Putin's policies are desperately simple and very effective in their own terms. He sets out to do whatever he thinks will increase his own power and the power of the Russian state. His own country is now milked by a few very rich people who know that they must remain on good terms with Putin's allies or they will lose not just their wealth but also their freedom and quite possibly their lives. Much of the economy is based on straightforward extraction of oil or raw materials and the licences for that go to loyalists. This helps finance the big cities to have some dripping rich shopping centres and some very expensive property but it doesn't do much for the rust belts that surround them or the soulless tower blocks where the majority live. Putin provides the rich and powerful with a decent living and enough of the poor with the bare minimum of stability and security. This enables him to present himself as better than the utter chaos that went before under the 'wise' advice of the reckless extreme free market economists that the West supplied Russia under Yeltsin and Gorbachev. It also gives him a platform to pursue the exact same foreign policy aims that were followed under the Tsarists. Push forward the size of your empire and expand your influence at every opportunity. Ally with every bastion of autocratic power and reaction that will rally to your side. For example Erdogan and Assad.
By now we have plenty of examples of this approach. Putin's policy in Syria has been to back his chosen side and supply it with enough arms to win and enough propaganda to confuse some people about the nature of the regime he is backing. Assad now knows exactly who to thank for staying in power. He didn't stay there because of the love and loyalty of his people and their quite correct fear of extreme religious bigotry taking over their country. He got there because the Russians supplied more military force than the Saudi Arabians smuggled and financed. His current peace deal is nothing more than an attempt to carve the country up between himself and Erdogan which is in line with his favourite tactic. Fight to win as much as you can - pause to consolidate - then fight to win a bit more.
This is something that the Ukrainians are well familiar with. To be fair to Putin there are large numbers of ethnic Russians in the east of Ukraine who haven't had a good deal out of narrow selfish Ukrainian nationalism. To be even fairer to him there is nothing sacred about the current shape of Ukraine. The territory of the country is the product of a deal between Khrushchev and Stalin after the Second World War and that left a lot of people on the wrong side of a border that scarcely mattered since both territories were within the Soviet Union. Putin has taken the legitimate grievance of a lot of ethnic Russians and used it to seize territory for himself and spread chaos in a weaker neighbouring state with the aim of seizing more later. It is a tactic that was used by Adolph Hitler in the run up to the Second World War. So was the rhetoric of nationalism that Putin uses so effectively to back up his plans for expansion. It is not a good precedent. As the descendants of the brave Russians and Ukrainians who fought against fascism in the Second World War ought to know. If it weren't for the dangerous tendency of so many people to side with extreme nationalism coming from their own leaders at the same time as they oppose it coming from others.
The great irony of all this is that the national and tribal jealousies that are being exploited are not irreconcilable divides between deeply different people. The Ukrainians and the Russians have many things in common and have been happy allies or happily united more often than they have been bitter enemies. Nor are the divides in Syria anywhere near as fundamental as we are being told. The people of that country mixed with each other very well under many different regimes and also fought with each other under many others. It takes bad politicians and bad ideologies to turn differences between neighbours who give and take into divisions that are visceral and hard to bridge. This gives us the clue to what ought to be one of the great touchstones of morality. If you act to increase divisions and suspicions between people then you are not to be trusted. If you act to reduce those divisions and increase understanding and co-operation then you are a force for good.
Putin isn't bothered about all that morality stuff. He is quite prepared to calculate lives as if they were simply one more factor in his decision making. That is also exactly the way Trump's mind works. It is therefore little surprise that they recognise each other as kindred spirits. But that doesn't mean they will get along with each other in power. It is now perfectly clear that Putin launched a systematic hacking campaign to weaken the Democrats and help Trump win the election. Trump even called for him to release the results of his illegal hacks into Clinton's emails at one point in the campaign. That is now a source of deep embarrassment for President Trump. Or would be if he knew how to do embarrassment. He does do political calculation. The Russians may no longer be remotely red in their politics but the vast majority of Americans don't want them under their beds manipulating their elections and Trump can't just ignore that. No matter how much Putin tries to welcome him to office by clever tricks like refusing to expel diplomats.
Instead of two avid nationalists developing a close alliance I expect the common ground between Trump and Putin to disappear rapidly. One nationalism has a nasty tendency to clash very uncomfortably against another. As soon as Putin's Russia gains any ground at the expense of Trump's vision of the USA there is going to be a nasty falling out. A very sharp confrontation between the two powers is more likely than a sustained warming of the relationships. The vision of Trump's finger on the nuclear button as two once great superpowers replay the cold war with leaders who don't do backing down doesn't bear thinking about.
Faced with a dangerous growth of nationalist rhetoric in Russia, China, US and Turkey those of us who are looking to create a more positive future have only one simple strategy at our disposal. Stick to the truth. Ordinary Russians are not remotely the enemy of ordinary British or American people. They have no interest in invading our country and just want to get on with living their lives. Investing in nuclear weapons and pointing them at these people isn't going to weaken Vladimir Putin. It is going to play straight into his hands and help him appear as the brave defender of his nation against the most heavily armed nations on the planet.
If we wish to undermine the power of Putin and Trump and the nasty nationalists that back them then let's cut off their prime sources of finance. The simplest way to do this is not clumsy economic sanctions and impotent threats. It is not the re-launch of the cold war. It is to stop buying oil. Invest in alternative energy and free the world from the era of a few powerful men fighting for control of some very valuable fossils. We don't need a cold war. We need a cold determination to drive forward the energy revolution as quickly and as thoroughly as possible.