You'd think no one had tried to work with Russian President Vladimir Putin before. Every time President-elect Trump sides with Moscow's hard man, his supporters rush to tell us that the Cold War is over, that successive Western leaders have encircled and humiliated Russia, that we should be working together against Islamist terrorism and so on. Putin's admirers in Europe, including Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen, take the same line.
In fact, every American president who's dealt with Putin began by seeking better relations. At their first meeting in 2001, George W. Bush "looked the man in the eye, and found him to be very straightforward." By the end of his time in office, in August 2008, President Bush was flying American-equipped Georgian soldiers back from Afghanistan to resist Putin's invasion of their country.
Nine months later, Hillary Clinton presented her opposite number with a button that was supposed to say "reset" in Russian, but in fact said "overload." President Obama canceled the European missile defense shield, horrifying the Czech and Polish governments who, for the sake of their alliance with America, had agreed to host the installations despite domestic opposition. Soon afterward, he reversed the sanctions against Russia's state-run arms export agency, which had been selling weapons to Iran.
Once again, Putin pocketed the concessions and then, when he felt like it, helped himself to a slice of another neighboring state, this time Ukraine.
When he got away with that too, he decided to press Hillary's "overload" button and authorized an unprecedented intervention in an American presidential election. Incredibly, that, too, seems to be paying off.
Lots of people have tried to get inside the mind of Vladimir Putin, whose inscrutable features always remind me of Dobby the House Elf from the "Harry Potter" films. What is he trying to achieve by sponsoring wars in contiguous countries, or threatening to switch off gas supplies, or propping up Bashar Assad in Syria, or meddling in U.S. elections? How do any of these things serve Russia's national interests?
The answer is that they don't. The war in Ukraine has hurt Russia's economy both directly, by disrupting trade, and indirectly by provoking sanctions. Refusing to sell gas to willing customers is a poor business strategy. The intervention in Syria is expensive and serves no strategic purpose. Russian spies seem to be needling the United States for the sake of it.
But remember that Putin's interests and Russia's are not the same. Although Putin is an autocrat, his regime depends on a broad measure of public support. That support depends, in turn, on a siege mentality.
Shakespeare's Henry IV gives his son some deathbed advice: "Be it thy course to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels." It worked for Henry V, and it is working for Putin. If you're an authoritarian tough guy, you want your electorate to be in a semi-constant state of anxiety and patriotism. German historians had a name for the phenomenon: "Primat der Innenpolitik," meaning that foreign policy is driven by domestic considerations.
If Russian nationalism were the main consideration, Putin could easily enough secure a win in Ukraine. He might, for example, persuade the international community to recognize his annexation of Crimea, perhaps making a cash payment to Ukraine, in exchange for bringing a halt to the insurrection in the Donbass. But Putin doesn't want a win; he wants a continuing crisis that will boost his approval ratings.
In much the same way, it suits Putin to pose as the champion of the global anti-Western movement — of every third-world conspiracy theorist who dismisses American capitalism as decadent and soulless and run by gays and Jews.
There is no point in trying to draw such a regime into the comity of nations. Foreign aggression is not an accidental side-effect of Putinism; it is its essence. When you're up against states like that, as Donald Rumsfeld used to say, "weakness is provocative."
I realize that quoting that perennial defense secretary will prompt some Trumpsters to howl about neo-con wars, so let me quote a different Donald, one who wrote a book called Time to Get Tough, warning against Russia's plan to build a rival anti-American bloc: "The results of Obama's pandering to Russia have been a total disaster." You were right the first time, Mr. Trump.
Dan Hannan is a British Conservative MEP.