Can Trump Jump-Start a New Relationship with Russia?
“Foolishness and stupidity!” is how President Donald Trump has characterized previous U.S.-Russia foreign policy while bemoaning relations that have “NEVER been worse.” Trump’s approach to Russia might be unorthodox, but it is gaining some converts as several Republican senators have traveled to Russia ─ even meeting with Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the Russian Federation Council Committee on Foreign Affairs ─ in an effort to facilitate better relations. While Trump is right to lament the state of U.S.-Russia relations, his criticisms of recent U.S. foreign policy ignore real and intractable issues of conflicting spheres of influence, distrust and paranoia, and growing competition, all central to the conflict between the two countries. The Trump administration must begin acknowledging and addressing these issues in order to repair relations or risk significant damage to U.S. interests.
Just last month, Trump entertained placing a military base in Poland to counter “aggressive Russian behavior.” While at odds with his rhetoric, this move and his larger foreign policy mirrors that of former administrations. At the end of the Cold War, the United States and Western Europe provided market and democratic assistance to Russia. However, the United States exacerbated relations via aggressive NATO expansion throughout former Soviet states and client states, resulting in Russia’s distrust of Western actions.
Trump’s current foreign policy reinforces this historical mistrust, whether through proliferation of bases in post-Soviet states like Poland or interventions, both actual and potential, in Russian-allied states like Syria and Venezuela. The United States’ continuation of this zero-sum policy will only aggravate Russia further, providing it license to repeat cyber attacks and invasions as it did in Estonia, Ukraine, and Georgia.
The Trump administration might consider these efforts proactive or a show of resolve, but they will only embolden the Putin administration. Russia will remain undeterred and will continue looking for ways to undermine the United States and its allies in an effort to secure itself. Take Turkey: once a steadfast U.S. ally, the two countries have grown apart over treatment of Kurdish forces in Syria and the jailing of a U.S. pastor, leading to Russia’s advantageous rapprochement with Turkey over conflicts in Syria. The United States should assess these at-risk relationships and work to settle differences quietly, instead of through a loudspeaker, and it should not provocate with additional basing. The United States can provide other security guarantees to NATO members including training, technology transfers, and improving military interoperability.
The strained relationship between Russia and the United States cannot be reduced to geopolitics alone. President Vladimir Putin’s paranoia of Western manipulation has eroded trust between the two. For example, in 2011, domestic protests threatened Putin’s reelection bid while the ongoing Arab Spring convinced him of his own potential downfall. Putin responded by blaming the United States, and more specifically, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for the domestic protests, providing justification for unlawful jailing and the assassination of journalists and opposition leaders, both abroad and at home. The U.S.’s Magnitsky Act of 2012, which effectively sanctioned Putin’s domestic allies, further solidified Putin’s fear of U.S. intervention. Russia’s 2016 presidential election meddling was a direct consequence of Putin’s 2011 paranoia and was designed to affect both Clinton and the United States in a way similar to Putin’s own 2011 election.
Trump certainly cannot affect change on his own, and Russia shares a significant burden in this regard; however, he can push new confidence-building measures while highlighting preexisting ones, for example, shared commitments to Arctic management, non-proliferation of nuclear and chemical/biological weapons, anti-terrorism, and scientific research. He can further show his resolve for improved relations by downplaying current divisions. Trump should also recognize that allegations to assassinate or overthrow Russian allies in Syria, Iran, and Venezuela have only heightened Putin’s, and by extension Russia’s, sense of isolation, anxiety, and paranoia.
Russia’s invasion of Eastern Ukraine and the Crimea, and the related downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, are indicative of growing competition between Russia and the West/United States. Russia is unlikely to back down now that it has won vital influence battles against the West, most tellingly in Syria. For example, Russian forces have threatened U.S. fighter jets and ground forces in an effort to assist President Bashar al-Assad while effectively curbing the United States’ influence in the region. In response, Trump has oscillated between nonintervention and sporadic involvement, especially in the wake of chemical attacks on Syrian civilians. What’s missing from the Trump administration is a serious evaluation of just how the United States should engage (or not) in Syria, and how this engagement or non-engagement will combat Russia’s growing influence.
Within this context of escalating competition, it is clear merely advocating better relations with Russia will not provide a clear path forward for the United States. Trump does have several avenues open to him through which real collaboration with Russia is possible. However, acknowledgment of competing interests in Syria, shifting political allegiances in Europe, and Russia’s own violations of U.S. and European countries’ sovereignty must be the prelude to ameliorating tensions. Shunting these issues for the “stupidity” of U.S. policies misses the real gaps that need to be crossed in order to improve a difficult relationship.