Donald Trump’s election to the presidency generated numerous articles expecting or advocating a rapprochement or even a “grand bargain” with Russia. This reaction reflected Trump’s many favorable campaign statements about Vladimir Putin and the widely-perceived desirability in both Washington and Moscow of improved relations between the United States and Russia. Indeed, the Duma rejoiced at his election.1 But today, there is no hope for this rapprochement, let alone a grand bargain. Trump’s bombing of a Syrian air base in retaliation for its use of chemical weapons confirms that assertion.2 Indeed, Trump’s strike means that the United States will not avoid using force to defend its vital interests and be bound by other institutions or governments’ ideas. Thus, it is a message to both allies and adversaries, including North Korea, Syria, Iran, China, and Russia.3 Given Xi Jinping’s presence when Trump informed him about the Syrian bombing and the impression of a growing momentum in their relationship, the dynamics of triangular relations appear to have been abruptly turned topsy-turvy.
Beyond Syria, the Trump administration has recently announced its support for sanctions and Russia’s exist from Ukraine, while continuing NATO’s buildup in Europe and an apparent program of nuclear and military modernization.4 Trump may actually even consider giving Ukraine lethal weapons to counter Russian forces.5 Nikki Haley, the US Ambassador to the UN, also remarked, “we should never trust Russia.”6 These recent developments seem to be the obvious result of the revelations of Russia’s information warfare against the United States, massive elite and congressional opposition to a deal with Russia, and the intense anti-Russian public opinion due to Moscow’s aggressive behavior in Europe and the Middle East. Perhaps less apparently, they also appear to be the result of military professionals gaining control in the midst of the Trump administration’s congenitally dysfunctional behavior. As I have observed elsewhere, “it is clear that Trump cannot control himself or his own administration.”7 If Trump wanted better ties with Russia, he has effectively lost control of his intended policy by making personnel decisions that boosted his image as a strong leader accepting the US military’s judgments at a time of increased threats.