by Robert E. Hunter
Eight years ago, newly minted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with a “reset button” for US-Russian relations. Unfortunately, the word the US chose in Russian for “reset” actually meant “overload.” Embarrassed laughter on all sides. But the miscue was less about language than the basic American assumption, in fact though not in words, of the nature of the US-Russian relationship. Despite Clinton’s positive message, the US concept was based on “big brother/little brother.”
In the ensuing eight years, it may have been inevitable that Russian President Vladimir Putin would take the steps that have poisoned relations with the West and spurred the drift toward a neo-Cold War. We can never know. But amid the consternation that has characterized most Western commentary regarding the prospect of a Donald Trump-Vladimir Putin bromance, there is virtually no consideration of what the United States did to undercut possibilities of a mutually beneficial relationship with Russia.
Maybe Trump sees something that most other Americans have chosen to ignore.
A Shift in US Policy
Even before the end of the Cold War, President George H.W. Bush presented his strategic vision for a “Europe whole and free and at peace.” These few words encapsulated an attempt without precedent in the continent’s history: an effort to build structures of relations that would have a positive impact for all regional countries and a negative impact for none of them. Bush sought to avoid what happened with the 1919 Versailles Treaty’s punitive war-guilt clause against Germany, which helped fuel its revanchism and Adolph Hitler’s rise. In Bush’s grand strategy, even though the Soviet Union had “lost” the Cold war, Russia would be included as an equal partner in Europe’s future if Moscow were able and willing to respond – neither of which was guaranteed.
During the Bush administration and the first part of Clinton’s, the US pursued several objectives: keep the US as a “European power,” preserve the NATO alliance, write finis to the 120-year-old “German problem,” take Central European states off the geopolitical chess board, give Russia a chance to be fully part of the restructuring of European security, and ensure that lands in between, notably Ukraine, would not become pawns in the process. To achieve these objectives, the United States created Partnership for Peace to help modernize states that emerged from the wreckage of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, Russia included. It brought a handful of Central European states, especially those “surrounding” German, into NATO. It established both a NATO-Russia Founding Act to advance practical cooperation and a NATO-Ukraine Charter. All the pieces were designed to work together and be mutually-reinforcing.
Unfortunately, late in his administration, Clinton cast aside the Bush vision in favor of largely ignoring Russia for having lost the Cold War. NATO added another eight countries as members. The George W. Bush administration abrogated the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, even though it was one of the few remaining claims that Russia had to being an “equal” with the United States. The US began building missile defenses in Central Europe, as a sop to domestic American political pressures regarding Iran, even though this raised questions about honoring the spirit (as opposed to the letter) of the NATO-Russia Founding Act. Then, in 2008, the US led NATO to step over the line by declaring that Ukraine and Georgia “will become members of NATO,” even though this played directly into Russian fears (or domestic propaganda) of being “surrounded” by NATO. Georgia tested the promised commitment of alliance membership and was defeated in a short, sharp conflict with Russia. Then, in 2014, the Obama administration tried to overturn the results of a democratic election in Ukraine, which had brought to power a pro-Russian government that the US didn’t like. (This effort was documented in an intercepted phone call, presumably hacked by Russia.) The Obama administration also snubbed Putin’s showcase winter Olympics in Sochi.
A Shift in Russian Policy
Whether Russia has a legitimate beef is debatable. It may instead be that Russia, at least the leaders dominating its politics, has a view of international society inherently different from that shared by Western nations. Perhaps Russia is unready or unwilling to dispense with the tired-and-failed concepts in Europe of spheres of influence and balance of power. In any event, the West failed to follow through with George H. W. Bush’s vision, and Putin acted. Seizing Crimea broke commitments the Soviet Union had made in the 1975 Helsinki Final Act and Russia had made in the 2004 Budapest Memorandum, guaranteeing Ukraine’s frontiers. But Putin did not stop with seizing Crimea, which had been part of Russia until 1954, when Ukrainian-native Nikita Khrushchev made a gift of it to Kiev. Russian intervention in other parts of Ukraine, even though (at least so far) largely limited to areas dominated by Russian speakers, is an unambiguous aggression. Further, Russia has put pressure on other Central European states, including through cyber, energy, and covert (and not-so-covert) interference in domestic politics.
In addition, under Putin Russia has flexed its muscles in the Levant. First, it pulled American chestnuts out of the fire by helping remove chemical weapons from Syria, after the brouhaha about the American “red line” against Syria’s use of these weapons. (Many commentators still focus on Obama’s failure to use military force to honor the red line he had set rather than on the fact that the poison gas was removed from Syria.) This has been followed by direct Russian intervention in the Syrian civil war, at first under the cover of action against the Islamic State. The result, of course, is that Russia is now re-ensconced in the Middle East.
This last development can be attributed at least in part to the Obama administration’s fixation on removing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power, at the behest of Persian Gulf Sunni Arab countries, Turkey, and Israel, in part to offset the “loss” of Sunni-dominated Iraq to Shia majority rule there. The administration’s inability to create a coherent strategy for the region that would best serve US interests thus opened the gates to Russian intervention.
The Trump Shift
Donald Trump has done something the Obama administration has refused or been unable to do: recognize the reality that Russia has returned as a major player in two regions of considerable interest to and engagement of the United States, Europe and the Middle East. To be sure, Russia is not standing ten-feet tall. It is not a superpower, even though it borders on virtually all the areas of major interest to the United States in the northern hemisphere. Outside its immediate European neighborhood, Russia is a second-rate conventional military power. It rattles nuclear weapons not to pose a strategic threat but to get attention. Out of economic weakness and limited military capacities, it practices what has been dubbed “hybrid warfare.” In all, Putin has managed to attract U.S. attention and make Russia appear much more significant than it really is. But that may also mean that Putin feels that Russia is now strong enough to deal with the United States on more equal terms than before. Trump will now test that proposition.
In this sense, Trump is simply returning to the policy and practice that George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton followed until about 1998 of pretending that Russia was more important than it was in order to have some influence on its behavior when it would begin again to be a consequential power, particularly in Europe. In the process, Trump recognizes that, with the recent exception of Iran, sanctions are a busted flush in dealing with countries that have major strategic and political issues at stake.
Trump has thus rejected the Washington establishment’s consensus on Russia and Putin. That consensus has been based in part on an unwillingness to concede that Russia would, at some point, reemerge as a competitor and also in part on a recrudescence of Cold War attitudes of “us” versus “them.” But it is also fueled partly by the need of many Democrats and much of the so-called mainstream media to explain why Hillary Clinton lost the election. As happens in other countries, it is easier to blame Russian evil deeds such as the hacking of emails than to recognize that the Democrats fielded a flawed presidential candidate and did not pay attention to the clutch of voters who eventually made the difference in the rust-belt states. (It is hard to credit the claim that voters there were influenced more by “Russian subversion” than by the loss of jobs, feelings of being marginalized by globalization, and Washington’s indifference to their situation.)
In pursuing his major strategic realignment, with a personal relationship with Putin as its opening move, Trump will have to proceed more systematically than he has so far. He will need to reassure NATO allies that the United States can indeed be relied upon if efforts to seek common objectives with Russia go wrong. And he will immediately need to deal with the legitimate concerns that several Central Europeans states have about Russian intentions and actions. More generally, he will have to start demonstrating that he has a sense of what comes next. The process will be immensely complex, with a thousand moving parts, and will require a first-rate team of people to do most of the work.
The Trump Challenge
Of course, there is risk that President Trump will just get “conned” by Putin. The latter may try to use his personal relationship with the new and ambitious US president to pocket what Russia has already gained and then subtly ask for more, though it is hard to imagine that Trump is prepared to be a patsy, especially with such high stakes.
At least in recognizing the reality of Russia and its necessary role in the future of Europe and other areas of significance to the United States, President-elect Trump is making a start to move beyond the unimaginative and dead-end policy of on ne passe pas (“They shall not pass”) that the US has been following.
Trump may also try to develop a strategic partnership with Russia, whether real or a Potemkin Village, to put pressure on China, which he clearly sees as America’s primary competitor or worse. Seeking a Russian partner to confront China would, however, be a most difficult and risky business. Such “geomechanics” has an historic record more of failure than of success.
Like Hillary Clinton in 2009, Trump promises to push the reset button with Russia. This time it is at least more likely to be connected to something real. Although the risks of failure are significant, it just might have a chance of achieving something important for the United States, its European allies, and the future of European security, writ large.