Third, Putin — according to Putin — has never done anything wrong. In his view, current tensions in U.S.-Russian relations are all Obama’s fault, just like they were all the Bush administration’s fault before Obama took office. In his first meeting with Obama in Moscow in July 2009, Putin explained as much about the Bush administration (interestingly, he did not assign fault to Bush personally, but rather blamed those around him), going on for an entire hour without interruption to chronicle all of America’s mistakes up to then. So Putin will be waiting for concessions, rhetorical and substantive, from Trump to get our bilateral relationship on track. Putin, though, will never offer a real concession. He rarely even engages in negotiation. The idea floated by Trump recently that Putin might do him a favor and get out of Ukraine or Syria is laughable. Putin does no one any favors. Geopolitics for him is a zero-sum game.
Fourth, Putin is a persuasive storyteller. In my view, his interpretations of historical events are incomplete, skewed and wrong. But if you don’t know the facts, his arguments can sound persuasive. In his meeting with Obama in June 2012 in Los Cabos, Mexico, Putin articulated a very forceful argument for why strongmen had to guide evolutionary modernization in the Middle East. He portrayed both Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak as such leaders and berated us for giving up on Mubarak too soon. He made clear that he would not do the same to Assad, not because he had a strong personal relationship with the Syrian dictator but because there was no alternative. As I listened, I thought of dozens of flaws in his analysis. But if I didn’t know the history of the region or the academic literature on transitions from authoritarian rule, Putin would have sounded convincing. I worry about the lecture Putin might give to Trump about Arab culture or Crimean history. I’m not confident that Trump knows the details of these issues well enough to push back.