SFS On Topic: U.S.-Russia Relationship During Trump Administration

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, shakes hands prior to their talks in Moscow, April 12, 2017. Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP Photo

The U.S. airstrike on a Syrian airbase on April 6, 2017 in response to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons on civilians has put intensified attention on the state of the U.S.-Russia relationship during the Trump Administration. SFS Professor Angela Stent, Director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies, is an expert on this relationship and her analysis has been in great demand by U.S. and international media.

Detente Between Putin and Trump Ends

President Trump’s complimentary language about President Putin during the campaign suggested that he might try to repair the U.S.-Russia relationship. However, the U.S. air strike changed this potential detente. “Anyone in the U.S. who thought that Putin was maybe waiting and was going to make some gestures to ensure that the relationship with the United States would improve, they were wrong,” Stent told BBC Radio. “As we see, who knew what about the chemical attack before it happened, but certainly, that was a surprise to the new Administration, and clearly it changed President Trump’s mind, because now what he’s saying about Russia and about their support of Syria, is at least what was said under the Obama Administration, if not more critical.”

The return of animosity to the bilateral relationship was not surprising to Stent. “I was skeptical from the beginning that it would be possible for the United States and Russia, after all that happened in the last few years, to engage in a successful reset,” Stent said to the New York Times. “What’s surprising is how quickly we returned to the status quo ante we had at the end of the Obama administration.”

Spotlight on Stent’s 2014 Book: The Limits of Partnership, U.S.-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century

The challenges encountered by U.S. Administrations with the U.S.-Russia relationship is the subject of Stent’s 2014 book The Limits of Partnership, U.S.-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century. NPR News cited the book to explain the historic precedent of Trump’s current challenges with Russia. “It has been a constant challenge for Washington to move forward on a constructive and productive agenda with Russia…Periods of dialogue, progress, and optimism have been followed by tense periods, standoffs, mutual criticism, and pessimism.”

The Atlantic magazine also referred to Stent’s book to explain the roots of the dysfunctional relationship. “Despite these common interests, however, the two countries subscribe to very different views about their respective roles in the world. Moreover, the relationship is constrained by the two countries’ divergent value systems, in particular their contrasting views of the purposes and means of acceptable state behavior at home and abroad.”

Coherent Russia Policy

One result from the current crisis in relations may be the creation of a more consistent message from the Trump Administration on Russia, according to Stent. “And we now, I think, for the first time, have a fairly coherent Russia policy in the Trump administration because before, Defense Secretary Mattis, Secretary Tillerson and National Security Advisor, they were all seem to be on one page with Ambassador Haley, whereas the White House was on the different page. I think they’re on the same page at the moment,” Stent told CNN.

The message inconsistency may be influencing Russia’s approach for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit. “So I think the Russians also realize that there still isn’t a coherent Russia policy in the Trump Administration although it has sounded more coherent in the past couple of days. I think they will wait till the dust has settled,” Stent said on BBC Radio. “A number of senior positions haven’t been filled, as Mr. Lavrov sarcastically alluded to at the beginning of the meeting today. There aren’t that many top Russia experts in office yet.”

Stent had insight on Putin’s priorities for Tillerson’s visit. “Well, I think he wants to show ‘I am a strong leader. You have to respect me. You can’t push Russia around.’ You know, Russia is the go-to power now in Syria. And the U.S. has to recognize that. But on the other hand, I think he might be willing to say, well, it’s time to at least normalize relations with the United States. Maybe we can talk about jointly fighting Islamic State together. These are things he said before,” Stent said on CNN.

Expectations for Tillerson’s visit were modest, no specific accomplishments were expected to come out of the meeting, according to Stent. “I think when it was first conceived and announced, which was before the chemical weapons attack and the bombing in Syria, it was an attempt to normalize relations since relations at the end of the Obama Administration were really so bad. So there was no designed agenda…At a minimum if they can come out and jointly agree that they need to find a solution to what’s happening in Syria, that would already be an accomplishment, but we don’t even know whether that is going to happen,” Stent said on MSNBC.

One of the dangers from heightened tension is the diminished communication between the two governments, Stent told BBC Radio. “But what I think is very worrying now, is that because the regime in Russia is so personalistic, there are fewer channels of communication. Let’s say, even between our respective militaries, and other channels that used to exist, even in the Soviet times, they don’t really exist anymore. And that’s been worsened by the fact that the Obama Administration cut off the remaining channels after the crisis in Ukraine began.”

“This is why Secretary Tillerson needs to be in Moscow and they need to have these talks because the possibility of an unanticipated air incident that could spark a broader conflict is probably more serious now than it was at anytime even during the height of the Cold War, because we don’t have those channels open anymore with Russia,” Stent said on KQED Radio. This “preliminary meeting…talks about talks” are positive, Stent told CSPAN. “At least the Russians have now come back and rejoined this deconfliction agreement, so the Pentagon and the Russian Ministry of Defense make sure that our planes aren’t shooting at each other over the skies.”

What Russia Wants

Participating in a panel on Russian Foreign Policy with the Center for the National Interest, Stent responded to the multifaceted question of what it is that Russia wants. “Russia would like the United States to treat it as if it were the Soviet Union: a great power with global reach, a country that has a right to a seat at the table on all important international decisions, a nuclear superpower dominant in its neighborhood and beyond, and a country that is respected, and I would say also feared, by the rest of the world,” Stent said. “And one that the United States treats as an equal.” View the full discussion on C-SPAN here.