What Will Presidential Relations Be Like Between Trump And Putin?
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Now, our next guest has been closely watching Vladimir Putin for years. He even went to war with him once. It's Mikhail Saakashvili, the former president of Georgia. We turn to him for some insight into what Russia's leader might be up to and also how Putin might deal with Donald Trump. Saakashvili first met Putin when he took power in Georgia in 2004. He says his Russian counterpart offered some advice.
MIKHEIL SAAKASHVILI: From the very beginning, the first thing he told me - that he really doesn't appreciate people who would be too subservient to the United States.
GREENE: In fact, Saakashvili brought Georgia closer to the United States. Georgia even applied for membership in NATO, which ticked off Putin a lot. In 2008, Saakashvili says Russian tanks amassed on the Georgian border, and he asked the U.S. for help.
SAAKASHVILI: We told, look, he had the combat-ready tanks, and, you know, please do something about it. And then they got back to us and said, no, no, we don't think it's serious. We don't think that it's going to happen. And then when the whole thing started, within hours, those tanks were there, just exactly as we had warned.
GREENE: Russia carried out a short punitive invasion. And after that, Saakashvili says he wasn't surprised to see Putin go after the Crimean Peninsula in Ukraine next.
SAAKASHVILI: People in the West thought that we were just, you know, delusional. We were just saying things because we were bitter. But when Crimea happened, the reaction from the West was, to the Ukrainians, guys, don't do anything. Don't provoke them further. Don't move your finger. So the annexation happened without almost a single shot fired.
GREENE: Now, Saakashvili is known for being blunt. His critics have called him erratic. He can use colorful language, and he does so in this interview. He tells us that Putin is much more methodical in his foreign policy tactics than he's given credit for.
SAAKASHVILI: He clearly is a very rational person. I mean, he sometimes plays a madman, but even his madness is quite rational because when he plays madman he says, look, don't mess with me because I mad.
GREENE: His madness is calculated, is what you're saying.
SAAKASHVILI: Yes. He kind of gets emboldened by the fact that, you know, he says things, and people seem to accept them. Then he starts to do things.
GREENE: So what does the West do now? I mean, you have - you have the Baltic countries, like Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia.
GREENE: These NATO countries right on Russia's border. I mean, there have been these - you know, these events like Russia coming across, Estonia says, and taking an Estonian spy. I mean, is Putin - what's he doing? Is he is - he sort of testing this response? Does he have plans in countries like that?
SAAKASHVILI: Yes. Remember, ultimately, he's after the United States.
GREENE: He's after the United States.
SAAKASHVILI: Day one, when I saw him, I understood that this guy is only just positioning himself, that he's trying to reverse all the gains the U.S. has got in the aftermath of the Cold War. So, for instance, when President Obama said after Ukraine, well, yeah, they messed up in Ukraine, but, you know, Russia, after all, is a regional power. They don't really create problems anywhere else because, you know, they just will be within their region. Immediately after that, Putin went to Syria. And I think in many ways it was a reaction to Americans saying, well, he's just a regional power, to prove that he can be very present in the Balkans, where Americans are also present. And with Baltic countries, it's the same scenario.
GREENE: Well, Mr. Saakashvili, you say that Putin is a risk assessor.
GREENE: Do you really think he would attack a NATO country if he - if he knows the response that that might provoke? Does he really want to take the risk of a larger conflict with the West?
SAAKASHVILI: You are totally right - if he thinks that there will be a big reaction. But if he thinks that there won't be that big reaction, certainly he will take this chances.
GREENE: So much might depend on his relationship with Donald Trump. And let me move to that because if Trump is able to open a dialogue with Vladimir Putin, as he has suggested, and he makes it clear to Vladimir Putin that there will be a response from the United States were he to attack NATO country, could that be enough to - for Putin to say this is - this is too big a risk. I'm not going to do that.
SAAKASHVILI: Trump - I don't think he will allow anybody - not least Putin - to dominate him. One of the main things that Putin had been doing was intimidating and dominating them. That's his usual trick with foreign leaders. I don't think it's going to work with Trump.
GREENE: Sounds like you're optimistic that Donald Trump could contain Vladimir Putin.
SAAKASHVILI: Look, it's still early to say. Depends who the secretary of state will be. It depends how much interest the president will take in foreign policy.
GREENE: I want to ask you about some of the personal back and forth with Vladimir Putin. He at one point - I'm not sure how to put this - said that he wished that you would be hung by your private parts.
SAAKASHVILI: Yeah. He pledged publicly that he would hang me by my balls. Yes. He likes to say such things, and we'd better take him at his word. But I guess he had other things to do for all this time. (Unintelligible).
GREENE: Well, it's - I mean, Putin is seen as kind of a macho guy. Is there a risk if Donald Trump gets into kind of a verbal tit-for-tat like that?
SAAKASHVILI: Well, I mean, he had also personal problems with President Obama, and I think Donald Trump is very different. I think he has a very strong personality. It's still very unpredictable - very, very unpredictable. I don't know what his exact foreign policy might look like in this region. But certainly, he's very detail-oriented, and he likes results. And I don't think he would give in so easily.
GREENE: All right. Mr. Saakashvili, real pleasure talking to you. Thank you so much for your time.
SAAKASHVILI: Thank you for calling me. Bye-bye.
GREENE: That was Mikhail Saakashvili, the former president of Georgia. He joined us on Skype from Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.