This was a summit of low expectations because there are many influential actors in NATO, the EU and the United States, not to mention Russia and Ukraine, that do not want any change in Russian-American relations.
President Trump is on record as saying that he would like to be “friends” with Russia. Unlike most other Western political leaders, however, he does not mean that this can only occur only after a regime change in Russia. But can he accomplish a real shift in the Russian-American relationship on his own? As I wrote back in November 2016 (From Obama to Trump: Cold War Averted. What Now?), establishing control over his own foreign policywill be crucial to Trump's success. With his early appointments now replaced by people thoroughly loyal to him, this part seems to be accomplished. The problem of whether he can actually get his desires enacted in to policy, however, still remains.
Firstly, because Trump is portrayed by the elite media as being potentially as much an enemy of the United States as Vladimir Putin. By constantly insinuating the existence of a long standing, nefarious relationship between the two of them, the media is drawing an equivalence that is then used to attack the president and his policies. Through the proxy of the familiar and comfortable “Russian enemy,” political and media elites in the United States believe they have found a safe way to tarnish president Trump without appearing disloyal.
Putin-Trump: the Real Test Will Come in the Implementation Phase After the Summit Is Over
The most likely outcome of the Putin-Trump summit is that both Presidents will declare it a success and agree that their officials will begin work on resolving a number of difficult issues. But the real test will come in the implementation phase after the summit is over.
Secondly, and even more importantly, the enactment of sanctions into law has made them a permanent fixture of American foreign policy It therefore does not matter who the next president of Russia or America is because, for the first time, mutual enmity has become enshrined into the legal framework of U.S. foreign policy towards Russia. This is fundamentally different from either the Cold War or détente. Since sanctions then were, for the most part, imposed by Executive Orders, previous administrations could repeal them in order to meaningfully improve relations. The most noted exception to this was the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which was enacted into law in 1974. Tellingly, it survived the collapse of communism and lasted until 2012, when it was transformed into the Magnitsky Act. The only “incentive” that the United States can offer, therefore, is not implementing further sanctions. Russia can hardly interpret this as a constructive stance, and will continue to respond by reducing its economic dependence on the West, and by strengthening alternative alliances.
Given these constraints, I am therefore quite pessimistic about the possibility of truly re-formatting America’s relationship with Russia. The psychological attraction of the Cold War, with its clearly defined enemy, has now been reinforced by institutional constraints that make a change of course all but impossible. The best that can be hoped for, I’m afraid, are attempts to keep open lines of communication, in order to mitigate the possibility of an accidental conflict involving Russian and NATO armed forces.
In our time of galloping military expenditures, while this is certainly nothing to sniff at, it is a far cry from the “peace dividend” that was once within our grasp.