Seven reasons why a Trump reset with Russia will fail
The unexpected election of Donald Trump as president of the United States has brought shockwaves in the US and around the world with headlines talking of a “crisis in foreign policy”. His victory is allegedly a “boost to Putin”. Trump’s election campaign rhetoric certainly merits caution in his domestic policies. During the election campaign, Trump was heavily criticised for having close ties to Russia and saying positive words for Russian President Vladimir Putin. US intelligence agencies accused Russia of hacking into Hillary Clinton’s campaign and working for a Trump victory. The former acting director of the CIA Michael Morell described Trump as an “unwitting agent of Russia” and Russian state duma deputies applauded his election. Nevertheless, an improvement in relations between the two nuclear powers is unlikely to take place for seven reasons.
Firstly, there are too many differences between the US and Russia for Trump to reset. Russia’s relations with the West have deteriorated since its 2014 annexation of Crimea and accusations that its troops shot down MH17 and fomented separatism in eastern Ukraine. One area where Russia and the West have diametrically opposed interests is Syria. During the election campaign, Trump talked of “bombing the shit out of ISIS”, yet the West and Russia have competing agenda’s in Syria where only the West seeks to destroy ISIS. Russia’s primary goals are different. First, to show Russia is again a superpower that has returned to the Middle East; second, to prop up its client, the Bashar al-Assad regime; and third, to “weaponise refugees” fleeing to Europe which will increase support for Europe’s anti-EU far right. The Alternative for Germany nationalist party has increased its electoral support after one million refugees were permitted to enter the country last year.
Secondly, US-Russia resets have failed in the past because both sides understand them differently, as Moscow always believes that only Washington should be the one to reset. Putin does not believe Russia has done anything wrong and the West is to blame for cold relations: “Our relations are, regretfully, in a pretty frozen state, and I think it’s not our fault”, he said. The two resets by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama with Russia were undertaken in better international conditions, one after the September 11th 2001 terrorist attacks and the other during the “liberal” presidency of Dmitry Medvedev. Today’s conditions, where Putin and Russia have very low international standing and western leaders are calling its actions in Syria “war crimes”, are far less conducive to a successful reset.
Thirdly, NATO and western intelligence agencies have increasingly raised the question of a growing Russian threat at a level last seen in the 1970s before the onset of détente. Western concern has grown in response to Russia’s military actions in Ukraine and Syria; Russian cyber-warfare and espionage; Moscow sending its navy and air force into western sea and air space; a potential Russian threat to the three Baltic states; and Russia’s financial and other forms of support for anti-EU nationalist populist forces in Europe. The director general of the United Kingdom’s counterintelligence agency MI5, Andrew Parker, has said that Russia “is using its whole range of state organs and powers to push its foreign policy abroad in increasingly aggressive ways – involving propaganda, espionage, subversion and cyber-attacks. Russia is at work across Europe and in the UK today. It is MI5’s job to get in the way of that”.
Fourthly, resets cannot work because an angry Russian leadership resembles the 1976 American satirical black comedy-drama “Network” where the producer shouts live on screen “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Putin has said that the West was of the opinion that “after the Soviet Union has fallen apart, we need to finish Russia off”. When the country was weak in the 1990s the West allegedly humiliated and did not respect Russia. While oil and gas prices were high Putin could buy off the Russian population with higher standards of living. Since the collapse in energy prices and western sanctions, this is no longer possible. Putin has therefore increasingly relied upon nationalist mobilisation, particularly on Russian television, against outside enemies and alleged threats from the West. Putin’s increasingly autocratic regime cannot exist without an outside enemy where Russians are extolled to rally around the flag and their president. If the US is not to be Putin’s bogeyman, then who will replace America for Russian television and social media? Putin would not be able to make China his enemy after a decade of trying to forge an anti-western axis with that country. As the Guardian noted, “The Kremlin needed Trump, but as a loser, not a winner. They wanted to be able to continue to oppose the international mainstream, not be a part of it. Now Putin’s main foreign policy objective must be to fall out with Trump, because without that, the Kremlin will have no one to blame for Russia’s problems but Russia”. Anti-westernism is used by Putin to deflect the Russian population from his kleptocratic regime, massive levels of high-level corruption and the economic failings of his stagnant policies. Putin’s Russia increasingly resembles the “era of stagnation” of the Leonid Brezhnev era during which Putin was socialised into the Soviet system and when he voluntarily joined the KGB.
Fifthly, Putin seeks to be treated with equality and respect by the US and was incensed when President Obama described Russia as only a “regional power”. A nationalistic President Trump is even less likely to provide the kind of respect Moscow seeks as a global superpower on a par with the US.
Sixthly, Trump has to work with Republican majorities in both houses of congress who hold traditionally hawkish views towards Russia. Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan has called Putin “an aggressor that does not share our interests” while Vice President-elect Mike Pence called him a “small and bullying leader”. Hawkish Newt Gingrich, a long-time Trump supporter, told the Yalta European Summit in September in Kyiv that a Trump presidency would be ready to supply arms to Ukraine. Mitt Romney, who many now speculate could become Secretary of State, had said during his failed bid for the presidency in the 2012 elections that “Russia was America’s number one geopolitical foe”. President Barack Obama and the Democrats (including the failed 2016 Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton) mocked Romney for hisalleged “cold war rhetoric”. In response to Romney’s remark, Obama said that “the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because…the Cold War’s been over for 20 years”. Times have quickly changed, and Russia is now accused by the US National Security Agency of hacking into US government and Democratic Party servers and influencing the outcome of the 2016 presidential elections.
And finally, the seventh reason a reset would fail is because Trump cannot unilaterally cancel sanctions against Russia, which are a part of US law. The Republican-controlled both houses of Congress would oppose removing the sanctions.
Therefore, should President Trump seek to follow his two predecessors and try to reset relations with Russia, he would have even less chances of succeeding than before.
Taras Kuzio is a senior fellow at the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, University of Alberta and author of the forthcoming book Russia’s War Against Ukraine.