There has been much talk since late February that Russia’s honeymoon with the Trump Administration ended before it began, putting a cross on the partnership between the two countries. Crying out in disappointment, as in the last 25 years of Russian-US relations, is futile and counterproductive. Regardless of Trump, the Russia-US partnership was hardly possible from the outset given the system-wide confrontation since 2014 and the unprecedented polarization within the US political elite. Instead of groundless hopes and disappointment, Russia and the US should focus on understanding what kind of relations they could build to suit their interests in a rapidly changing world, and what can be achieved in today’s world. They could also focus on working together in areas where it is possible and advisable.
The two months since Donald Trump’s inauguration have been enough to confirm what was obvious from the start: it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to overcome the Russia-US rift and establish some kind of cooperation, even if limited. This is attributable to the overall continuity of US foreign policy in many areas, the immense mutual distrust accumulated over the last 20 years, and especially since 2014, as well as the fact that many in Trump’s Administration view Russia as an unfriendly actor opposed to America’s interests. This goes for Vice-President Mike Pence, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and the new National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster.
The main problem, however, is of course the hybrid civil war waged against President Trump in the US by Democrats, liberal media and a large section of the political elite in general. Until either side wins, the US can hardly be expected to have any kind of intelligible foreign policy, let alone improved relations with Moscow. If there is anything disappointing, it is the depth of the swamp in which the world’s most powerful nation was plunged by the losers in the 2016 elections.
Trump rode into the White House on an anti-establishment and anti-globalist wave, but is now being pressured by the establishment, as well as sabotaged by public servants who are part of this establishment. Unfortunately, Russia has become a tool for undermining and derailing the Trump presidency. Unable to come to terms with the loss and to draw any lesson from the election debacle (specifically, that a globalist agenda and the burden of global leadership are no longer as popular among voters as they used to be), Democrats prefer to blame Russia for ‘stealing’ their victory in collusion with the Trump campaign, who could even be controlled by Russia. The scale of the anti-Trump campaign (media bashing, Congressional probes and investigations by intelligence services) shows that Democrats regard the Russian issue as a real opportunity to force Trump to resign.
The ongoing controversy can be compared with the Watergate scandal in its intensity and possible consequences. A witch hunt reminiscent of McCarthyism has been unleashed to demonize Moscow. The first victim was Trump’s National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, a man viewed as Russia’s main interlocutor in the new administration. His resignation was indicative of the limits the White House would have to respect in dealing with Russia. From now on, it would be unthinkable to appoint to any key position people known for their constructive attitude towards Moscow. It also makes highly unlikely any bold step by the administration that would run counter to the current position of the US elite on matters like Ukraine or Eastern European NATO members.
On the contrary, what the White House needs in the current situation is to show that not only is it not giving any ground to Russia, but that it talks to Moscow from a position of force and is firmer than the Obama administration in standing up for US national interests. This explains the firmness on the INF issue and vociferous accusations against Russia for violating the treaty.
For now, Republicans command a congressional majority, which makes Trump’s resignation or impeachment unlikely. However, this could change after the 2018 mid-term elections with attempts to dethrone the president gaining momentum. What this means is that the domestic policy drama will continue unabated in the years to come. Neither of the other possible scenarios can be expected to improve Russia’s relations with the US, be it Trump continuing to fight the establishment for the rest of his presidency, or the establishment taking over the administration and giving the Pence-Mattis-McMaster coalition, which is supported by the republican establishment, a decisive say on foreign policy issues.
That said, this does not mean that there is absolutely no way the rift between Russia and the US can be overcome and cooperation restored, at least in some areas. As challenging as both objectives may seem, both are achievable.
Regardless of the US policy toward Russia, American foreign policy under the Trump Administration could ease tensions on the key areas that set Russia and the US apart, such as Washington’s commitment to a policy of regime change and spreading democracy, NATO expansion, including into the CIS, supporting anti-Russian forces in the post-Soviet space and a proactive political and diplomatic containment policy toward Russia in the region, as well as its general stance on international order and the places occupied by Russia and the US.
The Trump Administration has already opposed a regime change by force and voiced skepticism regarding the spread of democracy. This is one of the issues where the administration has been consistent, and on which the president agrees with his close associates and the generals from the national security team, including Mattis, McMaster and Dunford. It is telling that the White House said it intended to cut funding for promoting democracy abroad in the 2018 budget.
Under Trump, the US is not eager to keep NATO involved in Ukraine or Georgia, or build up the alliance’s military infrastructure in Poland, Romania or the Baltic states. Washington cannot reverse decisions taken at the Wales and Chicago NATO summits, or conspicuously scale back support for Ukraine. However, the US will not indulge the Eastern European allies and Kiev either. It is highly unlikely that Ukraine will receive lethal weapons or become a major non-NATO ally.
In addition, the new administration has hinted that undermining Russian interests and projects in the post-Soviet space (including the EAEU and CSTO) or supporting anti-Russia forces in the region would not be a priority. Finally, differences between Russia and the Trump Administration on the issue of international order (sovereignty, use of force, standards and rules in relations among great powers) are less pronounced compared to the previous three administrations.
All this changes the nature of bilateral relations. Russia has fewer reasons to view the United States as an endemic threat or a challenge to the international world order in general.
The situation is similar on the American side. The Trump Administration is paying less attention to global leadership or promoting the liberal international order, views China as the main strategic opponent, and ISIS, Iran and North Korea as the primary threats, while being less inclined to view Russia as its opponent or threat. Moreover, the focus by the new administration on containing China and fighting radical Islamism is the main reason Trump and other top US officials are still talking about the need to come to terms with Russia despite all the restrictions and risks it could bring on the domestic policy front.
Are the two countries interested in not only overcoming the confrontation, but also promoting cooperation, be it limited? Yes, certainly. The Trump Administration understands that it would be impossible to contain both Russia and China at the same time, and is cognizant of the risk of making Moscow a permanent anti-American player, especially as Washington seeks to be more resolute in containing China and Iran, as well as more assertive in its policy towards North Korea. The US would not like to see the Ukraine crisis and the current confrontation between Russia and NATO last indefinitely, since they stand in the way of Washington’s priorities.
Russia in turn understands that it needs to maintain smooth and even equidistant relations with other world powers in order to establish itself as an independent global powerhouse in a new, multipolar post-West world, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov cautiously called it. It is now that the struggle for shaping the contours of this world begins. Entering the fight for the right to shape the new world order against the backdrop of an all-out confrontation with the US would have a restraining effect on Russia, with the potential of making the emerging world order much more confrontational and less manageable. Forging constructive ties in the Russia-US-China triangle and positioning Russia as the third great power and a counterweight in the Asia-Pacific region is essential in terms of the stability of this world order.
Specifically, there is a clear rationale for Russia and the US to step up cooperation. Otherwise, it will be impossible to resolve the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, diffuse tension on the line of contact between Russia and NATO, curb the threat of Islamist terrorism or nuclear proliferation. Although cooperation on this and other issues remains a major challenge due to US infighting, it nevertheless remains possible.
First, this can and already is developing behind the scenes, away from the spotlight. In the two months since Trump’s arrival in the White House, Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov and Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford met twice. Before that, the chiefs of staff did not meet since January 2014. The top item on the agenda was military action in Syria. Officially, Washington said that the question of military cooperation with Moscow is off the table so far. However, there is an objective need for Russia and the US, and possibly also Turkey to work together: there are places where parallel or uncoordinated action could be dangerous. The same goes for the need for them to combine efforts in promoting a political settlement. Intra-Syrian talks in Astana showed that without the US (and Saudi Arabia) a settlement will not be achieved. Pragmatic cooperation without any bold statements seems to be the only model that can work.
Second, it would be much easier for Russia and the US to cooperate in a multilateral setting by forming flexible, ad-hoc coalitions, especially since progress on many issues cannot be achieved without third parties, be it China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Germany or other countries. Multilateral cooperation and deals involving several countries could become a key vector of Russia-US relations not only as they seek to overcome confrontation, but in their future relations in general. This has become a necessity in today’s world, since global powers are no longer able to set the agenda entirely by themselves.
Third, cooperation between Russia and the US could be active as well as passive by not standing in the way of the other side in pursuit of its objectives when vital interests are not at stake. Both active and passive cooperation is already taking place. The Trump Administration, unlike the previous administration, is not seeking to isolate Russia in the Asia-Pacific region and is not creating obstacles for closer ties with Japan and other US allies in the region. The same kind of cooperation is taking place in Syria where the US no longer insists on Bashar al-Assad’s removal from power and is focusing on defeating ISIS.
Finally, domestic policy issues that restrict the ability of the US to step up ties with Russia could become less of a factor in the near term. Democrats have been so aggressively using the Russian card in their anti-Trump rhetoric that the hardcore anti-Russian stance could evolved from a bipartisan into an exclusively democratic posture. More and more Republicans are ready to support Trump on Russia in order to prevent him from being impeached (which would be a blow to the GOP), and also since this is what Democrats are calling for. The most vociferous critics of Moscow among republicans, senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, do not wield a majority. Bipartisan anti-Russian consensus in the US has been in place since 2014, but could now fracture.
In the short run, it seems advisable for Russia and the US to focus on specific issues such as defeating ISIS, promoting a political settlement in Syria, easing tensions on the contact line between Russia and NATO, and dealing with the North Korean nuclear issue. It is less likely that the Ukraine crisis will be settled, since for that Washington would need to call Kiev to order and demand that Ukraine stop sabotaging the Minsk Agreements and stoking tensions. Unless the Trump Administration strengthens its domestic policy standing, this seems unlikely.
Nevertheless, now is the right time to offer Washington a new, more ambitious agenda that can focus on promoting Russia-US cooperation within a new emerging world order. An upcoming Valdai Club paper will outline the contours of this agenda.
Dmitry Suslov is Programme Director of the Valdai Discussion Club