“Our Biggest Mistake Is That We Trusted You Too Much”: Geopolitics, Donald Trump, and Vladimir Putin’s Historical Memory

By Jeffrey A. Engel

Trust matters in international affairs. Unquantifiable and invisible, its presence can nonetheless bridge seemingly insurmountable divides. 

President Trump’s unprecedented trust in Russian President Vladimir Putin runs counter to the advice of intelligence experts and Russian-American relations historically. Kremlin.ru/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 4.0

Trust, and its counterpart betrayal, can also be manipulated by those determined to rewrite history in their favor.

The history of Russian-American relations during the Cold War’s end and after is a case in point. The multigenerational struggle could not have ended without some modicum of trust between the superpowers. Ronald Reagan trusted Soviet reforms enough to ramp down his own virulent anticommunism, thereby allowing Mikhail Gorbachev to trust that he could safely implement the military cutbacks and political restructuring his country required. Together the pair did not end the Cold War. But their trust preconditioned its demise.

Russian President Vladimir Putin does not consider this tale a happy one. He instead blames unfulfilled Western promises for a litany of Russian woes over the last quarter century. In his view, Russians trusted the West to provide economic aid, political support, and above all acceptance into a broader European security environment in exchange for their peacefully transforming the snarling Soviet Bear of the Cold War into the playful cub of Gorbachev’s dreams. They received instead poverty, isolation, and the Iron Curtain of old moved closer to Moscow.

More than merely a litany of broken promises, this reading of history underlies Putin’s entire political agenda, or more accurately, what he tells Russians in order to maintain political power: with him in charge, they shall be wealthy, important, too strong to ignore or hem in ever again. “Nobody wanted to listen to us” during the Soviet Union’s final days, he has explained to voters. His reign allows Russians to say today, “So, listen now.”

Western leaders promised to ameliorate the economic pain of the Soviet Union’s unprecedented transition from communism to capitalism, Putin claims, for example. Russia’s economy instead cratered. By the mid-1990s, as Western stock markets boomed, the typical Russian consumed fewer calories per day than before the Bolshevik Revolution.

In Putin’s retelling, Western leaders also promised to welcome the Soviets (and their successors) with open arms, embracing what Gorbachev called their shared “European common home.” This did not happen either. The European Union did not beckon, and it took 18 years for Russia to join the World Trade Organization, by which time their honorary membership in the G-7 cohort of the world’s most advanced economies had been rescinded.

Most dire of all, Western leaders also broke their fundamental security promises. In Putin’s version of events, President George H. W. Bush and a host of European leaders agreed to curtail NATO’s expansion eastward in exchange for Soviet compliance on German unification. NATO instead moved hundreds of miles closer to Russia’s Western border, incorporating former Soviet allies and regions, in Putin’s eyes violating the spirit of that critical informal accord.

Invocation of these failed promises fuel Putin’s distrust of the democratic forces Gorbachev unleashed. Stationed in Dresden when the Berlin Wall fell, he witnessed the Kremlin’s new Western-leaning leadership fail even to defend its own troops—HIS troops—when threatened by East German mobs. “Moscow is silent,” was all he heard in response to his pleas for reinforcements. Democracy meant the “paralysis of power,” he subsequently concluded.

He promised instead to make Russia strong and respected again, in part by avoiding his predecessor’s essential blunder. “The biggest mistake our country made was that we put too much trust in” the United States and its allies, Putin recently declared. The word only appears in his vocabulary as an epithet, highlighting a historical lesson Russians should well heed.

Reality is more complicated. The history of Russian-American relations over the past quarter century cannot be reduced to a single declaration of promises kept or broken, especially as the question of Washington’s supposed promise to contain NATO has spawned a vibrant historiographical debate. Yet arguments among historians ultimately mean politically less than Putin’s masterful manipulation of history to bolster his own fortunes. Russia’s woes can be blamed on others, he repeatedly claims, arguing America’s “mistake was that you saw this trust as a lack of power and you abused it,” while lambasting weak Russian leaders for naively allowing their country to be betrayed.

Only one prominent global leader today still believes trust can overcome Putin’s animus. He happens to be president of the United States. Even as Donald Trump campaigned against the naïve trust previous generations of American leaders placed in international organizations, international treaties, and the international marketplace, deriding the very notion of a world built on trust rather than hard power, he has consistently made an exception when it comes to his counterpart in the Kremlin.

“Every time he [Putin] sees me he says, ‘I didn’t do that,’” Trump told reporters a year after winning office, referring to the Russian meddling in the 2016 American election. No other Western leader or intelligence head shares his belief. “I really believe” Putin’s cries of innocence, Trump nonetheless insists. “I strongly pressed President Putin twice about Russian meddling in our election . . . . He vehemently denied it.” His more recent condemnation of Russian actions in Britain and Syria especially offer a harsher tone than ever before, yet still fall short of Washington’s closest allies and America’s own intelligence services.

Such open opposition by an American president to his own national security apparatus is unprecedented. “The fact that the President would take Putin at his word over that of the intelligence community is quite simply unconscionable,” a former director of national intelligence opined.

This disparity of opinion between the experts and the Oval Office is what makes Trump’s repeated expressions of trust in Vladimir Putin troubling. Mutual trust can work wonders, but cannot grow either in the kind of toxic soil Putin’s tales of Western malfeasance provides, or in Trump’s (again unprecedented for their frequency) steady stream of misinformation and falsehoods. Historians debate what really happened in the 1990s, some doubting if Western promises were ever sincere, or in some cases ever made, while others place blame for Russia’s subsequent retreat from real democracy on the Russian people themselves. Putin only cares about how his version of events might be politically useful. “The falsification and manipulation of historical facts leads to the disunity of countries and people,” he recently intoned while critiquing Russia’s foreign foes, producing “the emergence of new dividing lines, creating the image of an enemy.”

Trump knows well how statements repeated often enough can shape reality itself, though his desire for a more trusting Russo-American relationship does not fully explain his diplomatic choices. Perhaps his amiable outreach to Moscow derives from an as yet unknown level of Russian influence and control over his White House. Alternatively, perhaps it suggests Machiavellian genius, or at least its pretension. Seeing little to gain from lambasting an international competitor with whom he has no choice but to work, he offers hope instead. “Now is the time to move forward in working constructively with Russia,” Trump recently tweeted.

We professional historians must await further evidence before fully answering those questions, a process that typically requires decades. In the nearer term, Trump’s well-documented ignorance of history offers a more reasonable explanation for his unprecedented deployment of trust in a relationship in which so many others counsel caution. Perhaps he simply does not know the real history of Russian-American relations since 1991. Perhaps he is unaware of Putin’s record. This short explanation of trust’s place in Russian-American relations since the Cold War can explain Vladimir Putin’s systemic distrust of American promises. It cannot explain Trump’s reasons for trusting a man no other Western leader would.

Jeffrey A. Engel is the founding director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University. Author or editor of 10 books on American foreign policy and the American presidency, his most recent is When the World Seemed New: George H. W. Bush and the End of the Cold War (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017).

Established by the AHA in 2002, the National History Center brings historians into conversations with policymakers and other leaders to stress the importance of historical perspectives in public decision-making. Today’s author, Jeffrey Engel, recently presented in the NHC’s Washington History Seminar program on “When the World Seemed New: George H.W. Bush and the End of the Cold War.”

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  1. Valent Lau

    Trust is so important, without trust nothing in the world would get done. Reality can be manipulated so much now by media coverage it’s a bit worrying.

    Reply