Trump, Putin, and the Art of Appeasement

Russian President Vladimir Putin presents ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson with a Russian medal at an award ceremony of heads and employees of energy companies at the St. Petersburg economic forum in St. Petersburg, Russia, June 21, 2012.

Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

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Russian President Vladimir Putin presents ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson with a Russian medal at an award ceremony of heads and employees of energy companies at the St. Petersburg economic forum in St. Petersburg, Russia, June 21, 2012.

The famed deal maker seems intent on giving away American leverage for nothing.

Donald Trump’s Russia strategy is based on making a series of one-sided concessions in the hopes of luring Moscow into a more positive global relationship. There’s a name for this approach: appeasement. A man who ran for office as the ultimate negotiator is intent on giving away the store on Crimea and Syria for free—and it’s unlikely to reap much of a dividend.

Appeasement is a pejorative phrase because of the association with appeasing Hitler in the 1930s. Indeed, making unilateral concessions to aggressive dictators in the hope of satiating their appetite is unlikely to work. But appeasement can actually be effective when leaders are dealing with a regime that has defensive goals and reasonable grievances. Accommodating a rival’s gripes could potentially convert an enemy into a friend. For example, in the late 19th century, Britain decided that a rising Germany was more of a threat than the United States, and chose to appease Washington on a range of issues in the Western Hemisphere. As a result, Anglo-American relations entered smoother waters and the two countries became allies in the world wars. Is Russia a good candidate for appeasement?

In 2014, following the toppling of a pro-Russian regime in Ukraine, Russian forces seized control of the Ukrainian province of Crimea, held a referendum of dubious legitimacy to determine control (which found widespread support for incorporation into Russia), and then promptly annexed the territory. In response, Western states imposed sanctions on Russian banks and corporations that Putin admitted have hurt the Russian economy.

Putin craves international recognition of Russian Crimea and the lifting of sanctions. Only eight countries currently recognize Moscow’s annexation, and it’s an awkward squad of leftist Latin American regimes (Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela), a founding member of the “Axis of Evil” (North Korea), a regime whose leader has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity and war crimes (Sudan), an African country facing economic collapse (Zimbabwe), and an embattled ally that has murdered thousands of its own citizens (Syria). Moscow desperately needs a few respectable countries to accept the new status of Crimea. The ultimate prize would be U.S. recognition because of Washington’s global power and the possibility of inducing American allies to follow suit.

The problem for Putin is that the United States would be expected to sell this endorsement for a very high price. After all, Moscow values it highly. Russia’s territorial aggrandizement also clearly violated global norms. And Russia has no obvious point of counter-leverage. Moscow has oil and gas but the United States is increasingly energy independent.

Therefore, Washington should make the process of recognizing Russian Crimea so prolonged, painful, and expensive that it deters Putin from launching similar adventures elsewhere. This means years of tough negotiations between Ukraine and Russia. It means an internationally supervised referendum in Crimea (which Russia would probably win). And it means compensation for Kiev—to the tune of billions of dollars.

But rather than dust off The Art of the Deal and drive a hard bargain, Trump has chosen the alternative path of appeasement. His strategy is to recognize Russian Crimea in return for nothing. In July, Trump was asked whether he would recognize Russia Crimea and lift sanctions, and simply responded: “Yes. We would be looking at that.” In August, he added “the people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were.”

That sound was American leverage vanishing into the air.

Meanwhile, in Syria, the United States also has something that Putin desires: support for (or acquiescence in) a pro-Russian regime in Damascus. In strategic terms, Syria matters far more for Russia than for the United States. Syria is the location for Russia’s only military base outside the former Soviet Union. And Putin is now embroiled in a high-stakes military operation to save Assad’s regime.

The tentative peace process in Syria revolves around key questions. Could Bashar al-Assad temporarily stay in power in a new transitional regime? Could Moscow’s security interests be guaranteed? These are negotiable issues. The United States could answer in the affirmative in return for Russian concessions elsewhere, for example, on protecting human rights or accepting a more inclusive government.

Once again, we might expect Washington to engage in some pretty hard-nosed bargaining. If Moscow wants the U.S. to offer security guarantees, there’s a price to pay. And Putin can’t offer much in return. He might promise to step up the campaign against ISIS but the extremist group is already in retreat.

Rather than engage in diplomatic punch and counter-punch, however, Trump decided to appease Putin. He praised Assad for being “much tougher and much smarter” than Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and said toppling the tyrant would mean, “you may very well end up with worse than Assad.”

In Crimea and Syria, Putin is like a used car salesman who is desperate to sell a piece of junk. Trump is a potential buyer, who has many other cars available for purchase, and can easily threaten to walk away. Instead, Trump announces that he’s smitten with the vehicle and wants to pay the full sticker price.

It’s a striking departure from the Cold War, when the United States and the Soviet Union reached tough deals on arms control. Henry Kissinger described negotiations “as a weapon for seizing the moral and psychological high ground … it is a device to improve one’s strategic position.”

Will Trump’s abandonment of bargaining and endorsement of appeasement improve America’s strategic position? For sure, Putin is no Hitler. The Russian leader is not set on waging war. Moscow’s interventions in Georgia in 2008, Ukraine in 2014, and Syria in 2015, were all designed to save embattled allies.

But Russia is also far removed from the United States circa 1900. Moscow’s desire for recognition of its seizure of Crimea, and its interest in maintain a tyrant in power in Syria are not legitimate grievances. Neither is there any evidence that satisfying Putin’s wishes will lead the Trump administration into the sunlit uplands of Russian-U.S. cooperation. Putin seeks to restore Russian power by undermining the global liberal order based on institutions like NATO and the European Union, and by meddling in the U.S. election. Rather than being converted into a pillar of global stability, Putin is likely to pocket Trump’s concessions and look for more gains elsewhere.

The art of the deal became the art of the fold.

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