The situation is an ever-deepening spiral. Russian society is losing its reserves of trust. Nobody can guarantee when today’s leaders will leave, and whether that transition will be peaceful and orderly or violent and bloody. Mr. Putin can’t step aside without such guarantees. He is destroying society to postpone his departure. But a damaged and fearful society is incapable of assuring an orderly departure.
Mr. Trump has an opportunity to begin a businesslike dialogue with Mr. Putin—not about the vital issues in the headlines, but about a far more important problem: how to avoid unnecessary conflicts inside and outside Russia by ensuring a smooth transition of power.
It raises important questions that must be considered now: What does the Kremlin have to do at home and abroad to make this soft landing possible? What reciprocal steps and guarantees can the West offer? It’s time for the world to start contemplating a post-Putin world.
Such guarantees are not merely personal. The dialogue must confront some unpleasant realities. Mr. Putin would like to use international agreements to preserve and formalize the “gains” he has achieved in Europe: his conquest of Crimea and neutral status for Ukraine and other states Mr. Putin considers to be inside Russia’s legitimate sphere of influence.
The desire for such concessions may motivate Mr. Putin to discuss the matter of his stepping down while Mr. Trump is in office. That, in turn, could create an opportunity to remove other problems from the table. But it could also tempt the West to appease and buckle under, or to throw up barriers.
In any other scenario, if Mr. Putin is going to be thinking about how to remain in power, he needs the U.S. for only one thing—to play the role of a “safe enemy.” That allows him to rally the Russian people around him, while knowing America presents no actual danger. To expect any other approach from Mr. Putin is a self-delusion that will carry a high cost in the end.
If concessions offered by Mr. Putin are not to America’s benefit, Washington will need to acknowledge that the only workable policy toward the Kremlin is a Cold War-style containment, with clearly defined parameters.The window for handling Mr. Putin is very narrow. Mr. Trump’s brashness has stopped at attacking Mr. Putin personally. That atypical restraint horrified many Russia hawks in the West. But it may turn out that Mr. Trump took a better approach. Whether accidentally or by design, he has left the door open for Mr. Putin to make a graceful exit. That would be good for everyone.