In his recent interview with Henry Kissinger, Jeffrey Goldberg asked the former secretary of state and national security advisor what he would advise the next president of the United States to do first. That president, Kissinger replied, should ask, “What are we”—the United States—“trying to achieve, even if we must pursue it alone? … What are we trying to prevent, even if we must combat it alone?” But he also noted that the next president would be taking office at a uniquely challenging moment in international politics. Drawing on the campaign rhetoric of President-elect Donald Trump, we can posit some preliminary answers to Kissinger’s questions, and some preliminary suggestions as to how he might handle Russia, in particular.
During his campaign, Trump openly fawned over Russian leader Vladimir Putin. He also suggested that it might be “nice” if Russia and the United States “got along.” Theoretically, it could be easier for the United States to achieve some of its major international policy goals—like stabilizing Syria, or preventing future cyberattacks against U.S. organizations, both public and private—if relations with Russia were better. Indeed, there’s a venerable history here. Washington cooperated with the former Soviet Union on a number of far-reaching nuclear-weapons agreements the final years of the Cold War, supported Russia’s membership in the Group of Eight industrialized nations (G-8) in 1997, provided aid when its economy cratered, and proved a stable partner to Russia’s first democratically elected President, Boris Yeltsin, when he faced an armed uprising in 1993 and used the Russian military to quash it. When Yeltsin objected to the U.S.-led intervention in Serbia, the United States welcomed Russia to join international peacekeeping efforts in Kosovo. Although America was not always a perfect partner, given the extent of residual Cold War animosity, U.S. policy makers warmed relatively quickly to a reforming, though struggling, Russia.
Through the 2000s, cooperation continued, as Vladimir Putin shepherded an economic recovery during his first two presidential terms. These years were not without their difficulties, of course. Russia actively opposed the U.S. war in Iraq, for example, and criticized NATO expansion, asserting that Mikhail Gorbachev had been promised in 1989 that NATO would not advance “one inch more” beyond the borders of a reunited Germany. Yeltsin and Putin complained then, but expansion was not the problem it has now become. The presidency of Putin’s protégé Dmitri Medvedev from 2008 to 2012 (during which Putin served as prime minister) represented the height of U.S.-Russia cooperation, a time when the United States supported Russian membership in the World Trade Organization, worked with Russia to prevent Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, and established 21 joint civilian-cooperation councils on a range of issues.
Putin had a notoriously poor rapport with President Barack Obama. He could never figure him out, and this may have soured relations between the countries. But recall that George W. Bush and Putin initially got along famously, and had it not been for the distraction of Bush’s war in Iraq and Putin’s turn toward increased domestic repression, Russia and the United States might have been closer at the end of the Bush years. Obama and Medvedev got along well (remember that time they had burgers together?), a relationship that worked to both Russia and America’s benefit through cooperation on a range of issues. These included the Northern Distribution Network, a supply route for U.S. troops in Afghanistan that ran, in part, through Russia, and Russia’s membership in the WTO.
But the relationship clearly broke down upon Putin’s return to the Russian presidency in 2012. What changed was not U.S. policy (NATO expansion had ended in 2009; how could it justify the invasion of Crimea in Ukraine in 2014?), as much as it was Russian economic and political conditions. With the decline in global energy prices, Russia was no longer prosperous nor politically stable. It may be that Putin saw the risk to his own legacy, as Russia struggled through the aftermath of the global economic crisis. And so in the fall of 2011, he announced his return to the presidency.
As Russia’s economic crisis deepened, Putin fused his own desire to retain the presidency with his country’s very survival as a nation-state. An internal legitimating narrative—that Russia was under siege from a hedonistic, overly militarized West—took hold. As a result, Russia under Putin is increasingly authoritarian at home and aggressive abroad. But past cooperation between Russia and the United States demonstrates that this is not structural as much as it is a result of the personalization of politics under Putin. He has eviscerated the political opposition, and hollowed out institutions like the Russian parliament and the courts that might check his grip on the system he has built. The recent arrest of Alexei Ulyukaev, Russia’s minister of economic development, on what appear to be politically motivated corruption charges, could signal a further purging of a more liberal wing within Putin’s administration, and a further consolidation of his personal power.
With Russia’s domestic politics and renewed international ambitions as a backdrop, Trump must think hard about what he wants to prevent in dealing with Putin’s Russia, and what he wants to achieve. Presumably, he wants to prevent outright war with Russia over Ukraine, Syria, or America’s NATO allies in the Baltics. Ukraine is important to the United States, so long as the United States considers it a moral responsibility to protect weaker states from aggressors. Russia violated international law in occupying Crimea in 2014, and still maintains a low-boil conflict tin Ukraine by supporting separatists in the east. American and European sanctions in response to such behavior aim to discourage it from happening elsewhere: in Moldova and Georgia, as well as in NATO-ally nations like Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, or even Poland. All are potential targets of Russian aggression. Maintaining sanctions sends a message to Russia that there are consequences for its actions.
Both Obama and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg have expressed confidence that despite the president-elect’s criticism of the alliance during his campaign, he will honor America’s NATO obligations, including to member states on Russia’s borders. These are sovereign countries whose leaders and populations made the conscious, clear decision to join the alliance and, Trump’s complaints about national contributions notwithstanding, they’ve earned their right to call on America. Russian leaders understand this guarantee. If it is not upheld in the Baltics, or if they sense a wavering commitment, their military is more than ready to move in.
Cooperation with Russia, where feasible, is possible, desirable, and yes, “nice” for both sides. Hopefully, Trump does not succumb to Putin’s perceived flattery or manipulation. Above all, he would do well to think about what the United States wants to prevent, and what it can realistically achieve with Russia under its current leadership—without endangering the peace and prosperity we have enjoyed in Europe for the last 71 years.