In an old Soviet stop-motion animated children’s film, Cheburashka, a small bear character, offers to help his friend Krokodil carry a package. Krokodil accepts the offer, Cheburashka picks up a parcel, and Krokodil then puts the parcel-carrying Cheburashka on his shoulders and they continue their journey. Offers of cooperation from Moscow ring similarly shallow.
Yet President-elect Trump seems to take such promises at face value and his election win has fueled discussions of renewed U.S.-Russia cooperation. Trump’s campaign rhetoric saw him praise Putin, question whether sanctions over Crimea would be renewed, and promise to get along with Russia. Just as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented Moscow with a reset button in 2009, some observers predict that the Trump administration might seek to jumpstart relations with Russia. However, Reset 2.0 is not in the cards.
Per President Obama, reality does have a way of asserting itself. Unless Washington suddenly abandons its key interests, talk of a reorientation of U.S.-Russia relations will remain empty rhetoric. The word “respect” gets floated around a lot, as Moscow would like the world to believe that it only seeks respect from the West, a sort of equal-footing. The reality is a little different. At direct odds with U.S. interests and international norms, Russia continues to undermine the peace process in Ukraine, actively inhibits efforts to establish stability in Syria, and carries out disinformation campaigns in Europe and the United States in order to undermine trust in democratic institutions.
The argument that these policy decisions simply reflect diverging and legitimate interests of an independent state actor falls off the mark. In September, Russia stood accused of war crimes in Syria during the U.N. Security Council session. As if on cue, the Russia-backed aerial bombing campaign just destroyed the last standing hospital in Aleppo. Regarding Ukraine, the International Criminal Court explicitly labeled the hostilities as an armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine. So no, claims of legitimate state interest do not justify Russia’s foreign policy.
Washington has enough problems in Syria, and would like nothing more than to normalize relations and collaborate with Russia to fight ISIS. Yet, the assumption that Russia seeks good relations with the United States is flawed. Call it rightful ambition, an inferiority complex, or resurgent strength, the drive that pushes Russia to belligerent behavior will not dissipate come January and Russia will not suddenly shift gears under a conciliatory Trump administration.
The reason is simple. If Moscow can continue on its current trajectory and concurrently tout cooperation with Washington, then why wouldn’t it? Perceived cooperation with the United States would simply reinforce and legitimize Russia’s foreign policy. Moscow seeks a passive accomplice and has no intention of adjusting its actions within the framework of international norms if it can be avoided. Rather than realpolitik, a Reset 2.0 would be a real blunder.
Trump has so far refrained from articulating a clear foreign policy platform, opting for vague and sweeping statements that raise questions and worry allies. Trump’s campaign has also yet to fill most of the appointments in the upcoming administration. While the newly-appointed national security advisor General Michael Flynn has expressed an inclination to cooperate with Russia in Syria, that tendency might not translate into policy. President Obama also sought to work with Russia in Syria to no avail. Ceteris paribus, Russia will not overnight transform into a U.S. ally in the region right after inauguration.
A type of Reset 2.0 that seems to dominate the dialogue would signal a conciliatory and transactional approach, which has already proven ineffective. Simply consider the last seven years since the first reset, not a great track record, from Russia’s annexation of Crimea to its direct participation in the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo. The next administration must be cautious in how they approach the Russian Federation.