In Donald Trump’s Washington these days, how to deal with Russia is not a diplomatic topic, but boils down to one question: who in the Trump camp spoke to which Russian at which time and then denied it happened?
It’s a constantly changing story that already produced some collateral damage.
Trump’s first National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was forced to resign after just weeks in office and Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from any investigation related to Russia’s covert activity to undermine the 2016 US presidential election.
But there is another, less publicized story and that is the shock and horror within Washington’s foreign policy establishment that Trump is shattering the longtime consensus for treating Russia as a bitter enemy.
Trump repeatedly praised Vladimir Putin and even mocked the US intelligence community’s assessment that Russia hacked into the computer system of his opponents at the Democratic Party.
Washington’s foreign policy elite “exhausted” by Trump
Whether left or right, “most of the U.S. foreign policy establishment had spent the hours since noon on January 20 in alternating states of fear, rage, dismay, bewilderment and mental exhaustion”, writes Susan Glasser in Politico Magazine.
“They were all asking the same questions: Would he destroy the liberal international order? Hand our secrets to the Russians? Ruin NATO? Blunder into another war in the Middle East after he was done firing all the State Department bosses and sending uncooperative national security bureaucrats into exile? Did he have any idea what he was doing?”
While the US reporters are busy trying to get to the bottom of Trump’s Russia connection story, a serious debate about how US policy toward Vladimir Putin’s Russia should look like is lacking – at least in most of the mainstream media.
But recently, Russia experts in think tanks and professional Kremlin watchers have offered ideas of what the Trump administration’s policy toward Russia should look like.
There is urgency. “Russia is taking advantage of the moment”, says Charles Kupchan, a senior advisor to President Barack Obama. “We need to be very forthright of the danger that they pose to western politics.”
Putin is the most dangerous global player for the US and “deserves a very firm stand”, Kupchan says.
Trump: “Why not get along with Russia?”
Trump inherited a ruptured US-Russian relationship, the culmination of decades of alternating hopes and disappointments. As both a candidate and president-elect, he repeatedly called for a new approach. “Why not get along with Russia?” Trump repeatedly asked.
“The answer is that at the heart of the breakdown lie disagreements over issues that each country views as fundamental to its interests. They cannot be easily overcome with the passage of time or a summit meeting or two”, write Eugene Rumer, Richard Sokolsky and Andrew Weiss in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs.
“Thus, the challenge for the new administration is to manage this relationship skillfully and to keep it from getting worse.”
“Should Trump instead attempt to cozy up to Moscow, the most likely outcome would be that Putin would pocket Washington’s unilateral concessions and pursue new adventures or make demands in other areas. The resulting damage to U.S. influence and credibility in Europe and beyond would prove considerable.”
But a more confrontational approach would risk inviting a provocative response from Russia. So Washington will need to chart a middle path, the experts conclude.
That means both seeking ways to cooperate with Moscow and pushing back against it when necessary without sleepwalking into a collision.
Possibility of war in Europe “frighteningly real”
And after Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, a collision does not seem outlandish. It rather “makes the possibility of a war in Europe between nuclear-armed adversaries frighteningly real,” writes Kimberley Marten in a new Council on Foreign Relations report on tensions between Russia and NATO.
She outlines how US policymakers can deter Russian aggression with robust support for NATO, while reassuring Russia of NATO’s defensive intentions through clear words and actions based in international law.
Marten, a professor of political science at Barnard College and Columbia University, lays out several scenarios that could lead to a dangerous confrontation, ranging from an inadvertent encounter between NATO and Russian military aircraft or ships to an intentional Russian land grab in Europe.
Preparing for such a crisis, the Trump administration should therefore reaffirm the unequivocal US commitment to the defense of Europe, sustain US troop deployment in Poland and rely on superior capabilities (like cyber capabilities and the threat of sanctions) to deter Russia.
Finally, Washington should encourage the European allies to think creatively about measures that would significantly raise the costs for Russia of attacking NATO and therefore make such an attack less attractive and less likely, according to Marten.
Beware of Putin, the consummate deal-maker
And it would be irresponsible for Trump to turn a blind eye to the Kremlin’s reliance on hacking, disinformation, and Cold War–style subversion in its efforts to undermine the American international reputation and to meddle in democratic processes in Europe and beyond, write Rumer, Sokolsky and Weiss.
They believe that the Kremlin is likely to try to downplay sources of tension between Washington and Moscow, setting the stage for friendly initial encounters with the new U.S. president and his team.
Assuming Moscow follows that course, Washington will have to proceed with caution as Putin, the consummate deal-maker, seeks to shape the terms of a new relationship.
“But policymakers must keep in mind that the abiding goal should be to advance U.S. interests, support U.S. allies across the world, and uphold U.S. principles—not to improve relations with Russia for their own sake.”