes in Trump will pay off, and he is ready to be patient.
This does not mean, of course, that Putin will be re-elected – to repeat the coup that many in the US believe he did in 2016. Putin's insistence on dealing with Trump signals that he sees a chance in the US President that others in Moscow will not.
For many in Russian foreign policy, it is clear that the Congress has already pinned Trump on issues such as sanctions, that the Kremlin's great hopes of renewed replacement are already disappointing, and that Trump's inclination to be unpredictable creates more than fair share risks. The new congress promises more of it: more sanctions, more investigations, more allegations about the connection between Trump and Russia. They say that dealing with Trump is futile, especially if the Republican Party loses in mid-midfield on Tuesday.
The problem with this line of analysis is that it completely misses what Putin sees in Trump. The investment of the Russian leader in the US president has little to do with Congress or US policy, or whether the GOP will be affected in the medium term or not. For Putin, Trump is a fresh start in US foreign policy. What Putin considers positive for Russia is the disruption Trump creates for the global system that the United States has been drawing since the end of the Cold War. Trump replaces liberal universalism with a version of the great power policy that does not focus on promoting US-sponsored values. While it is a policy of strength, it is clearly preferable to value policy because it relies on a transactional approach to international affairs and allows for compromise.
In this regard, Trump, despite all his peculiarities and inconsistencies, is the best-known Russian-friendly American leader whom Putin is likely to encounter. This is not due to a special affection of the 45th President for Russia. Put simply, for Trump, Russia is not the biggest problem for the US. Trump wants a "big America," the world's most powerful, focusing mainly on what she sees as her own national interests. Putin does not mind: in fact, such an America would be ideal for Russia. For Moscow, the most important thing is that Washington cares about its own affairs and does not try to impose itself on others.
Even Trump's focus on big-power rivalries, including with Russia, is welcome in Putin. For one, because it fits in with his own realistic view of international relations. Second, because Russia recognizes the status of its great power. America's transition from a universalist to a more nationalist attitude actually began with the policy of President Barack Obama's withdrawal. It has greatly accelerated under Trump, whose actions are transforming the world towards multipolarity. America's European allies, who have long given up strategic sovereignty in Washington, are insecure. Putin feels confirmed by Trump's efforts to reduce US commitments to his allies. Undoubtedly Putin also knows that such great empires end: invincible from the outside, those present lose interest in bearing the burden of hegemony or leadership. And where to go.
So Putin, a consummate politician who behaves here and now, can not only afford the luxury of turning off the Trump presidency and waiting to see that he has no reason to avoid Trump. When Putin came to power nearly 19 years ago, it seemed as though most of the world had left the 21st century for the 21st century, Moscow had chosen the other door. Now, much of the world of Russia's election follows, including the Trump administration. This means that the Kremlin and the White House speak the same language, despite differences in power and interests. And they talk.