Russian-U.S. Relations: Opportunities and Obstacles for Trump and Putin


2017-05-22 By Richard Weitz

One issue President Trump will need to clarify at next week’s NATO summit is his strategy towards Russia.

To take one example, the NATO allies are divided over whether to focus on counterterrorism, as the President would wish, or on strengthening collective defenses against Russia.

Based on a visit by SLD to Moscow last month, which involved meetings with Russian foreign and defense policy officials, and a trip earlier this month to Italy for a conference with Russian academics, the opportunities and challenges of Russian-U.S. relations have become clearer following the uncertainties of the first hundred days of the Trump administration.

Russian officials and analysts are experiencing some “buyers’ remorse” regarding Trump.

They see him as pursuing traditional U.S. policies that make Moscow uneasy: unilateralism, aversion to international institutions, propensity to use force, and refusal to accept international constraints on U.S. freedom of action.

They also depict Trump as embattled at home by forces hostile to Russian-U.S. reconciliation–attacked by Democrats who used Russia as a political weapon against the incumbent President the same way that the Republicans employed the “Reset” against the Obama administration.

As a result, Russians view Trump as focused on other foreign relationships and has become preoccupied with securing his contested domestic initiatives like health care.

Furthermore, they complain about not knowing who runs Russian policy in the United States, due to the vacancies in the U.S. national security establishment, and the lack of clarity concerning Trump’s specific long-term goals regarding Russia.

Finally, they are upset by his reversal of his campaign rhetoric and reversion to conventional U.S. stances regarding NATO, Ukraine, and other issues.

In light of these developments, they have discounted the possible net gains from a Trump presidency.

In general geopolitical terms, proceeding in concentric circles, Russian goals regarding the United States are to limit U.S. involvement in Russian domestic affairs, attaining Russian security primacy in the former Soviet republics, and receiving U.S. recognition of Russia as a major player in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

When these goals are thwarted, the Russian government directly constrains U.S. involvement in Russian politics and society, challenges the U.S. presence in neighboring countries, and plays a spoiler role in nearby regions.

Initially following the November election, Trump advisors were arguing that one reason that they wanted to improve ties with Moscow was to wean Russia away from Iran and China.

For instance, they hoped Russia would curtail weapons deliveries to these two countries.

But Russian officials have now concluded that most of gains that Trump would bring Moscow would be limited, contested, and transient.

Given this calculation, Russian policy makers have ruled out making major concessions regarding Iran, China, or other issues.

The Trump administration’s changing policies towards Beijing are also affecting Moscow’s calculations.

Before his inauguration, Trump’s team were describing China as the main long-term threat to U.S. security. Russian analysts were looking forward to positioning themselves as a swing state in an intensified Sino-American struggle for global primacy, seeing it as an opportunity to sustain Russia’s status as a third pole in a global triangle.

But Russian policies watched the successful Xi-Trump summit with envy and unease.

They saw how Trump’s rhetoric with China subsequently improved and the U.S. suspended pressure on China’s foreign economic policies in return for Beijing’s pledges of support to curtail North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests.

Not only has this Sino-American reconciliation weakened Moscow’s leverage over both countries, but Moscow’s irritation at the long-delayed Trump-Putin summit has heightened.

Russian policy makers now see such a meeting as their best hope of breaking the stalled Russia-Trump connection.

The upcoming G-20 summit in Hamburg provides a logical venue for the first direct Putin-Trump meeting since neither president seems likely to visit the other country any time soon.

During Tillerson’s visit to Moscow, the parties agreed to create a Russian-U.S. working group to deal with bilateral issues that could be resolved below the level of presidential decision making.

However, Russian officials view the body skeptically, arguing that the format has not worked well in the past, with both sides exchanging points without making much progress.

They do however concur with U.S. assessments that for now the two sides can best focus on making small steps to improve the relationship rather than seeking to make grand bargains, which they see as unrealizable due to the deep distrust between the two countries.

Because of the continuing divide, they see such possibilities excluded such as extensive intelligence-sharing even against common terrorist threats, with continuing divergent Russian-U.S. views of a desirable world order, and the current Russian-U.S. preoccupation with whom is to blame for their poor bilateral relationship rather than addressing what is to be done to make the world better.

Another issue that concerns Russians is the diverging stances of President Trump and other senior administration officials.

Trump continues to say that he wants to improve ties with Moscow. However, his senior national security appointees are considerably more critical of Russia and openly skeptical of improving ties.

These discrepancies could reflect a deliberate strategy of having the President play good cop while his aides take a tougher public line.

Or they may reflect Trump’s encouraging his team to express their different opinions regarding Russia. These likely exist due to the different backgrounds of Trump, whose ties with Russia have focused on the business sector, and his senior advisors, who have a national security perspective.

But these divergences may also be due to poor management of the interagency process, with the White House failing to enforce a common policy line in the bureaucracy, which should be corrected.

Russian analysts still think Trump is a better partner for Moscow than any conceivable alternative U.S. leader.

They appreciate that Trump, unlike Obama, speaks about Russia and Putin with respect, has national rather than global ambitions, and is indifferent towards Russia’s domestic system (seen when Secretary Tillerson declined to meet with Russian opposition leaders during his visit to Moscow).

They also welcome what they perceive as Trump’s ending the Obama administration’s policy of trying to contain Moscow’s influence in neighboring countries—seen in decreased U.S. opposition to Japanese-Russian reconciliation, Trump’s aversion to siding with Ukraine against Russia, the U.S. participation in the Moscow-led Syrian peace process in Astana, and the paucity of Trump statements regarding Crimea.

Russian preferences were evident when Sergei Lavrov met with President Trump in the Oval office—the first visit by a Russian foreign minister to Washington in four years.

Lavrov praised Trump’s pragmatic, “businesslike” approach towards addressing Russian-U.S. differences, contrasting it with what he termed the destructively ideological stance of the previous administration.

Though Russian analysts recognize that American domestic politics make it improbable that Trump will soon remove sanctions on Russia, they hope that the Trump administration will not enforce them vigorously, limit their practical scope, and not engage in supplementary supporting activities such as discouraging other U.S.-Russian business ties.

Russian analysts have likely downplayed the U.S. approval of Montenegro’s accession to NATO and even the U.S. missile strikes in Syria as unavoidable and limited steps given U.S. alliance and domestic considerations.

Russian officials say that Moscow will eschew public confrontations with Trump, such as retaliating for the sanctions the Obama administration imposed on Moscow as it was leaving office and other steps that could further hamper the possibilities for Russian-U.S. reconciliation.

Russian officials are also looking for opportunities to give Trump some perceived quick wins (which could boost his domestic standing) in ways that won’t cost Moscow much concretely—though getting rid of Assad is excluded, a step like expelling Snowden from Russia may not be.

Editor’s Note: There is probably no issue more in play than US policy towards Russia.  

The Trump Administration is under scrutiny for “ties” with the Russians, Washington critics are largely focused on the Trump dimension than the need to have a realistic approach to dealing with Russia in both Europe and the Middle East, and the lack of bench strength in the Administration makes unclear who would actually implement a Trump policy when there is one. 

The disarray in Washington clearly provides Putin with an opportunity to shape some policy initiatives.

What might those be is a very good question for the policy community to puzzle over.

One recent action of note which seems to have been missed is an example of what needs to be noted and puzzled over.

North Korea’s increasingly frequent ballistic missile tests may have raised tensions globally over the country’s nuclear ambitions, but in neighbouring Russia, entrepreneurs are eyeing another prospect: tourism.

On Thursday, a ship that departed from the North Korean port of Rajin on Wednesday arrived in Vladivostok in Russia’s far east, marking the start of the first regular cargo and passenger ferry service with the “hermit kingdom”.

The Man Gyong Bong, which is owned by the Russian company InvestStroyTrest, was carrying Russians and representatives of Chinese tourist companies. The firm has said future passengers could include Chinese and Russian tourists, as well as North Koreans who work in Russia.

Russia is already one of North Korea’s most important economic partners, and the president, Vladimir Putin, said this week that the west should negotiate to end Pyongyang’s nuclear programme rather than threaten it.