Trump and Putin, Through a Glass Darkly

Kimberly Marten. Asia Policy. Issue 23. January 2017.

As 2017 dawns, relations between the United States and Russia are at their worst level since the height of the Cold War. Russia has been under U.S. sanctions since it seized Crimea and intervened in eastern Ukraine in 2014, and new sanctions were added after U.S. intelligence agencies determined that Russia was responsible for hacking and publicizing emails from the Democratic National Committee and other political actors during the 2016 elections. In recent years, the number of dangerous military incidents between the two countries has skyrocketed, as the Russian military seems determined to test U.S. readiness by provoking hazardous close encounters in the air and at sea. Russia has built up military forces and weaponry along its borders with NATO countries, causing NATO at its 2016 Warsaw Summit to approve small force presence increases in some of its own member states that border Russia, including the post-Soviet Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania as well as Poland. Moscow regularly stages unannounced war exercises modeled after World War II land battles. Meanwhile, a wide range of arms control treaties between Washington and Moscow, which helped define U.S.-Soviet relations and limit the danger of their interactions in the late Cold War era, lie in tatters. As outgoing President Barack Obama leaves office, communications between U.S. officials and their Russian counterparts have reportedly virtually ceased.

But Donald Trump’s election has thrown a wrench into predictions about U.S.-Russia relations. Trump has expressed admiration for Russian president Vladimir Putin and seems to be heading for another attempt at a “reset.” However, Trump’s statements and cabinet nominations have engendered so much controversy, including within the Republican Party, that it remains to be seen what direction U.S. policy toward Russia will take during his administration. It is also unclear what President Putin may have in mind for President Trump.

This essay will first examine the controversies over Russian hacking and their potential consequences, and then consider U.S. sanctions and their likely trajectory. Next, it will examine Russia-NATO tensions in more depth, including Russian use of information warfare against Washington’s European allies. It will then turn to a discussion of Putin’s seeming aims. The essay will close with an overall assessment of the relationship going forward, focusing on challenges that will need to be overcome for Trump to succeed in his attempts at a new reset in the relationship.

Russian Interference in the U.S. Election

U.S. policy toward Russia under Trump will take shape against the backdrop of ongoing debates about Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election. Despite some initial uncertainty about whether the findings of U.S. intelligence agencies converged, more recent reports indicate that the CIA and FBI agree that Putin himself most likely oversaw the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and that the ultimate Russian goal was to support Trump’s candidacy over that of Democrat Hillary Clinton. There is additional evidence that Russian sources routinely published “fake news” on English-language websites in an attempt to swing public opinion against Clinton. Trump initially ridiculed these reports, stating that no one really knows who did the hacking and that he does not trust the CIA because of the bad intelligence it provided in the lead-up to the Iraq War of 2003.

Several high-ranking Republican politicians have disagreed with Trump’s dismissive comments and demanded an immediate rigorous bipartisan investigation into Russian hacking. The internal conflict among powerful Republican leaders is a crucial bellwether because pitched disagreement between Congress and the White House over U.S. policy toward Russia could wreak havoc on a wide variety of presidential initiatives. A fundamental question to watch, then, as the Trump presidency unfolds is whether Trump takes seriously the U.S. intelligence community’s findings that Russia tried to sabotage the U.S. electoral process. If Trump accepts this conclusion, it will be hard for him to reset relations with Russia. If he rejects it and continues to criticize U.S. intelligence agencies publicly, he may also find himself in a lasting bureaucratic battle that undermines his own effectiveness.

U.S. Sanctions on Russia and the Ukraine Crisis

Trump said during the campaign that he would consider lifting the sanctions imposed against Russia over the Ukraine crisis and might even recognize the occupied Ukrainian province of Crimea as Russian territory. Crimea’s Black Sea waters are rich in natural gas resources that Russia cannot exploit without access to Western technology. Russia also needs sanctioned Western technology to exploit its Arctic oil reserves. Meanwhile, the ongoing low-level war in eastern Ukraine shows no signs of ending.

Trump has nominated recently retired ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson to be secretary of state-a man who received the Russian Order of Friendship from Putin and whose firm’s $723 million joint venture with Russian state oil company Rosneft was put in jeopardy by U.S. sanctions. This nomination suggests that the Trump administration might consider lifting sanctions and working to expand U.S. business opportunities in Russia. Of course, global petroleum prices are low enough right now that investments by big oil have diminished even in the Alaskan Arctic, so it is not clear that energy deals with Russia would yield much profit for U.S. business anytime soon.

Even if Trump lifts the Russian sanctions that Obama imposed via executive authority, the U.S. Congress could pass a new law keeping the sanctions in place or even expanding them, a move that powerful Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have championed. Congress showed overwhelming bipartisan support for the Magnitsky Act of 2012, which sanctioned Russian officials for human rights violations in the arrest and jailhouse murder of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. Whether bipartisan support for sanctions this time around would be strong enough to withstand a presidential veto remains to be seen. But with the Magnitsky Act, Congress learned that it could tie the president’s hands by connecting his approval of sanctions to other issues that the administration valued-in that case, approval for Russian entry into the World Trade Organization. It could do something similar now to force Trump to extract real concessions from Russia on any cooperative deal going forward.

The United States, Russia, and NATO

Many foreign policy experts contacted by the Council on Foreign Relations believe that a militarized conflict between Russia and NATO in Eastern Europe is a top security threat facing the world in 2017. The current Russian military doctrine of “information warfare” is particularly threatening, since Putin and his generals see NATO and the West as their primary opponents. Information warfare can involve nonmilitary measures-such as false media reports, hacking, and financial and logistical support for far-right political parties, including in the established democracies of Western Europe-designed to foster NATO disintegration from within. Russia is in effect challenging the traditional European values of liberal democracy and human rights that have animated the alliance for decades.

Information warfare also includes special operations like those used in Ukraine in 2014 to seize Crimea and foster armed conflict in the Donbas. Worries about what this might mean for NATO multiplied when evidence emerged that ethnic Russian nationalists were behind a failed coup attempt during the October 2016 elections in NATO invitee Montenegro (whose membership is currently undergoing ratification in various NATO member states), although Moscow itself has not (at least yet) been tied to the plot. Some analysts fear that Russia might intervene militarily into one or more of the Baltic states and that NATO would be unable to react effectively in time to stop the Russian advance. Yet much more likely (and hence more worrisome) than a direct invasion across the Russian border is the possibility that Russia might accelerate and expand the information war that it is already waging in the Baltics. For example, while Moscow’s current efforts are mostly limited to pro-Russian and anti-NATO television broadcasting to Russian speakers in these states, Moscow could exploit economic or political discontent among the large population of stateless ethnic Russians living in Latvia and Estonia to spark riots and thereby elicit demands for Russian military protection. Russia might also try to undercut NATO unity through military action in a non-NATO border state, such as Moldova, Belarus, or even the Swedish island of Gotland, in an attempt to sow panic and send NATO reeling in the face of Russian expansionism.

During his campaign, Trump appeared to disavow the Article 5 collective defense provision of the NATO charter. He questioned the value of NATO to the United States and suggested that whether to defend a member from attack would depend on that country’s financial contributions to the alliance. As a result, both the European Union and several individual NATO member states are scrambling to find new options for defending against possible Russian aggression amid concerns that NATO might not survive as an institution, at least as it is currently understood. If NATO disintegrates, so will the United States’ global reputation as a reliable ally. Trump’s more recent comments suggest that he will uphold U.S. NATO commitments.

Russian Perspectives on U.S. Relations

Russia has an obvious desire to re-establish itself as a great power with influence beyond its borders and recover from what it sees as the humiliation of its post-Cold War years of decline. These geopolitical aspirations help explain Moscow’s military interventions in Ukraine and Syria, its force and arms trade buildups, and its championing of both an alliance with China and the development of the BRICS association (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) as an alternative to dependence on Western-supported financial and trade institutions. But all these aspirations are challenged by Russia’s current economic and budgetary malaise, as well as by the lack of truly shared interests between Moscow and many of its foreign partners. Putin’s attempts to use these foreign adventures as a basis for his domestic popularity may face increasing challenges over time. Putin seems to truly fear that the United States and its European allies are trying to overthrow his regime, but Russia may find itself needing to re-establish economic ties with the West to stay afloat going forward.

Putin faces another presidential election sometime in 2018 (and could call an early election this year), but no one at the moment believes his victory is in question. The Kremlin demonstrated quite effectively its ability to suppress the protests that erupted in large Russian cities following the last presidential election in 2011. Since that time, Putin has further consolidated his control over Russian television and other media sources. In April 2016, he also created a new national guard under his direct command, employing up to 400,000 troops.

Yet Putin’s crackdown against domestic political opposition may ironically face a new challenge going forward. If the U.S. president is now Putin’s friend, there is no longer an external enemy to accuse of undermining the regime. For which country will the purported domestic traitors now be working if not the nefarious United States, and how will Putin continue to justify measures to exert control over the opposition?

Anticorruption activist and opposition politician Alexei Navalny announced in December 2016 his intention to run against Putin in 2018, but he does not appear to be a serious threat. Navalny’s last attempt at political office, the Moscow mayoral campaign in 2012, led (as reliable polls had predicted) to defeat. Meanwhile, Putin has launched his own anticorruption drive, stealing Navalny’s thunder while tightening the grip of his own favored cronies. For example, the Kremlin arrested (and then fired) Putin’s own economics minister, Alexei Ulyukayev. A mainstream economist known to favor structural reforms to raise Russia out of its recession, Ulyukayev may have been targeted because he dared to take on the head of Russia’s powerful Rosneft state oil company, Igor Sechin (one of Putin’s closest friends and a reputed former KGB officer), as Sechin strove to extend Rosneft’s holdings. When seen in this light, any new U.S. oil deals with Rosneft might help strengthen Putin’s key domestic coalition.

Assuming that Putin remains healthy, the future of Russia’s policy toward the United States depends on him and his close network. No one, not even in the Russian elite, is exactly sure how the Kremlin’s policy decisions are made these days; there is no longer any kind of bureaucratic hierarchy to control or influence them. Analysts do agree that the circle of decision-makers has shrunk over time. Putin is a career KGB officer, skilled in deception and disinformation, and he seems increasingly reliant on other intelligence officers as advisers who may share his sense of paranoia about the West. He is also a judo master, someone who thrives on finding his opponents’ weaknesses and then causing them to fall from their own weight.

Putin pays a great deal of attention to personal relationships in foreign affairs. This has ranged from the steadfast support he has shown to a long-term Russian client, president Bashar al-Assad of Syria, to the Russian state’s hounding of former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul and his family. Presumably the relationship between Trump and Putin will start on a good footing, given the positive regard the two seem to hold for each other and Trump’s stated intention to work with Russia in defeating the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) while allowing Assad to remain in power. But Trump regularly uses off-the-cuff jabs in tweets and interviews to unnerve those who oppose him. As the honeymoon between Trump and Putin wears off and diplomatic bumps emerge in the U.S.-Russia relationship, the emotional tenor of relations between the two leaders bears watching.


Resets in the U.S.-Russia relationship have been tried repeatedly since the Soviet Union dissolved in late 1991, but none has endured for very long. Russia nurses long-term grievances over the collapse of Soviet power and the decline of Moscow’s leading role in the bipolar structure of the Cold War, and tends to blame the United States for its troubles. Meanwhile the United States has focused its attentions on China, not Russia, as the rising global power, a trend that Trump seems ready to magnify with his apparent disavowal of the one-China policy.

Moscow has attracted attention from Washington primarily by being disruptive, not cooperative. Putin has built his domestic reputation on standing up to the West and overcoming U.S. attempts to control the international system. It remains to be seen whether Putin’s carefully cultivated image can withstand his cooperation with a domineering U.S. president.

For several years Putin has been building up the Russian military and advertising Russia’s nuclear might-powerful symbols of the country’s Cold War glory days. Trump has promised to prioritize U.S. military spending and weapons purchases in turn. Can good relations between Putin and Trump withstand a new arms race, especially at a time when Russia sees itself as China’s ally and Trump has called into question the wisdom of U.S. restraint toward China?

Through all the recent challenges in their relationship, the United States and Russia have shared at least one common interest: limiting nuclear proliferation by rogue actors like North Korea and Iran. Yet Trump has said he may rethink the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and has also suggested that perhaps Saudi Arabia-as well as U.S. allies South Korea and Japan in Northeast Asia-would benefit from building their own nuclear weapons. The Iran agreement benefits Moscow not only by delaying the appearance of a new nuclear state near Russian borders (and a new nuclear arms race in the Middle East) but also by opening commercial opportunities in Iran for the Russian defense and civilian nuclear industries whose leaders are Putin’s close allies. Can cooperative relations between Russia and the United States survive such a fundamental disagreement about a key security issue?

The difficulty of this exercise is compounded by the fact that what candidate Trump said on the campaign trail may not be what President Trump champions in office. Yet words matter. One indiscreet tweet by Trump during difficult bilateral negotiations with Russia might erase his apparent friendship with Putin. The question then would be how the judo master from the KGB might use Trump’s weaknesses against him, in an effort to make the U.S. president fall from his own weight.