The common interests of Russia and the US are reduced to maintaining strategic stability and countering external threats. We have returned to a situation of mutual deterrence and the task of politicians is to fix its stable character, believe participants in the expert discussion, titled “US-Russian Relations under the Trump Administration: Opportunities and Constraints,” which was held at the Valdai Discussion Club on April 25, 2017.
The wave of enthusiasm in Russia about the election of Donald Trump as the US president has receded. A personal meeting between the two countries’ leaders, which has not yet taken place, could be a milestone in the development of relations, but one should not expect too much from it. Russia and the United States are most likely to continue building a relationship by crises, something they have got used to over the past three years. These are the main conclusions of the expert discussion, titled “US-Russian Relations under the Trump Administration: Opportunities and Constraints,” which was held at the Valdai Discussion Club on April 25, 2017.
Richard Weitz, senior researcher and director of the Center for Military and Political Analysis at the Hudson Institute, pointed to the fundamental problem of the Russian-American relations – a limited number of cooperation spheres. “The Russia-US relationship is dominated by the same issues since I began getting involved in this filed in the 1980s: arms control, regional security, and so on,” he said. This is in stark contrast to the US-China relationship, where, despite security differences, there is strong interaction between academics, businesses and so on, which helps make relations much more fluid and manage security differences.
Future historians will characterize the current period of US-Russian relations as paradoxical, said Ivan Timofeev, Programme director at the Valdai Discussion Club. In 2014, a crisis began in bilateral relations, but, unlike other similar crises, it was not preceded by enlargement of strategic potentials. Prior to that, military spending was being curtailed in the West, the US forces in Europe were being reduced, and the NATO enlargement did not make the alliance stronger. As for the Russian military reform at that time, it was designed primarily to overcome the consequences of the degradation of the armed forces in the previous decades, while Russia’s defense spending, although it had significantly increased, was equal to only 10% of the US military budget, not to mention the military expenditures of NATO.
There has been a lot of militant rhetoric on both sides at the political level, but it is important that at the military level there are restraint and predictability, Timofeev said. In other words, we have returned to a situation of mutual deterrence and the task of politicians is to fix its stable character. In order to do this, it is necessary to take measures to maintain the existing security regimes. They include the INF Treaty (Treaty on the Elimination of Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles) and the CFE Treaty (Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe), whose spirit, according to Timofeev, is still alive, despite the suspension of Russia’s participation in the CFE, and the Russia- NATO Founding Act provisions.
US-Russian Relations under the Trump Administration: Opportunities and Constraints, Fellow at the Kennan Institute, Wilson Center, also believes that in the coming years the US and Russia will continue to build a relationship by crises. Crisis has become the norm and the main task for the US administration is to achieve stability in relations. According to Kofman, the administration understands this, as confirmed by statements of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during his visit to Moscow.
The participants discussed the possible impact of personal contacts between the two countries’ leaders on the prospects of bilateral relations. Everyone agreed that it should not be overestimated, since President Trump’s options are limited by a variety of factors – from an extremely negative attitude toward Russia in the American foreign policy establishment to the moods of national diasporas in the United States and the position of NATO allies. According to Kofman, the US foreign policy establishment perceives Russia in two categories: either it is so weak that it is irrelevant, or it is so strong that it is a threat. Thinking in such rigid categories does not seem to contribute to developing a nuanced policy.
In general, participants in the discussion agreed that the common interests of Russia and the US are reduced to maintaining strategic stability and occasionally countering common external threats. Kofman believes that the current crisis has contributed to a more precise formulation of areas of cooperation with Russia: Ukraine, Syria and interaction between the two countries’ militaries in Europe. According to him, this helped avoid discussions on the abstract problems of geopolitical rivalry in the post-Soviet space and focus on specific problems, which is good news in a sense.