The geopolitical relationship between the United States and Russia is one of the most important in the world. Good or even decent relations between the former Cold War rivals would drastically ease tensions in Europe and substantially decrease the possibility of great power conflict and nuclear warfare. However, relations with Russia under Obama reached their lowest point in a generation, and President Trump’s promises of a better relationship have completely failed to become reality for two key reasons.
First, the scandal over the Trump-Russia connection has politically damaged Trump and stripped away any appetite (both in Washington and the nation) for a rapprochement with Russia. Trump no longer has any authority to call for improved relations with Russia. Additionally, as Putin has stepped up his efforts over the past few years to project Russian influence and act as a great power, most Americans have correspondingly seen Russia as more of a threat and are not interested in cooperation. Elites, and especially the bipartisan foreign policy establishment, are wary of Russia and do not expect relations to improve any time soon. Congress, in one of its most dramatic assertions of separation of powers so far in Trump’s administration, overwhelmingly passed a Russian sanctions bill which severely limited Trump’s ability to reverse sanctions on Russia.
As I have written before, most presidents in the modern era fail to find much common ground with Russia. While Trump’s efforts have similarly failed, what does the future of US-Russian relations look like? Foreign policy elites have mostly emphasized the possible benefits of working toward limited US-Russia cooperation in certain areas. Essentially, while cooperation should be pursued in areas of mutual interest, the US must use a “sober realist” approach that focuses on dialogue. As one example, the Brookings Institution calls for working towards settlements in Syria and Ukraine, and working directly with Russia on cyber issues and arms reductions, but the report concedes that expectations for progress should be “modest.”
While I understand the strategic benefit and appeal of trying to work with Russia on specific issues where we can find common interests (especially on arms reduction), I ultimately do not think these kinds of proposals are realistic. For one thing, the domestic political environment will make it difficult to justify trying to work with Russia, especially as more details on the Trump-Russia scandal continue to emerge. But these proposals are mostly unrealistic because they overlook core attributes of the US-Russia relationship.
Each country has fundamentally different goals when it comes to basic geopolitical strategy. US foreign policy (in general) is focused on maintaining US power and influence throughout the world. The US is the leader of the free world and the most important goal is to support and strengthen the liberal world order. (While Trump himself is not very interested in foreign policy and takes varied vague positions, the standard view on US foreign policy goals remains unchanged.) Russia, on the other hand, primarily wants to be recognized as a great power and an equal of the United States. While I do not think Putin wants Russia to lead the world, he would be much more comfortable with a world order that de-emphasizes human rights and democracy in favor of respecting sovereignty and a balance of power. Putin has certainly made many moves to expand Russian power and influence, especially during the past five years or so. However, I think he is a realist and knows that Russia does not have the political or economic power to replace the US as the preeminent world superpower.
The media’s demonization of Putin obscures these fundamentally opposed goals. Make no mistake: Putin is a tyrant and is opposed to many of America’s core principles, such as free speech and a limited government. But his foreign policy goals are not irrational or a definitive break from what past Russian leaders have done. As the hyper-linked article states, Russia has seen itself as a great power since the reign of Peter the Great and enjoyed equal status with the US for much of the past century. While Gorbachev recognized an urgent need for reform, he still saw the Soviet Union as the equal of the United States; similarly, Yeltsin cooperated with the US as he practically realized his country’s then-weakness and need for aid, but he also wanted to rebuild Russian power and helped cement a partnership with China that rejected US leadership of the world order. Putin himself has simply succeeded at the long-held goals of growing Russia’s economy and increasing its power and influence. As to the future, Putin can no longer rely on oil and natural gas economically, and Russia’s political outlook during an eventual transition of power is uncertain. But Putin faces no immediate need or pressure to change his calculus towards the United States.
Analyzing Putin’s foreign policy goals with a clear eye is integral to considering the future of US-Russia relations. Ultimately, the US and Russia simply do not share many mutual interests to work on. Putin has little to gain by pursuing peace in Ukraine and has no interest in pulling back in Syria when Assad is winning the war. He also will not voluntarily give up the greater power he has worked so hard to gain just to improve US relations. Discussing cybersecurity with Russia should be considered nothing more than a bad joke. Arms reduction efforts helped calm tensions during the Cold War, but I see little prospect of the Trump administration finding the impetus or patience to work on the issue. Many have floated the idea of fighting with Russia against terrorism, but this too is of limited value, as Russia is allied with countries such as Iran and Syria and does not face the same level of threat from terrorism as we do.
Although I find the idea of trying to work with Russia on limited issues flawed and unrealistic, it may yet be the best of bad options. After all, little else remains other than reverting back to a Cold War-style relationship, which necessarily puts the world constantly close to nuclear disaster. Ultimately, the US may try to cooperate with Russia in the near future, but I see little hope of a significant improvement in relations.
Photo credit Russian Presidential Press Service, Creative Commons