How Trump Can Play Nice With Russia, Without Selling Out America

There’s no one playbook for dealing with Moscow. But if Trump doesn’t figure out which his is, before shooting from the hip, it could be deadly.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump was a whirlwind of vagaries and contradictions when it came to foreign policy, making it difficult to predict how his new administration will approach dozens of international issues. On Russia, however, he was clear and consistent. He praised President Vladimir Putin often, defended many of Putin’s policies, and declared with enthusiasm, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we actually got along with Russia?” Since his election, Trump has persisted in defending Putin, questioning in multiple tweets and comments the intelligence community’s assessment regarding Russia’s interference in our electoral process last year. In nominating Rex Tillerson as his secretary of state, Trump is proposing for Senate approval the perfect emissary for improving relations with the Kremlin. Along with Henry Kissinger and Steven Seagal, Tillerson is one of the very few Americans to have enjoyed direct and sustained access to Putin in recent years. The conditions seem set for another reset with Russia.

But to what ends? While being clear about his desire to befriend Putin, Trump has been very unclear about what foreign-policy objectives he seeks to achieve in U.S.-Russia relations. “Better relations” should never be the goal of U.S. foreign policy toward Russia or any country in the world. Diplomacy is not a popularity contest. Rather, better relations must always be understood as a means to advance American security and prosperity. Sometimes, coercive diplomacy is a means that helps us best pursue our foreign-policy objectives. Other times, disengagement or isolation is the best way to advance our national security interests. Clarifying ends versus means — the basic task when developing any foreign policy — must be the first order of business for the new Trump national security team before they prematurely give away American leverage or undermine U.S. security goals for the sake of a smiling photo-op in the Kremlin. Learning from the successes and failures of the last detente with Russia — President Barack Obama’s “reset,” which I helped to craft — would be a good first start.

President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev hold a press conference after the signing the Joint Understanding on Strategic Arms Reduction on July 6, 2009 at the Kremlin in Moscow. (Photo credit: Epsilon/Getty Images)

Closing big deals during Obama’s reset

As the Obama White House developed our reset policy during the 2008 transition and the first months of the administration in 2009, the president never defined “improved relations with Russia” as a goal. We didn’t seek friendships in Moscow, or “Kumbaya” sing-alongs with Russian diplomats. Instead, we outlined a comprehensive list of foreign-policy goals, and then explored ways in which the Russian government might help us achieve our goals. Regarding some issues on our list — for instance, withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Iraq — we saw no role for Russia. But on many issues — dealing with Iran and North Korea, reducing nuclear weapons in the world, increasing trade and investment, combating terrorism — we believed that Russia and the United States shared mutual objectives. Our strategy for realizing these win-win outcomes was engagement with Moscow, both at the presidential level, but also horizontally throughout the rest of our government. We invented the Bilateral Presidential Commission, which created working groups on issues ranging from counterterrorism to innovation, to compel more interaction between our two bureaucracies.

Parallel to government-to-government engagement, we also promoted deeper ties between our business communities and civil societies. Presidents Obama and Dmitry Medvedev helped roundtable discussions with business leaders at both the 2009 summit in Moscow and 2010 summit in Washington. Obama met with Russia civil-society leaders during his first visit to Moscow in July 2009, and his administration encouraged peer-to-peer engagement between Russian and American non-governmental leaders. But while seeking to deepen contact with the Russian government and citizens, we made explicit that we were not prepared to downgrade bilateral relations with other countries in Russia’s neighborhood in the pursuit of more engagement with the Kremlin. Learning from the Reagan administration, we rejected “linkage.” We were not prepared to weaken ties with Georgia to get an arms control deal, or stop talking about human rights to obtain Moscow’s cooperation on Iran.

In the language of our new president, the reset produced some “really big deals.” Obama and Medvedev signed and ratified the New START agreement, which reduced by 30 percent the number of nuclear weapons allowed in U.S. and Russian arsenals, while maintaining a rigorous inspections regime to implement the treaty. The United States and Russia cooperated in writing, adopting, and then implementing U.N. Security Council Resolution 1929, the most comprehensive sanctions against Iran, ever. These U.N. sanctions were instrumental in pressuring the Iranian government to give up its nuclear weapons program, which culminated in the 2015 signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. We dramatically expanded the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), a complicated transportation route through Russia and other countries used to supply U.S. and NATO soldiers in Afghanistan. NDN reduced our dependence on supply routes through Pakistan, and thereby made possible the operation to kill Osama bin Laden, which violated Pakistani sovereignty. After two decades of negotiations, we helped Russia obtain membership into the World Trade Organization, an element of our larger strategy of increasing trade and investment between our two countries. From 2009 to 2012, Boeing, Cisco, ExxonMobil, and many other American companies also did some “real big deals” in Russia, as trade and investment between our two countries increased dramatically. We also negotiated a new visa agreement, which allowed businesspeople to obtain three-year multiple-entry visas, helping to foster economic ties.

We also defused issues that earlier had caused deep frictions in the bilateral relationship. Instead of fighting over missile defense, we negotiated how to cooperate on missile defense, discussing in detail plans for sharing data about ballistic missile launches. NATO expansion also faded as an irritant. At the 2010 NATO summit, Medvedev went out of his way to signal a new era of cooperation between Russia and the alliance, saying: “The declaration approved at the end of our talks states that we seek to develop a strategic partnership. This is not a chance choice of words, but signals that we have succeeded in putting the difficult period in our relations behind us now.” In private, he was even more effusive. And when regime change occurred in Kyrgyzstan in 2010, leaving dozens dead and prompting hundreds of thousands of ethnic Uzbeks to flee the country, which looked to be on the verge of civil war, the United States and Russia worked together to defuse the crisis.

During his final meeting with Obama in his capacity as president in March 2012 in Seoul, Medvedev was still very optimistic about the reset, saying on the record, “[W]e probably enjoyed the best level of relations between the United States and Russia during those three years than ever during the previous decades.”

Meanwhile, in America, citizens noticed and reacted favorably to all of these deals getting done. In the summer of 2010, more than 60 percent of Americans expressed a positive feeling about Russia and a similar percentage of Russians held a positive view of the United States.

Opposition activists rally at Bolotnaya Square in Moscow on Dec. 10, 2011, to protest against alleged mass fraud in parliamentary polls. (Photo credit: YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images)

Why the reset ended

According to candidate Trump, the reset ended because Putin doesn’t respect Obama. For Trump, therefore, the pathway back to improved relations with Moscow is simple: Gain Putin’s admiration.

Trump’s theory is flawed. He is looking at the symptoms of the reset’s end, not the causes. Without question, the respect between Obama and Putin has dwindled; the feeling is mutual. But why? Just a few years earlier, U.S. and Russian officials — including presidents Obama and Medvedev — enjoyed high levels of respect and trust as they cooperated on everything from Iran to visa reform. What caused such a dramatic change in such a short time?

Irritants were a factor. Medvedev was disappointed that we were not making fast enough progress on missile-defense cooperation. The Obama administration grew frustrated by Moscow’s foot-dragging regarding the commencement of new negotiations about deeper cuts in our nuclear arsenals. The Magnitsky Act, which sanctioned Russian human rights abusers, ruffled Kremlin feathers. But all of these issues could have been managed. The real drama in our relations came not from officials in the White House or the Kremlin but from common people demonstrating in the streets to demand greater freedoms and democratic rule in 2011 — in Egypt, Syria, Libya, and then at the end of the year, in Russia. Two years later, demonstrators again, this time in Ukraine, triggered further tensions in U.S.-Russia relations. Putin’s response to those events, first the annexation of Crimea and then intervention in support of insurgents in eastern Ukraine, ended for good our ability to cooperate and compelled Obama to revert to more coercive instruments to deal with Russia.

Throughout this period of popular uprising in the Arab world, then in Russia, and later Ukraine, Obama and the administration tried to convince our Russian interlocutors that the United States was not fomenting revolution, but responding to the actions of individuals in these countries over which we had no control. Initially, Obama persuaded Medvedev, and in so doing obtained Russian acquiescence to abstain from the vote on U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorized the use of military force in Libya. Putin, however, had a different view, both of our intervention in Libya and our neutrality regarding these popular demonstrations. He publicly criticized Medvedev for supporting the intervention in Libya, declaring that the U.N. resolution “resembles medieval calls for crusades.” Putin also berated the United States for supporting regime change in other countries in the Middle East. After I became U.S. ambassador to the Russian Federation in January 2012, he blamed me personally for supporting the revolutionaries against his regime. During my time as ambassador, Russian state-controlled media constantly spun a wild conspiracy theory about American financial support for Russian opposition leaders and their organizations.

We tried to convince Putin and his government otherwise. We explained that the CIA was not financing demonstrators in Cairo, Moscow, or Ukraine; that it was not in the U.S. national interest to provoke such instability. But Putin’s theory of American power — engrained long ago as a KGB officer (and confirmed, it must be admitted, by previous American actions in Iran, Latin America, Serbia, and Iraq) — was only reconfirmed by events during the Arab Spring and especially on the streets of Moscow in the winter of 2011 and spring of 2012. In his view, people don’t rise up independently and spontaneously to demand greater freedom. They must be guided, and the Obama administration was the hidden hand. On that, we profoundly disagreed; our bilateral relations never recovered.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (L) and President Vladimir Putin attend a meeting to discuss the Ukrainian peace process at the German federal Chancellery in Berlin on Oct. 19, 2016. (Photo credit: ADAM BERRY/Getty Images)

Permissive conditions for a new reset?

Putin is not alone in advancing this theory about the Obama administration and U.S. foreign policy more generally. At times, candidate Trump argued the same, promising to end (phantom) Obama policies of regime change. Some Trump advisors have echoed Putin’s false claims, blaming Obama’s so-called regime-change polices for renewed tensions in U.S.-Russia relations. (There was a time, not long ago, when Republicans criticized Obama for not doing enough to promote freedom in the world, but that era seems over.) Trump also has made clear that he worries little about defending human rights or advancing democracy abroad. In fact, I cannot remember a time when he even uttered the phrase “human rights.” When challenged on MSNBC’s Morning Joe by host Joe Scarborough for defending Putin’s violent ways, Trump responded: “I think our country does plenty of killing, also, Joe, so, you know. There’s a lot of stupidity going on in the world right now, Joe.” Putin loves this kind of moral equivalency.

Obviously, the change from Obama to Trump creates the first condition for a possible detente with Russia. Often, the change of U.S. administrations starts a honeymoon in U.S.-Russian relations, but 2017 is extraordinary, as the United States has never had a president make so many glowing statements about a Kremlin leader as Trump.

But a second condition for closer ties also exists today: the end of popular mobilization against autocracies. In Russia, Putin has crushed and contained the opposition. In Ukraine, the new government is struggling to advance democratic and economic reforms while still fighting Russian-supported insurgents in eastern Ukraine. In Syria and Egypt, autocrats are reasserting their control, at least for now. In short, the main cause of increased tensions in U.S.-Russian relations in 2012 is now absent.

Trump must use this moment wisely. Above all else, he must reject Putin’s formulation of ends and means for a new reset. Putin seeks several very concrete objectives from the new American president: Lift economic sanctions; endorse his way of warfare in Syria; acknowledge a Russian sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union; suspend missile defense deployments in Europe; and, in his dream of dreams, recognize Russian-Crimean “unification.” In return for these concrete outcomes, Putin will give Trump his ephemeral, empty goal of “better relations with Russia.” For that list, Putin would personally organize the most elaborate state dinner in St. George’s Hall of the Kremlin that any American president has ever attended. Obtaining these concessions from the president of the United States also would help nurture Putin’s image as a powerful global leader, which in turn might embolden him to pursue even more aggressive policies in the former Soviet Union and eventually regarding European institutions. With Trump on his side, Putin’s brand of conservative nationalism could begin to rival liberal democracy as a competing ideology with global appeal.

That’s a bad deal for America. Instead, Trump first needs to develop his own list of foreign-policy objectives, and then try to use this new opportunity to engage Putin to achieve some of these outcomes in which Russia can be a cooperative partner. But Trump must also be ready to ignore Russia’s desires and even contain Russian behavior when such policies serve American national interests.

Activists take part in a demonstration calling for an end to violence in Syria and an end to Russian President Vladimir Putin's support of the Syrian regime in front of the Russian embassy in the Hague on June 14, 2012. (Photo credit: LEX VAN LIESHOUT/AFP/GettyImages)

The seven-step path

Though Trump has been disparaging about the value of traditional American alliances, the first move of his administration’s policy toward Russia should be the reassurance of our NATO allies. Endorsing recent NATO decisions to enhance deterrence against Russian threats would signal needed continuity with more than a half century of American foreign policy. In doing so, Trump will incentivize our allies to spend more on defense without even uttering a word about burden-sharing.

During the coming honeymoon phase, Putin is less likely to threaten a NATO ally. Obtaining sanctions relief or recognition of his policies in Syria and Ukraine are much more immediate priorities; Putin understands that these goals will be less likely achieved if, for instance, Russia increases tensions with the Baltic states. The unfolding tensions within the European Union and, to a lesser extent, NATO are unfolding very nicely from Putin’s perspective. Why rock the boat now? A Trump declaration of support of NATO will not hinder his Putin courtship. On the contrary, such a move by Trump first might reduce criticisms of rapprochement with the Kremlin from some American allies and within the ranks of his own Republican Party.

Second, Trump must outline his conditions for lifting sanctions. To do so unilaterally, without consultation with our European allies and partners, and without getting anything in return from Russia, would be complete capitulation — a really bad deal. Such a decision would effectively condone annexation and intervention, and thus have negative consequences for the stability of the entire international order. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Obama successfully worked together to impose sanctions against Russian individuals and companies in response to Russian military intervention in Ukraine. While the response to the annexation of Crimea was slow, subsequent sanctions in reaction to Russian support for separatist movements in eastern Ukraine were extensive and costly for individual Russian officials and companies. So far, Putin has not changed his position at all regarding annexation and intervention in Ukraine. Consequently, one obvious strategy would be to maintain the status quo — sanctions will be lifted when Russia implements its commitments in the Minsk Agreement, including first and foremost restoring control of the state border between Ukraine and Russia to the Ukrainian government. If however, the new Trump administration concludes that Minsk will never be implemented, it must engage with Moscow, Kiev, Berlin, and Paris to replace this agreement with something else. Simply walking away while lifting sanctions would equal total victory for Putin and validate the notion that the strong can invade the weak without penalty.

Third, the Trump administration must provide smarter economic aid, political assistance, and technical help in order for Ukraine to succeed both as a market economy and democracy. Putin supports the continuation of low-level conflict in eastern Ukraine as a means to undermine Kiev’s legitimacy and slow reforms. The new Trump administration must do more to seek the opposite outcome, including using a change in administration to put additional pressure on Kiev to reform. If Ukraine’s economic and political reforms fail again, it would hand Moscow a giant victory. Conversely, democratic consolidation and economic growth in Ukraine will constitute a major setback for Putin’s hegemonic agenda in the region.

Fourth, Trump must not simply endorse Putin’s military intervention in Syria, but define his own objectives regarding this tragic civil war. Trump wants to join forces with Russia to fight the Islamic State, but Putin seems perfectly content to watch the United States and our allies do the major fighting against this terrorist organization in Syria and Iraq. In another departure from Obama’s policy, Trump has called for the creation of safe zones in Syria. Maybe he could use his powers of persuasion with Putin to persuade him not violate the borders of these no-fly zones, or, even better, to contribute relief aid to those living in these safe areas? Trump also must decide to whom American and allied forces will hand sovereignty if Operation Inherent Resolve succeeds in pushing the Islamic State out of Raqqa. Returning the keys of the city to Assad should not be an option.

Fifth, the Trump administration must develop a more effective cybersecurity policy, which would include deterring Russia but also other countries. Trump’s first move toward this end must be to recognize the problem: It’s time to stop doubting the overwhelming evidence marshalled by our intelligence community that Russian actors stole information from the Democratic Party and party leaders and then released this information with the intent to influence our democratic process. We will never be safe until the Trump administration acknowledges this violation of our sovereignty and then takes action to prevent such attacks in the future. Trump should then tell Putin that Russia will not be allowed to execute future cyberattacks and the leaking of stolen data without paying a price. In parallel, the new administration must increase our cyberdefenses and resilience to protect the homeland from Russia, as well as other countries and domestic actors. Down the road, Trump should consider engaging Putin to agree to some basic norms about cyberwarfare. “Thou shall not use cyber-capabilities to interfere in each other’s elections” could be the first norm codified in some new agreement.

Sixth, Trump should consider pursuing some smaller, quick wins to demonstrate the virtues of his rapprochement with Putin, and thereby build momentum for doing bigger deals. For instance, Trump could ask Putin to lift the ban on American parents adopting Russian orphans, a policy that only punishes innocent children. Given that both Trump and Putin seem disinterested in deeper nuclear weapons cuts — in fact Trump has argued for expanding our nuclear arsenal — the two presidents could instead endorse an extension of the New START agreement to keep the treaty’s limits in place and, equally importantly, maintain the rigorous inspections regime codified in this agreement. Or, now that the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe has lapsed, the two presidents could agree to provide greater transparency to each other about military training exercises and deployments in Europe.

Seventh, Trump has to begin to disentangle some of the contradictions in his policy statements during the campaign and transition. His pledge to rip up the Iran nuclear deal will not win favor with Putin. The Russian president will never agree to impose new sanctions on Iran, since Russia is seeking to expand economic ties and military sales to the Islamic Republic, and has allied with Tehran in the Syrian war. In addition, Trump’s full-throated embrace of Russia creates more tension in our bilateral relations with China. Trump’s promise to “look into” recognition of Crimea as part of Russia completely contradicts his vow to review America’s one-China policy. Trump’s most recent pledge to strengthen and expand our nuclear weapons arsenal eventually will complicate his pursuit of other cooperative policies with Moscow. And Russian military officials are waiting anxiously for greater clarity on Trump’s approach to missile defense. If his campaign promise to increase military spending also means new enhancements for our missile defense systems in Europe and Asia, the honeymoon with Russia could be a quick one.


Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center on Nov. 5, 2016 in Reno, Nevada. (Photo credit: CHIP SOMODEVILLA/Getty Images)

The wish list

Some of my other ideas for U.S.-Russia relations are far beyond the pale from what I think Trump believes or will do, but they require mentioning nonetheless. For instance, the greater threat to NATO cohesion is not Russian tanks rolling into Tallinn, but Russian ideas, media, and money empowering pro-Russian, anti-liberal political leaders in NATO countries. We can no longer assume that all citizens of the NATO alliance (including U.S. citizens) accept the virtues of liberal democracy or global economic integration, so Washington must make the case. Within the NATO alliance and among the democratic community of states more generally, we must devote more leadership, intellectual content, and dissemination resources to this ideological struggle against Putin and his autocratic allies. U.S. officials should stand up for human rights advocates in Russia, making the case that we believe that freedom and democracy are universal values, not American or Western values. I continue to believe that it is in the U.S. interest to promote the independence, territorial integrity, and security not only of Ukraine, but also Georgia, Moldova, and all countries threatened by Russian hegemony. And the United States and its allies must develop new strategies for engaging Russian society and other societies throughout the former Soviet Union, including even in the Donbass region of Ukraine now occupied by Kremlin-supported separatists. We need more student exchanges, more peer-to-peer dialogues, more business internships to increase connections between our societies. We cannot revert to a policy where we only speak to officials in Moscow and attempt to do right by the Kremlin.

I doubt few in the Trump administration will have much sympathy for pursuing these goals. But even if Trump’s new national security team rejects these longstanding, bipartisan foreign-policy objectives, it is imperative that the new administration first define their own list, and then devise strategies for achieving them. “Getting along with Russia” is not a policy; engaging Russia when possible and confronting Russia when necessary to advance American interests is.

Top photo credit: Getty Images/Foreign Policy illustration