Thawing Russia Relations?

by Russell Bova, Walter E. Beach '56 Chair in Political Science; professor of political science & international studiesRussell Bova

The controversy surrounding Trump and Russia dominating recent headlines will no doubt continue post-inauguration. Should conclusive evidence emerge that Trump’s positive attitude toward Putin is rooted in personal improprieties or financial benefits, we will face an unprecedented political and constitutional crisis. But to the extent that this is simply another area in which Trump seeks to disrupt the prevailing policy consensus, it might be a healthy thing.

America’s post-Cold War Russia policy has been an abject failure. While Russia’s post-Cold War trajectory was never entirely America’s to shape, the huge gap between early 1990s hopes and 2017 realities suggests some policy re-examination is in order. Especially at a time when the U.S. faces multiple international challenges—terrorism, North Korea, China among others—reducing tensions with Russia would be welcome. In fact, I suspect that Trump’s strategy is to improve relations with Russia in order to be better positioned to confront what he sees as the greater long-term challenge posed by China.

There is no guarantee Trump will succeed. While personal relationships between leaders are not unimportant, fundamental differences in interests carry greater weight. Our differences with Russia are many. And while it is clear what Putin wants from Trump—ending of sanctions, recognition of sovereignty over Crimea, neutralization of Ukraine, removal of NATO forces from Eastern Europe, and recognition of Russian primacy in the post-Soviet space—it is harder to imagine what Putin can give the U.S. in return beyond vague promises of good behavior.

In the 1970s, Richard Nixon was able to achieve a short-lived, but not insignificant, détente with the USSR. However, in one important respect, Nixon was better positioned than Trump. Nixon had a reputation as a hardline cold warrior, allowing him to deflect criticism that he was soft on Russia. In contrast, doubts about Trump’s motives weaken his hand and will render any deal he negotiates vulnerable to bipartisan criticism.