A New ‘Reset’? Can the Trump Administration Normalise Relations with Russia?
- The Trump presidency appeared to offer a way out of the cycle of renewal and decline in which the US-Russia relationship has been trapped since the 1990s.
- However, underlying differences of national interest and structural problems continue to damage the relationship.
- The effects of Trump’s personality and approach to government, Republican opposition, and the scandal over his team’s contacts with Moscow are likely to prevent the normalisation of relations with Russia.
Following the surprise victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 US presidential election, many observers expected relations between the US and Russia to improve sharply. This view appeared to extend to the Russian political elite, who seemed to regard the defeat of Hillary Clinton and the victory of Trump as the best chance to reverse the deterioration of this critical bilateral relationship.
In fact, relations between the US and Russia have not improved and are unlikely to do so to any significant degree. This is partly because of underlying structural problems and conflicts of national interest which have presented obstacles to the US-Russia relationship since the 1990s. However, as is becoming increasingly clear, it is also a result of serious problems generated by the character of the Trump presidency itself.
The Reset Cycle
In the quarter century since the collapse of the USSR, relations between Russia and the US have been caught in a cycle of renewal and decline. Every election of a new US president has tried to restore the relationship after the disappointments of the previous administration. By the mid-point of each presidency, however, relations with Russia have encountered significant problems and by its end the relationship has been in crisis, ending in a worse position with each iteration of the cycle.
This cycle has most recently been evident during the Obama presidency. Obama’s first major foreign policy action was to launch a ‘reset’ of relations with Russia, setting aside the hostility of the late Bush period in order to achieve other goals that were affected by the poor state of US-Russia relations. The reset aimed to do this by adopting a pragmatic approach to relations with Russia, focusing on those areas where rapid agreement was possible and sidelining areas of disagreement that had disrupted the relationship in the past. At the same time, the creation of a Bilateral Presidential Commission (BPC) to develop cooperation on a broader spectrum of lower-profile issues aimed to institutionalise the relationship and provide greater predictability. In the short term, the ‘reset’ proved successful, enabling agreement on a range of issues including the New START arms control treaty and sanctions against Iran and reducing friction over other issues, including the 2011 intervention in Libya, which Russia did not oppose.
The pragmatism that enabled the reset’s success was, however, also the source of its failure. The focus on achievable, short term goals led to more fundamental difficulties – including normative issues such as US democracy and human rights concerns, and security questions such as NATO expansion and the US ballistic missile defence programme – remaining unaddressed. As a result, rather than the basis for further cooperative development, the reset proved to be built on shallow foundations that were undermined by unanticipated events, including Russian domestic protests in 2011-12 and the conflict in Syria Differences over these issues increased friction between the Russian government and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, which further complicated the relationship. Already at a low point, US-Russia relations were damaged even further by the conflict in Ukraine, the Russian annexation of Crimea, and the allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election. Thus, the Obama presidency saw US relations with Russia move from their best position since the early 1990s to their lowest level in 30 years.
A Fresh Start under Trump?
The unexpected election victory of Donald Trump appeared to offer a chance not only to recalibrate relations, as at the start of every presidency, but to break the cycle by rethinking the basis for US policy towards Russia.
Both Trump’s general approach to foreign affairs and his seemingly positive views about the Russian president – claiming, for example that Putin was a better leader than Obama – looked radically different from those of every other US president since the end of the Cold War. Trump’s visible disinterest in traditional US foreign policy concerns such as democracy promotion and human rights appeared to remove one of the most serious areas of friction in the US-Russia relationship.
At the same time, his desire to work with Russia on the issue of terrorism – “it would be great if we got along with Russia because we could fight ISIS together” – indicated the possibility of moving beyond the limited areas of compromise developed under the reset to active cooperation on a shared security priority. Finally, Trump’s repeated assertions of NATO’s obsolescence, and his presumed willingness to consider abandoning its Article 5 commitments, coincided with Russian interests in a totally unprecedented way.
Although the details of Trump’s foreign policy plans were limited during the election, and not always consistent with one another, his views on NATO, on cooperation with Russia over terrorism, and his positive statements about Putin, were repeated frequently enough to clearly signal his intention to transform the US-Russia relationship, and to do so in ways that generally moved US foreign policy in alignment with Russian positions or interests.
The prospects for such a transformation appeared to strengthen with key appointments to the administration. Of these, the most notable were Trump’s first National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, who advocated cooperating with Russia on ISIS, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, a 2013 recipient of the Order of Friendship from Putin. In the first weeks of his presidency, these appointments, and signs that the administration was considering Russia-friendly policy changes such as the lifting of sanctions, seemed to suggest that Trump was strongly committed to a good relationship with Russia, despite the anxieties of allied states and sections of his own party.
Obstacles to a Better Relationship
Despite these promising signs, however, less than 100 days into the Trump presidency the prospects for a fundamental change in US-Russia relations look increasingly remote. This appears to be frustrating members of the Russian government who have described current US-Russia relations as “practically at zero” and possibly worse than during the Cold War, while Trump himself has recently suggested that the relationship “may be at an all-time low”.
One set of reasons for this lies in the underlying factors affecting the relationship, which the new administration has been unable to address. Most obviously, as two powerful states with interests that extend far beyond their national borders, the US and Russia have incompatible positions on some important areas, such as Iran and US plans for ballistic missile defence. These and other areas of competing interests will probably re-surface over the next four years.
It is likely that these disagreements will continue to be complicated by the mutual suspicion between the US and Russian governments that has developed and deepened over the last twenty years. Whatever the status of relations between Putin and Trump as presidents, the hinterland of lower-level policymakers and bureaucrats is likely to retain the institutional distrust which has contributed to the decline in relations during the last two US presidencies.
This is compounded by the fact that despite attempts to transform the framework and character of relations through the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission in the 1990s and the creation of the BPC in 2009, US-Russia relations remain poorly institutionalised and narrowly focused on a range of sensitive issues. This means that there is no functioning framework for routine interactions on a broad range of less contentious matters which could stabilise the relationship. Even when the relationship is generally good, this leaves it susceptible to third party-generated shocks of the kind that capsized it after the ‘reset’, when the Syrian uprising and the Ukrainian anti-government protests in the winter of 2013-14 – events in which neither Russia nor the US were initially involved – destroyed any residual possibility of a return to positive relations.
The Trump Administration’s Russia Problems
In addition to these structural problems, however, the Trump administration faces some unique challenges.
The first of these concerns the character and experience of the president himself. As a political outsider, surrounded largely by other political novices, Trump’s background does not obviously equip him to push forward the complex and delicate business of relations with Russia. His previously limited knowledge of key policy areas and his widely reported disengagement from policy detail have appeared to extend to some of the most sensitive aspects of the relationship with Moscow. During the 2016 election, fellow Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio had to explain the nuclear triad to Trump, while an interviewer had to rebut Trump’s assertion that Putin ‘[is] not going into Ukraine, OK, just so you understand’. More recently, Trump’s first telephone conversation with Putin reportedly had to be suspended while an aide explained the New START Treaty to him – though the White House later disputed this account.
The potential dangers posed by this apparent disinclination to master policy detail is likely to be exacerbated by other aspects of Trump’s personality, in particular his mercurial character and seeming preoccupation with dominating others during interactions. Contact with Putin risks a clash of ‘alpha male’ personalities that is not likely to help cooperation on delicate issues of international security or encourage an improvement in relations more generally.
Compounding these problems is the fact that what was previously seen as the principal basis for improved US-Russia relations – the desire of Trump and those in his inner circle to repair the relationship – is now emerging as the administration’s most significant challenge, one which is corroding its credibility with sections of Congress, the American public, and perhaps key international allies. The allegations concerning improper contacts between the Trump campaign and the Russian government or its surrogates during the 2016 election, including possible collusion to release material hacked from the Democratic National Committee, is the subject of congressional investigations – one of which is itself now implicated in the scandal because of the chair’s close ties to Trump – and an investigation by the FBI. These allegations have led to the resignation of Trump’s original National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, and the recusal of his Attorney General on matters related to the Russia investigation. A number of other individuals currently or previously close to Trump are also the subject of journalistic or congressional investigation regarding their contacts with Russian officials or their associates. An unverified but widely disseminated dossier claims that, in addition to these contacts, Trump is himself linked to the Russian government through their possession of kompromat (personally compromising material).
Whatever the truth of some of these claims, the combined effect of verified and alleged contacts with the Russian government taken together with Trump’s unusually positive rhetoric about Putin has been to raise suspicions of the most serious kind about the ties between the US president and Russia. The future effects of this have yet to be seen, but it appears to be inflicting devastating damage to Trump’s reputation and his ability to enact policy in this area.
If questions of experience and the risk of political scandal appear to be undermining the prospects for improved US-Russia relations in the short term, other aspects of Trump’s presidency raise questions about their longer term viability. The first of these is Trump’s approach to nuclear issues. Despite sometimes serious disagreements on the subject, nuclear diplomacy has remained the bedrock of Washington-Moscow relations since the late stages of the Cold War. Trump appears to reject this model, reportedly regarding the New START treaty as a bad deal that favours Russia, and indicating that he wants to increase US spending on its nuclear arsenal. An attempt to undo arms control treaties or to significantly increase US nuclear capability would be extremely destabilising to the US-Russia relationship.
If nuclear diplomacy is abandoned as the central plank of the US-Russia relationship, it is unclear what could replace it. Current and former members of Trump’s team, including Trump himself, appear to have seen combatting ISIS as the obvious alternative. However, there are a large number of obstacles to this, not least the opposition from prominent Republicans in Congress to cooperating with the Russian government. As the US Ambassador to the UN’s comments on the recent chemical attack in Idlib demonstrate, the human rights implications of Russia’s close relationship with the Assad government will create serious problems for any attempt to work with Moscow on Syria – something that appears increasingly unlikely following the US missile strike on Syrian targets. If the US and Russia are not able to work together on either nuclear or terrorism issues, it is difficult to see where the basis for an improved relationship will lie.
All these difficulties are likely to be significantly compounded by the fact that Trump’s Russia policy is completely misaligned with the views of his own Republican party and with some members of his administration, including his Vice President and his current National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster. Republicans have generally characterised the Russian government as an internationally aggressive and domestically murderous dictatorship headed by a KGB officer with an intense nostalgia for the Soviet Union. They have also been strongly critical of historic attempts by US administrations, particularly the Obama administration, to improve relations with the Kremlin. Even prior to the scandal over administration ties to Russia, a number of prominent Republicans appeared likely to oppose cooperation with Putin and, in particular, to resist any attempt to reverse the sanctions imposed by Obama in relation to election hacking and Russian actions in Ukraine. Worryingly for the Trump administration, a number of Republican senators now also appear willing to support the investigation of the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. This means that the Republicans in the Senate cannot form an effective check for Trump on further investigation of his administration on the Russia question.
Finally, another aspect of Trump’s unconventional approach to government is likely to compound the problems created by other aspects of his presidency. Trump has proposed deep cuts to the State Department budget, while often appearing to sideline his Secretary of State in favour of foreign policy advice from relatives and other close personal advisors with no experience of foreign affairs – several of whom appear to be compromised by questions over Russia ties. Establishing stable and effective relations with Russia will be difficult without a properly functioning and credible State Department and Secretary of State, and increases the risk that when problems arise they will be harder to resolve.
The Russian government, which responded positively to the start of the Trump presidency, appears to have been surprised by the continuing difficulties in the relationship with the US. Although it has generally remained diplomatic about the White House, disappointment has been evident in the Russian media’s change in tone on Trump, while the Russian press and government have also directed strong criticism at members of Congress seen as obstacles to a shift in US-Russia relations. US military action against Syria and Trump’s U-turn over NATO raises the possibility of a return to a more hawkish US foreign policy – though the erratic character of the US president’s policymaking makes it difficult to predict stable trends. If so, the Russian government is likely to take a more assertive public position with Trump than it has done to date; the negative effects of this are likely to be magnified by the issues of character and organisation in the administration.
If the election of Donald Trump appeared to raise the prospect of a revolution in US-Russia relations, events since his inauguration indicate that expectations in this area were, at best, premature. The structural problems which have disrupted US-Russia relations since the 1990s remain and are being compounded by policies and actions of the new administration, as well as by the clash of views on Russia between the president and prominent figures in his own party. The stalling of a Trump ‘reset’ with Russia leaves the bilateral relationship at a historic low point with little prospect for improvement. A return to the ‘new Cold War’ of the late Obama period looks increasingly possible, although the pragmatism, experience, and governance style of that administration provided a degree of stability in US-Russia relations that is likely to be lacking under Trump.
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The opinions expressed in these publications are those of the authors, and do not necessarily represent GEurasia’s own position.