Why Trump Would Be Crazy to Give Putin What He Wants
Tensions are heating up between the Kremlin and the Obama administration, which imposed new sanctions on Russia on Thursday in response to Russia’s alleged and unprecedented interference in the U.S. presidential election, mistreatment of U.S. diplomats and cybertheft.
Yet despite Russia’s deliberate cyber-assault on our democracy, on U.S. sovereign domestic affairs, it’s likely only a matter of weeks before the standoff gives way to another attempt at a “reset.” On Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced he wouldn’t expel U.S. diplomats from Russia in retaliation, saying that he’d wait to take his cues “from the policy pursued by the administration of D. Trump.” And the cues from President-elect Donald Trump are looking good. He has repeatedly declared admiration for Putin. Last week, after receiving a letter from Putin about the need for both countries to beef up their nuclear weapons programs, Trump announced that it was “A very nice letter. … His thoughts are so correct.” Trump’s advisers have close and continuing contact with Russian oligarchs and Putin associates; and he and his team have expressed opinions about NATO, Ukraine and Syria that appear aligned with the Kremlin’s perspective. As far as the recent election hacking, Trump has thoroughly rejected the fact of Russia’s actions, although after he said Thursday, “It’s time for our country to move on to bigger and better things,” he said he’d get intelligence briefings on the situation again.
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Giving Putin the reset he wants would be a big mistake.
U.S. interests and the international system that has protected and enriched America for decades are fundamentally at odds with what the Kremlin would expect from a full reset: the chance to rewrite the rules of international order in a way that would let Russia change borders through military force, violate the Geneva conventions and murder political opponents with impunity both in and outside Russia. Ceding these rights to Russia in return for a few small gains will be damaging and dangerous.
Just as worrisome is the fact that such a reset with Russia will likely be short-lived. Given Russian economic realities and its 2018 presidential election, I expect any thaw to last only about a year, when Putin will turn up the anti-American volume to previous levels, and defy Washington on one issue or another. At that point, if Trump lives up to his pro-Russia rhetoric, he will have given Putin much of what he wants—largely gains in geopolitical influence which will be slow to reverse; while America’s reset benefits, mostly less permanent economic and diplomatic gains, will be easy for Moscow to unravel.
America will be left standing amidst the rubble of the post World War II world order, while Putin can retreat happy with the damage he has caused.
Trump won’t be the first president to attempt to find common ground with Moscow. Every commander-in-chief since the fall of the Berlin Wall has started his tenure with a fresh, positive approach to America’s former nemesis. Bill Clinton made a point to woo Boris Yeltsin. After that, George W. Bush looked into Putin’s eyes and was reassured (because he saw a soul there). Most recently there was President Barack Obama’s 2009 “reset”—the first one to claim the name officially.
There’s a reason none of these numerous fresh starts has lasted very long: The ideal Kremlin reset has typically entailed concessions that the U.S. was unprepared to give.
This has been especially true in the past decade. Ever since Putin’s Munich Security Conference speech in 2007, Moscow has railed against a U.S.-led international order, insisting that Russia be recognized as a major power, on par with the United States and with a sphere of influence in the Soviet Eastern Europe and Central Asia. The Kremlin expects Washington to cede them this 19th century prerogative and to stay out of domestic affairs (especially when it comes to human rights) in Russia and also in countries like Ukraine, which Russia claims for its sphere.
Given these demands, Obama and the Kremlin would never see eye to eye. In 2008, then-President Dimitri Medvedev proposed a European Security Treaty, which would have given Russia a greater say in European affairs, but also would have competed with or eliminated the need for NATO, something firmly rejected by the White House. Moreover, while Obama recognized Russia’s superpower legacy through the negotiation of the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty, he later dismissed Russia as “a regional power,” and stood by those fighting for freedom in Ukraine and Syria, at least to the extent necessary to prevent outright Russian victory. Putin blamed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the 2011 demonstrations against him after his re-election and parliamentary elections which were widely regarded as rigged for Putin allies, claiming her criticism of the elections gave a “signal” to his opposition to head for the streets. And he blamed Obama for the Magnitsky Act, passed by Congress in 2012 to punish Russians accused of murdering Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky and for other human rights violations. Putin retaliated in 2012 by expelling the U.S. Agency for International Development from Russia, halting some bilateral non-proliferation cooperation, banning Russian adoptions by foreigners and clamping down on Russian non-governmental organizations receiving U.S. and other foreign funding.
The “reset” wasn’t a complete failure. Obama achieved some key objectives: the New START treaty; a much-needed alternative transit route for troops and equipment to Afghanistan through Russia; a signed agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation; Russia’s abstention in the Security Council on the vote to bomb Libya in 2011; and Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization. But there were sticking points, too. Russia still refused to share intelligence on counter terrorism or illicit narcotics trafficking, and even in the run-up to the Sochi Olympics would not coordinate with U.S. security officials. And then in the aftermath of the ousting of the Kremlin-backed Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovich, Russia illegally annexed Crimea and started a war in the Eastern Donbas region of Ukraine. The reset was off life support; it was dead.
One might expect a Trump reset to be deeper and more lasting. After all, the president- elect seems prepared to deliver far more to Russia than Obama did. He has questioned the relevance of NATO and dismissed Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and ongoing operations in Eastern Ukraine. (His advisers removed language from the Republican platform at the convention calling for lethal defensive weapons for Ukraine.) He has also trumpeted his interest in cooperating with Russia in Syria to fight against terrorists, while ignoring Russia’s atrocities in that country. In fact, spreading democracy and protecting human rights doesn’t appear to be a priority at all for Trump, who has also dismissed Putin’s brutal domestic tactics, including murder, torture, unlawful detention and seizure of business assets aimed at journalists and opponents of his government.
That’s a good start for the Kremlin, but Putin wants even more than that from Trump. His number one objective—and the most achievable—is probably an end to all sanctions. The Kremlin will not accept a reset deal without the sanctions relief; and it’s also a move that Trump’s pick for secretary of State, Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, has supported.
The United States would be also expected to halt the new military deployments to the eastern portions of NATO territory, and to end NATO expansion entirely. This would ensure Russia a military buffer zone—but also reduce the threat posed to the Kremlin by the positive allure of democracy and free market capitalism, especially in Ukraine, which the Kremlin considers an extension of Russia. Russia would also expect Washington to withdraw its military and political support for Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and all of the former Soviet republics (except the NATO-member Baltics), leaving those countries at the mercy of Russian pressure, subversion and aggression. Finally, Moscow would expect a free hand in Syria and an acceptance of Bashar al Assad as the country’s leader into the foreseeable future.
Trump appears prepared, at a minimum, to consider giving all this to Putin. In return, Trump will likely demand that Russia use its airpower and other military assets to fight ISIS and other terrorists in Syria, as defined by his administration. He may also seek Russia’s acquiescence and assistance in renegotiating the nuclear agreement with Iran. If so, in exchange Moscow will likely demand the dismantlement of the missile defense installations in Poland and Romania as well as the Aegis deployments to Europe. This missile defense system is aimed at addressing the Iranian and North Korean missile threats, but is regarded suspiciously (and erroneously) by the Russians as potentially countering Moscow’s missiles. And Trump will also look to Russia for help on North Korea. The new administration is likely to be tested early by North Korea (Obama was greeted in February 2009 with a nuclear test by Pyongyang), and may need Russia to get China to rein in Kim Jung Un, especially if the U.S.-China relationship is strained.
The professionals in the Trump administration may also demand, as part of any deal with Putin, a serious dialogue with the Russian government about its reliance on nuclear weapons and its escalation doctrine, which calls for risky action to scare or dissuade adversaries from a fight. U.S. officials could, and should, insist on frank conversation about strategic stability—the military balance between the United States and Russia— and the latter’s fears of military encirclement and defeat. And Trump should demand Russia come back into compliance with the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty, ditch first use of tactical nuclear weapons and the escalation doctrine. This could result in greater understanding and reduced risk of miscalculation.
Finally, the Trump administration would expect the Kremlin to cease using the United States as a public scapegoat for Russian economic and political problems and of course to halt cyberespionage and operations against the United States. Moscow would have to tone down official anti-Americanism, and end its current deplorable treatment of U.S. diplomats and officials in Russia, given President-elect Trump’s demonstrated sensitivity to criticism and deliberate public slights.
Trump’s gains under this robust reset deal won’t, however, compensate for the giant harm it would cause. If Putin gets everything he wants—including a free hand in Ukraine—the United States and the world would be in a far more dangerous situation. From the U.S. perspective, security, trade and political relationships with its closest allies would suffer a massive crisis of confidence and erosion of trust, which could lead to misunderstandings and miscalculations among them and with Russia—and in the worst case, to military clashes. A large scale war could also break out between Russia and its non-NATO neighbors, like Ukraine, whose governments and people will resist these new reset terms, adding to existing refugee flows and economic instability in Europe. In cases like these, damage occurs quickly, but recovery—rebuilding trust and institutions—is difficult and slow work. That’s all for a few gains—increased trade with Russia, a re-negotiated Iran agreement, some cooperation fighting terrorists in Syria, reining in North Korea and China, progress on the INF Treaty and some kind words—which could easily be undone by Moscow at any time.
At the same time, Russia’s gains—lifting of sanctions, freedom of action on its geographic periphery, the deciding vote on Syria’s future, maybe even changes to U.S. missile defense—would all provide quick benefits to the Kremlin, the effects of which would take some time to reverse.
Put simply, it’s a bad deal. Whatever perks the U.S. stands to get from a full reset with Russia, they will never be worth the price: Almost certain erosion or collapse of the international order in Europe that has served U.S. interests and values for decades, and the abandonment of our adherence to democracy, sovereignty and human rights.
It’s only a matter of time before a Trump reset is put to the test. With oil prices down and sanctions ramped up, since 2012 Putin has failed to prevent a decline in the economic standard of living for ordinary Russians, and pointing to the economic gains during his first turn as president in the early 2000s hasn’t been enough to keep him in popular. Instead, Putin has held on to power by preaching Russian neo-imperialism coupled with patriotic anti-Americanism. Unless Russia’s economic situation improves dramatically due to higher oil prices or as a result of new energy deals after sanctions are lifted—which is not likely—Putin will need to use America as a scapegoat for Russia’s growing economic problems before long. Especially approaching Russia’s presidential elections in 2018, Putin will be tempted, perhaps forced, to adopt an anti-American stance to bolster his popularity.
And then there’s the issue of Trump’s sensitivity to criticism: Putin will be mindful that any misstep by his government, any move that makes the U.S. president look foolish or like a “loser” could bring reset crashing down.
For these reasons Moscow will push for fast implementation of its reset, or “deal” with Trump. Putin will want to demonstrate to his public that Russia is winning on the international stage, but he will be aware that very soon he may want or need to pivot away from America.
And when the reset does come to an end, it will have been well worth it for Putin. He will have gained international stature from his friendly relationship with Trump and will have pocketed influence gains in Eastern Europe. For Trump, the robust reset described above will have been a loser. The foundations of European security since 1945—trust built through institutions and mutual commitments—will be left shaken. The United States’ only operational alliance—NATO—will be left weak or dismantled.
It’s a potentially disastrous situation; but a warming of relations with Russia need not end this way. There is an alternative to the robust reset on Putin’s terms—something that could provide the United States with some gains, without consequential losses. This alternative would be a transactional (and hopefully more lasting) Trump reset that addresses a few of Putin’s key concerns without risking U.S. interests.
The Kremlin’s primary objective is to keep Putin in power. If Putin is to be prevented from switching in advance of the 2018 Russian elections to the anti-American, neo-imperialist message, he needs to offer the Russian people economic hope, if not results. To pave the way, Trump could offer lucrative business deals, including those Arctic energy agreements Exxon has been forced by U.S. sanctions to put on ice. And he could agree to lift sanctions if Moscow removes some or all of its troops from Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. Admittedly, this is a deal the Kremlin will not want to make at the outset. Trump could sweeten the deal by offering some tweaking of missile defense—for example, resurrecting Robert Gates/Leon Panetta-era proposals for joint NATO-Russia information (not operations) centers to increase transparency and reassure Russia about the targets of missile defense. Washington could also propose other military confidence-building measures, such as limits on a future U.S. “prompt global strike” precision-guided conventional missile system, designed to deliver a weapon anywhere in the world within one hour.
The transactional Trump reset will certainly require U.S. concessions. For example, it would require the U.S. to keep some distance from democracy in Russia—a sad side effect. But it would also require a big shift in Kremlin policy away from the neo-imperial vision of the “Russian world” and “the near-abroad” of buffer states.
A deal of this nature, if it is possible, might be the best outcome in a world where, as Trump’s Rolling Stones campaign theme song reminds us, “you can’t always get what you want.” A full reset will require American interests and values to fundamentally align with Russian interests and values—something impossible with the current crop of KGB-trained officials controlling the government. In the meantime, though, just maybe, President Trump will get what we need.