Home / Articles / The U.S.-Russia Relationship: Trump Can’t Fix It, but He Can’t Break It, Either
American President-elect Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin (Sources: Gage Skidmore (left) and RIA Novosti (right))
The views expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army War College, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
Over the past several months, much has been made of President-elect Donald Trump’s attitude toward and connections with Russia and its leader Vladimir Putin. Some observers have charged that Trump is naïve about Putin’s real objectives and have implied that a Trump administration is likely to subvert core U.S. security interests in a misguided attempt to repair the U.S.-Russia relationship. Others claim to have detected a genuine affinity between Trump and Putin and have wondered whether the two leaders – both known as pragmatic dealmakers – might be able to set the bilateral relationship on a more sustainable footing by ending the hostility and mistrust that have characterized it over the last several years. Neither is likely to happen: a President Trump will not abandon core U.S. security interests on the altar of cooperation with Russia, nor will he be able to cut a series of deals with Putin that repair the bilateral relationship.
The influence of the U.S. and Russian presidents on the bilateral relationship is significantly more limited than is commonly assumed. Despite our penchant for personalizing the actions of the Russian government – for example, by charging that “Putin is in Ukraine” or wondering whether “Putin is likely to attack the Baltics” – Putin is neither in Ukraine nor likely to attack the Baltics. Elements of his government are certainly in Ukraine, but the process that got them there is far more complex than many Western observers assume. He is not the only figure that matters in that process although he does wield outsized power in comparison to the U.S. president. Governmental decision-making, even in autocracies, is rarely a simple or straightforward process. Rather than reflecting a sober analysis of costs and benefits or the preferences of the top political leadership of a state, national security decision-making processes often produce policy choices that reflect the idiosyncrasies of a decision-making group or the “pulling and hauling” among government bureaucracies. Additionally, foreign policy decision-makers, regardless of regime-type, must remain sensitive to public opinion in making their decisions.
Thus, even if Trump and Putin decide to cooperate on the basis of what they both agree are interests shared between the U.S. and Russia, each will have to convince the rest of his government to go along, and each will have to push policies based upon this new vision of cooperation through his government’s bureaucracy. This task will be far from simple since there are powerful elements within both governments that believe a rapprochement is not in the national interest. This is not to say a period of pragmatic cooperation is impossible. The Obama administration’s 2009 “reset” with Russia is an example. Pursuant to the reset, the U.S. and Russia were able to agree on a new strategic nuclear arms treaty, on enhanced sanctions against Iran, and on the use of Russian territory as a resupply route for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, among other things. But within three years, the reset had largely run its course, and U.S.-Russian relations began to deteriorate. This deterioration began with the 2011-2012 anti-government protests in Russia (which the Kremlin suspected were supported by the U.S.), accelerated in the aftermath of the fall of the Gadhafi regime in Libya (which Russia saw as another instance of U.S.-sponsored regime change), and culminated in the fall of the Yanukovych regime (which Russia also blamed in the U.S.) and the Russian intervention in Ukraine. The failure of the Obama reset to put the bilateral relationship on a sustainable footing illustrates the reason a Trump reset will also fail in the long run. Namely, the issues in the U.S.-Russia relationship are largely structural, which gives the relationship a cyclical nature that defies control by leaders in either capital.
As Kier Giles of the UK’s Conflict Studies Research Centre has noted, there are predictable stages to Russia’s relations with the West: euphoria, realism, disillusionment, crisis, and reset. A review of U.S.-Russian relations since the end of the Cold War bears this out and reveals three cycles of these stages. The first stage began in the early 1990s with the West proclaiming the courage and asserting the democratic credentials of Russian President Boris Yeltsin and with Russia proclaiming its desire to fully integrate into the Western political and economic system. Yeltsin’s violent 1993 showdown with the Russian parliament and the 1994 Russian military intervention in Chechnya tempered the early euphoria in the West; the difficult economic conditions along with the perceived lack of economic support for Russia from the West tempered the early euphoria in Russia. Realism had descended into disillusionment on both sides by the late 1990s, spurred by the impacts of the Asian financial crisis, which spread to Russia in 1998, forcing the government to devalue the ruble and default on both domestic and foreign debt. A crisis in relations erupted over NATO’s 1999 war in Kosovo and the resumption of Russia’s war in Chechnya that same year.
The first reset came in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. when Russia offered cooperation with the U.S. against terrorism and agreed to U.S. use of bases in the Central Asian States to support its campaign in Afghanistan. This reset was typified by the comment of then-President George W. Bush, who after meeting Putin, claimed to have looked him in the eye and gotten “a sense of his soul.” Realism set in within a few years when the U.S. and Russia realized they defined the threat from terrorism and the legitimacy of measures to combat it very differently. This realism gave way to disillusionment over NATO’s 2004 enlargement, which included the post-Soviet Baltic states and the “Color Revolutions” in Georgia in 2004 and Ukraine in 2004, which Moscow suspected were carried out with the assistance of the U.S. intelligence agencies. Russia’s disillusionment was expressed publicly and bluntly in Putin’s now notorious 2007 speech at the annual international security conference in Munich, Germany, where he accused the U.S. of threatening international security by developing ballistic missile defenses, undermining international institutions, destabilizing the Middle East, expanding NATO, and attempting to overthrow governments in the former Soviet bloc, among other things. The crisis in relations that ended this phase of the U.S.-Russia relationship was Russia’s August 2008 invasion of Georgia. The third phase in bilateral relations began with the 2009 Obama administration’s reset and ended, as noted previously, with the crisis in relations over the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The reason relations between the U.S. and Russia tend to be cyclical is that many of the factors that influence them are structural, or “built-in” to the patterns of interaction between the two countries. Like any two countries, Russia and the U.S. have some interests in common and some interests that clash. What makes the U.S.-Russia relationship unstable and prone to crisis is not the periodic clash of interests, but a lack of other factors that can act as “shock absorbers” when interests do clash. In some bilateral relationships – the U.S.-China relationship is a prime example here – a robust economic relationship can provide that shock absorber. Despite periodic complaints from both sides about elements of the relationship that displease them, the fact is that a major disruption in the U.S.-China economic relationship would be potentially catastrophic for both sides. China’s export-dependent economy would lose access to its largest and most lucrative market, and the U.S. would lose a major foreign purchaser of its sovereign debt. Thus, when the U.S. and China find themselves in a situation where their interests clash, there are powerful incentives for both sides to contain the disagreement, lest it impact the bilateral economic relationship. No such economic shock absorber exists in the U.S.-Russia relationship: U.S. exports to Russia in 2013 totaled just $11 billion, or less than 0.1% of U.S. GDP, and U.S. imports from Russia totaled just $27 billion, under 0.2% of U.S. GDP. Compare these numbers with China, which, despite consistent U.S. complaints about the bilateral trade imbalance, constitutes a $300 billion market for U.S. exports.
Even where there are no economic interests to act as a shock absorber in a bilateral relationship, a shared ideology, worldview, or value set can play that role, but this is also lacking between the U.S. and Russia. In fact, the two countries have largely incompatible worldviews, and this fact tends to magnify the impact of any clash in interests rather than minimize it. Glenn P. Hastedt argues that American foreign policy is guided by, among other factors, moral pragmatism and legalism. Moral pragmatism holds that “state behavior can be judged by moral standards” and that “American morality provides the universal standard for making those judgments.” Legalism rejects power politics as a means of settling disputes and assumes that people are rational beings who abhor war. Therefore, the legalist tradition inclines American policy-makers to believe that a central task of U.S. foreign policy should be to “create a global system of institutions and rules that will allow states to settle their disputes without recourse to war.”
A review of the four enduring U.S. national interests articulated in the 2015 U.S. National Security Strategy bears out Hastedt’s claim. The first two of these interests are fairly standard, revolving around “the security of the U.S., its citizens, and U.S. allies and partners,” and “A strong, innovative, and growing U.S. economy in an open international economic system that promotes opportunity and prosperity.” These interests, focusing on the physical security and economic prosperity of the state, are widely shared, including by Russia. But the other two of the four enduring U.S. interests bring the clash in worldview between the U.S. and Russia into sharp focus. These are “respect for universal values at home and around the world,” and “an international order advanced by U.S. leadership that promotes peace, security, and opportunity through stronger cooperation to meet global challenges.” This focus on promotion of values and a (U.S.-led) rules-based international order is so strong in the U.S. foreign policy tradition that even presidents largely seen as realists and pragmatists, such as Nixon and Obama, have been unable to set these factors aside and focus exclusively on core U.S. security and economic interests.
Russia’s view of the world, unsurprisingly, is different. Conditioned by its history to view the world as a threatening place and to believe that a country as vast and diverse as Russia can only be ruled by a strong center, Russian political thought places little value on post-modern ideas about individual rights and is supremely skeptical of the idea that a global set of institutions and rules can prevent war. Instead, it holds a strong state to be the supreme guarantor of domestic tranquility and a stable military balance among Great Powers to be the best guarantor of international security. Furthermore, many Russians believe the U.S. is not truly committed to the promotion of what it deems universal values or the preservation of a set of global institutions as a means of enabling international cooperation. Instead, they tend to believe that the U.S. cynically uses concepts such as values and institutions to advance its own security interests and damage those of Russia. This incompatibility in worldviews often leads to misperception and miscommunication in Russian-American relations.
A review of some of the main issues in the bilateral relationship since the end of the Cold War bears this assertion out. In Kosovo, for example, where the U.S. saw ongoing ethnic cleansing as justification for military intervention under the emerging doctrine of “responsibility to protect,” Russia saw a military operation designed to destabilize and dismember Serbia, Russia’s main ally in the Balkans. However implausible it may seem to those in the West, some Russians also saw the Kosovo operation as a dress rehearsal for a NATO-led intervention in Chechnya. NATO’s enlargement also presents a case of fundamentally different interpretations of the same issue. Where the U.S. and the West see the enlargement of NATO as a way to ensure security, stability, and prosperity in as much of the Euro-Atlantic zone as possible, Russia sees encroachment on its borders by a potentially hostile military alliance. Enlargement of the European Union, while not seen as a military threat by Moscow, is however seen as an attempt to isolate and weaken Russia.
A final example of how Russia and the West can observe the same phenomenon and come to fundamentally different conclusions concerns the so-called “color revolutions” in the former Soviet Union. Many in the West saw these popular uprisings, which peacefully ousted authoritarian governments in Georgia in 2003 (the “Rose Revolution”), in Ukraine in 2004 (the “Orange Revolution”), in Kyrgyzstan in 2005 (the “Tulip Revolution”), and again in Ukraine in 2014 (the “Maidan Revolution”) as evidence that the peoples of the former Soviet Union wanted no more than peoples everywhere: to be governed justly and democratically. The Kremlin, however, claimed to see the hand of Western intelligence services in these political transformations and suspected the West was intentionally destabilizing pro-Russian governments in Russia’s neighbors with the ultimate goal of bringing down the Russian government itself.
Disagreement over the last two of these issues – the enlargement of Western institutions and popular revolution in Russia’s neighbors – came together to cause war in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014. In Georgia, the war started in August 2008, four months after NATO stated that Georgia and Ukraine would become members of the Alliance and after a long period of hostility between Georgia’s pro-Western government headed by Mikhail Saakashvili and the Putin regime. In Ukraine, the catalyst for war was the overthrow of the pro-Russian government of Viktor Yanukovych, which had used violence against protesters angered by Yanukovych’s rejection of an association agreement with the European Union. In both cases, fundamentally incompatible worldviews were the underlying cause of the conflict. The U.S. and the West espouse a liberal internationalist worldview that sees international institutions as focal points for cooperation, individual rights as sacrosanct, and democratic governments as inherently more legitimate and predictable – and therefore less threatening – than autocratic ones. Russia adheres to a more realist worldview, where military power is the currency that buys security, where stability is only maintained by a military balance among great powers, and where human rights and international law are seen as either irrelevant or as tools to be used – often cynically and instrumentally – by great powers to advance their security interests.
A President Trump will be unable to change the fundamental characteristics of this relationship because the powers of the American president are much more constrained than those of most corporate CEOs. Presidential historian Richard Neustadt has observed that U.S. presidential powers really amount to the “power to persuade.” Neustadt quotes Truman, who when contemplating an Eisenhower presidency in 1952, remarked, “He’ll sit here and he’ll say ‘Do this! Do That!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike – it won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.” The reason for this is that even inside his own administration, the president has to persuade a large and sometimes recalcitrant community of national security and foreign policy professionals to implement his vision.
And even if a president is able to get the executive branch moving in one direction with dispatch and purpose, he still has to deal with the Congress, which has more powers in foreign policy-making than is often assumed. As Edward Corwin has correctly observed, the U.S. Constitution is “an invitation to struggle for the privilege of directing American foreign policy.” The Congress a Trump administration will have to deal with – despite the Republican majorities in both houses – will be far from compliant on national security issues, especially where Russia is concerned. First, the Democratic minorities in the Senate and the House, already skeptical of Russia due to its autocratic form of government and documented human rights abuses, will be even more unwilling to acquiesce to major deals with Russia due to its interference in the U.S. presidential election, which some Democrats believe was intended to prevent the election of Hillary Clinton. On the Republican side, there is a group of national security hawks, led by John McCain in the Senate, who are strongly opposed to any cooperation with Russia, seeing it as the biggest single threat to America’s interests. And although the president is less constrained in foreign policy than he is in domestic policy, Congress still has the power to deny him the achievement of his objectives in many areas. For example, Congress sets the levels of military aid for foreign partners, so even if a Trump administration were to request no aid for Ukraine and Georgia in an attempt to signal to Russia that the U.S. was not willing to contest their geopolitical affiliation, Congress could – and very likely would – reinstate robust military aid packages for both.
In short, a President Trump will neither be duped into subverting core American security interests on the altar of cooperation with Russia, nor will he be able to build a sustainable partnership with Russia on the basis of deal-making with Putin. Despite his inexperience in foreign policy, the natural aversion of the executive branch national security and foreign policy community to radically change, along with a skeptical Congress, will prevent the former; the fundamentally incompatible worldviews of the U.S. and Russia will prevent the latter. Sustainable partnership between the U.S. and Russia would require a fundamental change in the worldviews of one or both. Either the U.S. would need to begin seeing the world in realist, power politics terms, something anathema to most Americans, or Russia would need to abandon its great power politics view of the world and become a post-modern state. No matter how much Putin and Trump may want to make cooperation work, neither of these is likely to happen over the short term. There may indeed be a Trump reset – in the same way there was an Obama reset and a Bush reset – that results in deals over issues not involving critical U.S. or Russian national security interests. But over time, the structural factors impeding long-term cooperation will reassert themselves, and the relationship will proceed through its familiar stages of realism, disillusionment, and crisis. Trump’s main task – like those of Clinton, Bush, and Obama before him – will be to ensure that the as the relationship erodes, miscalculation and misperception do not allow it to escalate to open war. His predecessors managed to succeed in this; we should all wish President Trump similar success.
 Although Putin’s influence on Russian foreign policy is more pronounced than is that of the American president, the point here is that he is not unconstrained. Putin – and any Russian president – has to consider both the preferences of the Russian people and those of the Russian elite when making foreign policy decisions. In his 2016 book Russia’s Foreign Policy: Change and Continuity in National Identity, Andrei Tsygankov locates Putin’s foreign policy in Russia’s Statist tradition, arguing that it has deep historical roots that Putin appeals to but did not create. Similarly, in their 2015 paper “Russian Foreign Policy in Historical and Current Context: A Reassessment,” Olga Oliker and her co-authors note that while Putin’s leadership style and viewpoints are important factors in Russian foreign policy decision-making, the process also reflects deeply-held, underlying Russian attitudes about Russia’s place in the world and that these attitudes will drive Russian foreign policy decision-making after Putin is gone. Oliker and her co-authors also note that the Russian government is “deeply fearful of elite and public opposition to its actions,” which also influences its foreign policy decisions.
 David Patrick Houghton, The Decision Point: Six Cases in U.S. Foreign Policy Decision-Making (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 10.