Valdai Paper #64: Into the Unknown: U.S.-Russian Relations Unhinged


If the larger picture defies prediction, the immediate future is scarcely more transparent. In the U.S. case, the known unknowns are numerous. They begin with the question of how much deck furniture Trump is willing to overturn in order to pursue an “America First” strategy.

More fundamentally, how likely is it that he really means to abandon a leadership role for the United States in global politics and substitute a stark realpolitik approach to foreign policy issues? Already in the fourth week after a tumultuous first three weeks in office, he and his team had retreated on their more extreme positions: on a “One China” policy in a renewed pledge to Xi Jinping; on the Iran nuclear agreement in a pledge to Federica Mogherini; and on the U.S. mutual defense pact with Japan in a pledge to Shinzō Abe. Toward Russia the language quickly hardened in the speeches of senior foreign and defense policy officials. Thus, early signs suggested that the radical departure implied by the President’s pre- and post-election comments would melt away once harsh reality and difficult choices set in. But who could say for sure?

If initially the Russian leadership welcomed Trump’s election, because of his apparently warmer attitude toward Russia, presumably a deeper source of optimism rested on the hope that the new president intended to confi ne U.S. policy to the pursuit of more narrowly defi ned national interests, rather than the traditional role the United States had long assigned itself.

If that prospect, however, began to wane or simply lapse into confusion, the Russian leadership had only the vague utterances of Trump and one or two of his entourage on which to fall back.

And soon these too gave way to a confusing reformulation designed to reassure nervous allies and cope with the political fallout over Russia’s perceived role in the presidential election.

That the Russian leadership wanted a less hostile U.S. administration and a less confrontational relationship with the United had become plain even before Trump entered the White House. But whether this was a realistic possibility simply led to the next set of unanswered questions.

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