Unrealistic Expectations About Russia
There is a foreign policy conceit that affects all new American presidents, Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative. Despite the reality that nations retain roughly the same international goals for centuries, newly elected White House occupants seem to believe that somehow, some way, they can by charm or skill persuade foreign leaders to disregard the course of their history. Most Presidents realize the folly of that perception relatively quickly. Unfortunately, former President Obama utterly failed to learn the lesson throughout his entire tenure.
Relations with Russia will not change for the better merely because there has been a personnel change in the Oval Office. The Associated Press recently reported that “It would be challenging to reach common ground [between Russia and the U.S.] on some issues even if Trump and … Putin both want it, as the interests of Russia and of the United States differ sharply…”
President Trump has indicated that he is seeking better relations with his Kremlin counterpart. The intention may be commendable, but the reality is it will not occur. Russia will only reduce its aggressive tactics if it is compelled to do so by powerful economic or military factors. Washington should not ignore past and ongoing Russian misdeeds by signing onto agreements that require lifting sanctions or limiting U.S. troops in Europe in return for assurances from Moscow that it will behave more reasonable. The concept is unrealistic. Offering arms pacts is also a futile gesture. Bluntly, Russia is already cheating on those it has already signed.
President Trump is not wrong in signaling that he is willing to speak or meet with Putin in the hopes of improving communications. The two leaders should develop a relationship to avoid misunderstandings and misinterpretations that could lead to conflict. However, common ground will not be found unless Russia does a full reverse on many of the activities it engaged in during the Obama presidency. These include its continuing unlawful activities in Ukraine, its dramatic military buildup, (Russia’s massive military buildup should be a key issue for the Trump Administration. Despite pressing domestic needs, Putin surged forward with his armaments program at a time when Russia faced no viable threats. It has allied with China, on its southern border. European nations have very weak military capabilities, a fact that became a campaign issue when Trump complained about their inadequate contribution to NATO. The U.S., under Obama, sharply reduced its military funding) its threatening positioning of troops bordering Eastern European nations, its meddling in the internal affairs of its neighbors, its resumption of nuclear bomber patrols along the coastlines of the United States, its return to Cuba and Nicaragua, its militarization of the Arctic, its support for Iran’s nuclear program, and other related activities.
Unlike Islamic extremists, Russia, while aggressive, is neither irrational not prone to suicidal actions. It will respond positively when it realizes that its actions will produce more harm than benefit. The Kremlin realized that its dependence on its military for international gains was failing when President Reagan responded to it with a major increase in U.S. military strength. Russia’s realpolitik outlook helped prevent the Cold War from turning hot. President Trump’s pledge to strengthen the U.S. military should have a similar positive result.
But when Moscow encounters weakness, either at the negotiating table or in the field of arms, it has and will take every advantage possible. By advocating a reversal of President Obama’s devastation of the U.S. military and America’s system of alliances throughout the globe, President Trump has singled a return to a more realistic worldview. That practicality should not be diminished by a belief that relations with Moscow can be improved without creating conditions that compel Putin to believe that he has no other viable alternative.
Originally published on New York Analysis of Public Policy and Government.