Donald Trump’s Russia reset already needs a reset.
The President’s oft-expressed hopes of repairing relations with Moscow, for which he took immense heat during and after his presidential campaign, are unravelling.
Antipathy has erupted between the two sides over US missile attacks last week on a Syrian air base after the West accused President Bashar al-Assad of using chemical weapons. Moscow has intervened directly on the other side of the bitter civil war to help its close ally.
The events of the last few days have exacerbated a long-standing slide in relations between the United States and Russia that can be traced back at least to the Bush administration and worsened sharply during the Obama years — largely after Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012.
Trump’s plan to reverse this plunge in relations was already in trouble, given his limited political room for maneuvering on Russia following US intelligence agencies’ accusations that Moscow intervened in last year’s presidential race to help elect him.
But the sudden bitterness between the Trump and Putin teams has still taken many observers by surprise. After all, Trump appeared to interpret Putin’s praise for him during the election campaign as an opening for a rapprochement and the opportunity for two hard-headed deal-makers to get down to work.
In fact, the Trump-led effort to reshape US-Russia relations appears to be foundering more quickly than similar attempts by other US administrations. Even President George W. Bush got to peer into Putin’s soul before things went south over Russia’s invasion of Georgia. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton got to hand over a big, red (and mistranslated) “reset” button before Putin landed back in the Kremlin and returned to raising American hackles.
High stakes for Trump-Putin meeting
Unless Trump can turn things around when he meets Putin personally in an ultra-high stakes encounter expected in Europe this summer, his aspirations of breaking the cycle of confrontation and critical rhetoric between the White House and the Kremlin may have already fizzled.
The omens are not good, as Putin himself remarked on Wednesday: “The working level of confidence in Russian-American relations, especially at the military level, under the administration of Donald Trump has not improved, but rather worsened.”
Trump struck a similar note during a White House news conference, saying that relations “may be at an all time low. But he still held out some hope, also saying it would be “wonderful” if the US and Russia could get along.
“We are going to see what happens,” he said.
Open disputes flared on Wednesday during a meeting between Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow.
Lavrov told his visitor that it was “fundamentally important” that there not be a repeat of the US missile strikes designed to punish Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons.
And in an even more direct jab at the Trump administration, Lavrov complained about the mixed messages and incoherence coming out of Washington in the early months of the Trump administration.
“This comes especially at (a) time when not all main positions at the State Department have been filled yet, so it is not always easy to have clarity on the current situation and on the future,” Lavrov said.
But Tillerson and Lavrov did at least talk, and the secretary of state also got an unscheduled meeting with President Vladimir Putin in an apparent sign that though their clashes are real, both sides understand the relationship is too crucial to risk further escalation.
“There is a low level of trust between our two countries,” Tillerson said at a news conference after the talks. “The world’s two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship.”
Tillerson arrived in Moscow after White House officials accused Russia of covering up for Assad over chemical weapons attacks that killed more than 80 civilians. US envoy to the UN Nikki Haley told CNN that she thought that Russia knew about the attack in advance, even though other officials said there was no decisive intelligence to support such a conclusion so far.
Tillerson openly acknowledged in his meeting with Lavrov that there was a need to “further clarify areas of sharp difference so that we can better understand why these differences exist.”
Yet only weeks ago, Trump critics were raising fears about whether his administration — including figures like Tillerson, who was honored by Russia during his tenure as CEO of ExxonMobil — would be too friendly towards Moscow.
Entrenched geopolitical forces
Wednesday’s encounter reflected the reality that a new Russia reset may be impossible given the geopolitical forces that naturally push the two sides towards an adversarial relationship.
Putin, for example, appears to see global politics as a struggle to revive lost Russian respect and influence on the world stage — a view that means opposition to the United States.
The missile strikes, meanwhile, irked Russia for at least two reasons. First, they struck at an ally that is the vehicle for reviving Russian influence in the Middle East, a relationship that is crucial to Putin’s core goals.
They also played into Russian anger at US power projection abroad, particularly military action against sovereign states. Moscow expressed particular displeasure at the NATO intervention in Libya during the Obama administration that resulted in the overthrow of leader Moammar Gaddafi.
It was significant, therefore, that Putin compared the missile strikes to the Iraq War that started in 2003 and in an interview on Wednesday lashed out at NATO leaders he said were “nodding like bobbleheads” in approval of the US raids.
While US leaders often view their actions in theaters like Syria as distinct from relations with Russia, operations such as the missile strike are often interpreted in Moscow as part of a wider and covert US goal to diminish Russian influence.
Rising tensions between Russia and the US always eventually lead to a question of whether the two sides are headed towards another Cold War, a quarter century after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In some ways, the current situation is not analogous to the standoff that developed between the nuclear rivals in the 1950s and 1960s. The Cold War was fueled by an existential ideological tussle between communism and capitalism and was not just a European affair; it developed into a global battle for influence waged through proxy wars in the developing world.
Current tensions are less ideological and are based on great power politics as Russia seeks to reassert itself in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and other areas that have leaned towards the US in recent decades.
Tensions could escalate
But that does not mean the tensions aren’t dangerous and couldn’t escalate. Putin has demonstrated his desire to apply Russian power in areas of former Soviet influence like Ukraine as well as further afield. Trump is an inexperienced and unpredictable leader who is under intense political pressure from Russia hawks in his own administration and in Congress.
The potential for mistakes, miscalculation and sudden escalation exists with US, NATO and Russian forces operating in Europe and the Middle East — particularly in Syria, where Russian and US warplanes share the skies and where military advisors from both sides are on the ground, sometimes on opposite sides.
And both sides maintain potent nuclear arsenals aimed at one another. Russian intelligence operations in the US are said by espionage experts to be at Cold War-levels already, and multiple probes are underway in Congress and by the FBI into the extent of Russia influence in last year’s election.
Russian military deployments in key global arenas have also reached heights not seen since the Cold War, according to various US and expert assessments.
Defense Secretary James Mattis addressed the potential for a dangerous worsening of US-Russia relations during a news conference on Tuesday.
“It will not spiral out of control. As you know, Secretary of State Tillerson is in Moscow. We maintain communications with the Russian military and with the diplomatic channels,” Mattis told reporters.
“I’m confident the Russians will act in their own best interests, and there’s nothing in their best interests to say they want this situation to go out of control.”
Though the current tensions, undermine a central policy goal expressed in Trump’s campaign, some in Trump’s orbit see a political silver lining in them: a way of deflecting allegations that the Trump camp was in league with Moscow to ensure the defeat of Clinton in the election.
“If there was anything that Syria did, it was to validate the fact that there is no Russia tie,” Trump’s son Eric said in an interview with Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper published on Monday.