What if Putin says no?

Based on Donald Trump’s increasingly frantic attempts at publicly kissing Vladimir Putin’s backside ahead of their summit, two things have become clear. First, Trump is now so desperate for Putin’s help, he’s no longer even trying to hide the fact that he’s Putin’s puppet. Second, Trump is at least marginally concerned that Putin might not help him out of this mess. So what happens if, behind closed doors, Putin says no?

Ignore their rah-rah joint press conference; it was grotesque theater. There are a number of reasons at this point for Vladimir Putin to cut his losses and walk away. Special Counsel Robert Mueller just indicted twelve of Putin’s top spies. The level of detail in these indictments makes clear that Mueller somehow has eyes and ears throughout Putin’s entire operation. The deeper the Trump-Russia investigation goes, the more Putin is exposed. How much further can Putin stick his neck out to try to help Trump out of a jam? Putin does, after all, have people he answers to.

Vladimir Putin has made the Russian oligarchs extraordinarily wealthy. But he’s also caused them major financial problems of late. As Putin has become more aggressive against Ukraine and his personal enemies over the past four years, the resulting international sanctions have cost his oligarchs billions of dollars. Putin’s primary goal for installing Trump was to get those sanctions eased. Instead his meddling in the election has caused Congress to pass even more severe sanctions. Trump has managed to fend off the implementation of those new sanctions, but it’s now clear that the circa-2014 sanctions won’t be eased any time soon.

So Putin is facing pressure back home. The Trump experiment is hurting his oligarchs financially, not helping them. In fact Putin has been doing wrong by his oligarchs since 2014. Now the Trump-Russia investigation is threatening to rip apart the Kremlin’s GRU, which Putin has been using to try to rig elections around the world. Smart villains stay in power by knowing when to take a step back.

So what if Donald Trump’s worst fears are confirmed, and Vladimir Putin decides that he can’t afford to keep propping up Trump’s dying presidency? Putin could end Trump tomorrow by leaking the right blackmail material. If Trump is summarily ousted, Putin could be banking on the investigation falling by the wayside before it does further damage to his own Kremlin assets. One way or another, this failed experiment is going to take Trump down; pawns are called pawns for reason. The question here is whether this takes Putin down as well.

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