President Trump made many mistakes during Friday’s summit with Vladimir Putin, beginning by saying it was an “honor” to meet with the Russian strongman.
But the most disheartening takeaway from the meeting is that, like Barack Obama and John Kerry before them, Trump and his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, fundamentally do not understand the nature of the man they’re dealing with. Putin is not an “unpredictable” crank or a “bored kid in the back of the classroom,” as Obama called him, or a mindless spoiler for a fight. Trump has given Putin “an ‘A’ for leadership,” but apparently has given little thought as to where Putin was leading Russia and why.
Yet there is no mystery here. Putin is a Soviet patriot to the core, guided by deeply held beliefs, a self-imposed historic mission and domestic political imperatives. The failure of successive U.S. presidents goes a long way toward explaining the present situation—we’ve been getting Putin wrong since he first took power nearly two decades ago.