President Trump, One Year In: The Prospects for US-Russia Relations

President Trump, One Year In: The Prospects for US-Russia Relations

US President Donald Trump rebuked Russia on Jan. 17 for helping North Korea evade international sanctions. He expressed frustration with Moscow’s policy, stating “Russia is not helping us at all with North Korea,” and adding during an Oval Office interview with Reuters, “What China is helping us with, Russia is denting.” This is the first time he has chosen to openly use such harsh words to slam Russia for its alleged wrongdoing. Donald Trump also said he wanted more missile defense systems – a contentious issue that will drive the US and Russia further apart. Moscow believes that that acquisition will threaten the strategic nuclear balance.

President Trump’s critical remarks are symbolic. Hopes for an improvement in US-Russia relations have been running high since his inauguration on Jan. 20. Today, exactly one year later, that bilateral relationship is at its lowest ebb since the Cuban missile crisis.

The diplomatic conflict continues. In late 2017, a tit-for-tat war of retaliation was underway, with consulates closed and staff levels slashed. Several investigations have been opened into the alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election, with no end in sight and no evidence unearthed by the investigators, be they Congressional committees, the FBI, or Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Moscow has accused the US of planning to meddle in Russia’s upcoming 2018 presidential election on March 18.

There is a plethora of other issues to complicate the relationship. Arms control is stagnating. The validity of the INF Treaty is in question. The future of the New START Treaty is uncertain. The Open Skies Treaty is in jeopardy. The controversy over ballistic missile defense (BMD) appears to be insurmountable. There is no progress on Ukraine.

Last August saw the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act take effect, with the goal of codifying sanctions against Russia. What the United States is actually doing is waging a trade war against Russia. The two powers have conflicting views on the crises in Ukraine and Syria. They diverge on Iran and North Korea, as well as on any other major international issue you care to name. NATO deployments to the Baltic region and other preparations for war only add fuel to the fire. The new US National Security Strategy paints Moscow as a revisionist power, pursuing interests that run counter to US foreign-policy goals. The relationship has suffered even further deterioration and there doesn’t appear to be a ghost of a chance for any improvement.

"Unfortunately the actions of the current administration are in line with Obama's, despite President Trump’s rhetoric during his election campaign. In certain areas, they are pushing even harder," said Russia Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at his annual press conference on Jan 15, suggesting disappointment in the US president.

Personal chemistry between the leaders of the two countries has always played an immensely important role. During his first year in office, the US president has welcomed dozens of world leaders in Washington and visited 13 countries. Unfortunately, no one-to-one US-Russia summit has been held. Their contacts have been limited to meetings on the sidelines of various world events. The US president’s ability to pursue an independent policy with regard to Moscow is evidently limited. His hands have been handcuffed and he has to keep one eye on Congress when it comes to Russia.

Given the many factors straining their bilateral ties, the two powers are still capable of cooperating when it is possible and satisfies their mutual interests. Talks on a new structure for European security could be launched under the auspices of OSCE. A proposal to begin discussions on a new arms-control agreement in Europe was suggested by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier in 2016 during his term as foreign minister. This initiative deserves better than to be swept under the carpet. It should be revived. Russia welcomed this move. The US ignored it.

The opportunities for interaction include exchanging information on terrorists. It is imperative to launch discussions on cyber security. Crisis management in Libya is a very promising area of cooperation. The Arctic should be on the agenda.

Bilateral military contacts and informal meetings between experts on arms control and military matters could further the process of reducing the threat of military confrontation. US-Russian agreements on preventing military incidents and other confidence-building measures, such as the bilateral Incidents at Sea agreement and the Agreement on Preventing Dangerous Military Activities, could be revitalized. Those no longer seem to be working.. There is no shortage of reports about dangerous incidents but the these agreements are never mentioned. They used to play an important role. It would be difficult to overstate the important of the role of the INCSEA agreement in preventing a real tragedy during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when the US Sixth Fleet and the Soviet Fifth Eskadra (a flotilla of ships) confronted each other in the Mediterranean.

It may not be possible to completely turn the tide in 2018, but the first tentative moves could be made to put the relationship back on track. Opportunities to maintain and expand dialog at all levels, whenever possible, between officials, lawmakers, experts, think tanks, and public organizations, should not be missed. Big changes start with small steps.