The first meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin will be the central event of the G20 summit this weekend. It would be flattering for Moscow to think that such heightened attention reflects its increased role in world affairs. But in reality, it is rather a result of an internal political crisis in the United States where “Russian meddling” has become the main weapon used against Trump by his opponents.
Trump said throughout the presidential campaign that he sought to improve relations with Russia, but in the current climate it is unrealistic to expect any practical results from the meeting, lest it embolden Trump's critics. The Kremlin has already realised that it is in an unusual and somewhat humiliating position when it comes to the debate in raging in the United States, in which Russia is not a subject or even really an object, but a mere vehicle for an internal political battle
The U.S. administration's Russia policy is thus greatly constrained. However, were the atmosphere different, it would still be just as hard to predict the outcome of the meeting. The Trump team is a coalition of right-wing and nationalist-minded Republicans representing law enforcement, security, and business communities. Almost none of them is looking forward to improving relations with Russia.
Most right-wing conservatives were convinced anti-Soviet guardians during the Cold War, and Russia for them is a continuation of the Soviet Union. There were people like that in the previous Republican administration under George W. Bush, but at that time Moscow was largely viewed through the lens of its defeat in the Cold War. People like Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld simply could not understand why it was necessary to pay any attention to a nation of losers that had to know its place. Today the situation has changed and Russia is viewed as a military adversary that has demonstrated its resurgence. During the 2012 presidential election campaign Republican candidate Mitt Romney called Russia the main geopolitical foe of his country. His remarks baffled the public back then, but not anymore.
For career generals like Pentagon chief James Mattis or National Adviser H.R. McMaster Russia is a military-political threat; for social conservatives like Vice President Mike Pence it is an immoral country, because it does not conform to American values or recognise its moral leadership.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sort of stands aloof. Democrats branded him a Kremlin agent too, but he managed to prove otherwise using rock-solid rhetoric even though from his previous career he is more inclined towards pragmatism. But his problem lies in the fact that it is not clear to what extent the State Department can influence the country’s foreign policy, or whether it merely executes the President's strategy – to the extet that there is one at all. What makes it even more confusing is the government's personnel problems, with many positions still vacant and others being held by people from the previous administration, all packed and ready to go. And yet the bureaucratic machine is so well-tuned that it keeps running at the middle level, which means that day-to-day relations are driven by inertia, maintaining a negative orientation towards Russia.
As for the second component of the Trump team―nationally oriented business people seeking to change the rules of global trade to make it more beneficial for the United States―they have no interest in Russia at all. Moscow is not a major player on this field, and nothing will change on the global economic scene no matter whether relations with Moscow get better or slide into deeper conflict. China and the European Union appear to be much more important, with all attention being focused on them and changes to trade rules in general.
If the current battle eventually abates (even some of Trump’s rabid opponents are beginning to wonder if their struggle may be causing too much damage to America), the administration will be able to take a breath and try to reach some progress in relations with Russia. At least the State Department under Tillerson is trying to keep room for maneuver and avoid diktat from Congress.
But, firstly, serious damage has already been done, and the idea of Russian attempts to undermine the United States from within has been planted into the minds of Americans and will be hard to remove.
Secondly, the interests are arranged around Trump in such a way that they can hardly facilitate progress. The field of potential interaction is the same as under Obama, which again means “selective engagement” on issues important for Washington, no more than that. This did not work before and there is no reason to expect this to work now.
Third, prestige is a matter of principle for Trump, which means that he will not want to simply give up positions for fear of losing face, especially on Ukraine. There are signs that the United States is determined to increase its influence on this track, which is of critical importance for Russia, while wishing to keep away from Syria, leaving it to Moscow to deal with. This may create a rather funny situation. Six months ago many speculated―some with hope and some with horror―about a possible “Ukraine for Syria” swap between Trump and Putin, arguing that Russia would go for a low-gear policy in the Middle East, thus allowing the United States to restore its bygone influence there, and Americans in exchange would cut down on their support for Kiev, thus giving Moscow more cards to play. Now a reverse swap seems more likely: Syria to Russia and Ukraine to America. But why would the Kremlin need this?
This looks like pure fantasizing anyway, because the American political environment will not allow the administration to go easy on Russia. Does Donald Trump himself want a different relationship with Kremlin? It is more likely that he does as he thinks that Russia may be useful in addressing certain issues. But there are no objective reasons for a change, and his ability to pursue his own policy remains a big question.
The unique situation in the United States and in U.S.-Russian relations may have a positive effect by helping Russia get rid of the painful U.S.-centrism in its mentality. Moscow neither can influence events in the United States nor benefit from them, and it is hardly able to consolidate others for confrontation with the United States. It is high time it started doing things that must be done regardless of Washington’s role and position.
As for the rest, one should forget about “détentes,” “resets,” and effective partnerships. The world is undergoing another major change, and it is only natural that the United States, a country that determined the state of global affairs over the past three decades, is also going through a deep transformation. As for Russia, its agenda of the past period is exhausted too and, like all others, it should start doing its “home work.”
Fyodor Lukyanov is Editor-in-Chief, Russia in Global Affairs
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.