Any hopes that the incoming Trump administration might have been able to provide a fresh stimulus to improving ties with Russia were quickly smashed almost before the administration took office. Candidate Trump was all over the map on many foreign and security policy issues, but on his desire to improve ties with Russia, and in particular elicit more support from Moscow in defeating ISIS in Syria, he was consistently clear. Moscow certainly liked hearing his frequent compliments of Vladimir Putin, strong criticism of NATO, and seeming lack of interest in Ukraine. Trump often boasted of his ability to make a “deal” with Putin that would serve US interests because the Russian president would understand and respect that he was dealing with a much tougher interlocutor than Barack Obama.
This hopeful phase decisively ended with the “resignation” of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn on February 13th after only 24 days on the job, the shortest tenure by far of anyone in this position since it was created in 1947. The public explanation for Flynn’s departure was his failure to accurately inform Vice President Michael Pence about the nature of phone conversations he had held with then Russian Ambassador Kislyak in late December about existing U.S. sanctions against Russia. From that point on, the Trump Administration was on the defensive on Russia, and in the spring both houses of Congress and the Department of Justice launched investigations about possible collusive activities of Trump campaign officials with Russians who had meddled in the 2016 Presidential campaign allegedly at the behest of the Kremlin. Whatever new initiatives the Trump administration had wanted to explore with Moscow were mostly shelved as they had virtually no degrees of freedom on Russia policy.
President Trump also came to office in face of a very strong bi-partisan anti-Russian consensus in the U.S. Congress. Virtually all Democrats and most Republicans in Congress were furious about Russia’s meddling in the election and very distrustful of Trump, especially on Russia. For the Congress, the question was not whether to soften Russia sanctions, but rather to codify and strengthen them through new legislation that was passed in late July and signed into law by a reluctant President Trump on August 2nd. During the year Washington and Moscow engaged in tit-for-tat restrictions and downsizing of Embassy staff and even closure of the Russian consulate in San Francisco that was reminiscent of Cold War behavior. Now after nearly a year in office, U.S.-Russia relations are worse and we can only point to modest cooperation on creation of safe-zones in Syria, on-going discussions but far from full agreement on North Korea, and the resumption of a bilateral channel for discussion on the future of Ukraine.
What can we expect in 2018? While I am inclined by nature to be a “glass half full” kind of guy, it is hard to be optimistic. Ukraine is still the issue that is most divisive and the one where a positive resolution could lead to normalization of relations and the beginning of removal of existing sanctions (This is true also, of course for Russia’s relations with Europe). But when Putin is most likely inaugurated for another term as President of Russia in May 2018, the conflict will have entered its fifth year. Putin said nothing in the late October meeting of the annual Valdai Discussion Club to suggest that Russia is prepared to alter its positions. Rather, he clearly laid the onus on the West to put more pressure on the weak Poroshenko government to fulfill his commitments made in the 2015 Minsk II agreement.
Until the ongoing Russia investigations in Washington conclude, presumably without bringing an end to the Trump presidency, the administration will be handcuffed on Russia policy. North Korea and Iran will remain major priorities for the Trump team, and there is a lot of friction with Russia there, especially with Tehran. Both sides also appear to getting closer to withdrawing from the 1987 INF Treaty, and if these differences are not bridged, then it will be virtually impossible to get the 2011 New Start Treaty extended before its ten-year period concludes. These events would result in the virtual destruction of the bilateral arms control regime that has served as a fulcrum of the bilateral relationship and global security going back to the 1960s. So again, as in many recent years, the downside risk for the bilateral relationship significantly exceeds the upside risk, and the challenge for policymakers in Washington in Moscow will be in managing a deeply conflicted and distrustful relationship where public opinion in both countries is a further obstacle to rapprochement.