U.S.-Russian relations: back to square one
A mere two and a half months after his inauguration Donald Trump acknowledged that ‘we’re not getting along with Russia at all, we may be at an all-time low’. Even more astonishing is the fact that a ‘reset’ wasn’t even attempted. Why did the ‘grand bargain’, far beyond reality but expected by so many observers, fail to materialize? Political scientist Hannes Adomeit considers the likely reasons why and concludes that only a radical change of course in Moscow may serve to improve U.S.-Russian relations.
Not even an attempt at a 'reset' during the first visit of Tillerson to Moscow Photo: U.S. State Department
by Hannes Adomeit
The pattern is familiar. This is the fourth U.S. administration that starts out with the promise of an improvement in Russian-American relations but ends with new acrimony. This time, the expectations were higher than in the past albeit highly contentious. Contrary to his Republican predecessor George W. Bush a decade and a half ago, who had looked president Vladimir Putin ‘in the eye’, ‘got a sense of his soul’ and found him ‘straightforward and trustworthy’, Donald Trump, after some confusion about the actual state of affairs, admitted that he had never met the Kremlin leader, hadn’t had dinner or hiked with him and ‘wouldn't know him from Adam’.
Nevertheless, he repeatedly expressed ‘respect’ and admiration for Putin as a ‘strong leader’. He deplored that presidential candidate Hillary Clinton had continuously badmouthed the Russian president, which he found ‘very unwise’. He rejected outright the policies of all previous U.S. governments after the collapse of the Soviet Union to promote change towards a democratic, law-based system in Russia.
Understanding and respect
Concerning international affairs, he expressed understanding for Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, downplayed the significance of its military intervention in eastern Ukraine, questioned the effectiveness of economic sanctions against Russia, considered NATO to be ‘obsolete’, put in doubt American commitments to the security of the Baltic countries, denigrated the European Union while praising ‘Brexit’, and attacked multilateral free trade deals as well as the very principles of free trade and a liberal, rule-based international order. Everything appeared to be well in place for some ‘grand bargain’ for a comprehensive reordering of U.S.-Russian relations. To some analysts, however, the likelihood of that happening appeared slim even before Trump’s inauguration.
Indeed, astounding at present is not the fact that the hopes for some and fears for others of a comprehensive deal between Washington and Moscow failed to materialize but that a ‘reset’ wasn’t even attempted. A mere two and a half months after his inauguration and against the background of the U.S. military strikes in Syria and Afghanistan, Trump acknowledged that ‘we’re not getting along with Russia at all, we may be at an all-time low’.
White House national security adviser H. R. McMaster agreed and stated that relations with Russia were now at their ‘lowest point’. After the air strikes in Syria and shortly prior to the Moscow visit by U.S. secretary of state Rex Tillerson and his talks with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and Putin, the Kremlin leader deplored that ‘the level of trust on a working level, especially on the military side, has not improved but most likely worsened’. Prime minister Dmitri Medvedev concurred with Putin and asserted that the U.S. air strikes had ‘completely ruined relations’.
The accuracy of the diagnoses can hardly be disputed. What, one needs to ask, accounts for the expectations about a comprehensive reordering and improvement of U.S.-Russian relations to have proven so inaccurate and to collapse so rapidly? The following considerations may provide some answers.