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The Guardian view on Trump and Putin: mind games and the risk of a misstep

Donald Trump is expected to hold his first meeting as US president with Vladimir Putin on Friday, at the G20 summit in Hamburg. On Thursday, visiting Poland, he expressed support for Nato’s collective security guarantees and urged Russia to “cease its destabilising activities in Ukraine and elsewhere”. Last month the US broadened sanctions against Russian companies and individuals. This will, to a degree, have reassured allies. But the message has come late, and will not dispel Mr Putin’s hopes of capitalising on the growing gap between Mr Trump and the Europeans.

The Russian president is an adept practitioner of mind games. He was schooled in them as a KGB counter-intelligence officer. With the international liberal order shaken by Mr Trump’s ascendance, never has so much uncertainty hung over a high-level US-Russia encounter in the post-Soviet era. This reflects Mr Trump’s unpredictability as much as Mr Putin’s tactics: on the eve of the meeting, even Mr Trump’s aides seemed to be in the dark as to what he would do or say.

To be sure, Mr Trump is likely to claim “a HUGE success!” afterwards. But the greater likelihood is that Mr Putin will have had a cakewalk. Mr Trump is the fourth US president that he has sounded out. In 2001, George W Bush famously said he looked into Mr Putin’s eyes at their first meeting and “was able to get a sense of his soul”. Mr Putin had told the story of a family Orthodox cross miraculously found in the rubble of a burned-down dacha – appealing to Mr Bush’s religious sentiment. It worked quite well. For a time. Later events showed how fraught the relationship would become, whether over Nato plans or the 2008 Georgia war. When Barack Obama arrived, he attempted a “reset” with Russia. But it quickly foundered, not least because of Russia’s growing authoritarianism, its aggression in Ukraine and its intervention in Syria.

America is incomparably richer and more powerful than Russia, but Mr Trump enters this meeting with a weak hand. Investigations into Moscow’s meddling in US elections and connections between Mr Trump’s campaign team and Kremlin-connected networks make for a toxic backdrop. (On Thursday, he was still busy questioning Russia’s hand in the hacking). Any concession he makes will draw suspicion, and any pressure he may exert will look like grandstanding.

Mr Trump’s grasp of complex international issues is limited, to put it mildly, and stands in contrast to the emphatic way Mr Putin likes to demonstrate his mastery of detail. Mr Trump counts on his gut. Mr Putin, who reads intelligence files closely, has a special talent for finessing and outmanoeuvring interlocutors.

There is immense expertise on Mr Putin and Russia in the Trump White House: Fiona Hill, in charge of Russia policy at the National Security Council, wrote a book that says just about everything Mr Trump needs to know. But, of course, he won’t have bothered to read any of it; nor is he prone to listening to sound advice. A monumental Trump misstep is very possible in Hamburg: suddenly selling out Ukraine, or offering Russia sanctions relief with no conditions attached. Mr Putin will sniff out the egomania, and play on the narcissism. His technique is to give the person he is talking to the impression that he is in agreement, only for it to turn out that his meticulously chosen words carried nuances which amounted in fact to total disagreement. He can say he has lived up to exactly what he said; it’s just that what he said won’t be the words that Mr Trump thought he heard.

What Mr Trump and Mr Putin do have in common is not encouraging. They are illiberals with a zero-sum game view of the world and utter disdain for democracy. They lie abundantly. They overdo the alpha-male, macho stunts. They target journalists. They associate with ultra-traditionalist, intolerant Christian ideologues. Much of this was on show in Mr Trump’s Warsaw speech. His embrace of a nationalist, populist government strongly at odds with the EU said a lot about his notion of “the west”.

The “barbarians at the gate” address reflected the ideological fixations of his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, and speechwriter, Stephen Miller. But Mr Trump’s inconsistent and incoherent foreign policy record seems to owe more to impulse, egotism and the last voice he has heard than a sustained worldview. Of course, US-Russia dialogue is needed on many crucial issues, from the Middle East to North Korea. The question is with what goals and what leverage one approaches the Russian president. Mr Putin’s hostility to Europe’s institutions and values comes with a strategic calculus. Europeans can only hope that Mr Trump will stick to his briefing notes. Mr Putin assumes he won’t.