MOSCOW -- Four days before U.S. President Donald Trump's Dec. 18 speech outlining his national security strategy, I sat a few feet away from Russian President Vladimir Putin as he spent nearly four hours responding to questions at his annual press conference. Despite the ongoing hysteria in the Western media regarding the relationship between the U.S. and Russia under these two leaders (hysteria that doesn't exist in the Russia media, by the way), a new way forward is emerging -- and it consists of a mix of trolling and serious cooperation.
The reality of the situation is perhaps best captured in "Good Hunting: An American Spymaster's Story," a memoir by Jack Devine, former acting director of the CIA's operations outside the United States. Devine recalls that a CIA officer stationed in Santiago, Chile, during the Cold War decided to "tweak the Russians" by placing an ad in the local paper offering money to anyone who showed up at the Russian Embassy with a cat. When people were turned away without being paid, they released their cats, resulting in an infestation of strays around the embassy. Annoyed, the Russians reciprocated with a similar prank. Devine says this kind of trolling persisted throughout the Cold War. But there was nonetheless a pragmatic realism -- not hysteria -- in dealing with opposing powers.
Trump did a good job of laying out the challenge in Monday's speech.
"We also face rival powers, Russia and China, that seek to challenge American influence, values and wealth," Trump said. "We will attempt to build a great partnership with those and other countries, but in a manner that always protects our national interest."
Trump then mentioned that Putin had called him the day before, expressing gratitude to the CIA for providing intelligence that led Russian authorities to terror suspects who, according to the Kremlin, "plotted to set off explosions at Kazan Cathedral in St Petersburg and other public places in the city." The Kremlin also stated that if Russian intelligence came across any such information related to the U.S., it would pass along the details to the CIA.
If you view the world as a giant pie of dwindling resources to be divvied up among the global powers, then indeed Russia and America are rivals. However, Trump and Putin are able to recognize this economic reality while avoiding the sort of ideological trolling favored by others.
For example, during Putin's press conference, former Massachusetts governor and Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney tweeted: "Putin today blames US politics for icy relations. Get real: It was Russia invading sovereign nations, propping up dictators, hacking elections, abusing human rights, and cheating at the Olympics."
Romney's remarks were in stark contrast to the more diplomatic tone that Putin took while addressing the media.
"I hope that ... we will eventually normalize our relations to the benefit of the American and Russian people," Putin said, "and that we will continue to develop and will overcome the common and well-known threats, such as terrorism, environmental problems, weapons of mass destruction, crises around the world -- including in the Middle East, the North Korean problem, etc."
Ah, yes, the North Korean problem. This is another issue that highlights the importance of taking an agnostic approach to intelligence and information from Russia and other sources capable of complementing what U.S. intelligence agencies already know.
Rather than reducing the problem to Kim Jong Un being a nutter, Putin provided nuance. He believes one of the reasons for North Korea's belligerence is that the U.S. ramped up sanctions against North Korea shortly after North Korea had agreed in 2005 to end its weapons program.
"North Korea sees no other means of self-preservation but to develop weapons of mass destruction and missile technology," Putin said. "As you can see, their upgraded missiles are now capable of hitting the United States. Is there anything good in this situation?"
If fear of regime change is the impetus for Kim's acting out, it's a much different problem than if he was simply an irrational whack-job. Fleshing out the picture through intelligence cooperation can better inform critical decisions affecting national security, which must take precedence over economic rivalries.
So as special counsel Robert Mueller and Congress press on with the seemingly endless probes into proximity between Russian and American leadership, so-called "collusion" has already prevented a terrorist attack. Maybe Trump and Putin can rack up a few more victories in the name of collusion.