The relationship between Russia and the United States has always been and will always be complicated. In the U.S. and the West in general, hope seems always to spring eternal. The thinking, boiled down to its essence, goes something like this: if we just keep trying, if we just keep engaging with President Vladimir Putin, if we are just patient and mature as we should be, Russia will eventually come around and start behaving like a responsible member of the international community.
Over the past several years, this approach has been sorely tested, with Russia annexing part of Crimea, and then intellectually authoring and supporting the separatist movement in eastern Ukraine. Providing even greater focus to this last issue, the Dutch government recently concluded that a Russian-made surface-to-air missile was responsible for the downing of Malaysia flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014.
Even when the Kremlin inserted itself militarily in Syria—for no other real reason than to prove Russia’s Great Nation status—the United States took the bait yet again. The administration reasoned it was worth trying to work with the Russians on a ceasefire, to find a political solution. After a Russian-supported surge of violence by the Assad regime, Secretary of State John Kerry indicated he had ended any cooperation with Russia on Syria, given Russia’s manipulation of the situation – only to then raise Syria during a phone call shortly thereafter.
The dream of repairing U.S.-Russian relations usually waxes during elections and the early days of a new American administration. This is likely due to the fact that most politicians, given their psychological makeup, put a bit too much stock in their own personal prowess. “I can change things,” “I’m different,” “This is why I got elected,” are the types of things we can imagine new presidents telling themselves.
Not surprisingly, we have not heard much from Hillary Clinton in this regard; as Secretary of State, she has seen the Russian bear up close and personal, and better understands the reality of dealing with Putin.
Donald Trump, who has the “I’m different and I can get it done” personality in spades, has fallen hard into the, “I will improve relations with Russia” trap. While Trump and his running mate Mike Pence have recently modulated this position somewhat with statements which are a little harder on Putin, this seems to be a response to political pressure associated with the upcoming election than a true shift in approach. In fact, during the most recent presidential debate, Trump again cast doubt on whether the Russians were really behind the cyber intrusions inside DNC computers, despite the fact that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has formally laid blame with Putin.
This raises an interesting and important question: What would our relations with Russia be like under a Trump presidency? Trump is the straight-talking, hard-nosed businessman—certainly he could handle Putin, right? How bad could it get?
To understand how bad it really could be, and also why the Kremlin would be so much more comfortable with Trump as president rather than Clinton, you first need to understand some of Putin’s key goals. What follows is the short list of issues that are most important to Putin, and what Donald Trump has said publicly about them.
NATO. If there is anything holding Russia at bay from a strategic perspective, it is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. In 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia and ended up with de facto control over a large portion of that sovereign nation, Putin assessed that the United States and its NATO allies would not respond militarily, because Georgia was not yet a NATO member state. The Kremlin assessed, correctly, that the West would in the end not save Georgia from attack, despite Georgia’s leaning towards the West, and despite increased military, economic, and political ties with the United States.
Putin made the same assessment with Ukraine. When Russia annexed Crimea, changing the boundaries of a sovereign state by force, Putin again judged the West would not respond militarily, as Ukraine was not a NATO member. Contrast this with the Baltics, which are militarily vulnerable to a Russian attack: Putin has (so far) chosen not to test Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which states an attack on one member is an attack on all.
It’s fair to say that from Putin’s perspective, NATO is the greatest single threat to Russia, and the greatest single obstacle slowing Russian expansionism. Dividing NATO and driving wedges into the U.S.’s European allies is therefore a key policy goal of the Kremlin. If NATO did not exist, it would make future Russian adventurism—the Baltics? Moldova? Romania? Poland?—much easier.
So what has Trump said about NATO? Trump and his surrogates have made several statements about the Alliance that must have pleased the Kremlin greatly. First, Trump advocates a “pay to play” approach to NATO, indicating that when a member nation falls behind on its NATO dues, it might not get assistance from the United States. This essentially turns NATO into a protection racket, with the United States as the primary godfather.
“It’s possible we’re going to have to let NATO go,” Trump has stated publicly. In an effort to assuage the fears of NATO allies, Trump’s running mate Mike Pence quickly added, “Trump will stand by our allies,” a statement that still left allies nervous and angry. Trump also has called NATO “obsolete,” claiming it should be much more focused on counterterrorism.
While there is an honest discussion to be had regarding NATO’s role in the 21st century, two things at least are clear. First, NATO has been active in frontline states fighting terrorism (in Afghanistan, for example). Second, Russia’s actions in recent years have provided the strongest argument in decades that the Alliance should continue to focus on the biggest current strategic threat to NATO members: Russia. Trump’s comments to date give Putin reason to be pleased.
Crimea. Putin’s decision to annex Crimea was an astute calculation, a win-win scenario that appealed to him and the Russian people immensely (at least initially). Putin has long held, as an official Russian policy, that he has both the right and responsibility to protect Russian populations, even if they are outside of Russia (one reason the Baltic states remain nervous). There are certainly ethnic Russians in Crimea, and the peninsula holds a special, historical place in the hearts and minds of many Russians who have visited and vacationed there over the years. The only thing closer to the hearts of most Russians is having a strong leader willing to act, especially in the face of perceived Western meddling.
So when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, who had close ties to Moscow, was forced from office during the Maidan protests in 2014, Putin had the perfect opportunity to respond by seizing Crimea. Russians applauded Putin’s leadership and strength (applause that may have begun to wane a bit, given the economic implications of the annexation). The West did impose sanctions, but Putin is prepared to have his country weather the storm, betting on his plan to split the Europeans and have sanctions eventually lifted or weakened.
Trump’s response? First, it was “Putin is not going into Crimea,” after he was, of course, already there. After this initial embarrassing confusion, Trump then said, “The people of Crimea want to be part of Russia,” the precise reason Putin himself used for the illegal annexation (this has been referred to by some as Trump being “inside the Kremlin’s propaganda bubble”). When it was made clear to Trump that yes, Russia had really taken Crimea, and that regardless of what Moscow said, it was an illegal act of war, he settled on “I’m going to look at it (the Crimea annexation).” Trump did not join with the rest of the West in condemning the act. In fact, one Trump surrogate, Boris Epshteyn, stated, “Russia did not seize Crimea.” Once again, this position is bound to please Putin and also provides hope that the U.S. might lift sanctions.
The U.S. Intelligence Community. This concern of the Kremlin is a bit less obvious, and to grasp it fully, you need to understand how Putin views U.S. intelligence. It is a uniquely Russian perspective. In Russian, the term “intelligence services” is rarely used; instead, Russians refer to the inheritors of the KGB legacy, the FSB, and the SVR, as “spetzsluzhbi,” short for “special services.” Putin, a former KGB officer, understands what “special” means in the Russian context. The Russian intelligence services do not simply collect intelligence; they are also the direct, unchecked agents of the Kremlin’s power. A significant number of senior Russian officials come from an intelligence background and retain close ties to the services. The Russians assume that the U.S. intelligence services are similar to their own: key power brokers who willfully and often involve themselves in politics. Russians greet claims of the American intelligence services not being politicized, obeying U.S. law, and being scrutinized by congressional oversight committees, with great derision.
So when Trump is asked on national television whether he has faith in U.S. intelligence and answers, “not so much,” this is a very good sign indeed for Putin, who sees U.S. intelligence as a powerful adversary. Any division inside the U.S. government is good for Putin, but a possible rift between an American President and his intelligence services would be a great windfall for the Kremlin. That a presidential candidate would discuss anything at all about intelligence in public is also a good sign for Russia, and Putin will believe he can capitalize on Trump’s indiscretion. The impression of a lack of confidence on the candidate’s part in U.S. intelligence is exacerbated when Trumps reiterates, “we don’t know” if Russia perpetrated the computer hack on the Democratic National committee, particularly when the intelligence community has indicated it was indeed the Russians.
The relationship with the U.S. President. Russia in general, and Putin specifically, are highly sensitive to negative perceptions regarding Russia, which is why one so often sees themes, such as the need for “respect for Russia” and Russia requiring treatment as a “great power,” coming from the Kremlin. This sensitivity is particularly acute when Russia deals with the United States, and the need for recognition and validation is crystallized in Putin’s relationship with the American President.
While attempting to psychoanalyze Putin is dangerous territory, it is clear that Putin wants to be able to show Russians that he (and by extension his nation) is being treated as an equal by the U.S. Putin also believes (and in this he may be right) that he is capable of manipulating the American mindset regarding Russia, as well as an American president who believes he is uniquely qualified to set Russia-American relations on a new track.
From this perspective, Trump would be a dream for Putin. Trump has repeatedly expressed admiration for the Russian leader: “Putin is no-nonsense, intelligent,” and “he’s doing a great job,” and “we’ll get along very well.” Foreshadowing the leadership hubris that Putin will attempt to manipulate, Trump noted “President Trump would be so much better for U.S.-Russian relations.” Lastly, when asked about the murders of Russian journalists inside of Russia, Trump bought into Russian denials and propaganda, noting that “Our country does plenty of killing also.” And while Trump may have decided, as the election approaches, to come down a little harder on Putin, there can be no doubt that the preponderance of Trump’s statements have been much more positive than Clinton’s.
In short, on almost every issue of importance to Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump has taken a position that favors Russia. Had Trump limited himself even to just one of his stated positions on NATO or Crimea, it still would have been a significant victory for Moscow. But with Trump expressing doubt about the NATO alliance and its future, and with his willingness to “take a look” at Crimea and Ukraine, along with his stated mistrust of his intelligence services, Putin must surely feel he has hit the trifecta with a man who could win the White House. Donald Trump’s stated admiration for Putin and his eagerness for a good relationship with the Russia leader are simply icing on the Kremlin cake.