US – Russian Relations from an American Perspective

Having failed to predict the end of the Soviet Union, the outbreak of the Arab Spring and the election of Donald Trump, I am somewhat hesitant to make any predictions about the future of relations between the United States and the Russian Federation.

However, unlike many of his impetuous remarks during the campaign, there seems to be a consistency in President-elect Trump’s attitude towards Russia. And this will probably not change no matter who he chooses to be Secretary of State. A positive attitude toward Russia has been one of Trump’s rare consistencies.
The current situation in US-Russian relations has been tense, to say the least. Confrontation on the eastern border of Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea into the Russian Federation and the alliance between Russia and President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war have all created obstacles to any serious reset of friendly relations. Imposed sanctions have not helped. Secretary of State Clinton and many of her advisors were adamant in their condemnation of human rights abuses within the Russian Federation, supported many NGO’s in their denouncements of these abuses, and were harshly critical of Russia’s foreign policy with the near abroad and in Syria.

As an example of how bad the situation had degenerated before November 8, Russia banned Michael McFaul, a former US ambassador to Moscow under Barack Obama, from getting a visa to enter the country. McFaul was trying to visit Russia to prepare a Clinton presidency, but he was denied entry in retaliation for a US ban on Russian officials entering the United States.

While the Russian president tried to remain neutral during the campaign – rumors about Russian hacking into the Democratic Party National Committee headquarters and WikiLeaks publicizing emails embarrassing to Mrs. Clinton did nothing to foster better relations – official Russian news media was obviously hoping for a Trump victory.

The election of Donald Trump has already begun a serious reset in the relations between the two countries. Members of the Russian State Duma broke into applause at the announcement of Trump’s victory. Mr. Putin was one of the first world leaders to congratulate the New York billionaire on his surprising victory.
This was not unexpected. Although having no official experience in foreign affairs, during the campaign Mr. Trump had suggested that Crimea should belong to Russia, that the United States and Russia should join together to fight global terrorist threats leading to an alliance of the two with President Bashar al-Assad to combat the Islamist State. In addition, the president-elect’s comments that the United States would re-evaluate its support for NATO in view of the efforts of the other members to pull their weight were obvious music to Mr. Putin’s ears. 

The two leaders spoke on November 14 and it is important to note parts of the statement issued by the Kremlin after the call. According to the statement, the two men agreed “on the absolutely unsatisfactory state of bilateral relations” and vowed to improve them. Both agreed that efforts should be made to “to normalize relations and pursue constructive cooperation on the broadest possible range of issues.” It calls for “a return to pragmatic, mutually beneficial cooperation.” The statement is obviously referring to a time when the two superpowers cooperated on major issues of global security. From an American perspective, this clarifies Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” to mean to focus on domestic issues and to accept divisions of labor and spheres of influence with Russia under some great deal. 

Mrs. Clinton and her advisors were liberal interventionists, seeing American exceptionalism as inevitably spreading democracy and capitalism throughout the world. Putin and Trump are Realists, much more willing to accept power relations based on national interests rather than ideology such as democracy and human rights. In an important Russian weekly news program on state television following the election, according the The New York Times, the anchor observed that “the American government would finally drop its annoying slogans about human rights and democracy.” “Russia has a lot of trust in Trump,” the anchor said.
Both men have authoritarian, masculine styles of competitiveness and domination. According to Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, the two men had “phenomenally similar” approaches to foreign policy. In an interview with Russian television, Peskov said: “If you remember Putin’s speech at the recent Valdai forum and compare it with the speech by Trump … they had identical key messages about foreign policy.”

Having said that there may be hope for an easing of tensions between the United States and the Russian Federation under President Trump, a director of a major think tank in Moscow recently argued that Moscow is uneasy with Trump’s victory. He sighted Trump’s inconsistencies on a number of issues as well as an ingrained skepticism towards Moscow among the Republican establishment. After all, he wrote, Trump the candidate may be very different from Trump the President.

Safest to say, therefore, that we should wait until Donald Trump is firmly in office to see what he actually does. So many errors have been made about Trump during the campaign that we should not assume rational paradigms; we should not expect him to be a consistent president. Trump has shattered so many preconditions that United States relations with Russia should also be considered as part of the unknown. At least, personally, I will not go out on the limb again to predict the future, only to be proven wrong again. Having been wrong on the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Arab Spring and the election of Donald Trump, I am trying to be prudent. With Donald Trump, that seems a rational way to proceed.

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