It took a chemical weapons attack in Syria by Putin’s ally (“Animal Assad,” in Trumpian twitter-speak) and gruesome pictures of dead children to prompt the criticism. But the belated rebuke of Putin was short and cryptic enough that it seemed to underscore the strange mystery of why Trump, while allowing his government to pursue an increasingly confrontational series of policies aimed at countering Russia, has never publicly disavowed his oft-stated admiration for the strongman leader who ordered his spies to intervene in the U.S. election on Trump’s behalf.
Tweet or no tweet, as Trump now contemplates a retaliatory strike on Putin’s Syrian partner, it’s more clear than ever that Russia remains the signal foreign policy dilemma of the Trump presidency – the issue on which the president has split, repeatedly, with top advisers like his now-booted secretary of state and national security adviser. Just a few days ago, Trump spoke once again, if a bit plaintively, about his desire to get along with Putin even as his administration was putting out a tough new round of sanctions hitting Putin’s inner circle. And of course there’s the matter of that Russian election intervention – and the still ongoing investigations of whether Trump or his campaign team knew about it.
I talked Russia, Russia, Russia for this week’s Global Politico with the journalist Julia Ioffe, a Russia-born reporter who is one of the few to have covered both Putin’s Moscow and Trump’s Washington. We covered everything from why she thinks Russia is just as much Arrested Development as it is The Americans, to what Washington consistently gets wrong about it, to why Putin has been so successful at playing four straight American presidents.
“I’m very scared,” Ioffe tells me of the brewing confrontation between the two blustery leaders. “The reason I’m scared is because… in the Cold War there were kind of protocols and rules developed and lines of communication, and there were just—the way things were done. … Now … you have two guys, Trump and Putin, who are both painted into a corner, strategically, both at home and geopolitically, who are very prideful. Both very kind of emotional knee-jerk decision makers, to an extent. And I worry that they’re both going to start clawing their way out of their respective corners and that that’s going to lead to a lot of collateral damage.”
In a confrontation, she argues, Putin may well prove a smarter actor on the world stage than the American president who had started out hoping to be friends. “You know, this isn’t his first rodeo, and this is not his first U.S. president, whereas Trump is still kind of getting his sea legs,” Ioffe says. “And this is kind of the built-in advantage of an autocratic system, where Putin already knows how to do all this, and he’s kind of a better tactician, and kind of a better strategist. And I worry that in this showdown Putin’s going to outmaneuver Trump and the U.S.”
You can read our full discussion below, or listen to it here.
Susan Glasser: Hi, it’s Susan Glasser, and welcome back to The Global Politico. I’m really delighted that our guest this week is my friend and someone who knows Russia much better than I do, Julie Ioffe. She is an author—she’s writing a book she can tell us about, about Russia. She’s a contributor to The Atlantic, and she is one of the smartest Russia hands in Washington today. Julia, thank you for finally being on The Global Politico.
Julia Ioffe: Thank you for having me. That was quite a fulsome introduction.
Glasser: Excellent. Fulsome is what I was aiming for.
Ioffe: You’re making me blush.
Glasser: But I have to say, first of all, I need to make a little announcement of my own, because it will help to explain what this episode of The Global Politico is about.
So, this will be not our last, but our second-to-last episode of The Global Politico, at least with me as host. It may go on a bit of a hiatus, but I’m going to make a little bit of a career change, and work full-time at The New Yorker as a staff writer. I’ll be contributing to their New Yorker Radio Hour. But The Global Politico in its current iteration, sadly, will only have this episode and the next episode. And I thought, given that, that we really ought to devote the full conversation today to Russia. It’s been an ongoing theme ever since we launched The Global Politico. We launched The Global Politico within days of Donald Trump’s inauguration last year, in 2017, and the idea was really to help make sense of this disrupted world, and what kind of a foreign policy was Donald Trump going to have. We all knew that it would be different than what came before, and every week it’s been sort of variations on a theme of just how different has it been.
And yet, throughout that, the consistency with which we have talked about Russia—not only, of course, because I was a former correspondent in Moscow—but because it has been a theme in many ways, both of the politics of the Trump administration, with the Russiagate investigation still underway, but also because it has remained the most perplexing foreign policy question. Donald Trump to this day has never personally moved beyond his public admiration for Vladimir Putin, his praise for him, and yet his administration has talked tough, has really undertaken a policy toward Russia that isn’t all that different from what a Democratic or a Republican administration might do, faced with the same set of facts.
So the conundrum of trying to understand what the heck is going on with Russia has remained this enduring obsession. So we’ve had many great episodes about Russia. We’ll talk about some of those today, some of the highlights, and Julia and I will try to make sense of it.
One of the things—right, Julia—that from the beginning has been so weird about Trump and Russia is that on one hand, Washington has never been more obsessed with Russia in some ways, and yet, it’s very ignorant about Russia, too.