Senator Marco Rubio calls him a “gangster” akin to Don Corleone in the epic film The Godfather. Senator John McCain refers to him as “an evil man…intent on evil deeds.” Hillary Clinton blasts him as “world-class misogynist” who takes joy in making women feel uncomfortable. Even Michael McFaul, a diplomat who’s supposed to be cautious with his words, thunders about this man’s constant paranoia and all-consuming suspicion of the United States.
The individual in question, of course, is Russian President Vladimir Putin—a guy who supposedly spends every waking moment as though the notorious KGB were still the power behind the throne in the Kremlin. And for the millions of Russians who are living in economic destitution, for Europeans increasingly alarmed by Moscow’s aggressive maneuvers along NATO’s eastern frontier, for Americans who learned early last year that Putin directed an operation to interfere in their presidential election, there is a lot that is disturbing about that picture.
If there’s a foreign policy issue that unites Republicans and Democrats in Washington, it is Putin’s Russia. Every word out of his mouth is analyzed by the U.S. intelligence community for clues about his state of mind. Putin was a household name in the United States even before he authorized a quasi-invasion of his Ukrainian neighbor, bailed out Syria’s Bashar al-Assad from almost certain death, likely ordered or at least condoned the assassination of over a dozen Russian dissidents in the United Kingdom, and unleashed an army of trolls, English-language fake news sites, and falsified social media accounts to divide the American electorate. In 1999, when Boris Yeltsin handed power to his younger lieutenant from St. Petersburg, Putin was at best an unknown commodity. Nineteen years later, he is practically embedded in the American psyche as a double-crosser, a trickster, a liar, an aggressor, a war criminal, and a despot.
It is hard to argue with all that. Even the realists among us who prefer to see the world as a never-ending geopolitical competition cannot deny that Putin prizes a kind of resurgent, autocratic nationalism. The question so many in the U.S. and Western Europe asked after the Soviet Union fell apart—will the new Russia, freed from the shackles of a Soviet police state, become an integrated member of the Western-led, rules-based international order?—is answered for as long as Putin (or a Putin loyalist) remains on top in the Kremlin.
And yet just because Russia misbehaves doesn’t mean that Washington should avoid engaging with it when a problem that negatively impacts both nations arises. While allegations levied by senior Russian officials of a chronic “Russophobia” in American culture goes too far, there is something to be said for how polarizing dialogue with Russia has become in America’s political discourse. Those who advocate for a minor detente with the Russians are too often branded as sympathizers carrying Putin’s load. Others are labeled as peaceniks who fail to recognize just how evil and destabilizing Moscow has become. Russia is no longer just a national security issue; it’s a domestic political issue like tax rates, entitlement spending, and gay marriage. That makes it very difficult for President Trump to probe for opportunities, even small ones, to thaw Russian-American relations.
A case in point: when the Wall Street Journal reported on June 1 that the Trump administration was in the process of preparing a bilateral meeting between Trump and Putin to occur possibly later this year, Twitter and cable television lit up in panic. Michael Carpenter, Russia director at the National Security Council during the Obama administration, commented that a Trump-Putin sitdown would be a “terrible idea”—particularly as Moscow-backed separatists continued to violate a ceasefire by raining down shells on Ukrainian government positions. Another Russia expert and former State Department official remarked that “[t]hings are so far apart between the U.S. and Russia right now that this meeting between Trump and Putin shouldn’t even be happening in the first place…. That this meeting is even being considered gives Putin everything and the U.S. nothing.”
The bipartisan foreign policy establishment in Washington is united behind the idea that to grace Putin with a visit is to reward him for hostile behavior. When reports surfaced earlier in the Trump presidency that the White House was thinking about arranging a visit with the Russian president, you’d have thought Trump was preparing to sign Eastern Europe over to the Kremlin. How could Trump, Russia hawks asked, consider boosting Putin’s legitimacy? Only when Putin changes his behavior and begins acting like a civilized human being can he be invited to Washington for a photo opportunity with the American president.
Statecraft, however, is not like elementary school. Timeouts may be effective penalties for kindergarteners messing with other kids’ building blocks, but those same juvenile tactics are highly unlikely to deter a man like Putin who has persuaded himself that it is his destiny to make Russia great again and protect the Russian people from Washington’s wicked machinations.
Russian-American relations are in the toilet. If we haven’t yet reached peak Cold War-level animus between Washington and Moscow, we are approaching it. Sanctions, military pressure, and the upkeep of the transatlantic alliance all have their places in America’s Russia policy, particularly when Moscow strays far beyond the rules (like invading a neighbor or attempting to murder dissidents on British soil with a nerve agent). But tough, uncomfortable, hard-headed, no-nonsense diplomacy should be a key tool as well. If a Trump-Putin meeting heightens understanding between the two largest nuclear powers and two permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, then it would seem to be more than an appropriate use of the president’s time.
America’s foreign policy and political establishments should open their eyes to the reality we are living in. The U.S. faces a cruel and disorderly world, and Putin’s Russia is a main contributor to its problems. But this isn’t a unique moment, nor is it unprecedented for the U.S. to conduct pragmatic diplomacy with unsavory characters. If Franklin Roosevelt could sit down at Yalta with Joseph Stalin, if Dwight Eisenhower could meet Nikita Khrushchev at Camp David, if Ronald Reagan could hold several summits with Mikhail Gorbachev, why can’t Donald Trump do the same with Vladimir Putin?
Daniel R. DePetris is a foreign policy analyst, a columnist at Reuters, and a frequent contributor to The American Conservative.