Naiveté is never a good way to approach foreign policy challenges. However, it seems that every new Presidential Administration has a tendency to place hope over experience in dealing with Russia. President George W. Bush tried to look into Putin’s soul, President Barack Obama tried a re-set, and it seems that President-elect Donald Trump believes that we can ally with the Russians to defeat ISIS.
Each new Administration assumes that the failure to deal effectively with Russia is the fault of the previous occupant of the West Wing. Each President believes they alone have the force of character to solve issues none of their predecessors could. Likewise, Congressional critics assume that surely there must be something on which the U.S. and Russia can cooperate. However, until there is a fundamental change in the Kremlin, these efforts will continue to wreck on the shoals of the fact that Russia’s core interests differ fundamentally from ours.
This tendency does not only affect Presidents. The day after 9/11, senior CIA officials charged with fighting terrorism briefed President Bush at the White House. They assured him that the world had changed, and that the Russians would be key allies in the fight against al Qaeda. The next day, CIA Director George Tenet came to those of us managing CIA’s Russia program asking for additional material to provide the White House on what assistance to expect from the Russians. Unaware that the topic of Russia came up at the White House, we were dumbfounded. To those of us who had worked on Russian issues for years, we knew that there was no way the Russians would be real allies. Indeed, Putin quickly used the opportunity to justify his internal crackdown on Islamists inside Russia. We soon contrasted President Bush’s “Global War on Terror” with Putin’s version, which we labeled Putin’s “Global War on Chechen Terror.” Despite the newfound focus on fighting terror in the U.S., Russia never lost focus on their main enemy – the U.S. They even cynically added the names of CIA officers, Russian dissidents, and other enemies of the Putin regime to the “terrorist intelligence” they shared with their partners around the world.
So, while it is fair to label the Obama Administration’s Russia policy as a failure, it hard to see how it could have been otherwise. The Bush policy was also a failure, and it is hard to imagine that any President is likely to have much luck pursuing a policy largely dependent on resetting to a friendly, cooperative mode while Putin is in power. Putin’s core interests are directly opposed to ours, and he has framed himself as the leader of a global anti-U.S. movement. Short of changing our values and surrendering to Putin’s view of the world, no U.S. Administration is likely to meaningfully change Russian behavior.
Syria is an excellent example of how Putin pursues his goals on the world stage at the expense of the United States. Russia’s primary interest in Syria is to show the world that Russia is a great power. Putin wants to emphasize that where the United States failed, Russia is succeeding. While it could be argued that Russia is acting in Syria to preserve its warm-water Mediterranean foothold in the port of Tartus, this is small beer for Putin. Instead, his real objective is to challenge the United States wherever it can. Unfortunately, the Obama Administration became an enabler when it failed to play an active role in Syria, thus leaving Putin a tactical opportunity to exploit. President Obama’s belief that Putin would stumble in Syria may yet come to pass, but in the meantime, Russia looks authoritative and forceful on the world scene. For Putin, this as a win. And while Russia’s indiscriminate bombing and the destruction of hospitals in eastern Aleppo is creating a humanitarian crisis, the Kremlin cynically responds by saying it is killing “terrorists.”
While both Putin and President-elect Trump share a zero-sum, chauvinistic view of the world and have expressed interest in working together, the improved personal relationship is unlikely to last. At the very least, former KGB officer Putin will attempt to use Trump’s ego to manipulate him, just as he did with past Presidents. Further, Putin will likely resist appearing to be too close to Trump. He needs to hold up the U.S. as an enemy to his own people. If they stop blaming the U.S. for all of their ills, they might instead start to blame Putin himself. Likewise, Russia has long had a tendency to treat their neighbors as either enemies or vassals. The Kremlin sees the United States as an existential threat, believing that U.S. support of democratic principles is actually a surreptitious effort to effect regime change in Moscow.
Also, it is all but inevitable that Russia will again show its true colors and destroy any good will engendered by a new occupant in the White House. Even when Russian actions are not as brazen as their recent efforts to influence U.S. and European elections, the institutionalized use of lies and deceit will make it almost impossible for any U.S. President to develop a healthy, working relationship with the Putin regime. With past Administrations, the steady drumbeat of bellicose activity will certainly wear away any goodwill. Recent headlines have highlighted Russian efforts to sow chaos in Europe through a relentless disinformation campaign, the outright take-over of Crimea and eastern Ukraine, the bombing of hospitals and civilians in Syria, the murder of journalists and opposition figures, ceaseless espionage and cyber-theft, state sponsored Olympic doping, and the shoot-down of civilian airliners. Even the Russian special Olympians were barred from competition for systematic, state-sponsored cheating.
It is hard for Americans to accept the fact that we cannot simply change things for the better. There are strands of the American character that have helped us to be the envy of the world but make it difficult to maintain a consistent foreign policy approach to states like Russia.
There is an American innocence born of living in a country protected by two oceans and friendly neighbors. Most Americans don’t grow up worrying much about other countries. We have a happy naiveté and sense of optimism that we can fix all problems if we put our minds to it. We tend to think the best of others and believe that things will work out. One of the successes of Russian foreign policy is the Kremlin’s ability to cynically exploit this American optimism, often feigning initial support for US initiatives, only to eventually twist circumstances to their ends, leaving the U.S. as apparent losers.
We also personalize foreign policy. No matter how bad things are, each new President tends to think that sticky problems are the fault of their predecessor, and that their unique blend of skills and personality can change things for the better. Of course, this is not unique to Presidents. At CIA, we used to call it the “they haven’t seen me yet” syndrome. It seemed that every new Director was convinced that their unique skills and winning personality could fix the difficult relationship with Pakistan. Every Director has tried, and all have failed. It is the same with Russia. People in multiple executive agencies and throughout Congress inevitably utter something along the lines of, “surely there is something we can work on more closely with the Russians.” The Kremlin, in turn, has routinely exploited this quaint notion and followed a consistent zero-sum policy toward the U.S. Anything that is bad for America is good for Russia.
If possible, President Trump should seek to avoid the mistakes of his predecessors. Experience has taught us that Russia does not share Western, internationalist values, and that Putin’s interests are not going to change simply because there is a new occupant in the White House. Further, the new President should not fall victim to the view that Russia is a country on the rise, and that the U.S. needs to accommodate the new reality. Russia has a weak economy, few friends and little positive to offer the world. The west still holds most of the cards even if Putin has accrued short term, tactical benefits due to the maneuverability available to a one-person state. A consistent U.S. policy of supporting our allies and defending our values is something that Russia cannot overcome over the long term. As former U.S. diplomat and Russia expert Stephen Sestanovich commented recently in the New York Times, the “key to winning Mr. Putin’s respect – and to assuring his restraint – is to leave no doubt about America’s military, economic and diplomatic power.”