I’m surprised that there are foreign-policy experts quoted here who think this was a fool’s errand by Putin driven by his misunderstanding of how the U.S. government works. Seems to me he understands how things work well enough and wanted to strike while the iron was hot. More than that, he was gambling that Trump’s interest in detente was so fervent that it might lead the impetuous new president to lunge at Moscow’s offer. Was that such a longshot gamble?
One other thing unmentioned: The fact that Trump didn’t take Putin up on his offer undercuts the idea of collusion between Team Trump and Russia. If it’s true that Trump’s campaign was coordinating with the Kremlin last year to sink Hillary then Putin obviously has evidence of it, and that evidence would probably sink Trump’s presidency. Trump would be in no position to turn down an “offer” of normalization from Moscow, whatever the political consequences domestically. The fact that he did means either that Putin doesn’t have leverage over him after all or, if you’re wedded to the collusion theory like Hillary Clinton is, that the offer of normalization was a ruse concocted by Putin for the express purpose of being rejected by Trump, to “prove” that he’s not under the Kremlin’s thumb.
Although, if you believe that, you have to explain why the ruse was kept secret until now instead of being strategically leaked six months ago when it was made.
The proposal, spelled out in a detailed document obtained by BuzzFeed News, called for the wholesale restoration of diplomatic, military and intelligence channels severed between the two countries after Russia’s military interventions in Ukraine and Syria…
By April, a top Russian cyber official, Andrey Krutskikh, would meet with his American counterpart for consultations on “information security,” the document proposed. By May, the two countries would hold “special consultations” on the war in Afghanistan, the Iran nuclear deal, the “situation in Ukraine,” and efforts to denuclearize the “Korean Peninsula.” And by the time Putin and Trump held their first meeting, the heads of the CIA, FBI, National Security Council and Pentagon would meet face-to-face with their Russian counterparts to discuss areas of mutual interest. A raft of other military and diplomatic channels opened during the Obama administration’s first-term “reset” would also be restored…
“It just ignores everything that caused the relationship to deteriorate and pretends that the election interference and the Ukraine crisis never happened,” said Angela Stent, a former national intelligence officer on Russia during the George W. Bush administration who also reviewed the document…
“Putin doesn’t seem to understand that Trump’s powers are not the same as his,” said Steven Pifer, a Russia expert at the Brookings Institution. “The checks and balances, the special prosecutor and congressional investigations have tied Trump’s hands in ways that didn’t occur to Putin.”
I … don’t know why these people think none of that occurred to Putin. It’s more likely that all of it occurred to him. That’s why he pushed this deal so soon after Trump took office and wanted it implemented “immediately,” per BuzzFeed. He knew his window to make a deal with Trump was small and would get smaller as the FBI investigation into Russiagate dragged on. As the probe developed, it would get harder for Trump politically to pursue diplomacy with Russia; the smart move was to reach out to him quickly and see if he’d agree to a grand bargain. Most would-be presidents wouldn’t consider such a thing knowing how a splashy reconciliation between Washington and Moscow would look to the public while suspicions of Russian interference during the campaign on Trump’s behalf were high. But Trump isn’t most presidents. Putin probably made this offer to test just how much of a loose cannon POTUS really is. Would he *actually* consider a Russian reset with the Russiagate investigation in full swing, knowing how dubious that would look? Trump being Trump, it was reasonable to think that he would, that he might even enjoy extending a symbolic middle finger to Hillary, Comey, and the intelligence community by proceeding full speed ahead with his plans for rapprochement with Russia regardless of the DOJ investigation. It’d be his way of showing his critics that their Russiagate nonsense wasn’t going to stop him from doing what he wanted to do as president.
There’s another reason why Putin would want to act quickly. Mike Flynn was dismissed in mid-February and replaced by H.R. McMaster as national security advisor. The Kremlin no doubt figured, again quite reasonably, that Flynn’s departure would mean the White House would soon become much less friendly to the idea of detente with Russia. The March offer of normalization was probably an attempt to lock Trump into a “reset” before the Russia skeptics surrounding him in the West Wing started whispering to him to hold off. Putin may have calculated that a quick deal followed by some sort of rapid policy achievement for the United States might convince America to stick to the deal even if the Russiagate investigation went sideways and started to damage Trump. The White House and State Department could point to that achievement as a reason to maintain the reset even if someone like Paul Manafort or Flynn was implicated in campaign collusion. So long as Americans are benefiting from better relations with Russia, the argument would go, collusion with Russia by members of Team Trump should be no cause for interrupting those relations. America First, right? But Russia had to move fast to get the “deal” in place. Lo and behold, by May Comey had been fired — a momentous political mistake according to even Steve Bannon — and suddenly Bob Mueller was on the case, sniffing around obstruction-of-justice charges. By that point a grand bargain would have stunk too much for the White House to tolerate.
Point being, I don’t how Putin’s offer “ignores everything that caused the relationship to deteriorate.” Putin thought Trump was hellbent on partnering with Russia despite the many things that caused the relationship to deteriorate, and he had ample reason to believe that given Trump’s endless whitewashing of Russian behavior abroad during the campaign. So he threw Trump a line while there was still a chance he might bite. He didn’t. But maybe, if Mueller turns up nothing too incriminating on any Trump underlings, he will in a year or two.