It’s an old truth that we have written about many times: Vladimir Putin needs an enemy.
With Western sanctions biting hard and oil refusing to rise above $50 per barrel — no matter how hard the Russian president and OPEC grandees try to talk up the market, the average Russian is hurting. Salaries and employment are down, and economic optimism has plummeted. The harsh winter blanketing the country right now is not helping the national mood.
Many analysts believe it was this very pessimism that produced the war in Ukraine, the Russian adventure in Syria and the tsunami of anti-American propaganda on Russian TV. Since the state now controls most of the media, that means the propaganda is everywhere. The average Russian can’t get away from it.
All of the branches of Mr. Putin’s government are involved. All of them have pointed toward America as the bogeyman. Because without a bad guy to blame for all your problems, who is responsible when your hospital or school closes due to lack of funds?
You’ve got it: Uncle Sam.
(On a side note, you would think President Obama and President Putin would have gotten along splendidly as they both have promoted the same narrative of America as the world’s demon, but I digress.)
So what is the next U.S. administration going to do about this situation? Dig through a box of Cracker Jack for a new “Reset” button (hopefully with the right Russian word this time)? Should President-elect Donald Trump again call Russia the “evil empire”? Should the next administration sail a few aircraft carriers up the Black Sea and threaten Crimea or the pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine? Or should Washington appease the Kremlin by drawing Obama-like pink lines in the sand and allowing U.S. influence and power to wane globally? Maybe the next president should just shrivel up like a turtle and retire to Fortress America, letting our allies in Eastern Europe fight their own fights.
Enter Mr. Trump, stage right.
The one thing about The Donald is that he is always negotiating. I mean, he did write the book. Mr. Trump is always three or four steps ahead of the opposition — just ask Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton. Mr. Putin is the same. He mopped the floor with the three stooges of Mr. Obama, Mrs. Clinton and Secretary of State John Kerry, steadily expanding Russia’s geographic footprint and global influence over the past eight years.
The entire Kremlin was reportedly cheering Mr. Trump’s victory. The American “progressive establishment” is licking its chops as the media publish fake news story after fake news story, attempting to tie the next president to Russian hackers. The message: Mr. Trump is Mr. Putin’s puppet, the FSB has Mr. Trump is his pocket, and Mr. Putin single-handedly defeated Hillary Clinton!
I submit to you a different reality, that it is Mr. Trump who is three steps ahead of Mr. Putin. If Russia really did try to buy the U.S. election (a big “if”), Moscow may soon be facing buyer’s remorse. When the economy gets worse and Mr. Putin runs out of overseas adventures, where will the suffering Russian public look to next? Will they still accept America as the Dark Lord, responsible for all their suffering? The Kremlin loves the new man in the White House, so how can the U.S. still be the enemy?
Ladies and gentlemen, what we have here is a classic game of good cop/bad cop. Mr. Trump is saying all the right things to make the Kremlin giddy. He has prepared the negotiating field ahead of time. He is already winning when it comes to dealing with Russia, as only Mr. Trump can.
At the same time, his nominee for secretary of state, former Exxon Mobil chief Rex Tillerson, is saying that Russia needs to be held accountable. On Thursday morning, retired Gen. James Mattis, Mr. Trump’s pick to run the Pentagon, said Russia is the primary national security threat to the United States.
The U.S. can beat Russia or China in any arms race. Mr. Trump has called for a massive buildup of American military power and a modernization of our nuclear forces.
In Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin has met his match. He just doesn’t know it yet.
• L. Todd Wood is a former special operations helicopter pilot and Wall Street debt trader, and has contributed to Fox Business, The Moscow Times, National Review, the New York Post and many other publications. He can be reached through his website, LToddWood.com.