Donald Trump’s presidency began a year ago with widespread expectations of improvement in U.S.-Russian relations; there was even loose talk of a grand bargain. His first year in office ends, however, with relations in worse shape than he found them. Two events in December drove that point home: the release of the National Security Strategy, which identified Russia (along with China) as a strategic adversary intent on undermining U.S. primacy and Trump’s decision to supply lethal weapons to Ukraine to help deter Russian aggression, a step Obama steadfastly refused to take despite his hardening policy toward Russia. What happened?
At the outset, it should be stressed that rebuilding relations was never going to be easy after their near total collapse in Obama’s final years. Profound disagreements over Ukraine and Syria, simmering tensions along the NATO-Russian border and Russia’s meddling in the American presidential campaign all conspired against better relations. The task was further complicated by the absence of any credible signs of Russian flexibility. To be sure, Moscow made persistent calls for normalization of relations—and it reportedly presented the Trump Administration with a plan for comprehensive engagement, which was quickly rejected—but Moscow made it clear that the tough compromises would have to come from the American side, which it maintained bore all the blame for the breakdown.
Moreover, during the campaign, observers read more than warranted into Trump’s warm words for Putin and hope for closer relations. What Trump offered was much more of a mixed bag. His questioning of the value of American alliances, most importantly NATO, were welcomed in Moscow, but they were balanced by promises to tear up the Iran nuclear deal, to build up America’s military might and to modernize its nuclear arsenal that could only raise concerns in the Kremlin. How this rhetorical brew would be translated into a coherent strategy and concrete policies was an open question. Hints would come with the appointments to the key positions in the incoming administration relevant to Russia policy. Tellingly, all Trump’s nominees, including Jim Mattis for defense and Rex Tillerson for state, advocated a harder line toward Russia than Trump did. The sole major exception was National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, and he was forced out in less than four weeks—de facto for suspect ties with Russians—and replaced by H.R. McMaster, a Russia hardliner.
Finally, as Trump assumed office, his petulant refusal to accept the Intelligence Community’s firm judgment that Russia had actively meddled in the presidential campaign helped forge a broad bipartisan front in Congress determined to prevent him from drawing closer to Russia. As the investigations of Russian meddling, and possible collusion by Trump or his entourage with the Kremlin, gathered steam, and as the details of Russian actions became public, the bipartisan calls to punish Russia grew only more insistent. Whatever his own inclinations, Trump’s room for maneuver narrowed rapidly. The Congress ultimately forced on him a tough sanctions regime and made it impossible for him to ease sanctions without its approval.
In these circumstances, U.S.-Russian relations devolved into a series of events that only deepened the estrangement. The much anticipated first meeting between Trump and Putin in July, which each hoped would open a path to improved relations, in the event accelerated the decline. The meeting itself went well, but Putin’s insinuation that Trump had accepted his denials of Russian interference in the election was poison in Washington. An agreement to launch a much-needed working group on cybersecurity was sunk by Trump’s public mischaracterization of it as an “impenetrable Cyber Security unit ” to guard against election hacking, which met near-universal derision in a Washington aghast at Russia’s cyber meddling.
This meeting galvanized Congress to codify and toughen the anti-Russian sanctions. Moscow’s response led to forced drawdowns in diplomatic staffs and shuttering of diplomatic facilities in both countries. Public exchanges over alleged violations of the INF Treaty grew more heated. Finally there came the National Security Strategy and the decision to arm Ukraine. Meanwhile, ongoing discussions of Ukraine, Syria and “irritants” in relations produced no noticeable progress. The antagonistic rhetoric in both capitals grew more vehement.
One might think that relations had nowhere to go but up. But the omens suggest otherwise, that relations will continue to deteriorate, as Trump begins his second year in office. In the next two weeks or so, the administration will release the so-called “Kremlin list” of wealthy Russian businessmen with close ties to the Kremlin. This is a sanctions list, no matter what the administration might say to the contrary. Bank accounts and property in the United States might not be frozen, visas might not be denied, but the clear intent is to constrict the business activities of those on the list. Who is going to sign a deal with someone who could be formally sanctioned before the ink is dry? Who is going to invite any of them into polite company in the West? The Kremlin has promised to retaliate, perhaps taking harsher steps beyond the routine administrative harassment to which American businesses in Russia are already subjected.
To make matters worse, the political calendars in both countries militate against a near-term easing in tension. Presidential elections are set for mid-March in Russia, and mid-term Congressional elections will follow in November in the United States. In neither place will calling for more constructive relations bring any electoral dividends, and in both warnings will abound about possible insidious interference by the other side. Similarly, the Mueller and Congressional investigations will continue for some months, accompanied by speculation about nefarious Russian designs, and the just released minority report on the Russian threat by the Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will intensify efforts to strike back powerfully to contain and ultimately defeat that threat at home and abroad. Meanwhile, the continuing disarray in the administration, and the clouds hanging over Secretary Tillerson, will impede the formulation and implementation of a coherent Russia strategy—and that in turn will disincline Moscow to negotiate seriously.
Nothing good will come of this. Both sides seem prepared to take further steps on the path toward permanent adversarial relations at a time of mounting global disorder, as a consequence of geopolitical shifts, technological advance and disruption and robust militant, radical ideologies. Rather than sharpening the differences, Russia and the United States should be seeking ways to contain the disorder and build a new and enduring global order, tasks that will require a modicum of cooperation between the two countries, as well as with the other influential centers of global power. No one expects the two countries to reconcile all their differences. Some geopolitical competition is inevitable given the countries’ histories and interests. But there is an urgent need to ease the tensions before an inadvertent nuclear conflict, catastrophic terrorist attacks or other disasters befall both Russia and the United States. Wise leaders would recognize that and act accordingly.