On a recent appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, historian Niall Ferguson made a bold prediction, asserting that Russian President Vladimir Putin would hand U.S. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump “a deal on Syria within the first 100 days” were Trump to be elected president.
My initial reaction was one of skepticism. How could a man so ignorant, if not disdainful, of the core principles and attendant responsibilities of U.S. foreign policy solve one of the world’s most vexing quandaries, with apparent ease no less?
Actually, Ferguson’s prediction is not nearly as farfetched as it might sound. The conditions under which Donald Trump would assume the presidency likely would be favorable to a deal between him and Putin, and it is not difficult to reason through an understanding of how and why this might play out. Reaching this conclusion is not an intellectual challenge at all, but a moral one: it requires taking seriously the implications of a Trump presidency. Gulp.
Let’s start with Vladimir Putin. It is commonly suggested that Putin entered Syria to rescue the allied Assad regime and reassert Russia’s great power status. While this assessment is not wrong, it obfuscates a central component of Putin’s strategic calculus. Russia’s recent military adventurism has corresponded with the country’s economic decline, a period that began with the 2008 financial crisis and has accelerated more recently with collapsing oil prices and the steep cost of EU-U.S. sanctions. In fact, Putin’s approval ratings dropped by one third between 2008 and 2011, and they have only climbed back up in recent years with the successful seizure of Crimea and the low-cost intervention in Syria. Putin, in other words, has shrewdly martialed a bellicose strain of Russian nationalism to solidify his claim to power.
Putin’s strategy has been successful thus far, but it is a stopgap solution that can distract from, but not resolve, the greatest long-term threat to his authoritarian regime: economic stagnation. So how does President Trump figure into all of this? It is my contention that Putin is waiting out (and directly attempting to influence, it now seems) the results of the U.S. election because he hopes Trump might deliver him the most lucrative bargaining chip of any potential Syria deal: an end—or a significant reduction—to U.S.-led sanctions against Russia.
And why not? Can you think of a better way for Trump to burnish his loudly self-proclaimed reputation as an unimpeachable dealmaker than by negotiating a Syrian peace deal within his first 100 days? In many ways, it would be a political masterstroke for Trump, the benefits almost too many to enumerate. Trump could fire up his defiant base, legitimate his rebuke of the Obama-Clinton Middle East policy, and—most importantly—defy every single naysayer who has declared him unfit for the presidency. Trump could accomplish all of this, by the way, while remaining true to his campaign promise not to put U.S. lives at risk in the Middle Eastern morass.
Let me be clear. My greater purpose here is not to stir up fear about a Trump presidency. Nor is this a character indictment of Donald Trump. I think Trump genuinely believes that the Russian threat is overstated and, in fact, cinching a Syrian peace deal with Putin would be a great way for him to justify that perception. Dismissing a Trump presidency with banal and apocalyptic rhetoric (e.g., “the end of the liberal international order”) precludes clearheaded analysis of how his potential presidency affects the geostrategic landscape in concrete terms—an analytic exercise that is undeniably easier for those who don’t suffer from blinding anxiety about the specter of Donald J. Trump ascending to the highest political office in their beloved domicile.
What I am suggesting, ultimately, is that a foreign leader like Vladimir Putin has sufficiently applied this analytic framework to a Trump presidency. Thus, it only follows logically that his strategic decision-making conforms to an assessment of how to engage and exploit a possible Trump administration—at least to the extent that the potential payout for doing so exceeds the short-term costs.
Such is the case in Syria, where the windfall from reduced sanctions would be immense, and the cost of holding out until Election Day on November 8 low. So why wouldn’t Putin do just that? With the Obama administration eager to secure a cease-fire but unwilling to apply significant pressure to that effect, Putin can rest assured that a peace deal amenable to Russia’s interests will remain on the table for the foreseeable future, humanitarian abuses notwithstanding.
From Putin’s perspective, the beauty of a Syria deal with Trump is this: he can grant Trump a great deal while giving up very little.
Should Trump manage to close the gap with Secretary Clinton, an end to Russian military pressure in Syria is imminent. The question remains: How much would President Trump give up to ensure that he is seen as being at the center of Russian disengagement in Syria?
A lot, logic indicates. Thus, Putin waits.
Image: A meeting of the State Council Presidium on enhancing the investment appeal of Russian health resorts.
John Sakellariadis is a research intern at the American Enterprise Institute, where he focuses on transatlantic security. He is a recent graduate of Harvard College, where he majored in American history and literature. He has experience in both the public and private sector, and is particularly interested in U.S. foreign and defense policy.