Farewell to Illusions

Why Trump cannot live up to the expectations of normalizing relations with Russia

The overall love toward Donald Trump in Russia is giving place to disappointment. Shortly after the U.S. press secretary stated that his boss is expecting Moscow to return Crimea back to Ukraine, the question of whether we should even count on the rapid restoration of detente and cancellation of sanctions hung in the air. Meanwhile, hopes that right after moving into the White House Trump would radically improve relations with Russia were initially unreasonable. Lenta.ru found out why.

Last week, representatives of the new administration made anti-Russia statements concerning the U.S. position on the Crimea and Donbass situations. This happened exactly between Flynn’s resignation and the first meeting of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. A number of people in Russia, and not only them, considered this statement as evidence of rejection of previously expressed intentions to restore relations. The reaction of some of the domestic observers was very emotional. Some of the especially ardent commentators immediately changed their passionate love of Trump to feelings of offense and even hatred. Apparently, a lot of people in Russia truly believed that the new leader in the White House was capable of stopping the pointless confrontation by uniting with Moscow and putting forward a joint effort toward settling real problems.

At a first glance, this could really have been pretty logical. Russia obviously was never going to impinge upon genuine American interests. Russia has zero ambition to go beyond its resource-rich taiga.* The Ukrainian crisis was totally provoked by the West even though it was already brewing for some years. A lot of people in Russia would like the new U.S. administration to abandon what they consider to be this absurd policy of opposing Moscow. However, the time for that conversation has not yet come. And there are several reasons for that.

The U.S. president doesn’t just have a lot of problems, he has a great many urgent domestic problems. Even if Trump can withstand the next six months and keep his office, it will still take his entire first term to address these issues, consolidate power and launch the necessary reforms, and that’s if things go favorably for him. It’s important to understand that America is currently in a state of a severe political crisis. It is practically some kind of a hybrid civil war. It is necessary to remember this when evaluating Washington’s actions.

A majority of the American establishment, media and a portion of the U.S. intelligence agencies are fighting the leader of their own country. Apparently the situation in the government is close to a total chaos. The U.S. elite do not even care about what the country looks like in the international arena. It’s absolutely incomprehensible how to hold discussions, and what to hold discussions about, with a country that is currently in this kind of state. It’s problematic to hold discussions about U.S. foreign policy in general. It does not exist as unified whole. There are lots of meaningless foreign affair issues that have been inherited from the outgoing administration, as well as the projection of this internal crisis onto external relations.

This cannot but cause concerns in the more stable countries like Russia and China. The internal affairs of the U.S. are the concern of the Americans themselves. We are strictly interested only in the foreign policy consequences of the ugliness currently taking place on the other side of the Atlantic. But these effects could be truly comic and tragic for the whole world. The recent statement by the head of European diplomacy Federica Mogherini** about the current possibility that the U.S. will lose its world leadership is comic. According to that statement, Europe has to prepare for the U.S. losing its world leadership role.

Indeed, many observers have convincingly written about how U.S. domestic reforms will require taking a time-out from the strategy of creating problems out of nothing, a strategy that was used by previous presidents. Under present conditions, this may lead to the fact that some countries and entire regions will learn to live without the United States. Leadership infrastructure will be completely undermined by the time a once-again great America returns.

However, the EU in its current condition of knockdown and organizational paralysis will hardly be capable of taking care of itself in the coming years. In any case, the heads of its Brussels bureaucracy like Donald Tusk, Jean-Claude Juncker or the Mogherini should not expect leadership roles, at least because the degree of their legitimacy is next to none. They were not chosen by anyone, and they do not hold any responsibility for their words or actions. There is no really strong leader, not even among the national leaders of the EU countries. Therefore, Europe’s awareness of its troubles will probably be limited to the moaning that we have already heard from many European participants in the Munich Security Conference, and by the farcical European Parliament resolution on the establishment of a “Euro Army,” adopted on Feb. 16.

However, the chaos in Washington has less entertaining consequences. The thing is that the elite are aimed at fighting the new president on all fronts and it will hardly stop. The habit of reacting quite carelessly to the consequences of your actions in an international arena, ingrained over 25 years, plays a big part in it. Year after year, our American colleagues assured us that for the U.S., foreign policy is derived directly from domestic policy. This, apparently, is actually true. Thus, for radicals confronting Trump, triggering a new war in Ukraine and provoking new crises in the South China Sea are will within reach and well in mind. Taking into account the unimportance of the fact that the White House controls the security forces, both scenarios could become reality, and then, Russia and China will have to make really serious decisions.

Besides that, in our reality, Russia has nothing to negotiate or make deals about with the new administration. If the U.S. and its new president are truly ready to fight the Islamic State (the Islamic State is prohibited in the Russian Federation), then Moscow would only welcome it, although cooperation in this sphere cannot and should not even theoretically become a bargaining matter. If we are all agreed that we have the same enemy, then what is there to negotiate?

Also, the question of sanctions should not be a matter of bargaining either. It would be quite strange for Russia to offer something in return for sanctions that were unilaterally imposed by the U.S. and its allies. Thus, sanctions are not an exciting asset either.

In general, a bargain initially proposes an exchange of something valuable between each side. As a matter of principle, what does America have to offer Russia that could be considered so valuable? Federalization of Ukraine? That would be an actual repetition of the Yalta situation — deciding the fate of Europeans behind their back, and would lead not only to federalization, but simply the disappearance of this state from the political map. The only thing that can be done is perhaps the dissolution of NATO — the last extant relic of the Cold War.

But this would be suicide for the United States, and not only because Russia in this case supposedly would immediately take over the Baltic states and punish Poland for everything that Polish politicians have ever said and done in recent years. Moscow obviously would not do that. Dissolution of NATO would deprive Washington of the only source of real control over European policy and hence the market. Moreover, weakening NATO would automatically lead to Germany’s immediate acquisition of nuclear weapons with irreversible consequences for the entire system of international security. Needless to say, Russia itself does not have that much to offer in return. Of course, Russia cannot give up its strategical partnership with China or cooperation with Iran in confronting religious radicals and with states that are supporting them in order to make a bargain with the United States.

For now, we cannot see any objective reason to normalize relations. The confrontation between the U.S. and Russia seems to be absurd only from Moscow’s point of view. The majority of Europeans and people from the other side of the Atlantic consider this conflict, one that has lasted for more than three years, as a pretty rational one. They are assured that Russia broke unwritten rules of behavior that were articulated after the Cold War. There is no way back. Any head of the U.S. is doomed to some form of confrontation with Moscow. Otherwise, Russia’s example might be contagious to many others whom “the winners of the USSR” treated unfairly. The positions of those who oppose normalization of relations with Russia are very strong. Russia apparently needs to understand that these so-called sanctions will be here for a very long time, if not forever. There will be no return to a comfortable life and cheap loans. It would at least make sense to just quietly put this issue aside for now. If we make a deal with Washington, it will require careful preparation and great efforts from diplomats. And Trump is still experiencing obvious tension with them now.

*Editor’s note: Taiga is the Russian word for forest and is the largest biome on earth, stretching over Eurasia and North America.

**Editor’s note: Federica Mogherini is currently the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and Vice President of the European Commission in the Juncker Commission.

The author, Timofei Bordachev, is director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies of the Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs HSE, and director of the Eurasian Program of the International Discussion Club Valdai.

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