Guest commentary by Mark Lawrence Schrad, assistant professor of political science at Villanova University
For the entirety of the 2016 presidential campaign, I demurred on commenting on the state of US-Russian relations, and for good reason. While Russia was a contentious issue in the competition between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, it ultimately culminated in a childish exchange in the final debate about who, in fact, would be Vladimir Putin’s “puppet.” From hysteria about Trump being a brainwashed Russian Manchurian Candidate to more reasonable questions as to the extent of Trump’s business and political connections to Russian oligarchs, the very important question about relations with Russia was marked more by disinformation, misinformation and speculation, rather than substance. In the end, we could not even settle what seems to be an easily verifiable question as to whether Trump had ever even met Putin.
That was domestic political theater and electioneering. With the world now facing the unlikely reality of a Trump presidency, the vagueness, uncertainty, and doublespeak must give way to concrete foreign policies. We are at a critical juncture, and must quickly determine whether we want a fundamentally new direction in US-Russian relations, and what, exactly, that will look like.
American relations with post-Soviet Russia have historically been a roller coaster: soaring hopes for greater friendship and cooperation followed by a dizzying descent back down to cynicism and confrontation. All of this usually happens in neat, eight-year cycles, corresponding with new presidents in Washington and Moscow.
After the burying of Cold-War hostilities and the collapse of Soviet communism, there was great hope in the early 1990s that newly-democratized Russia would become a strategic partner, as Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin became fast friends. Yet as it became clear that there would be no post-Soviet Marshall Plan, and that Russia would be left to suffer the crippling economic depression without the same Western assistance accorded to Poland and other postcommunist states, relations soured—bottoming out with the Russian financial crisis and debt default of 1998, and the direct confrontation of Russian and NATO forces during the Kosovo conflict the following year.
Vladimir Putin replaced the ailing President Yeltsin at the new millennium, and George W. Bush replaced Bill Clinton soon thereafter. After their first meeting in 2001, Bush famously said that he’d looked into Putin’s eye and “was able to get a sense of his soul,” finding him “very straightforward and trustworthy.” Putin reciprocated, becoming the first world leader to offer both consolation and support to the US following 9/11, raising hopes for a new strategic partnership. Yet those hopes quickly dimmed as Russia took umbrage with American unilateralism: the gradual encroachment of NATO into Eastern Europe and even the former-Soviet Baltic states, and American plans for a missile-defense shield, prompting withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and stationing missiles in Poland. Bush’s 2003 disastrous invasion of Iraq over Russian, French and Chinese objections at the UN Security Council further solidified the Kremlin’s self-image as a strategic counterweight to America’s unchecked and illegal interventionism, and champion of international law. Relations bottomed-out again in 2008 with the Russian war against Georgia, a nominal US ally.
Against the backdrop of the global economic crisis in 2008, newly elected US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attempted to “reset” relations with Dmitry Medvedev, who’d assumed the Russian presidency while Putin shifted to the role of Prime Minister. The improvement in relations could be seen in greater economic cooperation which would eventually pave the way for Russian accession to the WTO, as well as security cooperation on Iran, Afghanistan, transnational terrorism, and the inking of a New START Treaty in 2010 to reduce nuclear stockpiles on both sides. Yet the honeymoon didn’t last, especially once Putin returned to the Russian presidency in 2012. That year, when the US passed the Magnitsky Act to sanction individual human-rights violators in Russia, the Kremlin responded by banning American adoptions of Russian orphans. In 2013, Putin granted asylum to US whistleblower Edward Snowden. By 2014, pundits were vocally lamenting the return of Cold-War-era tensions, as the US and European Union imposed biting economic sanctions against Russia for its brazen annexation of Crimea and military intervention in Ukraine’s breakaway Donbass region, provided the missiles that shot down Malaysian Airlines flight 17, and actively blocked international humanitarian efforts in Syria. And now, to this, we add both the accusation and admission that the Kremlin meddled in the US election: smearing Clinton by hacking DNC servers and releasing emails to WikiLeaks. These developments blurred the lines between domestic political spectacle and traditional foreign-policy issues, but Russia’s willingness to engage in cyber-warfare will remain a point of contention going forward all the same.
So, here we are the end of another eight-year cycle. If history is any guide, this is the point in the roller-coaster ride where the chain mechanism grabs us by the undercarriage and drags us to the top of the next hill, only to start yet another downward slide. The vital question, then, is do we really want to improve relations with Russia?
That has yet to be decided, but what is clear is that Russia desperately wants better relations with the United States—and more specifically, desperately wants America to take it’s foot off of Russia’s neck and remove the post-Crimea economic sanctions that have been choking its economy since 2014. We’ve heard time and again that Putin had been pulling for a Trump victory, though it may be more accurate to say that he was rooting instead for a Hillary Clinton defeat. As Obama’s Secretary of State, Clinton chided the Kremlin for defending Bashar al Assad as Syria descended into civil war, and she had vocally supported the pro-democracy, anti-corruption, anti-Putin protests in Moscow in the lead-up to his 2012 re-election. Clinton quickly became perhaps the most vilified person on Russian state-run media, where she was portrayed as the mastermind of all manner of anti-Russian conspiracy theories. The Kremlin must surely be pleased with her comeuppance. Plus, Moscow can easily spin the entire 2016 election farce as evidence that the once-mighty United States is now mired in chaotic decline.
While it’s wrong to portray President-Elect Trump as a “puppet” taking orders from Putin, it is clear that their interests converge. Once news of Trump’s victory was announced on the floor of the Russian Duma, the parliament “burst into thunderous applause.” (By longstanding convention, all political applause in Russia must necessarily be “thunderous.”) Putin then sent a congratulatory telegram to Trump, expressing optimism that they could resolve “the current crisis” in US-Russian relations. That certainly seems like more of a possibility with Trump than under a more hawkish, interventionist, containment-oriented Clinton presidency, which is entirely the point.
Since Trump has systematically alienated both liberals and experienced conservatives within the foreign-policy establishment, it is likely that whoever is in charge of Trump’s foreign policy will be relatively inexperienced, and will need to be brought up to speed quickly. Team Trump team must know what it is up against in dealing with Russia, beginning with the asymmetric nature of the US-Russian relationship. America’s GDP is thirteen times larger than Russia’s, the United States has the largest military in the world, and spends ten times as much on its military than Russia—so in pure power terms, the US clearly has the far better hand. However when it comes to diplomacy and geopolitics, the asymmetry cuts the other way. In the debates, Trump admitted that he knows “nothing about Russia” or its inner workings, and he’s shown little interest in learning. It is likely that whoever he appoints as Secretary of State—Rudy Giuliani or someone else—will be a rookie, too. To put this in terms that a casino magnate like Trump might understand: if diplomacy is a poker game, the Trump administration will be coming to the table with a lot of chips, but no experience playing the game. By contrast, Putin, Sergei Lavrov—Russia’s Foreign Minister since 2004—and the entire Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs are seasoned professionals, and they’ve got the hardware to prove it. One of the traditional strengths of Kremlin foreign policy has been experience and expertise. They know how to play a bad hand really, really well, since they’ve been dealt consistently bad hands for a long, long time. In the end, though, the wildcard at this table may be fundamental unpredictability—usually dealt to Putin’s hand, it may well be in Trump’s now.
Trump’s team must not fall into overly simplistic Cold War thinking. While Putin is certainly an autocrat, the Russian Federation today bears little resemblance to the Soviet Union of the past. Most notably, unlike the Soviet Union, the Kremlin today has no base ideology or motivating doctrine other than classic realpolitik. Without a stabilizing anchor, Russian foreign policy is flexible and improvisational, though not necessarily unpredictable. One day, Putin can position Russia as the defender of international law on the pages of the New York Times by warning the United States about the illegality of impinging on Syrian sovereignty. The next day, he can completely toss out those high ideals by illegally impinging on Ukrainian sovereignty (and more recently withdrawing even its symbolic support for the International Criminal Court).
Yet the best example of Russia’s ideological unmooring deals with their support of Trump himself. For years, critics of Russia’s human rights record have dealt with wave after wave of “whataboutism”: that America isn’t the paragon of freedom and democracy it makes itself out to be. Just look at Ferguson, they’d say, or the KKK. But they have no qualms with supporting the KKK’s preferred candidate when it suits their goals. Likewise, when EuroMaidan protesters filled the streets of Kyiv, the Russian propaganda machine justified intervention into Ukraine to stop a “fascist” junta supposedly propagated by the West. Yet when it comes to Trump—a candidate whose authoritarian, ultranationalist rhetoric objectively blurs the line between conservatism and fascism—Putin has no qualms in supporting him. Perhaps because this objective label describes Putin just as well.
For better or for worse, this oft-noted similarity between Putin and Trump indeed could be the key to improved relations between the United States and Russia, if the United States is willing to pay the price. Like Putin, Trump’s foreign policy vision appears improvisational and unanchored to any particular ideology or value. There are many potential stumbling blocks in improving US-Russian relations, but in my view, the biggest comes in trying to compartmentalize interlinked issues such as Syria, Ukraine, and NATO. If President Trump wants to broker a deal with Russia over Syria, for instance, that will likely mean softening NATO deployments on Russia’s doorstep. This could be a likely outcome, as Trump has signaled a willingness to de-commit from our NATO allies anyway.
Or, if Trump wants to lift sanctions on Russia—perhaps as a means of enticing Putin to withdraw support from the Ukrainian rebel states of Donetsk and Luhansk—that will probably mean implicitly recognizing the legitimacy of Russia’s illegal invasion and annexation of Crimea. Given his flouting of international treaties regarding everything from torture to “bombing the hell out of ISIS” and even killing their families, my guess is that Trump would not let little things like defending Ukrainian territorial sovereignty or championing international law get in the way of making a deal.
For the professional American foreign-policy community, this sort of Trump breakthrough might actually be a blessing in disguise. To be sure, most Americans don’t care much about the plight of Crimeans, or whether “they’d rather be with Russia.” They probably can’t even locate Ukraine on a map. But what the foreign-policy community cares about is international law, and defense of the principle that you can’t just take over someone else’s country and forcibly redraw boundaries. If Trump recognizes Russian Crimea in order to appease Putin, he legitimizes military intervention and annexation, perhaps setting a destabilizing precedent. However, if he were willing to do this, and bear the brunt of the wave of international criticism that would certainly follow, it would indeed remove a hurdle to improved US-Russian relations. Plus, using President Trump as a scapegoat would offer the professional foreign-policy community some plausible deniability: “look, I know it is illegal, but it is Trump, so what are you going to do?” The horrifying downside, of course, is that this will encourage such dangerous geopolitical gambits in Eastern Europe, making NATO’s presence in Eastern Europe even more vital, rather than less.
Candidate Trump liked to talk about “losers,” which would be anyone who disagrees with him on anything. I’m certain Trump would consider me a loser in almost every conceivable way. However the real losers in Trump’s effort to improve US-Russia relations most certainly would be our allies in East Europe and around the globe (whose interests are always conveniently omitted from any discussion of big-power diplomacy), the reliability our international security architecture including NATO, the sanctity of international law, the position of the United States as a global leader, and potentially global geopolitical stability writ large. That is potentially a huge price to pay for better relations with Russia, which begs the businessman’s question: what do we get out of it? A shifting of geopolitical tensions from Syria to Eastern Europe? A sweetheart deal on vodka imports? Beyond that, I’m not entirely sure.
President-Elect Trump does have a unique opportunity—and likely the willingness—to improve relations with the Kremlin, and take us to the top of the next hill of the Russian roller-coaster, as we’ve done roughly every eight years. But will we be willing to pay the price?