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Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump at the 2017 G20 Summit in Hamburg. Courtesy of the Kremlin/Wikimedia

The US–Russia Relationship is Doomed, for Years to Come

Lincoln Pigman
Commentary, 23 April 2018
United States, Russia
Despite seemingly encouraging signs, the US–Russia relationship is fundamentally unhealthy

Even after the expulsion of Russian diplomats from the US, the imposition of additional sanctions on Moscow, and a dramatic standoff over chemical attacks in Syria, the US and Russian leaders remain optimistic about how much they can achieve together.

President Donald Trump has declared that ‘there is no reason for’ the crisis in US–Russia relations and said that ‘we need all nations to work together’. And President Vladimir Putin has insisted that Russian officials curb anti-American rhetoric so as to not offend Washington at a critical moment.

Yet, persistent fear of the conclusion of a Russo-American ‘grand bargain’ is misplaced; no rapprochement is in the offing, even if Putin visits Washington.

Trump is too constrained to effect a reconciliation with Russia – by public opinion, Congress and those administration officials sceptical of his instincts. And, rhetoric aside, Trump has matched and, in certain respects, surpassed his predecessor Barack Obama, in containing and punishing Russia, notwithstanding his personal policy preferences as articulated prior to and during the presidential campaign.

Just how much of that owes to a clear desire to silence those who charge him with colluding with and being soft on Moscow – as well as his tendency to defer to more experienced foreign policy practitioners within his administration who take a more clear-eyed view of Russia – is unclear.

However, these explanations supersede the dubious claim that Trump’s Russia policy is the result of his maturation in office; his rhetoric on Russia largely continues to reflect his personal policy preferences and only the president’s most passionate supporters argue that he can truly claim as his own the course his administration has charted.

News reports have tended to identify either the removal of sanctions or a free hand in Ukraine as the prize most coveted by Russia

It more resembles the result of intense pressure from various actors in US politics – especially Congress, which took the remarkable step of limiting the president’s ability to suspend or lift sanctions on Russia last summer. Such pressure and restrictions preclude Trump from making a tactical trade-off, much less concluding a ‘grand bargain’ addressing the fundamental problems plaguing the US–Russia relationship.

In speculating about a potential ‘grand bargain’ between Putin and Trump, news reports have tended to identify either the removal of sanctions or a free hand in Ukraine as the prize most coveted by Russia.

For his part, Trump has fuelled speculation over the possibility of a ‘grand bargain’ between himself and Putin by repeatedly emphasising that he is uniquely equipped to improve US–Russia relations.

However, such concessions – as well as others contemplated by those few administration officials who share Trump’s instincts on Russia – are not only impossible to make in today’s political climate, but also undeserving of the label of ‘grand bargain’.

The gains they promise in relation to US–Russia relations are essentially tactical, since, rather than reach a consensus on areas of fundamental disagreement between Russia and the US – the norm of non-interference in domestic affairs, international legal exceptionalism and the structure of the international order – Trump has preferred to focus on specific crises such as those in Syria and Ukraine, mere symptoms of a clash of worldviews.

Despite the nearly universal expectation that Trump would or will ‘give Russia what it wants’, his administration has clearly rebuffed Moscow’s efforts to address its vital interests

Indeed, Russia’s security requires assurances that the US will allow Moscow to embrace international legal exceptionalism – selective compliance with international law – and recognise Russia as a great power to be consulted, reckoned with, and respected.

Despite the nearly universal expectation that Trump would or will ‘give Russia what it wants’, his administration has clearly rebuffed Russia’s efforts to address its vital interests or at least initiate a bilateral conversation on areas of fundamental disagreement.

Most notably, in Trump’s first year in office, Russia unsuccessfully pushed for an agreement to mutually refrain from interfering in each other’s politics; it continues to seek a pledge of the sort today.

As an unnamed State Department official told BuzzFeed News: ‘We would have to give up democracy promotion in Russia, which we’re not willing to do’.

Between the refusal to abandon democracy promotion, the embrace of international legal exceptionalism, best personified in the form of Trump’s new National Security Advisor, John Bolton, and his vocal opposition to the erosion of US hegemony in international affairs, Russia is unlikely to make any progress on those issues at the heart of its insecurity. Nor should it expect any tactical trade-offs in light of the political climate in the US and its impact on Trump’s Russia policy.

One Republican Senator even wants to have Russia designated as a state sponsor of terrorism

And that goes for not only this administration, but also for the next, especially if Trump’s successor comes from the Democratic Party. Traumatised by its defeat in the 2016 presidential election and convinced, rightly or wrongly, that it occurred primarily because of foreign interference, Democrats are increasingly opposed to any cooperation with Russia or concessions to it, tactical or otherwise.

A joint cyber security unit proposed by Trump following his first meeting with Putin was attacked by Democrats (and Republicans) as ‘dangerously naive’; some even moved to prohibit such cooperation through legislation.

When in December 2017 the CIA shared information that helped Russia’s Federal Security Service to foil a terrorist attack in St Petersburg, one member of the Democratic foreign policy establishment reacted by declaring that Putin was ‘still courting Trump’, while former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper remarked that Putin was ‘handl[ing] Trump like an asset’.

Democratic Senators have spoken out against any kind of counterterrorism cooperation, and one Republican Senator even wants to have Russia designated as a state sponsor of terrorism.

The persistent anxiety of US commentators about the possibility of the conclusion of a ‘grand bargain’ between Putin and Trump bears little resemblance to reality; Russia’s foreign policy establishment is increasingly concerned that even tactical cooperation is no longer possible.

However distressing it may appear to some that the president has invited the country’s main adversary to Washington, that should not distract from the political impossibility of meaningful Russia–US cooperation.

For, with or without a visit to Washington by Putin, the fundamental problems plaguing US–Russia relations will persist for years to come and only grow under a Democratic occupant of the White House.

Lincoln Pigman is a student at King’s College London’s War Studies Department. His research interests include the national security affairs and domestic politics of Russia. He has reported from Russia for the New York Times and Jane’s Intelligence Review.

Banner image: Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump at the 2017 G20 Summit in Hamburg. Courtesy of the Kremlin/Wikimedia

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.

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