In the early days of the Trump presidency, there were mixed but nevertheless balanced predictions in Russia regarding the foreign policy of the new administration. The statements coming from the White House, the first appointments and steps on the international stage all indicated that there would be a light side and a dark side in the administration with respect to Russia.
The light side featured a number of elements. First, there was an apparent desire to make US foreign policy less ideological by renouncing systematic efforts at regime change in adversarial nations and downgrading the spread of democracy and human rights. Second, there was a promise to put America first, meaning that the national interests of the US, in the narrow, egocentric sense, were to prevail over the drive to strengthen and expand US hegemony and global leadership. Third, Trump wanted to marginalize the American foreign policy establishment and break with the dominant consensus for the last 70 years that America’s security and prosperity were inseparable from preserving the US-oriented world order and making it universal.
All these factors created prerequisites for diffusing many fundamental contradictions in Russia-US relations. These difference boil down to the fact that Moscow and Washington view the international order, its fundamental norms and rules and their place in it differently. The new logic guiding US policy was expected to remove the causes which led the two countries to position themselves as posing existential threats to one another and the international order in general. This could have ended the Russia-US confrontation that has been dragging on since 2014. There were hopes that the emergence in Washington of a new vision of national interests would bring about a swift resolution to the crisis in Ukraine and facilitate counter-terrorist cooperation in Syria. It seemed that Trump would be paying less attention to the issue of preserving a US-led order, focusing on cooperating with Moscow on national security issues that mattered more for the US. In this case, he could have pressured Kiev to deliver on its commitments under the Minsk agreements.
Even Trump’s anti-China rhetoric, while disturbing, could have signaled an opportunity for Russia to reinforce its position in the Russia-US-China triangle. There was this sense that the constructive stance adopted by the US president toward Russia was attributable to a large extent to the administration’s idea of having order on the home front so as to prevent Russia’s relations with China from evolving into a military alliance while the US steps up its containment policy against China. This would have freed up maneuvering space for Moscow in its relations with both countries, forcing them to compete for Russia’s friendship.
That said, from the very outset there was also a darker side in the Trump administration’s policy, reflecting some of the traditional features of the foreign policy approaches preached by the Republican right, including a unilateral foreign policy, disdain for what others think or international law, skepticism toward international institutions, a negative view of arms control and external restrictions of the freedom to act at its discretion in general, seeking to build up military might, including strategic capabilities, the propensity to use military force as a foreign policy tool par excellence and engage in dialogue with other countries from a position of force. The message that, under Trump, America would be strong and not afraid to use its might was a common thread throughout the presidential campaign and squarely in line with the preferences of the Republican elite.
Does Anti-Trump Hysteria in Washington Leave Any Space for Russian-US Cooperation?
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.
This was a matter of concern for Russia from the very beginning. Many feared a new arms race, the collapse of the arms control regime, including nuclear arms, the almost physical resistance in the new administration to compromise on issues that it viewed as pertaining to its national interests, deteriorating relations between the US and Iran, as well as impulsive, premature military actions for the sole purpose of flexing muscles.
Nevertheless, the balance between the light side and the dark side of the new administration inspired cautious optimism. There were hopes that Russia and the US would be able to overcome their confrontation and return to a model of cooperation and competition in specific areas, which has been a norm in their relations since the end of the Cold War.
From then on, the situation changed rapidly. All of a sudden, the light side has started to fade away, which can be partially attributed to policy failures on the home front (the failed attempt to dismantle Obamacare and restrict illegal immigrants entering the country; dwindling approval ratings), Trump’s stand-off with the Democrats, Congress and the foreign policy elite in general, who used alleged ties with Russia as a pretext for unleashing an unprecedented attack against the president and his inner circle in order to force him to step down, and partially to processes within the administration itself.
The resignation of Trump’s national security adviser Michael Flynn and his replacement by H.R. McMaster, a mainstream Republican official, signaled the start of this transformation. The process reached its climax with the missile strike against Syria following the chemical weapons attack, which was carried out in the absence of a thorough international investigation. This was accompanied by attempts in the run-up and during the visit to Moscow by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to exert political and psychological pressure on Russia in order to persuade it to give up on the Syrian President Assad, and saber-rattling in Northeast Asia by dispatching an aircraft carrier to the region and issuing statements that the US was willing to strike North Korea.
Above all, the Trump administration has gone mainstream. The traditional establishment (its Republican wing) has started to gain ground, all but taking control of the administration’s foreign policy, while the most revolutionary and anti-establishment elements, primarily Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon, have been excluded from foreign policy decision-making. The president opted for the lesser evil amid the threat of a ‘hybrid civil war’ against the establishment, which could have resulted in his impeachment or at least weakened him to such an extent that his domestic policy agenda would be dead in the water.
As a result, the administration started quickly retreating to the normal state of US foreign policy over the last several decades. By the end of April nothing was left of the America First principle in its original sense, as the US went back to bolstering its hegemony and global leadership in the US-led world order. The only real step the US has made in keeping with the America First principle was to withdraw from the TPP. Otherwise, Washington reaffirmed its commitment to its allies, including within NATO, stopped talking about foreign policy nationalism and restored continuity with the previous administration on most issues. It was telling when Trump said that NATO was no longer obsolete just three months after claiming the opposite.
Relations within the US – China – Russia triangle also changed. Under fire from Democrats who used Russia allegations as a cudgel against Trump, it has become impossible for the president to put relations with Russia on a more constructive footing. It turned out to be politically impossible to pressure Kiev and even less so to ease sanctions against Russia. The shift of US foreign policy toward the mainstream also constrained Trump’s initial anti-China rhetoric. Of course, Washington will continue its efforts to contain China, which has been a US foreign policy priority for the last decade, dating back to George W. Bush. However, just as before, the limits of this policy will be determined by the interdependence between the American and Chinese economies, the allies of the US in Asia, and the need to work together within the global governance framework. As a result, US-China relations got back on track, and the visit to the US by China’s President Xi Jinping confirmed that. The same cannot be said about relations with Russia.
At the same time, most of the elements of the darker side of Trump administration’s foreign policy vision have fully materialized. The position following the chemical weapons attack in Syria, the airstrike against Syria, conspicuously carried out during Trump’s meeting with Xi Jinping in Florida, and extreme pressure on Russia in the run-up to Tillerson’s visit to Moscow, including the prospect of an ultimatum, and also the threat to use force against DPRK and the decision to dispatch an aircraft carrier to its shores fully confirmed Washington’s commitment to unilateralism in foreign policy, as well as its disdain for international law, institutions and multilateral procedures. It was also indicative of the administration’s intention to deal with international issues and other great powers from a position of force, and its propensity to use the stick for extortion purposes and as a foreign policy tool of choice.
In addition, Tillerson’s visit to Russia confirmed that the US was not ready for any serious talks on strategic stability or arms control. The prospect of the existing regime, including the INF Treaty and New Start, coming completely undone, setting the stage for a new arms race is becoming increasingly real.
All this is exacerbated by the fact that Trump has yet to fill many positions within his administration, so there is a shortage of people overseeing the key areas of relations with Russia (including arms control). There is a lack of internal coordination, made worse by the brashness of the president. In addition, he and many within his inner circle lack foreign policy experience and have little idea of what is allowed and what can lead to a catastrophe.
What does this transformation mean in terms of Russia-US relations? Would it be safe to argue that the Trump administration completely crossed over to the dark side, becoming even less accommodating and more dangerous for Russia then the Obama administration was and the Hillary Clinton administration could have been? The answer is no. The transformation within the Trump administration has raised tensions between Russia and the US to a dangerous level, but a new Cold War is far from inevitable. This shift will make the US under Trump an extremely challenging partner, and tensions with Russia will escalate every once in a while, though Russia will not be portrayed as an endemic threat.
The last and most important element of the light side that remains relevant to the Trump administration’s foreign policy vision is the disinclination to pursue regime change by force or treat efforts to spread democracy as a key foreign policy priority. Accordingly, even if the foreign policy under Trump is harsh, unilateral and opportunistic, it is still far from neo-conservatism and less driven by an ideological agenda compared to the previous administrations.
The airstrike against Syria and its timing, as well as the shifting narrative of the administration (what is said today can be the opposite of what was said yesterday) prove one thing: there is no going back for the US to its consistent policy of regime change despite these airstrikes and statements that Assad’s days are numbered. Washington’s aim is to flex its muscle and, even more importantly, extract important symbolic concessions from Russia and China that can be portrayed as Donald Trump’s international victories, which could be translated into momentum on the domestic policy front.
It is telling that while trumpeting the US view that Assad has no place in the Syrian political settlement, Washington is making it abundantly clear that it does not intend to overthrow the regime by force or stage a large-scale intervention, that the airstrike was a one-off show of force rather than an attempt to achieve military objectives, and that the removal of the Syrian president should not spell the end of the regime. It is also obvious that any use of force by the US against the DPRK would be fatal for South Korea, Japan and Northeast Asia in general, and ultimately for America itself in terms of its prestige and authority. The fact that US Vice President Mike Pence visited the demilitarized zone on the DPRK border with his family is the best confirmation available that Washington does not intend to use military force against Pyongyang.
What this means is that the US is actually seeking to pressure Russia and China, not Syria or the DPRK. The US expects Moscow to at least pretend to consider Assad’s possible removal. The reason the Trump administration wants to see that shift is not because of a propensity to regime change, which it lacks, or for advancing the intra-Syrian settlement process (something the US still cares little about), but for symbolic reasons. It could have been portrayed as a momentous victory of the administration with a ‘strong’ Trump achieving what the ‘weak’ Obama was unable to do since 2011. As for China, the US wants more decisive action on North Korea, such as new sanctions or at least harsher rhetoric. Far from helping resolve the North Korean nuclear issue, what is expected is more of a symbolic gesture. Just as with Russia and Assad, by persuading China to put some pressure on DPRK, Trump could claim to be able to quickly achieve results that remained beyond Obama’s reach throughout his presidency.
US Becomes an Extremely Dangerous Partner for Russia
The shelling by the US Tomahawks of the Syrian Air Force base Shayrat represents a milestone turn in the internal and external policies of the Trump administration. From an internal policy view, this means the final victory of the American establishment over Trump. We can now say that the Trump administration has become an ordinary Republican administration, where key decisions are now taken by the vice president Pence and Defense Minister Mattis. People close to Trump are pushed into the background, Dmitry Suslov, Programme Director of the Valdai Discussion Club, said in an interview to valdaiclub.com.
Just as in the case of the Trump administration going mainstream, the reason it has started down this slippery slope right now has everything to do with domestic politics. Dogged by incessant infighting, accused of shady ties to Russia and with approval ratings dwindling, it seems that the Trump administration decided to use the chemical weapons incident in Syria and escalating tensions around DPRK to kill quite a few birds with just one or two stones. The first would be to prove those Russia accusations wrong, and beef up Trump’s support within the Republican establishment, thereby strengthening his positions at home. Second, to reinforce the position of the US in its relations with China and Russia, recovering the strategic initiative in the Middle East and East Asia, presenting concessions by Moscow and Beijing as evidence of the US restoring global leadership. In this respect, Trump and his associates mimic Reagan. After all, there are still many Republicans who believe that it was by being tough and bold that the 40th US president delivered a deadly blow to the USSR, winning the Cold War for the US.
There is no doubt that this is a dangerous policy that could make relations with China and especially Russia even worse. After all, if they ultimately refuse to make concessions (Moscow has already made it clear that it was not going to give in to pressure or even discuss the possibility of forcing Assad to step down), the Trump administration will either have to come to terms with its failure or raise the stakes even higher. The first option seems unacceptable in terms of its standing at home and also since it would cast doubt on whether Trump is actually ‘stronger’ than Obama. The second option could result in an escalation comparable to the 1962 Caribbean Crisis. In addition, it has yet to be seen whether the understaffed Trump administration understands where to stop.
Nevertheless, this policy is not revisionist or endemically anti-Russian despite its opportunism and danger. All Trump needs are symbolic victories, not regime change in Syria or Russia, or to spread democracy across the globe. It is quite telling in this context what Tillerson said about the need for Assad to step down in such a way that the Syrian state remains in place, as well as the fact that during his visit to Moscow the US Secretary of State did not meet with Russian opposition activists and leaders of liberal NGOs. Unlike its predecessors, the Trump administration has never stated the goal of promoting democracy in Russia, or that the problems with its foreign policy have to do with Russia’s political regime or its president.
Consequently, there is still a chance, slim as it may be, that Russia and the US overcome their endemic confrontation and stop viewing each other as enemies by default or threats to international order. Not only does the Trump administration not seek regime change, it does not intend to ratchet up pressure in Ukraine (for example, by supplying it with lethal weapons or designating it as a major non-NATO ally). In fact, in his remarks following talks with Vladimir Putin and Sergei Lavrov, Tillerson did not mention Crimea even once.
What is there to be done? First, it is important to make sure that Russia-US relations do not get out of hand, since in that case the two tend to follow a logic of escalation instead of their original interests. For that, Russia and the US need to establish a normal working relationship among their military structures, foreign ministries and other agencies. Not only is a protracted period of the status quo undesirable, it is outright dangerous, since any misstep, for example in Syria, could have tragic consequences. Second, they need to explore opportunities for practical cooperation in areas where their interests converge, without predicating it on settling fundamental differences and without starting with issues where cooperation is possible only if one of the sides changes its position. They should move forward in small steps without excessive publicity and in a multilateral setting.
Of course, the fact that the Trump administration is after tangible symbolic victories complicates things. Specifically, this relates to the issue of Assad’s removal from power. Domestic politics makes it impossible for the US to offer Russia any kind of accommodation. In the current situation, Moscow will not grant concessions for anything. This means that the Trump administration will have to find ways to claim success that would not require any real concessions from Moscow. It is clear that solutions of this kind can be found. What matters the most is establishing a normal dialogue.