The winding road of Russian disenchantment with Trump
In the run-up to the 2020 US presidential election, it is time to examine the impact of Trump’s presidency on various countries across the globe. How do different countries look back upon four years of President Trump? In this sixth episode of the Clingendael Spectator series “Four Years Trump: Taking Stock and Looking Forward”, Russian researcher Igor Istomin analyses how the relationship with Russia deteriorated. ‘The chance that the bilateral relationship could be reset, has disappeared beyond the horizon.’
On 9 November 2016, the electoral victory of Donald Trump was loudly applauded in the Russian Duma (the Lower Chamber of the Parliament).1 This was an unusually emotional reaction to a political event taking place in a foreign country, reflecting the widespread enthusiasm in Russia for the Republican candidate to take hold of the White House.
However, the ensuing years have ruined all hope of a rapprochement between Russia and the United States. Bilateral relations have gradually and unceasingly deteriorated.
President Trump has shown himself to be a predictable opponent, as “the devil we know”
Today, after almost four years into Trump’s rule, the chance that this bilateral relationship could be reset, has disappeared beyond the horizon. Even so, as Trump struggles to secure his re-election, Moscow still retains some positive feelings towards him and his administration.
The profound tensions in Russian-US relations did not start with President Trump, and have a long and complex pedigree. It could be argued that both great powers, situated on the opposite side of the globe, should have few reasons to quarrel, especially as their security is guaranteed by vast arsenals of nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, it is a fact that both states find themselves in competing, even hostile camps, and it must be acknowledged that the Trump administration has done its bit to deepen this conflict.
By 2020, Russia has shed any illusions that relations with the US will improve. This has created clarity. Over the past decades, Moscow has got tired of keeping its hope up that constructive ties with the US could be built. After four years Trump, Russia has shed these illusions, and has come to learn with its disenchantment. On the upside, President Trump has shown himself to be a predictable opponent, as “the devil we know”.
Trump: Love at first sight
In 2016, Russia’s attitude towards Trump was out of the ordinary; Russia was the only G20 member state where popular support for Trump was higher than for his contender (Hillary Clinton).2 Meanwhile, pundits in Moscow were eagerly arguing that a possible Trump victory would offer the best chance to restore bilateral relations.3
There were several reasons for Russia’s affection towards Trump. For starters, Trump consistently argued in favour of dialogue with Moscow. More broadly, Trump campaigned against continued US interventionism, a policy that has always caused great concern in Russia. Trump’s anti-elite posture also resonated with the Russians, who always have a healthy sympathy for the underdog.
Still, Trump’s greatest advantage was that he ran against Hillary Clinton, who proved herself unelectable. In the Russian collective mind, Hillary Clinton remains associated with Russia’s humiliations in the 1990s, which were orchestrated by her husband.
Perhaps sympathisers in Moscow should have listened more carefully to Trump’s vows and threats, before celebrating his electoral victory
Moreover, Clinton’s time as Secretary of State in the Obama administration solidified her image as a staunch proponent of assertive American arrogance. Her notoriety as an advocate for intervention in Libya and as an instigator of the Moscow protests in 2011 further explain the widespread aversion towards her personae in Russia.
Still, those Russians who naively expected Trump to discard Obama’s ill-fated foreign policy legacies, paid little attention to some highly problematic statements during his election campaign. For instance, Trump consistently pledged to restore American military dominance, and to rethink US commitment to treaty-based multilateralism, including all arms control arrangements. Perhaps sympathisers in Moscow should have listened more carefully to Trump’s vows and threats, before celebrating his electoral victory.
Planting the grapes of wrath
When President Trump entered the White House, Russian-US relations had reached a post-Cold War nadir. Firstly, Vladimir Putin’s decision in late 2011 to run for president came as a cold shower for Washington, since hopes had been set on his more amenable contender Dmitry Medvedev.
From a Russian perspective, relations with the US could only get better, and the election of Trump was therefore considered as an opportunity for improvement
Bilateral relations had also been dented by a variety of factors, ranging from arguments over human rights, to disagreements on Syria. Moreover, whereas Russia feared continued US meddling in its domestic politics, Washington felt insulted when Edward Snowden found shelter in Moscow.
On top of all this acrimony, the Ukrainian conflict (since 2014) has further aggravated the Russian-US confrontation, particularly since Moscow viewed Washington as the mastermind of the Kiev coup d’état (also known as the Maidan revolution, in November 2013).
By 2016, bilateral relations had duly hit rock bottom. From a Russian perspective, relations with the US could only get better, and the election of Trump was therefore considered as an opportunity for improvement.
This proved to be a chimera, since it soon became clear that the 2016 US presidential election just deepened suspicions and increased tensions, mainly because Russia was accused by the US media of (election) “interference”.
Bilateral ties soon took a further nosedive, and reached new depths of adversity. Russian-US relations became a hostage in Washington’s political theatre. The Democratic Party mobilised the media to spread allegations of a possible “collusion” between Trump and Russia, mainly to serve its own domestic agenda.
Still, these charges resonated with large portions of the American public, who were convinced that Russia had indeed interfered in the November 2016 elections, and had backed Trump. Under these toxic circumstances, any positive step by the Trump administration towards Russia was quickly framed as a testimony of the president’s supposed guilt.
Down the spiral staircase
As a result, bilateral channels of communication deteriorated quickly, and even became worse than the haphazard contacts under the eight years of Obama’s reign. All Trump’s meetings and communications with his Russian counterpart were scrutinised in search for hints of collusion, or even treason.
To make matters worse, the Russian Federation’s Embassy in Washington could no longer function normally, since even routine, standard communications with US interlocutors became problematic, mainly since Americans – diplomats as well as the general public – feared to become culpable by association. As Moscow and Washington used diplomatic expulsions and the shutdown of missions to signal political concern with each other, diplomats felt increasingly insecure, and hence unable to do their normal work.
Given the lack of prospects of positive reinforcement, US restrictions provide little incentive for Russia ever to concede
This toxic environment also made people-to-people exchanges more complicated, even though ordinary people had over the past years profited from the progress made in reciprocal visa facilitation. Overall, the rage of (dis)information campaigns only contributed to fuelling (mutual) distrust and growing political animosity.
It is important to stress that this is not all Trump’s doing. Since late-2016, the US Congress has driven America’s sanctions policy towards Russia. Congress has restricted the ability of President Trump to loosen up the restrictive sanctions regime it inherited from the Obama administration. Instead, Congress adopted even tougher measures against Russian business, which has not only escalated into hostility, but also undermined the long-term prospects for reconciliation and compromise.
Washington has redoubled its efforts to undermine the arms control architecture, knowing all too well that this is the policy-area Moscow values the most
The tough sanctions regime put into place by Congress has, perhaps somewhat paradoxically, diminished US bargaining power vis-à-vis Russia. Previous experiences of Moscow with the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which sought to remove Soviet barriers on Jewish emigration during the Cold War, demonstrate that American restrictions once imposed, almost never wither away.
The Jackson-Vanik amendment outlived its purpose by two decades and was only repealed in 2012, being immediately replaced by another sanctions package under the so-called Magnitsky Act. Given the lack of prospects of positive reinforcement, US restrictions provide little incentive for Russia ever to concede.
Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes
As the gap between Russia and the United States widened, Moscow blamed everyone but Trump for this downward spiral. Instead, Moscow has mainly assigned blame for this crisis to the partisan sabotage-politics of the US Democratic Party, to the intrigues of bureaucratic elites (the so-called “Deep State”), or to the pushback from a neoconservative clique within the Republican establishment.
The demise of arms control could make military balance between Russia and the US even less predictable than before
Although all these factions may well share their due portion of blame for the rising tensions in Russian-US relations, President Trump himself was at least partially responsible for this setback. For example, Trump placed Russia in the category of “revisionist powers”, he stepped up aid to Kiev, and he oversaw the creation of a hawkish military presence near Russia’s western borders (notably in Poland and the Baltic state).
Until March 2019, Trump’s tough policies towards Moscow could have been explained by the looming threat of the Muller investigation into the president’s alleged “collusion” with Russia. However, after the Muller Report was published, and no “collusion” was found, Trump’s attitude toward Russia hardly changed for the better. Instead, Washington has redoubled its efforts to undermine the arms control architecture, knowing all too well that this is the policy-area Moscow values the most.
Since the very first telephone conversation between Putin and Trump (on 27 January 2017), Russia has focused on boosting the dialogue on nuclear matters. In March 2018, President Putin offered a vivid display of Russia’s emerging hyper-speed capabilities, hoping this would persuade Washington to take Russian military force more seriously, and to push President Trump back to the arms control negotiation table. Instead, these Russian efforts only strengthened Trump’s conviction to free himself from any binding arms control commitments.
As a result, Washington abandoned agreements on Intermediate Nuclear Forces and Open Skies. The US now also seems to prepare the grounds for leaving the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), a key treaty it failed to ratify in the first place. The New START Treaty of 2010, which remains the last remaining cornerstone of strategic stability, is in jeopardy as well.
The demise of arms control could make military balance between Russia and the US – the two predominant nuclear powers of the world – even less predictable than before, prompting dangerous misperceptions.
No light in sight
Trump’s policies are a massive disappointment, even set off against the very limited expectations Russia has cherished from the very beginning. Today, Moscow considers the US a declining superpower, whose grandiose ambitions have only undermined global stability and weakened international law.
Most likely, Trump’s combative foreign policy behaviour can best be explained by widespread American frustration that the so-called “Unipolar Moment” has all ended in tears, and has come to nothing. Clearly, Washington’s hegemonic ambitions have proven irreconcilable with the Russian preference for a more equitable, multipolar global order.
Expectations and hopes of friendship – or even of a hard-nosed strategic partnership – between Russia and the US have gradually evaporated since the 1990s. Nevertheless, Moscow still puts its hopes on the prospect that President Trump’s focus on domestic issues and his aversion towards military interventions, might form the foundations for building a modest dialogue.
Although perhaps hard to believe in the West, the Kremlin truly dreams of healing the most painful wounds with the US, and to put a halt to – and even reverse – the unfortunate spiral of confrontation.
Whether these dreams are also cherished in the White House, is questionable. President Trump only highlights and emphasizes disagreements, even on topics where Moscow and Washington have a tradition of working well together.
For instance, Trump has withdrawn US support for the JCPOA (or “Iran nuclear deal”), which has been worked out and supported by the European Union, the US, Russia and China. Moreover, the Trump administration has unceasingly harassed major Russian partners, including Germany, India and Turkey, for their decision to sign arms deals and engage in energy projects with Moscow (for example Nord Stream 2).
It has been disappointing that cautious steps to work together, even when they were sanctioned by both Trump and Putin, have failed to take off. For example, initiatives to set up working groups on business cooperation or deconflicting in cyberspace were buried before they were even launched.
Despite his failure to deliver on Moscow’s expectations, Trump remains highly popular
Today, the bilateral Russia-US agenda is remarkably short, and limited to a dialogue on Afghanistan and North Korea, as well as to military-to-military contacts on Syria. Washington also continues to provide valuable intelligence on terrorist activities in Russia.
However, these modest achievements remain marginal and have been unable to alter the overall mood of hostility and suspicion. Principal disagreements persist on the future of arms control, the shape of European security, the practicality of existing sanction regimes, as well as on mutual accusations of on-going interference in each other’s domestic affairs.
The result is clear, and worrying: Moscow and Washington drift towards normalising their adversarial relationship. During four years of President Trump, both sides have seemingly moved through the usual stages of grief, and have now reached the stage where both sides “accept” that confrontation will prevail, at least for now.
Calm beyond the last hope
President Trump’s policies towards Russia should have made him – and his administration – unpopular in the Kremlin, as well as with the Russian populace at large. Even so, during the impeachment trial as well as during today’s new presidential elections campaign, Russian sympathies remain firmly on his side. Despite his failure to deliver on Moscow’s expectations, Trump remains highly popular. This begs for an explanation.
Russian experts diverge significantly from their Western colleagues in their assessment of Trump’s foreign policy.4 Many Russian specialists consider President Trump as a rational politician, who successfully advances US national interests. This is considered a mixed blessing for Russia, since freeing US hands from bothersome and expensive foreign commitments (for example in Afghanistan and Iraq), may well transform Washington into an even more dangerous opponent. Despite a strong belief in the American decline, pundits in Moscow recognise that the US retains enormous power (which was often waisted).
On the upside, surging tensions between the US and China may benefit Russia’s geostrategic interest and agenda. Initially, some observers expected that Washington would try to mend fences with Moscow in order to isolate Beijing.5 So far, this has not happened.
President Trump is considered the “lesser evil” in Russian eyes
However, since China has faced American economic and political pressure, Beijing has become keen to strengthen ties with Moscow. This has opened new opportunities for Russia to piggyback on China in its ambitions to reclaim its proper role in the international arena.
The Kremlin considers the US and China as the only, truly autonomous global actors (apart from itself, of course). Aligning itself with China is considered the smart choice in Moscow, and has meant a noticeable boost to Russia’s strategic confidence. Meanwhile, the US is expected to remain largely hostile, regardless of who takes the White House in November 2020.
Given these circumstances, President Trump is considered the “lesser evil” in Russian eyes. Any affinity towards him relies on the belief that Joe Biden as the available alternative is even worse. Sure, Trump’s policies towards Russia are sometimes discomforting. Yet, unlike his opponents, he does not hold a personal grudge against Russia, and is not personally anti-Russian (the way Biden and his circle are expected to be). To the general Russian public, if not to the foreign policy professionals, this makes Donald Trump tolerable.
- 1. ‘Gosduma vstretila aplodismentami novost’ o pobede Trumpa’ [State Duma Met News of Trump Victory with applause], RIA Novosti, 9 November 2016.
- 2. Christopher Cermak, ‘The World Wants Hillary’, Handelsblatt, 22 March 2016.
- 3. Devyatkov A., Shakirov O. “Rossiya i SSHA: vozmozhnosti dlya pozitivnoj povestki” [Russia and the USA: prospects for the positive agenda]. Russian International Affairs Council. January 19, 2017.
- 4. See, for example, Karaganov S.A, ‘Ukhod voennogo prevoskhodstva Zapada i geoekonomika’ [Decline of the Western military predominance and geoeconomics], Polis, Politicheskie issledovaniya, 2019, No. 6., p. 8-21.
- 5. Istomin, I., ‘Donald Trump – nepriznannyj naslednik Baraka Obamy?’ [Donald Trump – Unacknowledged Heir to Barak Obama?], Russian International Affairs Council, 14 November 2016