There have been a lot of column inches devoted to the danger of Donald Trump, if elected, becoming a puppet of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin itself has peddled this vision of the future in its propaganda, both domestically and in Ukraine. In this scenario, President Trump lifts U.S. sanctions on Russia and recognizes the annexation of Crimea, and the U.S. all but drops out of NATO. It’s a frightening prospect: two world-class bullies becoming best buddies across the ocean.
But that is not going to happen—it’ll be worse.
Why? First, Russia is effectively in a state of war with the U.S. Its military doctrine, adopted in December 2014, identifies NATO as Russia’s enemy No. 1. Russian propaganda makes clear that by NATO, they mean the U.S. Turn on Russian TV day or night and you will hear that America is waging war against Russia. Ukraine and Syria are mere proxies, where Russians are fighting imagined U.S. aggression.
This anti-American act will not be dropped if a friendly politician comes to power in the U.S. Putin’s authority rests on an ongoing mobilization of Russian society, and the vision of America as an all-powerful enemy is the basis of this mobilization. There is no substitute.
Second, Trump is similar to Putin in a key way: he dreams of the sort of popularity that can be secured only by conjuring enemies and waging wars. If elected, he will rattle sabers all the way, and he will quickly realize that he has the ultimate saber at his disposal: a nuclear one. Here Putin, who regularly reminds his audiences that he has the nuclear option, will be his role model—and his opponent. We will quickly come to the brink of nuclear war.
The Russian military doctrine reserves the right of nuclear strike in case of aggression—including non-nuclear aggression—against Russia or its allies. The term allies is not defined by any treaty. In other words, Russia simply reserves the right of first strike.
U.S. policy toward Putin under President Obama is best described as strategic nonengagement. First the U.S. tried to empower nominal Russian President Dmitri Medvedev. Later, with the invasion of Ukraine, the U.S. imposed sanctions on Russia and has since tried to limit engagement over Syria. It would be a stretch to call these policies successful, but they might be the best strategy against an unhinged bully. Confrontation will certainly be more dangerous for the U.S., Russia and the world.
Gessen is a Russian-American journalist and the author of The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin