Relations between Washington and Moscow are turning into an ever greater phantasmagoria. Ten days before the G-20 meeting in Hamburg, a situation in which the Russian and U.S. presidents are next to each other at the same event but don’t communicate is scandalous, yet no preparations are being made. In the White House, if you believe the leaks, it’s an enchanting mise-en-scène: Trump is supposedly dying to talk with Putin but his advisers and associates either won’t allow it at all or are proposing a brief conversation behind closed doors.
The latter idea is quite bizarre. Considering that Donald Trump’s opponents accuse him of secret collusion with the Kremlin, to arrange backroom negotiations and hide their content would only lend credence to the attacks. Even if a meeting takes place in a more familiar environment, it’s basically impossible to expect any results from it. The administration is bound hand and foot; a struggle for power, the primary instrument of which happens to be the topic of Russia, is in full swing in Washington. However, were the atmosphere different, it would still be difficult to predict the scenario.
Trump’s team, as has been noted time and again, is a coalition of right-wing Republican security officials and representatives of nationalist business circles. With respect to relations with Russia, both categories are of little promise.
Most right-wing conservatives were staunch anti-Soviets and anti-communists, and for them Russia is a continuation of the Soviet Union. There were such people in the previous Republican administration of George W. Bush, but back then, Moscow was perceived mainly through the prism of its defeat in the Cold War. Figures like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld simply couldn’t understand why anyone should pay attention to a defeated power that should know its place.
Today the alignment of forces has changed: Russia is seen as a military rival that has demonstrated some competence in recent years. Such an attitude was expressed during the 2012 election campaign by the Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who called Russia America’s main geopolitical foe. At the time, it caused bewilderment, but now if such an assertion is even met with objection, it’s only with regard to the “mainness.”
For career-minded generals like Pentagon chief Mattis and National Security Advisor McMaster, Russia is the source of a military and political threat, while for the “social conservative” Vice President Pence, it’s an immoral country because it doesn’t recognize the moral and political dominance of the United States.
Secretary of State Tillerson is somewhat set apart. At first, the Democrats also chalked him up as the Kremlin’s agent, but he managed to prove the opposite by adding hard-as-rock rhetoric to his arsenal, though just by the nature of his former occupation, Tillerson must be more inclined toward pragmatism. However, in his case, the problem is something else. It’s unclear to what extent the State Department, in general, influences foreign policy and whether its head reflects the White House’s actual course, if such a thing exists at all. The confusion is exacerbated by the fact that personnel are operating under abnormal conditions − a ton of vacancies are unfilled, while employees of the previous team remain in other positions, sitting on their suitcases. Yet one has to hand it to the department’s bureaucratic strength: Routine work at the middle level continues without fail. But that means that on an everyday level, inertia defines relations, and in our case, it’s negative inertia.
As for the second component of Trump’s team, nationally-oriented business that aims to change the rules of world trade on terms more beneficial to America, to them Russia is, alas, simply uninteresting. Our country isn’t a major player in this area. Changes in the global economic arena won’t come about from mending relations or, conversely, provoking conflict with Russia. Hence, China and the European Union are much more important and special attention is paid to them as well as to changing the approach to trade in general.
Trump and those who share his views are inspired by classic approaches − bilateral engagements with all partners, in every case on an individual basis. These are the deals the U.S. president loves to talk about.
If the current fight eventually subsides (it seems that signs of hesitation have emerged even among the fiercest crusaders against Trump, questioning whether the fight is doing excessive damage to America as a whole), the administration might catch its breath and try to achieve something with Russia. In any case, the State Department under Tillerson seeks to save room for maneuvering and steer clear of Congress' altogether blatant diktat. But, first of all, a fair amount of damage has been done already. The topic of Russians undermining the United States from within has entered the public’s consciousness and will remain there.
Second, the composition of interests surrounding Trump isn’t conducive to major shifts. The areas of potential cooperation are the same as under Obama, and that means once again “selective engagement” on issues that are important to Washington and nothing more. It didn’t work before and it probably won’t work now.
Does Trump himself want different relations with Russia or not? Most likely, yes, he believes Russia is useful on some issues, and Putin is obviously of interest to him. But, all things considered, that doesn’t matter. There are no objective grounds for change.