The U.S. and Russia: No Détente Anytime Soon

By Michael Sulick

Michael Sulick is the former director of CIA’s National Clandestine Service and is currently a consultant on counterintelligence and global risk assessment.  Sulick also served as Chief of Counterintelligence and Chief of the Central Eurasia Division where he was responsible for intelligence collection operations and foreign liaison relationships in Russia, Eastern Europe and the former republics of the Soviet Union.  He is the author of Spying in America: Espionage From the Revolutionary War to the Dawn of the Cold War and American Spies: Espionage Against the United States from the Cold War to the Present

In the recent past, every new U.S. administration has attempted to improve relations with Russia to address mutual security threats such as combating terrorism. Both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama sought to repair damaged relations with Russia early in their administrations, but, unfortunately, their hopes were eventually dashed.

President-elect Donald Trump expressed interest in improving the relationship even earlier than his predecessors, praising Russian President Vladimir Putin during the election campaign and voicing desire for future cooperation. But don’t count on détente anytime soon.

Attempts by previous administrations to cooperate with Putin primarily failed because of his unwavering commitment to his historical vision. Putin is an apostle of the Slavophile philosophy that has been deeply ingrained in Russian culture for almost two centuries. His foreign policy is rooted in the Slavophiles’ staunch belief in Russia’s imperial destiny, and its unique culture that serves as a morally superior bulwark against the corrupt and decadent west.

Putin’s belief in this nationalist, xenophobic, and anti-Western philosophy underlies his principal foreign policy goals: the restoration of Russia as a world power equivalent to the U.S. and opposition to perceived U.S. meddling in the country’s sphere of influence, especially through its democratization efforts. Democracy, according to most Slavophiles, is a malevolent foreign concept that only leads to anarchy. Putin’s pursuit of these goals has determined his policy on every issue of contention with the U.S.—Crimea, the Ukraine, military engagement in Syria, and hacking into Democratic National Committee (DNC) computers to delegitimize U.S. democracy.

Improved relations require negotiations and compromise, but Putin will not make any major concessions that impede his march towards Russia’s imperial destiny. Putin provided an inkling of this in a comment after congratulating President-elect Trump: “As I’ve said repeatedly, it’s not our fault that Russian-American relations are in such a poor state.”  Following this, Putin’s spokesman suggested that the President-elect urge NATO to withdraw from Russia’s borders. The underlying message in both these comments is that the burden is on the new administration to make concessions to correct America’s past mistakes.   

As Putin awaits signs of such overtures, he has been cautiously optimistic in his public comments about future U.S.-Russian relations. He will undoubtedly remain so, proceeding warily while welcoming constructive dialogue on current points of friction. At the same time, he will also take small steps to consolidate gains and advance his foreign policy interests to test the reaction of the new administration—but nothing provocative enough to spark a confrontation at this early stage. Putin, like his predecessors, worries about the unpredictability of his foreign counterparts, and President-elect Trump has consistently championed this trait in his comments on foreign policy decision-making.

As the past decade shows, even when U.S. administrations have attempted to address Russian grievances, the Kremlin interpreted these overtures as signs of weakness and aggressively pushed for further gains and achieved them (witness Georgia, Syria, the annexation of Crimea, and destabilizing the Ukraine). Based on his success thus far, Putin won’t restrain himself from seeking more gains—but he will eventually overreach.

Consider the potential minefields that could erupt on a number of disputed issues—increasing carnage in Syria to keep Assad in power, more violence in the Ukraine, an accidental military confrontation with Russian forces, Russian cyber attacks, to name just a few. Putin will inevitably take some provocative action on any one of these flashpoints that will require a forceful response from the new White House.

A forceful U.S. response to any adverse action by Putin might not lead to détente but could contribute to a mutual understanding between the White House and Kremlin. Russian leaders, and Putin is no exception, respect strength and conviction. Putin’s controlled media might criticize a strong U.S. response, his trolls on the Internet will fabricate lies and condemn the hostility of the new administration, but as history has illustrated, Kremlin aggressiveness can be checked when confronted with unshakable resolve.

Putin, moreover, is playing with a weak hand despite his string of foreign policy successes. The Russian economy has been battered by decreased energy prices and Western sanctions. At the same time, the regime is trapped in a quagmire in the eastern Ukraine, is further burdened by huge budget deficits inherited in its annexation of Crimea, and spending millions daily on its military intervention in Syria. Forecasts for future growth of the Russian economy are dismal. Given these problems, President-elect Trump will be in an excellent position in any negotiations with Putin to apply the maxim in his book, The Art of the Deal: “Leverage: Don’t make a deal without it.”   

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