For domestic politics, Russia’s President Putin may need rivalry with the US more than Trump as friend.
By Daniel Twining*
Donald Trump won’t be the first American president to “reset” relations with Russia following an assault on Western interests and values. In March 2009 President Barack Obama launched his own version of a reset – only seven months after Russia’s brazen invasion of Georgia, an ally of the United States that had been on track for NATO membership. Yet whereas Obama’s outreach was met with the approval of his own party, Trump’s ambitions have fractured a Republican national security establishment that condemns Obama for treating American adversaries with kid gloves and favors a tougher approach.
Russia policy therefore poses the first test of whether Republicans in Congress will bend to the wishes of their party’s leader in foreign affairs or pull him in a direction more consistent with his party’s principles. It also poses a test for Congressional Democrats now in opposition. After eight years in which a Democratic president allowed competitors like China, Iran and Russia to make strategic gains at American expense, and failed to enforce a White House “red line” against Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people in Syria, will Democrats return to their historic posture, under Cold War presidents and the post–Cold War administration of Bill Clinton, of advocating that the United States stand firm against aggressive authoritarian rulers?
Divisions among Republicans on Russia policy result partly from the lenses through which Trump and the party’s national security wing view the problem. Republicans in Congress, led by Senator John McCain of Arizona, see a continuing pattern of Russian aggression under Vladimir Putin ever more dangerous to US interests: from the 2008 invasion of Georgia to the 2014 invasion of Ukraine to aggressive military maneuvers on NATO’s borders to, in 2016, active interference in the US presidential campaign. The US intelligence community judges convincingly that Russia’s intelligence services through a combination of hacking, leaks and propaganda worked actively to undercut the campaign of Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential candidate.
By contrast, Trump assumes that opponents have overstated the effects of Russian meddling. As made clear by his January 6 statement, when he was briefed by US intelligence leaders on Russia’s state-sponsored intervention in the campaign, his first concern was to push back against any findings that call into question his victory over Clinton.
Democratic partisans have contributed to this sentiment by overstating the effect of Russian interference – by all accounts, Russian operatives did not compromise voting machines or computer tallying of votes. But Trump, at least until his latest intelligence briefing, seemed to suggest that reasonable concerns over Russia’s efforts to compromise American institutions are targeted at delegitimizing him as president-elect. He seems to consider Putin a partner in the US fight against the Islamic State, and after the election, the Kremlin said the two men share an interest in uniting efforts against “international terrorism and extremism.”
De-personalizing the problem will make it easier for policymakers of all persuasions to come to grips with it. So will understanding the true nature of Russian foreign policy under Putin. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said on January 8 that Russia has done nothing to defeat the Islamic State in Syria. Russian forces instead targeted Syrian rebels that oppose the Assad government. Therefore, there is little basis for Trump to form an alliance with Putin against ISIS, since Russian forces are not engaged in the battle against the group.
America’s next president will discover that Russia’s challenge looks different from the Oval Office. Russia’s information operations are targeting mainstream political parties contesting national elections over coming months across Europe, designed to disintegrate the EU and NATO. Trump’s desire for US allies to pull their own weight will be stymied if centrist leaders in Berlin, Paris, Rome and other capitals are deposed by populist fringe parties unprepared to govern.
For their part, European allies will look for reassurance after years in which Europe seemed somewhat of an afterthought for Obama. He promised a “pivot” to Asia, which naturally led European leaders to fear Washington withdrawing from its historic Atlantic orientation in favor of opportunities in the East – a fear confirmed when Obama prioritized a trans-Pacific trade pact at the expense of a potentially more consequential one with Europe. Obama withdrew US support for NATO’s enlargement farther east, signaling to Russia that the gray zone between NATO and the Russian border was ripe for Russian predation, as occurred in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. It was Obama, not Trump, who accused European allies of being “free-riders,” and Obama’s Secretary of Defense Robert Gates who bluntly told European leaders that a NATO alliance in which Americans assumed most of the costs and burdens was unsustainable.
The irony is that members of the Republican Party who follow Trump and now support détente with Putin were among those most critical of Obama’s relative neglect of Europe and reluctance to deploy American power to prevent the construction of new Russian spheres of influence in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
Trump seems determined to test his theory that accommodating Russian interests on the periphery could diminish Russian revanchism, by playing to Putin’s ego as an equal partner. But the logic of Putin’s authoritarian rule at home – with free media muzzled, political opponents murdered or imprisoned, and state resources siphoned off by oligarchs granted a free hand by the Kremlin in return for political support – requires him to convince his public that Russia confronts an implacable foe abroad and only a strong leader can defend the motherland. Putin needs America, or its proxy NATO, as an enemy, because true friendship with the West would expose Russia under his rule as a military-industrial kleptocracy fueled by elite rent-seeking at the expense of public welfare.
American intelligence leaders attest that Russia’s campaign to influence the US presidential election was driven by Putin’s personal vitriol against Hillary Clinton, whom he believed encouraged protestors to challenge his rule by taking to the streets in 2011 and 2012. Russian officials expected Clinton to win the White House and worked preemptively to discredit her.
Trump’s victory reportedly was an unexpected surprise for Moscow. He might surprise Putin again by making clear, on taking office, that he will follow his party’s instincts in building up a military superiority that Russia cannot match, juicing US economic growth to leave Russia’s resource-based economy behind in an age of innovation, and reaffirming US leadership of NATO on the grounds that American greatness is partly a function of its allies’ followership.
Deterring further Russian adventurism would allow Trump to be the domestic policy president he was elected to be: His supporters voted for him not to cozy up to dictators but to restore American exceptionalism. Enacting a program of economic reform and growth will require the White House to work closely with Republicans in Congress, not take them on over principles of Russia policy. Nor will Trump, as savvy politician, want to cede to Democrats Republicans’ historic advantage as defenders of national security.
Putin should temper his hopes for an alliance with America, since the structure of rivalry has historically transcended personal relationships between leaders. Congress must pursue its historic role overseeing foreign policy to pull the commander-in-chief in a responsible direction, and European allies should step up their contributions to NATO to prove to the incoming US president their inestimable worth within a shared community of values.
*Daniel Twining is counselor at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a thinktank and foundation in Washington, DC.