As on many other issues, the Trump White House’s approach to Russia has been inconsistent and lacking any apparent strategic logic. Despite the bad political optics resulting from the multiple investigations into his campaign’s ties to Russia, Trump himself has repeatedly called for better relations—apparently even inviting Vladimir Putin to the White House over his advisers’ objections during a congratulatory phone call after the Russian president’s inauguration in March 2018. At the same time, Trump has actively supported measures targeting Russian interests in response to accusations of election interference, the attempted assassination of ex-spy Sergei Skripal in the UK, and support for the Syrian government’s military operations.
The lack of a consistent approach appears driven by a mix of Trump’s own erratic personality and the instability of the administration he heads, which is now on its third national security advisor in just over a year—and has also lost a secretary of state, a chief-of-staff, and multiple other senior officials in that time. Such chaos has bred incoherence across a range of policy issues, but few with as much potential for crisis as relations with Russia.
Still, Trump is only part of the problem. The crisis in U.S.-Russian relations reflects a broader shift, as Moscow’s ongoing challenge to U.S. leadership intersects with a new uncertainty within the U.S. about the costs and benefits of a post-Cold War international order largely designed by and for the U.S. itself. As the old rules of the game fall away, both Moscow and Washington remain unsure what the other intends or how far it is willing to go in pursuit of its declared interests. Like all crises of global order, this one is fraught with uncertainty.
Whatever Trump’s own inclinations, Washington and Moscow continue to define their interests in widely divergent ways across a range of issues. As part of its promotion of a rules-based order in Europe, the U.S. supports Ukraine’s territorial integrity, while Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and backed a separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine to maintain a sphere of influence around its borders. Moscow supports Bashar al-Assad as the legitimate ruler of Syria and most effective bulwark against the spread of extremism, while the U.S. views Assad as the enabler of extremism and a serial abuser of human rights who deserves punishment. Both sides accuse the other of political interference, even as they quarrel over what actually constitutes interference.
These differences might be manageable except for the fact that they come at a time when basic assumptions not just of U.S.-Russian relations, but the nature of the international order as a whole are in flux. For much of the past two decades, the U.S. has wanted to maintain the order that emerged at the end of the Cold War, one in which Washington got to write the rules of the game, enforce them, and, when it suited U.S. interests—ignore them. Russia and, in its own way, China, have chafed at and sought to challenge those rules. In Russia’s case, the challenge has been more direct since Putin returned to the presidency in 2012, and in particular since the outbreak of the Ukraine conflict in early 2014.
Now Washington’s own commitment to the post-Cold War order is in question as well. Trump’s election, and the emergence of other populist and anti-systemic figures in much of the West, is a symptom of growing disillusionment with the status quo. Trump himself may be an extreme example, but his muddled, inconsistent, and simplified view of the world reflects a broader uncertainty about what the U.S. is and what it stands for in the world.
Washington is unsure what it wants, including in relations with Moscow. Trump praises Putin, and days later agrees to new and deeper sanctions. The sanctions create new economic uncertainty, but their political objective remains undefined. Russia threatens that every new action (or tweet) brings World War III a step closer, but has shown little interest in steps that could defuse tensions, such as actually implementing the Minsk agreement or clamping down on Assad’s use of chemical weapons.Both sides would prefer to shadowbox and preen for domestic audiences. They have grown used to a world in which risks are calculable and the consequences of mistakes are limited. But in times of transition and uncertainty, no one know whether those old assumptions still hold.