For both Russia and the U.S. 2017 was year of mutual frustration in their relations. Vladimir Putin clearly anticipated, as did the Russian elite, that President Trump would make good on his frequent assertions that he would repair relations with Moscow. Yet by year’s end both Trump’s rhetoric and Putin’s hopes were dashed.
Indeed, in December 2017 the U.S. imposed new sanctions on Russia and selected individual Russian elites for violating the INF treaty and under the terms of the newly enacted “Global Magnitsky Law.”
The administration also published a new National Security Strategy forthrightly accusing Russia of intervening in the U.S. elections and portraying as an aggressor and threat to European if not global security, announced the first steps in providing Ukraine with weapons to defend against Russian aggression, and forcefully intensified the reinforcement of NATO forces in Europe and overall ties with European allies.
Needless to say, all of these moves aroused enormous anger and frustration in Moscow even though Putin formally claims that Russia still seeks partnership with the U.S. or at least cooperation on issues of mutual concern and interest.
How and why did his deepening of mutual estrangement supplant the optimistic anticipations of a year ago? On the U.S. side the ever-deepening revelations of Russian interference in the2016 election process as such replete with media manipulation, intervention on behalf of Trump and attacks on 39 state election commissions underscored the U.S. view, expressed by UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and former Vice-President Dick Cheney that such attacks were an act of war and mandated swift and stern retribution.
Trump’s refusal to accept this fact did not preclude Congress from seizing control of Russia policy and imposing broader and wider sanctions on Russia and key elites. Thus Trump, as Moscow has now belatedly recognized, lost control of his own Russia policy.
In addition, Trump’s own predilections and that of his national security team, the majority of whom completely accepted the idea of a Russian challenge to bedrock U.S. interests and values, cut against Russian interests. The maximum pressure policy on North Korea struck at Russian interests there and Russia’s foot-dragging on clamping down on the DPRK undermined any hope of cooperation with Moscow on Korea or Asia more generally.
In Europe Moscow’s refusal to make any concessions on Ukraine or in the Middle East foreclosed any hope of cooperation on those issues of regional significance. Indeed, Russia has now demanded that the U.S. forces quit Syria after having defeated ISIS there. This will not happen since Syria and Iraq are hardly stable and Washington now harbors deep suspicions concerning Russia’s larger ambitions in the Middle East and its cooperation with Iran since Iran is clearly another target of administration pressure.
In Ukraine Moscow still denies that its troops invaded or have long since integrated these “separatists” into forces under its command and wages multi-domain war against Kyiv while threatening all of Europe with unrelenting information war and the threat of conventional or nuclear missile strikes.
Meanwhile, Russia continues its massive military buildup. Indeed, the German magazine Bild just argued that the West in2017 actually represented a simulation of an invasion of Europe. Such tactics will hardly foster a détente let alone partnership with Washington.
But apart from Washington’s reaction to Russian depredations and Trump’s own often-bizarre presidency, Putin has nobody to blame but himself. His war against the U.S. expressed in the multiple interventions to terminate sanctions and the Magnitsky laws and force acceptance of Crimea as part of Russia. This also included abridging Ukraine’s sovereignty and integrity and forcing global acceptance of Russia as a U.S. equal that can veto U.S. actions abroad overreached and triggered a continuing anti-Russian backlash.
Continuing a growing drift towards totalitarian rule, and pursuing anti-American policies in Europe, Northeast Asia, and the Middle East, as well as South America, betrays Moscow’s belief that the only way it can secure cooperation with anyone is by threatening, intimidating, and coercing them. To paraphrase Dale Carnegie this is not necessarily the best way to influence people and win friends, particularly the Trump administration.
Thus we are in the bleak midwinter of bilateral relations. If anything 2018 will be worse. Putin cannot and will not make major concessions on any of the issues at stake. And given threat of current Russian ICBM and SLBM production, Russia will in 2018 eclipse the numerical limits set down in the2011 New Start Treaty. So arms control will not be a panacea.
In any case, past experience suggests Moscow will lie about this and try to keep the treaty façade to preclude an American reaction. But this administration will not stand for that.
Furthermore, in 2018 Robert Mueller’s investigation will encompass even greater revelations of the scope of Russian involvement in the 2016 elections and our own upcoming elections will stimulate further actions to prevent another Russian information attack. Optimism about these relations is not justified. But Putin, even more than President Trump, has brought this upon himself.
Stephen Blank, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council. He is the author of numerous foreign policy-related articles, white papers and monographs, specifically focused on the geopolitics and geostrategy of the former Soviet Union, Russia and Eurasia. He is a former MacArthur fellow at the U.S. Army War College.