It would be easy for President Trump to walk away from his first meeting with Russia's Vladimir Putin believing it a great success. But the president needs to absorb the fact that nothing is ever easy when it comes to Putin, and nothing is settled.
The White House and the Kremlin were positive about the two-hour-and-15-minute meeting. They said issues of consequence were discussed and that both leaders have high hopes for the future.
Trump apparently confronted Putin over Russia's meddling in the 2016 presidential election, and he procured agreement on a new ceasefire in southern Syria.
Both issues might seem like early wins for Trump, but the truth, as always with Putin, is more complicated.
Short of a threat of retaliating hard against Moscow in the event of a recurrence, it does not greatly matter what Trump said or did not say to Putin about the election. Unless the Russian president faces physical consequences for his cyber malevolence, whether they are new sanctions or covert action, he will care little about being scolded. Indeed, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov claims Trump actually accepted Putin's denial of any election-related hacking.
The agreement on Syria is also concerning. This ceasefire announcement was not some hard-fought win for Trump. It was predictable. It is probably designed to mislead Trump into a false sense of opportunity.
Putin is the master manipulator. He offers gifts in one hand while wielding polonium-tipped knives with the other. He would not have agreed to a ceasefire if he did not believe it would serve Russian interests in Syria. That means Putin believes this ceasefire will strengthen rather than weaken Bashar Assad's grip on power. Conversely, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson restated Friday, Washington's view is that Assad has no long-term role in Syria's political future.
Whether Trump misread the interaction with Putin or misstepped in any way is less important than how Trump follows up. Having met his Russian counterpart, the president must shape his strategy and appropriate tactics to deal with, deter, and contain the Russian in future.
He must balance ambition with wariness. Trump must avoid the error of his two predecessors in believing Putin's blandishments about desiring closer relations with America. Recent history and continued Russian activity tell a different story. Putin is trying to displace American influence from the Middle East, to dilute the power and unity of NATO in Europe, and to degrade an international order that is based on the rule of law.
Trump's hand in playing the great game with Putin contains several strong cards. We do not know what if any hold Putin has on the American president, but Trump must make clear that he is prepared to play his cards to Russia's detriment, if necessary.
The U.S. government is, for example, well aware of Putin's immense vault of wealth filled with the fruits of corruption. American and allied governments also know that Putin is directly responsible for a trail of bloody political assassinations. And behind the scenes, substantial questions linger over Putin's possible "false flag" involvement in the 1999 Moscow apartment bombings.
Also of note is the 2010 air crash that killed then-President of Poland (and brother of the current Polish Prime Minister) Lech Kaczynski. Former National Security Agency officer John Schindler told the Washington Examiner, "I think the Russians have something to hide ... The most benign explanation is it was an accident which Moscow has ruthlessly exploited to divide Poland on this awful issue."
Regardless, Trump's knowledge of Putin's dark arts should help him avoid the bluffs and traps that the Russian leader will set in the days ahead.
Ultimately, Trump must recognize that his dealings with Putin will rarely be simple and never be without risk. Future cooperation may be possible but is far from guaranteed. To protect American interests, Trump will have to cajole and deter the Russian leader. Absent that, Putin will write four more years of destructive history.