You really have to admit that Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump make for strange bedfellows. So strange in fact, don’t rule out one of them will be pushed out of bed by the other, or both will fall to the floor. If irreconcilable economic differences don’t drive them apart, what will, is one has real power while the other desperately tries to show he does.
This is contrary to conventional wisdom, spurred on not only by the belief that Russian hackers helped pave the way for Trump’s victory in the US 2016 presidential election, but also by the complimentary statements made toward each other — if not the almost adoring facial expressions — by the two men during the news conference following their first personal meeting (or so we think) at the recent summit in Helsinki. It is widely held — at least for now — that although they are certainly the “Odd Couple”, there is a robust bromance.
Like many romances, how long the courtship will endure, let alone turn into a lasting relationship, is anybody’s guess. But one would do well to begin planning now for a divorce — perhaps far sooner than most anyone expects. And if there is a divorce, given the make-up of the two men — which is hardly difficult to discern — it is unlikely to be an amicable one.
To be sure, they share some similarities in personalities that could make them a compatible couple.
Both tend to govern through threats, although Trump’s moods are far more mercurial, changing minute by minute from attacking an opponent to heaping affection on them. Both pursued career paths quite different from politics: Trump inherited his father’s real estate business, while Putin chose the spy route — although he has become quite “the businessman”, amassing massive wealth and effectively controlling most of the largest industrial enterprises in Russia.
Both exercise a top-down style of management over staff. And, both profess to want to make their countries “great again”. But for Trump the goal is building “Fortress America”, whereas Putin’s aim is to take over neighbouring countries in pursuit of his not too-well hidden agenda of trying to recreate the Soviet Union.
But the differences in demeanour between the two men — perhaps most importantly what they really think about each other — are far more striking.
It’s hardly a secret that Putin abhors Hillary Clinton — just as she does him. We will never know for certain what was the real motivation behind Moscow’s intervention in the last US presidential contest, but having worked extensively as an economic adviser on the ground in Russia for many years — beginning before and into much of the early Putin period — my bet is the Kremlin’s actions were driven less because Putin specifically wanted Trump to win and far more to both make sure it was “anybody but Hilary” and cause political upheaval in America.
Trump is likely suffering from a significant illusion believing that among the Republican candidates he alone was the object of Putin’s affection. Rather, Putin was thinking along the lines of former US. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld who said during the Iraq war: “you go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”
Putin has no check on his power domestically. There is no political opposition, and while there are street protests against his rule from time to time, they are not systematic.
However, if oil prices plummet again and further constrain the economy — as they did several years ago — the disincentives against organised challenges to his authority could be significantly blunted.
In contrast, Trump is arguably governing a country that is visibly more deeply divided at any time since the US Civil War, but he is immune from political challenge from a legislative branch where both chambers are in his party. The upcoming Congressional elections this November, however, may alter that constellation considerably if the Democrats score large victories, perhaps even gaining control of one or both of the houses.
The far bigger domestic threat Trump faces is the Special Prosecutor, Robert Muller, who is conducting an ever-expanding investigation of both Trump’s potential intervention in the 2016 electoral process and the conflicts of interest stemming from his financial empire.
So, while there are strongman similarities between the two men, they are more superficial than meets the eye. One has to wonder if this bromance were to continue how long will it be before Putin turns on Trump himself and truly tries to subjugate him.
There is substantially little in the national economic realm that binds these two men. The size of the US economy, with a GDP of $19 trillion, is at present about five times Russia’s GDP of $3.7 trillion. And, per capita income in the US ($60,000) is more than twice Russia’s ($28,000).
The population of the US is rapidly growing and foreigners are clamouring to immigrate to the US. In Russia, it’s the reverse: the size of the population is declining, and if they had the wherewithal, many Russians would gleefully emigrate from the Motherland.
Annual net inflows of foreign direct investment to the US in 2017 were $349 billion; for Russia it was $28 billion — about 8 per cent of the US. Adjusting for population, FDI inflows per capita to the US were almost six times the amount flowing into Russia.
Finally, perhaps the most well-known fact about Russia’s economy: it is hugely dependent on oil and gas as a source of total merchandise export revenues, roughly 60 per cent. By contrast, oil accounts for about 10 per cent of US merchandise exports. While not the only factor, the result is a diversified, resilient US economy.
It is only a bit of an exaggeration to say that Putin’s economy remains as undiversified and ossified as when I began working in Russia in 1997. But now that Russia has become a major exporter of cyber weapons of mass destruction, perhaps greater diversification of the Russian economy is just around the corner!
The writer is CEO and Managing Partner of Proa Global Partners LLC and a faculty member at Johns Hopkins University.