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Donald, we need to talk about Russia

Congratulations on a hard-fought campaign, Mr. President-Elect. As a reward, you now get the onerous task of governing the United States, and establishing its foreign-policy priorities! The campaign was crazy, with speculation about your personal and business links to Russia and your coziness toward Russian President Vladimir Putin giving way to evidence of a coordinated Kremlin attack on American sovereignty and the sanctity of our democracy. While you may deny American intelligence as a political nuisance or distraction, like it or not, your response to Russia is going to be central to both your administration’s foreign and domestic agendas.

While you’ve repeatedly and non-hawkishly advocated for better relations with Russia, many of us are in the dark about what that means and how you intend to go about it, since you admitted that you “know nothing about Russia,” and have shown little interest in learning. Moreover, since you’ve alienated both liberals and experienced conservatives within the foreign-policy establishment, you’ll probably be playing with a short bench of knowledgeable advisors, or those whose international expertise is limited to the business realm. So, to help you out, I’ve put together ten pro-tips on US-Russian relations from a foreign-policy perspective.

1. Russia matters. Russia is a vital player on the world stage, deserving both our attention and respect. They’ve got nuclear weapons, abundant resources, extensive cyber-capabilities, and a veto on the UN Security Council. You cannot ignore or dismiss Russia in global politics and hope to get far. Since you’ve already affirmed the Kremlin’s importance in the campaign, and have even appeased them by nominating Putin’s friend, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, to not follow this respect with a comprehensive, strategic approach to Russia now would be unforgivable.

2. This isn’t the Cold War. Don’t buy the media spin about a “new Cold War.” The Cold War was an ideological struggle within a bipolar international system: the United States and NATO against the USSR and their Warsaw Pact. That’s gone. We’re in a multipolar world now. The Soviet Union collapsed, their economy was destroyed, and most of those Warsaw Pact countries are now our NATO allies. Russians don’t like to be reminded of any of that. Just don’t ignorantly claim that Ronald Reagan destroyed the USSR. It fell in spite of Reagan, not because of him, as Russians know better than anyone.

3. Russia is not the Soviet Union. In 1946, George Kennan—the architect of our “containment” doctrine—argued the main drivers of Kremlin foreign policy were “ideology and circumstances.” But Marxist-Leninist ideology is dead. Vladimir Putin isn’t pushing a global proletarian revolution, or any ideology for that matter. Much like yourself, he is a pragmatic realist, and he wants to not “look like a loser.” What Russian foreign policy lacks in grand design, it makes up in improvisation—so Kennan’s “circumstances” become even more important. Putin will capitalize on any perceived opportunity to advance Russia’s national interests—economic growth, domestic stability, and confronting perceived security threats. It’s naive to assume Russia’s national interests will always correspond with ours; it’s crazy to think they won’t pursue them anyway.

4. You’ve got the chips, but don’t know the game. In casino talk: imagine you, Rex Tillerson, or whoever becomes Secretary of State, and your foreign-policy bros just swaggered into the room with a huge pile of chips. America’s GDP is 13 times larger than Russia’s, the United States has the largest military in the world, and spends ten times as much on its military than Russia. So in pure power terms, you’ve got far more chips than anybody. But Russia just invited you to sit at a green-felt table where you don’t know what game is being played. Is this blackjack? Billiards? The rules of the game matter to whether you win or lose, and how you play. The guys across from you—Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov—have been playing at this table for years. They’re the wily old pros. They may not have as many chips, but they’ve worked their way up to the championship table of global powers by mastering the game. They expertly know how to play a bad hand, since Russia’s historically been dealt mostly bad hands. You should probably figure out how to play this game, and quick. One thing we do know is that you snuck a wildcard up your sleeve—your fundamentally unpredictable character—which has usually been dealt to Putin’s hand. Since you brought it, hopefully you know how to play it responsibly.

Barack Obama and Vladmir Putin shake hands at G8 summit, 2013 by Pete Souza, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Barack Obama and Vladmir Putin shake hands at G8 summit, 2013 by Pete Souza, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

5. Russia needs us more than we need them. Why did Putin’s Russian parliament “burst into thunderous applause” at news of your victory? Because Russia’s outlook is bleak. Western sanctions—combined with the fall in the price of Russia’s primary export, oil—has crashed the ruble, increased capital flight, and drained Russia’s reserves. The Kremlin desperately wants you to lift those sanctions, legitimize their illegal land-grab in Crimea, and justify their bloody interventions in Ukraine and Syria. What is it that America needs from them?

6. Putin’s not going anywhere. Russia’s economy is mired in recession, with little prospect for improvement anytime soon. But that doesn’t mean that Russians are clamoring to dump Putin and his kleptocratic regime. Both have proven surprisingly resilient. When the global economic crisis rocked Russia in 2008, commentators foresaw “the end of the Putin era.” But he weathered the storm. When domestic protests threatened his return to power in 2012, experts called it “the beginning of the end of Putin.” It didn’t happen. In 2014, Ukraine was also supposedly “the end of Vladimir Putin.” You get the idea. Don’t buy it. We may not like corrupt, competitive authoritarian regimes, but research tells us they’re surprisingly durable.

7. “Better relations with Russia” isn’t change, but continuity of a pattern. Your call for improving relations with Putin sounds like a bold break from the past, but actually it is just more of the same. US-Russian relations go through peaks and valleys like a roller-coaster every eight years like clockwork—corresponding with new administrations in Washington and Moscow. Bill Clinton’s bromance with Boris Yeltsin ended in sour confrontation. Putin called George W. Bush on 9/11 promising greater cooperation, but ended by invading neighboring Georgia. Barack Obama tried to “reset” relations with Russia in 2009, ending with Crimea, proxy war in Ukraine, confrontation over Syria, and sanctions. If foreign-policy history is any guide, this is the point in the ride when we idealistically ascend to new, optimistic heights of US-Russian cooperation, only to drop back to earth when we’re somehow surprised that Russia’s economic, political, and strategic interests don’t always align with ours. Do we really need to do that all again? (No, seriously—do we?)

8. Don’t expect miracles. The American and Russian presidencies have a lot of power to determine the course of our relations. But an influential school of Russian foreign-policy thought says that Russia must be the strategic, global counterweight to unchecked American unilateralism. So, being friends with Russia might be tougher than you thought, simply because for many within the Russian establishment, cooperation with the United States is loathsome just by principle. They don’t want to be friends with you, beyond getting sanctions lifted – just like you’re already finding many influential figures in our diplomatic, defense, and intelligence communities who cannot and will not be friends with Russia.

9. Don’t expect the Kremlin to play by the rules. Putin talks a big game about Russia being the defender of international law and national sovereignty. But he doesn’t hesitate to immediately scrap those international rules by violating Ukraine’s sovereignty and withdraw from major international legal organizations. Even within Russia, informal institutions are more important than formal ones. Many in the West thought that, when Dmitry Medvedev became Russia’s president in 2008, and thus set defense and foreign policy according to their constitution, that then-Prime Minister Putin would be demoted to domestic politics and day-to-day governance. Wrong! Still Putin. Political power in Russia doesn’t follow formal rules. But of course, you already know this, as you actively encouraged his cyber-attacks on the foundations of our democratic system.

10. “Realize that everything connects to everything else.” Leonardo da Vinci said that, and he was, like, history’s smartest guy. While it makes sense to make a deal where there is common ground—like confronting ISIS—don’t compartmentalize interlinked issues. Want Russian help in Syria? That might mean caving-in over Ukrainian sanctions. Green-lighting the annexation of Crimea may embolden irredentism elsewhere. Fracturing our NATO alliances may trigger an arms race and military escalation not only in Europe, but elsewhere around the globe. In diplomacy—especially with Russia—everything is linked to everything else.

Donald: If what they say is true, and every crisis is an opportunity, then you’ve got one hell of an opportunity on your hands. And all Americans have a lot riding on the outcome.

Featured image credit: Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at Veterans Memorial Coliseum by Gage Skidmore. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. mlandeli Zabezolo wilson

    It’s true it’s very important to re-cultivate good relations with Russia esp. while Putin is still alive and on the helm of politics there

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