Ex-Georgian President: Mr. Trump, Putin does not bluff but you have the upper hand – use it

As in the U.S., politics in the former Soviet Union can be highly polarized. But in the run-up to President Donald Trump’s summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday, many in my region share the same concern: Will the self-described “master negotiator” agree to a deal that poses an existential threat to American allies in Eastern Europe?

I am somewhat more optimistic about the summit’s prospects for several reasons—but cautiously so.

First, I have known Trump for many years. In 2012, when I was the president of Georgia, he visited my country to evaluate potential real estate development.

After this visit, Trump praised our favorable business environment and simple taxation system. My team and I carried out the reforms that created this environment, and we did it to reject the Soviet legacy of corruption, opacity, and nepotism—which still characterize the Russian system. During our conversations, I had the sense that Trump understood this reality. I hope and believe his clear-eyed understanding of Russia’s business environment bodes well for Monday’s summit. 

Second, while it is true that Putin tried to meddle in the U.S. elections and almost certainly favored Trump, it is also true that the Russian leader seriously miscalculated Trump’s motivations. Putin expected to get an American version of his old Italian friend Silvio Berlusconi, who could be easily corrupted and manipulated. Instead, Putin got a determined, nationalistic, and highly unpredictable U.S. president—who staffed his national security team with well-known Russia hawks and Putin critics, such as John Bolton, Fiona Hill, and Gen. James Mattis.

Third, the Trump administration went beyond formal compliance with CAATSA in imposing historically harsh sanctions on Russian power brokers earlier this year. In my region, sanctioning government officials is not enough: Oligarchs and the authorities have always been inextricably linked.

For the first time in the history of the U.S.-Russian bilateral relationship, the Trump administration acknowledged this nuance, by imposing sanctions on politically-connected oligarchs. These sanctions dismantled any pretense that oligarchs are legitimate business owners by treating them as they are—subsidiaries of the Russian government.

I have several other reasons for optimism, including Trump’s criticism of the Nord Stream II pipeline deal at this week’s NATO summit and his authorization of lethal defensive weapons sales to Ukraine and Georgia last year—a dramatic reversal of Obama’s policy.

In spite of these promising signs, however, I must caution Trump to avoid the mistakes his predecessors have made with regards to Putin’s Russia.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, I sensed a widespread perception among Americans that the U.S. had “won” the Cold War. Since then, American policymakers have consistently underestimated Russia’s ambitions. Many opinion leaders and policymakers believed we had reached “the end of history,” where the liberal world order, predicated on self-determination, multilateralism, and territorial integrity, had triumphed for good over totalitarianism, imperialism, and bipolar spheres of influence.

The Western misperception of the Russian threat—in tandem with Putin’s obsession with the “Western threat”—had devastating consequences for my region, including Putin’s invasions and annexations of Georgia and Ukraine.

Unlike many of his Western counterparts, Putin does not bluff. He is honest about his ambitions. And why shouldn’t he be honest, when he does not have to pay the political price? Nevertheless, Western leaders often fail to listen.

Unlike the American foreign policy agenda at times, the Russian agenda is clear and consistent. Putin will continue instigating and exploiting “frozen conflicts” in NATO-aspirant post-Soviet countries like Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova, so that no independent state in his backyard will be welcomed into the Western alliance. Moreover, by promoting nationalistic, extremist, and corrupt politicians in the former Soviet space, Putin weakens Russia’s neighbors by amplifying social divisions.

The Helsinki summit is arguably the biggest test of Trump's foreign policy acumen thus far, and he cannot afford to fail.

As someone who has met with Vladimir Putin more than thirty times, has had to repeal his military attack and survived assassination threats from him, I have the following recommendations for President Trump: Be Reaganesque. Talk to the Russians, but start tough, and remember to “trust but verify” at each turn.

Both Presidents Bush and Obama made the same mistake of trying to reset relations with Russia early in their presidencies. By hiding the sticks and producing too many carrots, Bush and Obama attempted to demonstrate good will—which Putin interpreted as weakness. The language of sheer force is what Putin understands best.

President Trump should not lose sight of the fact that he doesn’t owe Putin anything: Indeed, Trump holds the upper hand.

Despite Putin’s bravado, the sanctions are hurting him tremendously. And the very fact of the meeting legitimizes Putin in the eyes of Russian elite, who were getting nervous during the long delay in holding the summit.

Now, it’s America’s turn to make demands. Russia should stop positioning itself as equal to the United States and stop pretending its foreign adventures, be they in Syria, Ukraine or Georgia, are part of a global fight against American expansionism. Moreover, Russia must stop threatening the U.S. with new weaponry, as Putin did during a recent address to the Russian Parliament.

Furthermore, Trump must dash Putin’s hopes that the U.S. will ever accept Russia’s land grabs in the former Soviet space. In this respect, not only Ukraine should be mentioned, but also Georgia—where Russia occupies one-fifth of the NATO ally’s territory, in violation of a withdrawal agreement Moscow had previously signed.

The bottom line should be that America will respect the borders of Russia if Russia starts to respect the borders of its neighbors. Unlike many in my region, I believe Trump should make a deal with Putin, with very specific terms: America will not undermine Putin’s regime inside Russia—Putin’s greatest fear—if Putin stops undermining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of other countries. Only if Russia withdraws unconditionally from Ukraine and Georgia should the U.S. agree to discuss lifting sanctions.

Finally, Trump—and the rest of the world—would do well to manage expectations. A real deal cannot be made at the very first summit, as Reagan’s experience with Gorbachev demonstrated.  When Gorbachev tried to sell their first summit in Iceland as a success, Reagan bluntly contradicted his Soviet counterpart. Only with calculated skepticism in the beginning will the U.S. achieve victory in the end.