Trump and Clinton Have No Idea How to Deal With Putin

Murky links to Moscow and speculation of Kremlin interference have dominated the U.S. election. So how come neither candidate has a coherent Russia policy?


The degree to which Russia has taken center stage in the U.S. presidential election hasn’t been seen since the height of the Cold War. Whether it’s the strange and disturbing details of an apparent Kremlin-sponsored Democratic National Committee email hack or the Donald Trump campaign’s curious and convoluted links to the former Soviet region, Russia and its strongman president Vladimir Putin have emerged as a top U.S. national security concern. But so far, polarizing campaign rhetoric and media sensationalism have largely overshadowed all this attention on Russia.

We may not know the full extent to which Moscow is directly meddling in American campaign affairs, but the U.S. political elite is in an uproar over the possibility. Meanwhile, the still-swirling speculation around the Trump campaign’s links to Russia and Ukraine, and allegedly even the Kremlin, has gained new traction with the revelation that Paul Manafort (Trump’s recently resigned campaign chairman) may have received more than $12 million in cash from parties close to Ukraine’s disgraced former President Viktor Yanukovych. Furthering the speculation is the news that two of Trump’s foreign policy advisors — retired Army Gen. Michael Flynn and investment banker Carter Page — have had financial dealings with state-owned Russian companies, though neither has disclosed the full extent of those arrangements. Trump’s own comments in which he’s praised Putin, calling him “a strong leader … a powerful leader,” and then his call to the Russians to hack into other potentially classified material, have garnered the most concern. Both current and former U.S. officials have said this type of Russian intervention in U.S. politics sets a dangerous precedent.

But this political feeding frenzy unleashed by Russian jabs at the U.S. presidential election underscores a far deeper problem for America’s national interests. Despite ample rhetoric bashing Russia’s muscle flexing foreign policy or impugning the White House for failing to explore avenues of cooperation, neither presidential candidate seems to have given much thought to what a coherent U.S. policy toward Russia would actually look like.

Love Putin or hate him, both the Russian president and his country aren’t going anywhere. Moscow is one of a small handful of powerful governments that has both the capability and the ambition to challenge U.S. interests not only by defying Washington’s preferences for human rights within Russia, but by intervening in neighboring states and even projecting power far beyond its borders.

It should be obvious, then, that Washington needs a better Russia policy. And it will be incumbent on the next president to develop an approach that advances vital U.S. national interests while taking into account Russia’s objectives and capabilities on its periphery — and globally. What we have heard from the candidates so far falls short of that mark. Trump has mostly touted his skill as a negotiator and insisted that he will “get along very well” with Putin, as if U.S.-Russia relations boil down to chemistry between two macho executives. Hillary Clinton has taken the opposite approach, branding Putin a bully and comparing him to Hitler in his treatment of neighboring Ukraine. By depicting Putin in this cartoonish way, as either a dastardly villain or a strong leader awaiting more enthusiastic courtship, both candidates are avoiding much harder, and more important, questions about fixing a U.S.-Russia relationship that has become dangerously dysfunctional.

What’s at stake transcends campaign rhetoric and will have repercussions well beyond the 2016 election. U.S. policymakers, politicians, and the Russia expert community were caught off guard by the apparent ease with which the Kremlin has hijacked the geopolitical agenda, shifting attention from its areas of weakness to those with better prospects for Russia. The role of Russian-backed hackers in focusing public attention on corruption and hypocrisy within core U.S. political institutions is only one example. Russia has also exploited close ties with Europe’s far-right and far-left opposition parties to keep disaffection with the European Union, NATO, and the Western-led global financial system front and center in Europe’s political debate. Russia’s intervention in Syria, coming on the heels of a deeper crisis triggered by the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea and its meddling in eastern Ukraine, has put coordination with Moscow — if not outright partnership — back on the table for U.S. and European policymakers. So far, Russia has been unable to break free of Western financial and trade sanctions, but some observers on both sides now expect to see those sanctions gradually reduced in the coming year.

The Kremlin’s apparent success in these endeavors has little to do with U.S. politics, and everything to do with geopolitical realities that will not change regardless of who wins in November. Yet so far, neither candidate has offered anything resembling a strategy for managing the U.S.-Russia relationship for which one of them will become responsible starting Jan. 20, 2017.

As secretary of state, Clinton presided over considerable accomplishments during the “reset” period of 2009 to 2011, and famously presented a literal “reset” button (mislabeled with the Russian word for “overcharge”) to her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in 2009. During this brief period, President Barack Obama and then-President Dmitry Medvedev agreed to practical cooperation on nuclear arms control, trade promotion, and supplying NATO forces in Afghanistan. But by 2012, nearing the end of Clinton’s tenure at Foggy Bottom, this short productive stretch soon gave way to escalating confrontation, with both sides eventually denouncing each other as existential threats.

As the Democratic nominee, Clinton seems content to continue the muddled approach of seeking to both isolate Russia and engage with it, depending on the issue. Her campaign platform touts her ability to “stand up to Vladimir Putin,” and Putin himself has said that Clinton “gave the signal” for massive public protests against him in 2011, so there is not much basis for future cooperation between the two. Clinton is also likely to court U.S. voters of Polish, Ukrainian, and Baltic descent — based predominantly in the Midwest — by reminding them of her long-standing support for NATO enlargement in Central and Eastern Europe. The Democratic nominee is already seeking to win over traditionally Republican-leaning national security voters with her emphasis on using U.S. power to advance freedom and human rights globally, an echo of George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda.” If Clinton doubles down on U.S. involvement in proxy conflicts over Syria and Ukraine, as her comments on the campaign trail have suggested, the Russians are almost certain to respond in kind, and direct U.S.-Russia confrontation could spiral quickly out of either side’s control.

For his part, Trump has suggested he would pursue better relations with Putin, whom he has called a “better leader than Obama,” and who in turn has called Trump “colorful” (mistranslated in the Western press as “brilliant”). Other Trump comments indicate he would be willing to reverse or at least roll back Washington’s current support for Kiev, anti-Assad rebel groups in Syria, and even European NATO members — whom he has castigated for failing to pay their fair share of the costs for their own security. These changes, according to Trump, would be justified by the prospect of enlisting Russia’s support in the greater struggle against the Islamic State and radical Islam globally. But experienced national security hands doubt Trump could cut a favorable deal with Putin, and worry that he would only eviscerate U.S. relations with its key European allies in his attempt.

Both candidates’ disorganized approaches to the Kremlin stand in contrast to Washington’s historical relations with Moscow. During the Cold War, American presidents from Harry S. Truman to Ronald Reagan defined the challenge from the Soviet Union in terms of defeating the ideology of Communism, but they also identified concrete U.S. interests around the world jeopardized by Soviet policies and defined the resources necessary to defend them.

Truman’s eponymous doctrine entailed a historic commitment to rebuilding war-torn European economies via the Marshall Plan and committed the United States to Europe’s stability and territorial integrity under the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty, which created NATO. At the most dangerous phase of the Cold War, following the Cuban Missile Crisis, the building of the Berlin Wall, and proxy wars in the Middle East and Vietnam, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger redefined U.S. strategy by negotiating with the Kremlin for limitations on nuclear testing and deployment, and successfully exploiting rivalries among Communist governments, especially between Moscow and Beijing. Reagan famously entered office determined to challenge the Soviet Union both morally and militarily, denouncing the Soviet “evil empire” and committing to a vast new military buildup. But by 1986, Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev had agreed to dramatically reduce tensions, and even discussed the then-inconceivable and still-elusive goal of eliminating all nuclear weapons in the world.

These examples may seem quaint or even irrelevant in light of the vastly different circumstances of the globalized world in the early 21st century. Yet in their own time, each previous U.S. administration was faced with quickly evolving technological, political, and economic developments on the home front, as well as unpredictable global security crises that demanded scarce U.S. resources and attention. In each case, clearly defining the challenge posed by the Soviet Union to American interests, and the steps necessary to secure those interests, helped set a standard against which competing priorities could be weighed and difficult choices made.

The simple fact is that Russia is a major player in regions of great strategic importance to the United States and its closest European allies, from the Baltic and Black Seas to the Middle East and the Arctic. It is nowhere near the superpower and rival to the United States that it was during the Cold War, but Russia is still a major force, with 145 million people, one of the world’s largest economies, increasingly potent conventional military capabilities, and a vast strategic nuclear arsenal. These facts may fuel campaign broadsides about the threat from Putin and Russia over the coming months, but paranoia and demonization should not obscure the fundamental challenge Russia poses for U.S. foreign policy.

Thinking through a comprehensive, interests-based approach to managing U.S.-Russia competition and confrontation in 2017 and beyond is not an academic exercise. The next U.S. administration is certain to face recurring trade-offs between confronting the Kremlin over its bullying of neighboring states like Ukraine and Georgia or its abuse of its own citizens, versus securing Russian cooperation on global challenges like maintaining the nuclear nonproliferation regime and countering the terrorist threat that both countries face.

Consider just a few of the Russia-related problems the next administration will face: The conflicts in Syria and Ukraine cannot be resolved without Russian cooperation, yet Russia’s interventions so far have clearly been designed to weaken U.S. proxies and increase pressure on Washington. Russian participation was critical to achieving the breakthrough agreement to halt Iran’s nuclear program, but as relations with Washington deteriorate further, Moscow could easily back Tehran if it is found cheating. And, although low oil and gas prices have dealt a blow to Russia’s export-dependent economy, Moscow can still turn off the tap during Europe’s cold winter months to punish neighbors for cozying up to the West.

In dealing with smaller, weaker states more inclined to defer to U.S. preferences, it may be smart for a candidate to talk tough on the campaign trail — but once elected, shift to experienced career officials and talented diplomats to actually manage productive relations with the Kremlin. Russia, however, will require presidential attention from day one — and coordinating efforts across the vast U.S. bureaucracy will demand a strategy. It’s not too early for the candidates to stop bashing each other with caricatures of Putin and Russia and start developing a clear vision of the challenge Moscow poses to Washington’s interests and the steps needed to defend them.

Photo credit: NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images

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