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Trump’s Russia Policy Constrained By Realpolitik – Analysis

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American foreign policy has swung from an isolationist tone to active involvement since the American Revolution. From the beginning of the 20th century to World War II the policy remained somewhat assertive, sometimes belligerent and seldom guarded.

Although being tied to other countries through trade, politics, and shared interests, the United States prioritized on growth and development at home. However, with its entry into World War II, there occurred a change in the approach and US became more interested in an increasingly internationalist policy. During the period of Cold War, relative to communist regimes particularly the Soviet Union, the US adopted the policy of containment, the global rhetoric evidenced by the formation of the Truman Doctrine in 1947, NATO, US military interventions and the extension of alliances across the world. Although these policy actions undermined its relations with the Soviet Union, it allowed the US to manage its presence and dominance over the world.

At the beginning of the 21st Century, Russia’s resurgence became evident and it soon began to challenge the US, first in Georgia, then in Ukraine, Syria and so forth.

Although some efforts were made by the Obama administration to reset the relationship with Russia, these were upended when the later annexed the Crimea in 2014. Trump’s presidential campaign gave rise to hopes to normalize relations because of his apparent proclivity with Russia. Trump appeared to be willing to work with Russia against a multitude of global challenges. This was palpable when he said, “I think it would be great if we got along with Russia” (Kaczynski et al., 2017). He praised Vladimir Putin as a “strong leader,” “a better leader” than Obama, “a very bright and talented man, no doubt about that,” and “a genius”.

During the presidential campaign, Trump called for recognition of Crimea as Russian territory and expressed interest in lifting sanctions on Russia imposed in the wake of Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. Trump said if “he were elected president, he would consider recognizing Crimea as Russian territory and lifting the sanctions against Russia” (Pager, 2016). He also showed interest in collaborating with Russia in the fight against terrorism, like ISIS, when he said if the US can work with Russia “in the fight against ISIS, which is a major fight, and Islamic terrorism all over the world…that’s a good thing” (Ward, 2017).

Evidenced from his early assertions, President Trump appeared to be diverting from America’s earlier anti-Russian policy approach. In fact, he was trying to come out of both isolationist and interventionist policies and shifting to a unilateral one with more focus on America itself to make it great again.

However, the realpolitik of America’s anti-Russian legacy is constraining Trump’s efforts. His aspiration for working together with Russia have not materialized. Despite all the hypothesis about the American president cozying up to the Kremlin, the US under Trump has over and again done the opposite. His support for Russian intervention in Ukraine and the lifting of sanctions on Russia has not materialized.

In the initial weeks of the Trump administration, there were proposals to lift sanctions on Russia. However, with strong reaction from State Department officials, the proposals were dropped. Trump’s own foreign policy team including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned Russia of violating the ceasefire in Ukraine and changing the boundaries of Ukraine. In spite of Trump’s aspiration to lift sanctions, Russia again bore the consequences when in a recent move the US implemented more sanctions to punish Russia for interfering in the 2016 US presidential elections. Trump was not able to avert pressure from Congress. He did not even succeed in returning two Russian diplomatic compounds to Moscow seized by the Obama administration against the Russian meddling in the 2016 elections.

Moreover, regardless of Trump’s signing of a memorandum on January 28 where he expected Russia to top the list in cooperating to fight against ISIS, the imperative appeared otherwise. In contrast to Trump’s claims to work with Russia, the two countries came into conflict in Syria. Despite cutting some US funding for rebels to fight Russia’s ally in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad, the US military has attacked Assad’s forces since Trump assumed office.

On one hand Trump declared NATO as obsolete, and on the other the US Senate took a swipe at Russia by approving Montenegro’s bid to become a full-fledged member of the alliance. In addition, being encumbered by realpolitik Trump revised his earlier disdain for NATO and said “NATO is no longer obsolete.”

While Trump called for US allies including European countries to protect themselves, Vice-President Mike Pence on his recent tour to Eastern Europe looked to console US allies and shore up NATO against the Russian threat.

Regardless of Trump’s reluctance, investigations have been made into Russia intruding in the US presidential elections, welcomed by many members of Congress and even Trump’s own administration. Though not directly manifested, Trump’s recent reversal from his earlier claims of a pullout from Afghanistan are somehow directed against the recent Russian maneuvers towards the Afghanistan.

The aforesaid illustrates that despite Trump’s initial heartfelt goodwill toward Moscow, the hard realpolitik of America’s anti-Russian policy tradition is proving stronger than Trump’s desire to pursue friendlier relations with Moscow.

If the realpolitik had not come into play, Trump’s pro-Russian stance might have given a negotiated advantage to Russia. It is possible that Trump’s attempts to cooperate with Russia would have proved fruitful in defeating terrorism, environmental problems, etc. The action and sanction paradigm might have slipped into the background. However, the reality is that closer ties between the two great Cold War rivals, while aspiring for the superpower status, is rather difficult to achieve. America’s aspiration for maintaining its sphere of influence in the wake of Trump’s penchant for Putin would have been undermined. No doubt, the Congress and the US government are keeping watch but still, if Trump makes mistakes and compromises America’s interests in negotiations, Russia may gain the lead in global competition for its sphere of influence.

*About the authors:
Shabaz Hussain Shah
, Ph.D. Research Scholar, Centre for South and Central Asian Studies, School of Global Relations, Central University of Punjab, Bathinda, India. Email [email protected]

Zhiqun Zhu, Professor of Political Science and International Relations, Bucknell University, USA, Email [email protected]


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