Surely, Vladimir Putin let out a smile when he heard it. The Russian president has many reasons to rejoice these days, all courtesy of President Donald Trump, whose latest stunning statement was a call for America's allies to bring back Russia to the world's most prestigious club, the G7, a group of seven wealthy democracies.
The call is mindboggling for many reasons, not least of which is, well, the elephant in the room. There is no credible justification for democratic powers to invite Putin to their meeting and there are countless reasons not to do it. And yet Trump — under the shadow of a special counsel investigation over the nature of his presidential campaign's relationship with Russia — took Putin's side in a dispute with America's allies.
Directly and indirectly, Trump has been giving Putin many reasons to smile. Trump, who criticized Obama for coddling America's enemies and offending its friends, has taken the practice to new heights. He is corroding the transatlantic alliance, creating deep cracks in America's once-solid bonds with Western European nations. Nothing could make Putin happier.
Differences with allies are inevitable, but instead of resolving them diplomatically, quietly, Trump seems to derive pleasure from rubbing salt in every wound, from maximizing the pain. He may think that makes him look tough and energizes his base, but it is making America isolated and weaker. This has created a huge opening for Russia to carve out some of America's leadership and influence for itself.
Until now, one of the sources of America's power has been its ability to draw on the strength of its allies, countries with which the United States shared ideals about democracy, free trade, human rights, and basic respect for the individual. Trump is steadily distancing himself from those countries and those ideals. The G7 summit looks like no other before it. French President Emmanuel Macron warned America that it's moving against "its own history, its own values." Macron said the meeting, which Trump didn't really want to attend and plans to leave early, could produce agreement by six out of seven members, a G6+1, with the U.S. isolated from its friends over a number of issues, trade the most recent dispute.
European leaders are pleading with Americans not to harm the alliance. The president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, warned, "There are people in Europe who seek closer ties with Russia and China as an alternative to the existing order. Let's not supply them with new arguments." But that is precisely what Trump is doing. At every turn he is showing the US to be an unreliable ally, a fair-weather friend, a country that no longer cares about the rest of the world.
That weakens America and strengthens its rivals, primarily Russia and China.
It's hard to imagine why Trump thinks Putin belongs in the G7. If it were simply a matter of bringing in big economies, then China would be next in line, then perhaps India. Russia would stand far behind. Russia, clearly, does not belong in the group. But by now, Trump siding with Russia has become less than surprising.
A few days ago, Putin told a reporter that he speaks regularly with Trump. There is no evidence that the two have discussed the G7, but if Putin gave Trump a list of requests, he would put rejoining the exclusive group on the list. That would add to his prestige, his influence, and it would amount to a partial lifting of international sanctions.
It was the G7 that first anointed Putin as a democrat when in 2002, little more than a year after Putin became Russia's president. Tony Blair formally welcomed him into the group, branding it the G8, calling the move "very strong message of support for Putin and his reforms in Russia." But the reforms were a sham, and Putin became an autocrat, whose aggressive tactics at home he later deployed beyond Russia's borders.
G7 members expelled Russia after it sent its forces into Ukraine in 2014 and annexed Crimea, a part of Ukraine. Since then, US intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia attacked US democracy in the 2016 US elections, and European countries have also found Russians trying to disrupt their elections. Russia has been accused by the UK of trying to kill a former Russian operative on British soil, and just two weeks ago an international investigation concluded that the missile that shot down a Malaysian Airlines flight from Amsterdam in 2014, killing 283 passengers — most of them Dutch citizens — belonged to a Russian military unit.
And yet, Trump still displays a, shall we say, peculiar resistance to calling out Putin, even as he lambasts America's allies and badly hurts America's standing in most countries.
Putin can hardly conceal his glee. He's in Europe now, presenting himself as a more reliable trading partner, basking in the success of populist Europeans, who want to pull closer to Moscow and have been winning elections in Hungary, Italy, Austria, Greece and elsewhere.
Trump is weakening the alliances that gave strength to America. At the same time, he is aiding Putin, who took a nascent democracy and turned into an autocratic regime where political rivals are imprisoned or murdered in the streets, and he is helping to make him stronger.