When Donald Trump was elected as the 45th President of the United States, foreign policy experts began talking about a new “reset” in U.S.-Russia relations, which had plummeted to a post-Cold War low after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine. During the presidential campaign, Trump repeatedly expressed his desire to “get along with Russia.” Vladimir Putin, for his part, was among the first world leaders to congratulate Trump, stressing that Moscow is ready to mend ties with Washington under this new administration. However, despite the mutual willingness to reset, the current stalemate in the two countries’ relations is difficult to overcome. The main problem is that for the first time since the end of the Cold War, Russia is using military intervention as a foreign policy tool and as a way to domestically shore up the strength of the regime, thus creating unpredictability in both Ukraine and Syria.
In comparison to Cold War years, the present situation is arguably more dangerous since almost all communication channels between the two nuclear powers are frozen. In response to the U.S. economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure, Russia withdrew from the bilateral Plutonium Disposition Agreement and for the first time in 2016 did not join the Nuclear Security Summit. In order to slow the relationship deterioration, both countries would have to reestablish bilateral strategic dialogue, which would mitigate a risk of direct military confrontation, restart nuclear arms control and non-proliferation negotiations, focus collaborations on the fight against terrorism, and address breaches in cybersecurity. Such dialogue, however, will not be possible without overcoming three hurdles: international recognition of Crimea as a part of Russia’s territory, a resolution of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, and alignment between the U.S. and Russia on strategic collaboration in Syria.
On the campaign trail, Trump promised to look at whether Crimea should officially be considered under Russia’s sovereignty, emphasizing that “the people of Crimea would rather be with Russia” than with Ukraine. However, it would be hard for the new U.S. Administration to accept the fact that the 2014 Crimean referendum took place while the peninsula was occupied by Russia's “green men” and without the permission of the post-Euromaidan government in Kiev. In fact, Russia destroyed Ukrainian territorial integrity and the inviolability of borders provided by the 1994 Budapest Memorandum and the 1997 Treaty on Freedom, Cooperation, and Partnership. While the global community does not recognize Crimea as a Russian territory, and the International Criminal Court defined the seizure of the peninsula as an armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine; Putin insists that the issue is “historically closed.” For now, a proposal for new independent referendum in exchange for possible repeal of the Magnitsky Act (which imposes personal sanctions on Russian officials connected with human-rights abuses) or lifting of U.S. and EU economic sanctions will not entice Putin into negotiations over Crimea.
The second hurdle to overcome is the low-boil conflict in eastern Ukraine. The implementation of the 2015 Minsk II Agreement is at a standstill—Kiev wants to establish control over the Ukrainian-Russian border first and then hold local elections in the Donbass region, while the Russia-backed Donetsk and Luhansk “republics” fight for their special status and decentralization of Ukraine. According to Trump, Germany, not the United States, should deal with the crisis in eastern Ukraine. Indeed, the U.S. does not participate in the Normandy Format negotiations, which includes Ukraine, Russia, Germany, and France. But the U.S. has not remained on the sidelines: there were meetings behind closed doors between the Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and Putin’s personal advisor Vladislav Surkov. For the U.S., a possible solution to end the crisis is to offer Putin a quid pro quo: he will not support separatists in Donbass; the West, in turn, will guarantee that NATO will cease eastward enlargement and lift sanctions. Until all parties involved reach an agreement, the self-declared “republics” will exist as “frozen conflicts,” analogous to Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia.
In terms of the Syrian crisis, the incoming U.S. administration should continue to seek cooperation with Russia in fighting ISIS and other terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq, which in itself is a disparate mission based on the U.S. and Russia's individual definitions of who is considered a terrorist organization. During the campaign, Trump periodically declared the importance of strengthening such an alliance. Moscow also seems to be in support of cooperation with Washington. At the end of December 2016, the Syrian government and some rebel groups reached the cease-fire agreement backed by Russia, Iran, and Turkey. While the new compromise was achieved without the U.S., the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said that Moscow would welcome the Trump administration to join forthcoming negotiations in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan.
One of the most important remaining challenges is the discrepant points of view between the U.S. and Russia for the post-conflict role of Bashar al-Assad. Al-Assad is an important ally to Russia, but the U.S. has labeled the regime a brutal dictatorship and wants to remove Assad from power. Secondly, the Kremlin’s objectives in Syria remain unclear. Does Moscow want to defeat ISIS? What of the moderate opposition to Assad? How does Washington reconcile support for opposing sides of the conflict and also forge cooperation with Moscow?
To date, Russia has shown continuous unpredictability in the Syrian crisis. In December 2015, Putin himself justified the military involvement in Syria as an “exercise” for Russia’s air forces, air defense, and intelligence. In March 2016, the Kremlin unexpectedly declared the successful accomplishment of the operation and ordered the withdrawal of the main part of Russian forces from Syria, but in October 2016, Russia sent S-300 air defense missiles to Syria and the State Duma ratified the law allowing Russian air forces to indefinitely stay in the Hemeimeem air base. Lack of comprehensive strategy in Syria has caused many experts and political analysts to question whether the “exercise” in Syria was meant to demonstrate geopolitical parity to the U.S. policy in the Middle East and sidetrack the world’s attention from the Ukrainian conflict.
One possible explanation for Moscow’s eagerness to find a truce with Washington could be the desire to trade Syria for Ukraine. It will be important for the new U.S. administration to cooperate with Russia on the fight against terrorists in Syria without ending up with such an unwitting compromise or the so-called Yalta 2.0 which could once again divide the world into spheres of influence. Compared to the hurdles in Crimea and Donbass, the U.S.-Russia anti-terrorism cooperation in Syria is more realistic in the near future. However, in the long-term perspective, the possible success of the bilateral collaboration in Syria can provide a favorable backdrop to untangle the Ukrainian imbroglio.
The Trump Administration must not discount that all three aforementioned issues are tightly connected with Russia’s domestic politics. The previous reset, initiated by the Obama Administration in 2009 right after the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, was interrupted by the Kremlin. During the last reset, important steps signaling improvement in the two countries’ bilateral relations were made. In 2010 presidents Barak Obama and Dmitry Medvedev signed the New START, a strategic arms control treaty, pledging to reduce the nuclear weapons of both countries. Russia and the U.S. were also aligned in the imposing sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program and supporting the NATO-led intervention in Libya. Moscow allowed the U.S. and NATO military forces to pass through Russia into Afghanistan, and, in turn, Russia received American support to join the WTO.
The short-lived cooperation ended in 2012 when Putin returned to his third term of presidency. He personally blamed then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for fomenting the mass demonstrations against the 2011 fraudulent parliamentary election. The regime began searching for instigators of the color revolution in Russia, introducing the so-called foreign agents and undesirable organizations laws vis-à-vis independent civil society groups. In response to the U.S. Magnitsky Act, the State Duma passed the Dima Yakovlev Law, ending adoptions of Russian children by U.S. citizens. The legal restrictions on meetings and demonstrations were tightened, allowing agents of the Federal Security Service (the former KGB) to open fire on crowds. The increasing authoritarian practices inside the country continued to develop in parallel with Russia’s military interventions in Ukraine and Syria.
An expansionist foreign policy became a crucial mechanism to legitimize the Putin regime by mobilizing public support. Stirring up anti-American and anti-European discourses, the rhetoric of nuclear war fears, nationalism, and post-Soviet resentment, the state media disseminates the image of Russia as a rising “great power” (derzhava). After the 2014 events in Ukraine, Russia was presented as a “besieged fortress” protecting stability in Eurasia and saving the post-Soviet region from the so-called U.S.-backed color revolutions. Since the beginning of the operation in Syria, the Russian government has propagated itself as a military world power fighting against international terrorism and challenging the U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East. As a result of such narrative of emergency, Putin’s approval rating has reached 86 percent. Today, 90 percent of Russians are proud of the country’s military forces and 72 percent support Russia’s position in the international arena.
This rally ‘round the flag narrative seems to prevail despite a continuous domestic economic recession due to low oil prices, capital flight, and Western sanctions blocking the inflow of foreign direct investments necessary for the modernization of the Russian economy. Russians’ living standards and consumption levels are dropping while the growth of defense spending occurs only at the expense of the welfare budget. The Kremlin faces a catch-22, which includes ongoing isolation and confrontation with the West that threatens the socio-economic stability of the regime. By contrast, any turn towards cooperation can destroy the regime’s public image, hinting at weakness and collusion with Washington.
Most importantly, the Trump Administration must be aware of the domestic contradictions of the Putin regime in trying to align U.S. and Russian interests relative to nuclear issues as well as the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine. The Putin regime, in efforts to maintain public support, may continue its unpredictable modus operandi, keeping the world in a state of suspense.
Grigory Khakimov is a recent graduate from Tufts University with a degree in Political Science focusing on Comparative Politics and the post-Soviet region. Before moving to the United States, he was a member of the Russian Democratic Party Yabloko.