Rhetoric isn't working -- Trump needs to speak with Putin

Tillerson: Russia-US relations at a low point
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Story highlights

  • Jill Dougherty: Praising and insulting Putin are ineffective methods of dealing with him
  • American leaders would fare better if they negotiated in a clear-eyed manner

Jill Dougherty is a former CNN foreign affairs correspondent and Moscow bureau chief with expertise in Russia and the former Soviet Union. The opinions in this article belong to the author.

(CNN)Murderer ... thug ... monster ... bad guy.

These are just a few of the ways Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation, has been described. And while American politics favors made-for-TV drama between warring politicians, when it comes to Putin, these insults are counterproductive to any future negotiation.
    Donald Trump has gone to the opposite extreme, heaping praise on Putin: "He has been a leader far more than our President (Obama) has been ... I think he's done really a great job of outsmarting our country."
    Jill Dougherty
    But this rhetoric -- from either side -- simply is not working. Putin ignores the insults, the Russian people, who consume anti-Western state-run media, resent them, and he's not swayed by the praise.
    During the US election campaign, Russians were buoyed by an American presidential candidate who, it seemed, wanted to "get along" with their own leader and who might, as they saw it, stop trying to punish and isolate Russia.
    In the Kremlin, they were more wary. Putin, a former KGB officer, is a keen analyst of personality and behavior. Publicly, he responded positively. Privately, he and other Russian officials took a wait-and-see attitude.
    Now, the Trump administration is mired in investigations of Russian hacking and interference in the 2016 election, the subject of Russia is politically toxic and relations are worse than ever.
    But not talking with Putin is not an option. While Putin has interfered in a US presidential election and is suspected of doing so in several European elections, invaded Ukraine, illegally annexed Crimea and propped up Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad for far too long, giving him the silent treatment would be bad strategy.
    And, to a certain extent, the Trump administration understands this. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson traveled to Moscow several weeks ago and met with Putin amid escalating tensions over Syria.
    And these conversations must continue. The US and Russia -- the world's two biggest nuclear powers -- are courting disaster if they do not engage on the issues that cannot be solved without cooperation, including the Syrian civil war, an increasingly dangerous North Korea and a volatile Iran.
    So how should -- or shouldn't -- American politicians talk to Putin?
    Well, it's important to start with respect. Yelling at Putin in public is not a good strategy when you have to negotiate with him later in private.
    Putin is all about restoring Russia's dignity and its role as a great power.
    As Angela Stent, director of Georgetown University's Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies, told me: "Needlessly criticizing President Putin -- or praising him -- is really not in order.
    "It reinforces clearly the view, his suspicion, that the United States is interested in regime change, not only in other parts of the world or in Russia's neighbors, but in Russia itself," she explains.
    Putin personally blamed then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for "giving the signal" for anti-government protests on the streets of Moscow and other cities in 2011-2012. As he sees it, the US fomented Georgia's 2003 Rose Revolution, Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution and even the Arab Spring uprisings that began in January 2011. Russia, he believes, is next on America's "regime change" hit list.
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    But neither a hate-fest nor a love-fest with Putin will work.
    In 2001, President George W. Bush told the world he looked Putin in the eye and "was able to get a sense of his soul," but that didn't stop an eventual slide into tension.
    In 2013, President Barack Obama got personal about Putin, right after Putin gave Edward Snowden, the former CIA employee who leaked classified information, asylum in Moscow.
    "He's got that kind of slouch," Obama said, "looking like the bored kid at the back of the classroom." Putin never responded publically, but it was one more nail in the coffin of relations between the two countries.
    "How you talk to him in private, and how you talk about him in public, are two different things," John Beyrle, former US ambassador to Russia, said.
    When it comes to talking about Putin -- or any world leader -- in public, Beyrle said, "the key is ensuring that criticisms focus on policies or pronouncements and avoid descending to the level of gratuitous personal insult."
    Disparaging Putin might play well in the US, but it can backfire, providing fodder for Russian anti-American propaganda that depicts the US as an unstable bull in a china shop.
    During the US election campaign, Russian media pointed to America's internal divisions, its "chaotic" democracy -- a cautionary lesson for Russia's own people. When US officials start name-calling internationally, those emotional outbursts just reinforce the impression that America is unhinged.
    Experienced Russian hands in both countries are worried. They lived through the Cold War, and they're concerned the war of words could do real damage.
    The Cold War stand-off between the Soviet Union and the United States was based on ideology and competing economic systems. In spite of it, the two nations were able to agree on arms control and other ways to strengthen international stability.
    Today, ironically, there is less agreement on how to make the world more stable. Hurling personal insults -- or even fawning over another leader with vague hopes of "getting along" -- avoids doing the real work of defining common interests and potential areas of cooperation.
    In a new report on Russia for the Center on Global Interests, "Elevation and Calibration: A New Russia Policy for America," Andrew C. Kuchins writes: "The first step for the president-elect is to talk about Russia and its president in a respectful, disciplined and business-like manner. Casual but denigrating remarks from US leaders are red meat for inciting deeper anti-Americanism in Russia, and are not constructive for the pursuit of broader US foreign and security policy goals that require Russian cooperation."
    Trump and Putin eventually will meet in person. Neither Trump's tweets of praise for Putin, nor his Defense Secretary's comments that "Mr. Putin is "delusional" will be enough. Putin, at Russia's helm for almost 17 years, doesn't do small talk and he's a tough negotiator.
    Just ask Beyrle, who has sat through almost a dozen meetings with Putin as President or Prime Minister, going back to 1999.
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    "Probably the most effective way to talk to him," Beyrle says, "requires a well-developed ability to listen. He is a demanding interlocutor, capable of holding forth for 40 minutes or more without notes in detailed, data-heavy presentations. The ability to process all of that information and respond to each of his points -- many of which demand to be challenged -- is the key to getting him to listen to you."
    It's time for a sober, objective and respectful relationship with Putin. He is the elected president of a country that is critical in addressing global threats -- from nuclear proliferation to cyberwar. And he is playing the strongest hand he can to maximize that country's advantage.
    Clear-eyed, rational action must speak louder than emotional posturing.