Putin, ever the gambler, will continue to seize opportunities as they arise, and bend them to his immediate advantage. Given what’s already been revealed—and the extent to which Congress has tied Trump’s hands on sanctions—he knows that he’ll see no immediate benefit from playing nice. Without meaningful new deterrence, he will continue lashing out as both he and his country age and decline.
Some Americans, including the current president, believe that if only we could identify where our interests align, Russia could be a good partner. But those who have dealt with Putin for decades understand that this is, at best, a fantasy. “Putin defines Russia’s interests in opposition to—and with the objective of thwarting—Western policy,” Ash Carter, Obama’s last defense secretary, told me recently. “It’s very hard to build a bridge to that motivation. It makes it ipso facto impossible” to “work cooperatively with Russia.”
Putin is not a supervillain. He is not invincible, or unstoppable. He pushes only until the moment he meets resistance. His 2014 plans to lop off the eastern third of Ukraine, for instance, broke apart against the surprisingly fierce resistance of the Ukrainian army, and Western sanctions. Obama sanctioned the Russian government for its election interference during his last days in office, closing those Russian compounds and expelling some diplomats, but it was a belated, feeble response. More-forceful options—revealing intelligence that would embarrass Putin, or introducing truly crippling new sanctions—Obama decided not to use.