Is Trump The Only Candidate Who Can Beat Putin At Putin’s Game?


President Putin stunned the world this week. As suddenly and surprisingly as he had intervened in the Syrian civil war. Putin withdrew his troops & planes from Syria. The entire world saw this as an accurate “Mission Accomplished” statement. In a short span of six months or so, Putin went into Syria, completely changed the direction of that war, saved Assad’s regime and then left as a “looming maven of peace” in the words of Cliff Kupchan, chairman of the Eurasia Group.  

And despite his speed or perhaps because of it, Putin achieved all of his objectives, as Neil MacFarquhar of the New York Times wrote this week. How did Putin do all that in 5 months without significant costs in lives or Rubles? How did Putin win by spending a mere half a billion dollars while America loses despite spending hundreds of billions of dollars? How does Putin play the game? Look at the phrases below from the NYT article:

  • ” … caught Washington, Damascus and everybody in between off guard … Putin delights at creating surprises … A good decision in today’s Russia should be swift and surprising and take everyone unawares, … Russia acts completely independently … We expand our military presence without any prior consultations and wrap it up without any warning.”

This week we also heard from President Obama in his long interview with Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. President Obama expressed his deep satisfaction & pride about his own liberation from what he called “the Washington playbook“, the playbook “that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment”. Read how Jeffrey Goldberg described it:

  • “I have come to believe that, in Obama’s mind, August 30, 2013, was his liberation day, the day he defied not only the foreign-policy establishment and its cruise-missile playbook, but also the demands of America’s frustrating, high-maintenance allies in the Middle East—countries, he complains privately to friends and advisers, that seek to exploit American “muscle” for their own narrow and sectarian ends”

Mr. Obama is America’s President, America’s leader. It took him almost 5 years to liberate himself from people who work for him? He, the leader of the free world, can only complain “privately” about America’s allies who seek to exploit his country? No wonder America can’t win anymore. How can America lead the world when America’s President cannot free himself from his own staff for 5 years? Why would any one look to America when the deepest satisfaction of the American President is his own “liberation” from his own establishment?

In contrast, according to the New York Times, Putin decides after discussions with his close knit circle of 4 people. His & their focus is to win with tactical surprise and unpredictability. That is not just their winning tactical formula but also “good political management“.  No wonder Putin completed his Syrian Veni Vidi Vici act in 5 months while it took Obama over 5 years to “liberate” himself from his own staff. And during those 5 years, he allowed his Secretary of State to botch the Arab Spring and to create a new failed state in Libya.

Every single victorious leader in history has won by keeping his own counsel, maintaining unpredictability, defining achievable objectives, acting with brilliant speed, and getting maximal gain from minimal costs.

This is not just true in wars. It is equally true in political campaigns. And that has been the lesson of the Republican primaries. The campaigns of Jeb Bush and even Marco Rubio have been blundering behemoths staffed with political “experts” and funded with donor money. They spent massive amounts of money on consultants & on attack ads without getting anything for their money. Jeb Bush talked proudly of endorsements from Washington “experts”, generals & admirals without showing any ability to act or win. 

In contrast, Donald Trump has been everything Jeb, Rubio and others have not. Trump gets that wars are won by the leader and not by legions of “expert” staffers. Trump has mainly kept his counsel & relied on a very small inner circle of advisers. Trump has maximized the element of speed and surprise dragging his slow moving opponents into areas where he wants to fight on his own terms. (We called this a mix of Primal Desire & the Wayne Gretzky dictum back on December 12, 2015)

Trump, like Putin and all successful winners, believes in maximizing gains while optimizing costs. What fighter planes do on a battle field, Television exposure does in election campaigns. The NYT raved this week about what Trump has achieved so far: 

  • “Of all the ways Donald Trump has shocked the political system, one of the most significant is how he wins primary after primary with one of the smallest campaign budgets.”
  • “He still doesn’t have a super PAC. He skimped on ground organization and field offices. Most important, he spent less on television advertising — typically the single biggest expenditure for a campaign — than any other major candidate, according to an analysis by SMG Delta, a firm that tracks television advertising.”

What are the results according to the New York Times? Trump won $2 billion dollars of media by spending only $10 million:

  • “The big difference between Mr. Trump and other candidates is that he is far better than any other candidate — maybe than any candidate ever — at earning media.”
  • “Paul Senatori, mediaQuant’s chief analytics officer, says that Mr. Trump “has no weakness in any of the media segments” — in other words, he is strong in every type of earned media, from television to Twitter.”
  • “Over the course of the campaign, he has earned close to $2 billion worth of media attention, about twice the all-in price of the most expensive presidential campaigns in history”

Simply put, Trump’s track record suggests that he might be the only American leader who can beat Putin at Putin’s game. 

America has greater resources & strengths than any other country in the world. The size of these resources & strengths have unfortunately created a profligate establishment that wastes them in losing pursuits. Can you imagine an American leader who uses these resources wisely & with minimal waste, an American leader who acts swiftly and with tactical brilliance to achieve his objectives? Don’t you think such a leader can America great again? We do. 


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  1. I get that Trump is a great disruptor (In the classic sense of innovation disrupting ‘business as usual’), and the US political system needs some disruption to again deliver for the voters. But right now the only disruption he’s accomplished is in the election domain. Maybe this will carry on when(if) he gets into office & has to run the country/US foreign policy, but then … maybe not

  2. It’s refreshing to read a reasoned argument in favor of Trump, even if I disagree with it. You ask if Trump is the one who can beat Putin at Putin’s game but what, exactly, is Putin’s game, and why should we want to beat him at it? As far as I can see, Putin has gotten into a nasty brawl with his biggest customer, the EU, over the Ukraine and Crimea, and in Syria has twice done Western interests an important favor. He ended Syria’s use of chemical weapons, at least mostly; and he brought new resolution and clarity to the incredible mess of the ongoing civil wars there. It seems to me that “beating” Putin’s game can’t be worth much, and also that Obama has played him fairly well!

    1. After banishment from Middle East for decades, Putin has made Russia a major power in the Middle East, a power that every player including Saudis has to reckon with & accommodate. He did that swiftly, effectively despite being weaker in every category. Whether one likes Putin or not, one has to accept his “game”.

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