There has been extraordinary criticism of Donald Trump’s Russian diplomacy from the US intelligence community (aka former spies) after last month’s G7 meeting. His lobbying for Russia to be readmitted to the G7 organisation and his failure to condemn Russian aggression in Ukraine (indeed blaming some of the problems on the policy of former President Barack Obama) led a former Justice Department official to say Trump’s behavior was “directly out of the Putin playbook. We have a Russian asset sitting in the Oval Office.” and another suggested that Trump was currying favor with Putin for future business deals. Indeed, one former CIA agent was even quoted accusing Trump of behaving like “a spy for the Russians.”
Is there any substance to this or is it another outburst of Trump Derangement Syndrome?
It was Lord Palmerston who said that a country has no permanent friends, only permanent interests. So what are the US’s long-term interests vis-a-vis Russia (leaving aside the obvious one of avoiding hostilities)?
Minimising harm from Russia’s actions comes pretty high. That means fewer threats to states the US is helping towards liberal democracy, like Ukraine, and less meddling in sensitive places like the Middle East. In the longer run, the US would benefit from Russia’s transition to a full market economy and mature democracy, better aligning its interests with the US and perhaps even helping to contain China’s rise.
Russia’s interests – equally durable at present – are regime integrity, securing more political influence and protecting Russian minorities in the former Soviet Union, and trying to rebuild a coalition of supportive states.
A couple of fundamental points emerge: first, Russian President Vladimir Putin has incentives to engage in strategic competition with the US and, secondly, the US is not going to take the risk of aiming directly for Russian regime change.
Trump’s words suggesting that Putin deserves less criticism and a freer hand in the world are distasteful and it’s hard to see any immediate benefit from them. Russians struggling against Putin’s regime have been given a harsh reminder – if one were necessary – that they are still largely on their own in the battle for a free democracy. But even without Trump’s mercurial nature, Putin – a disciple of Palmerston if ever there was one – would not have taken them as a declaration of permanent indulgence.
And whatever Trump says, his actions don’t seem those of a Russian agent. US policy is pretty consistent with its interests (as its actions in rebuffing Russian mercenaries in Syria, opposing the Russian-supported Venezuelan regime or supporting Poland show). Sanctions – arguably more symbolic than economically significant – are still in place.
In fact, the main constraint on Russia’s behaviour, is if Putin thinks it weakens his domestic position. So long-term US policy comes down to countering Russian actions where cost effective, encouraging the development of pluralism in Russia and waiting for stuff to happen. One should ask if the substance of US policy towards Russia is really much changed from that under President Obama and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, which started with a strategic ‘reset’ of relations with Russia and ended with Russia intervening militarily in Syria and invading the Crimea.
Perhaps the most significant development in Russian-US relations since Trump’s election is Putin’s self-inflicted wound in Ukraine – and nothing to do with Trump. After the overthrow of a pro-Russian regime in 2014, Putin initiated conflict in the Ukraine’s ethnic Russian borderlands. Rather than collapse the Ukrainian state, it seems to have strengthened civic and national solidarity, and led to the election of a government of amateur politicians, pledged to eliminate corruption and transition Ukraine to a Western-style economy and democracy. If they can quickly achieve the sort of change generated in the more advanced Eastern European states after the fall of communism, it will provide an astonishing example of the capacity of a modern democracy to realise a widely-shared political ambition – and a direct challenge to Putin’s political regime, right on Russia’s border.
Once again with President Trump, one is reminded that words sometimes need to be detached from context. And that US foreign policy is more than a president’s words.