Visiting Moscow this week, John Bolton offered a textbook lesson in how to deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin's aggressive gamesmanship. President Trump's national security adviser was polite but firm in his service of U.S. interests.
The best example of this determination came on Tuesday when Bolton laid flowers at the site of dissident journalist Boris Nemtsov's 2015 murder. Why did this visit matter? Well, because although he has tried to deflect blame onto Chechen cutouts, Putin knows that the U.S. knows that he was responsible for Nemtsov's murder. There is thus great moral symbolism in Trump's chief national security aide standing on a rainy Moscow street, staring solemnly at the site where an innocent life was taken. It sends a message to Putin: We know what you're about.
Bolton was also resolute in his meetings with senior Russian officials. In an unusually respectful series of photos, the Russian foreign ministry showed Bolton dining with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The standard Russian approach for these kind of proceedings is to present American representatives as desperate weaklings and their Russian counterparts as contemplative statesmen. That the Russians chose to show respect to Bolton in their own media releases proves they recognize that he is not an official who will be cowed.
Bolton's best moment, however, came when he sat down with Putin on Tuesday. Facing the Russian leader's public relations pageantry, Bolton was unmoved. Attempting to intimidate Bolton, Putin explained that the U.S. was not behaving "friendly" and "we do not respond to any of your steps, but still it goes on and on." Then, Putin asked about the eagle on the U.S. national emblem: "On the one hand, it holds 13 arrows, and on the other hand, it holds an olive branch with 13 olives ... here goes the question ... looks like your eagle has eaten all of the olives, and what is left? Only the arrows." Supported by a pretense of humor, this insult gives Russian propaganda outlets like RT and Sputnik the means to present Putin as a friendly, open-minded leader obstructed by aggressive Americans.
But as is befitting his own persona, Bolton wasn't cowed. He simply laughed at Putin's inane joke. And when his time to talk arrived, he merely noted that dialogue was positive because "despite our differences which exist because of our different national interests," the U.S. and Russia should always maintain lines of communications. This was exactly the right statement: one that acknowledged the fundamental divergences in U.S. and Russian interests, and from that basis, sought a more honest relationship.
Learning from the debacle of their last meeting, as he meets the Russian leader in Paris next month, Trump should aim to replicate Bolton's fine example.