I rarely find myself nodding in full agreement with Masha Gessen’s writings, but her critique of the deficiencies of the U.S. analytic community in terms of the inquiries into Moscow’s efforts to sway the 2016 American elections is spot on. She ends her account with a warning that the U.S. government’s “Russia expertise is weak and throws into question their ability to process and present information.”
It is clear that the Trump national-security team does not have a unified view of Russia, the extent to which current actions of the Russian government pose a threat to vital U.S. interests, or what steps ought to be taken so that Washington can deal with the Kremlin from a position of strength. As with the Obama and Bush administrations, the first months of the Trump administration will most likely be taken up with an extensive review of U.S. policy towards Russia and Vladimir Putin. Whether the new administration ends up adopting a policy of greater engagement or continued confrontation with the Kremlin, it will be important for any decision to be rooted in rigorous analysis of Russian realities rather than ideological beliefs or, even worse, mirror imaging—assuming that Russians will react the same way to the same set of events as Americans would.
It is no secret that Russia has taken steps in its foreign and domestic policies in recent years that clash with U.S. preferences. A series of proposals were advanced—and some adopted by the Obama administration—in the hopes of changing the Kremlin’s calculus and bringing about a change in behavior. For the most part, those hopes have been dashed, and confident statements made by the outgoing team for the last several years about Russian isolation and weakness have not been borne out by events.