Foreign ministries around the world are filled with anticipation over what will happen when Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump meet for the first time at the G20 summit. But veteran U.S. spies who’ve studied manipulation tactics, particularly from their Russian counterparts, are confident they know what’s going to unfold.
Putin, a former KGB operations officer, will not just be practicing interpersonal diplomacy, they say. He’ll be putting his tradecraft as a spy to work. His main asset: Trump’s massive, delicate ego.
It won’t just be the expected flattery, from the spies’ perspective, though flattery is key to dealing with the “sociopathic narcissist” tendencies one ex-CIA interrogator sees in Trump. Putin is likely to stoke Trump’s ire, encourage him against his perceived enemies and validate his inclinations – particularly the ones that move U.S. policy in the directions Putin wants.
Nowhere are the stakes higher than in Moscow. The Trump-Putin meeting, say Russian politicians and Putin’s former KGB colleagues, is an overdue opportunity to equalize the Washington-Moscow relationship.
“Putin,” one-time KGB general Oleg Kalugin told The Daily Beast, “he has been in power for so many years and, by character, he knows how to handle things and how to outsmart others, including presidents of the United States.”
While everything about this meeting is momentous, the two sides are not on equal diplomatic footing. Russia’s interference in the 2016 election – something U.S. intelligence characterizes as a certainty, while Trump, again, casts doubt on that conclusion – has created a political maelstrom for Trump. Everything resulting from the meeting will be scrutinized in Washington, particularly amongst Trump’s political opposition, for signs of a quid pro quo. Meanwhile, observers have a hard time understanding what U.S. policy toward Russia, its decades-long adversary, even is anymore.
Putin is filling that vacuum. Ahead of meeting the U.S. president in Hamburg, his foreign ministry has said the agenda will concern everything from Syria to Ukraine to returning two intelligence complexes on U.S. soil – even to gay rights in Chechnya. Meanwhile, Trump national security adviser H.R. McMaster has said there won’t be a “specific agenda” for discussion, beyond “whatever the president wants to talk about.” There is confusion on the U.S. side about whether McMaster’s Russia chief, the Putin skeptic Fiona Hill, will attend the meeting.
Putin, former spies say, is well-positioned to dominate the meeting. Whether he wants commitments from Trump on specific things or simply a grip-and-grin photo op, Putin stands a good chance of getting his way – provided he tells Trump to ignore the losers and the critics and portrays what Putin wants as how Trump gets the drop on them yet again.
“Trump is just about a sociopathic narcissist,” said Glenn Carle, a retired CIA interrogator and analyst. “That’s not to denounce him, just an assessment of the guy…. Fulsome praise, full of garbage, is a small price to pay to get what you want.”
To cultivate Trump, Carle said, “you praise and piss him off at the same time. You want to push his buttons to get him to do something reflexive.” That is, point Trump’s fury in the direction of what Putin can portray as a mutual enemy – even if it’s a traditional U.S. ally.
“What do they want? Say it’s eastern Ukraine. You continue to undermine the U.S. commitment and the need for NATO, and you do that by talking about what he thinks he understands: money and trade. You build upon the spurious line that Germany and NATO are free riders, bilking Americans out of money. ‘Why should Americans die for some Krauts?’ That plays in the Peoria that is Trump’s mind.”
“The truly scary part is Putin only has to say to Trump ‘you are right and the haters are wrong’ to manipulate him,” adds Naveed Jamali, a former undercover FBI double agent. The Russians, Jamali added, are “devious motherfuckers,” skilled at manipulating others into doing their bidding without recognizing it.
The last time Trump met with Russian dignitaries, he shared with them intelligence on the so-called Islamic State provided to the U.S. by Israel. This time, Trump’s briefers in the CIA may be more likely to obscure their sources of information while providing Trump with what he needs to know ahead of the economic summit, said Paul Pillar, a former senior CIA analyst – something which, in turn, may impact Putin’s goals for their meeting.
“I’d not look at it as an opportunity to squeeze secrets out of Trump but rather to [maneuver] U.S. policy,” Pillar said, whether on Ukraine, lifting Obama-era sanctions on Russia, or Syria. For that, Putin is likely to rely on “techniques of flattery.”
A test case for Russia came in Saudi Arabia, Jamali said. There, the Saudis threw Trump a massive party for the president’s first foreign trip, replete with nonstop flattery, a dance involving swords and a photo with a mysterious orb that garnered worldwide publicity. Weeks later, with Saudi Arabia in a massive regional dispute with Qatar, Trump openly backed the Saudi side even as his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, called for an end to the conflict.
The Saudi Arabia visit might also provide a template for Russia for a different reason.
With Russia at the center of the scandal overhanging the Trump administration, no one interviewed for this story expected the Putin-Trump meeting to yield immediate deliverables or anything else that Trump’s critics can portray as a favor for Putin. But late Wednesday, Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, floated a possible expansion of U.S.-Russian cooperation on Syria, creating the possibility that the G20 meetup will yield a shifted course for the U.S. on terms favorable to Russia.
In the absence of a clear Russia policy from the young administration, Putin’s goal for the meeting is to maneuver that emerging policy in his favor – or, failing that, encourage the chaos that tends to characterize Trump’s foreign policies.
“Putin’s minimum objective will be to demonstrate that Russia is a co-equal power, which he can achieve with a simple handshake-and-smile photo,” said Evelyn Farkas, the Pentagon’s top Russia policy official in the Obama administration. Beyond that is for Trump to give a “verbal commitment to work toward returning the intelligence [facilities] shut down by Obama” or a similar pledge to “work to modify or eliminate sanctions on Russia.”
In Moscow, all this appears as the U.S. finally giving Russia its due.
"Trump should be calm, listen to all Putin's arguments and avoid making any spontaneous decisions," former parliamentarian and KGB officer Gennady Gudkov, an opposition leader, told The Daily Beast.
"Putin is going to be charming, as to him Trump is more important than most of his closest cronies; the Kremlin depends on the future relations with U.S.A, they live with Trump on their mind."
Russian Senator Alexsei Pushkov, a Kremlin ally who chairs the information policy committee, wrote on Twitter that the stakes go beyond two presidents. “U.S.A cannot be solving global issues alone any longer,” he tweeted.
And in Moscow, the civil war in Ukraine is expected to dominate Putin’s discussions with Trump.
The Kremlin's spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, said that the meeting with Trump will be Putin's "good chance to reiterate Russia's stance that the Minsk accords have no alternative, that the Minsk accords [on the fighting in Ukraine] must be implemented, and that measures should be taken to stop provocations, which unfortunately Ukraine's military forces still carry out."
Kalugin, the former KGB general, said everything about the imminent meeting left him with a good feeling about Trump’s relationship with Putin.
“Honestly, I remain optimistic that as President Trump gains more and more experience as the leader of a great country, I think he will come to some solution and find common language with Putin. As I said, I’m fairly optimistic,” Kalugin said.
— Anna Nemtsova contributed to this report.