Foreign Policy Essay

What Does Putin Want from a Bargain with Trump?

Sunday, February 5, 2017, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: Of the many changes in foreign policy that the Trump administration is enacting, perhaps the biggest is its embrace of Russia. Although a close relationship with Moscow alarms many Americans given Russia's aggressive behavior in Europe and elsewhere, it remains unclear what Putin might seek from a better relationship with Washington. MIT's Carol Saivetz tries to piece together this puzzle and explains that many of the benefits Russia might seek will be hard for it to attain.

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As Donald J. Trump becomes president, U.S.-Russian relations are at a post-1991 low. Fundamental disagreements exist over the annexation of Crimea and the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, over the course of the civil war in Syria, over NATO expansion, over missile defense, over the future of arms control, and many other issues. During the recent U.S. presidential campaign, now-President Trump repeatedly called for better relations with Russia, and Russian President Vladimir Putin seemed to reciprocate. Between Christmas and the new year, in response to President Obama’s expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats and leveling of new sanctions against entities tied to Russian interference in the U.S. elections, Putin declined to retaliate: “While we reserve the right to take reciprocal measures, we’re not going to downgrade ourselves to the level of irresponsible ‘kitchen’ diplomacy….In our future steps on the way toward the restoration of Russia-United States relations, we will proceed from the policy pursued by the administration” of Donald J. Trump.

For the moment, the apparent goodwill between President Trump and President Putin could indicate a new “reset” of the bilateral relationship. Yet questions remain about whether or not relations can move beyond these rosy expectations and what any new rapprochement would entail.

President Trump has not offered specifics about his future Russia policy other than to suggest cooperation in Syria to fight the Islamic State, to hope for an increase in bilateral trade, and in general to establish better ties. Putin, in his address on December 1 to the Federal Assembly also laid out broad goals: "It's important to normalize and develop our bilateral ties on an equal and mutually beneficial basis. We share responsibility for ensuring global security and stability and strengthening the non-proliferation regime."

In Putin’s words—specifically “shar[ing] responsibility” for global security—is Russia’s quest for superpower status.

On the most superficial level, both appear to want a rapprochement. But, embedded in Putin’s words—specifically “shar[ing] responsibility” for global security—is Russia’s quest for superpower status. Putin’s popularity at home—despite Russia’s economic crisis, which has been exacerbated by the decline in world oil prices and the sanctions imposed after the annexation of Crimea—derives primarily from Russia’s expanded international role. According to noted analyst Dmitri Trenin, Putin regards Russia as a “self-sustained civilization” that would never “accept a subordinate position” in the regional or world order. How this squares with Trump’s “Make America Great Again” remains to be seen.

The full agenda of U.S.-Russian relations is long, but among the most immediate issues are Ukraine, Syria, and the situation in Europe.

With regard to Ukraine, some have ventured that President Trump might be tempted to acknowledge, either de facto or de jure, the Russian annexation of Crimea. Additionally, Trump might promise that Ukraine and Georgia would never join NATO. In return, Russia might offer any of the following: payment of reparations for Crimea, a withdrawal of Russian and Russian-assisted troops from the Donbas, and the demarcation and securing of the Russian-Ukrainian border. Some of these possibilities have been suggested by Thomas Graham, the managing director of Kissinger Associates, but admittedly all of these potential trade-offs are highly speculative.

Putin seems to be looking for more—most importantly, the lifting of sanctions. Not only has the Kremlin pushed for sanctions relief, Putin has also reportedly demanded compensation for the damage they have caused. Any improvements to the Russian economy will further bolster Putin’s popularity at home.

On Syria, Trump has vowed to end support to the so-called moderate forces in Syria and to work with Russia to fight the Islamic State. Putin, for his part, said in his December 1 address: “We hope to join efforts with the United States in the fight against a real rather than dreamt-up threat—global terrorism….Our servicemen in Syria are fulfilling that task." Yet, by all accounts, Russian forces have focused primarily on supporting the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and not on attacking the Islamic State. The only notable exception—the city of Palmyra, recaptured by Russian and Syrian forces last spring—fell back into Islamic State hands in December.

Cooperation in Syria will be difficult, in part because we don’t know what else Vladimir Putin will want in return. Most analysts presume that the Kremlin wants us to turn a blind eye to Russian activities in Ukraine. Does he have additional demands? The prospect of cooperation in the Syrian theater also poses challenges. For the United States, military collaboration would require sharing intelligence, something opposed by U.S. military commanders and intelligence officials. Despite claims from the Russian Defense Ministry that it coordinated airstrikes near al-Bab with the United States in January (which U.S. officials denied), joint military action seems unlikely in the near term.

Equally difficult, allying with Russia puts the United States on the same side as Iran and Hezbollah. This complicates Trump’s pledge to tear up the Iran nuclear deal, an international agreement backed by Moscow. Alternatively, some have speculated that the new Trump administration wants to drive a wedge between Moscow and Tehran. But, according to former U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul, unless the United States or our Sunni allies purchase the Russian arms destined for Iran, there is little in this for President Putin.

In late December, Moscow and Ankara announced a nationwide ceasefire in Syria to be followed by peace talks between the Assad regime and rebel groups in Astana, Kazakhstan. At the conclusion of two days of meetings in January, Russia, Turkey, and Iran agreed to reinforce the ceasefire, but neither the Syrian government nor the rebels signed the agreement. The ceasefire remains tenuous at best; despite the truce, clashes continued north of Damascus until rebels agreed to evacuate the area and cede control to regime forces, and at least one Free Syrian Army rebel group has withdrawn from the ceasefire since the Astana talks. Should the ceasefire hold and should a permanent peace be negotiated, Russia will have achieved a major double victory: establishing a major role in the Middle East and sidelining the US and the West. But if the truce collapses, Russia will act first and foremost to prop up the Assad regime and only secondarily—as in the case of Palmyra—to fight the Islamic State directly.

Another key area is Europe. Most agree that the Kremlin seems determined to disrupt European unity, including Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who in his confirmation hearing in January told the Senate Armed Services Committee, “I think right now, the most important thing is that we recognize the reality of what we deal with with Mr. Putin—and we recognize that he’s trying to break the North Atlantic alliance.” Russia has supported Eurosceptics, like Marine Le Pen, and has apparently hacked the German parliament in an effort to hurt Chancellor Angela Merkel’s electoral chances. In the military realm, the Baltic states and the Scandinavian countries have been the targets of Russian military provocations—from violations of airspace to submarines in Stockholm Harbor.

To quote President Trump, people would be “stupid” not to want better relations with Russia. But on what terms?

During the campaign, then-candidate Trump repeatedly questioned the value of NATO (as he did again following his inauguration) and seemed to equivocate on whether the United States would come to the aid of member states if they had not paid their mandated share. To be fair, many on the left and the right have urged increased burden-sharing. Nonetheless, the Obama administration and NATO responded to the perceived threats by creating a rapid-reaction force of 5,000 troops, proceeding with missile defense in Romania and Poland, and holding joint military exercises with states in the region. Mattis seemed to continue this commitment when, in his first full day in office, he sought to reassure the NATO members. These policies have evoked loud and repeated complaints from Moscow about the increased NATO presence on Russia’s borders. In an escalatory cycle, Russia has held military exercises on Europe’s borders and, most recently, deployed nuclear-capable Iskander missiles to their exclave in Kaliningrad. U.S. allies worry that President Trump will not continue to honor the NATO commitments.

In the final analysis, it is difficult to see the outlines of a deal or a series of deals. To quote President Trump, people would be “stupid” not to want better relations with Russia. But on what terms?

Putin, thus far, has not indicated interest in any of the trade-offs on Ukraine suggested above. If anything, the war in eastern Ukraine continues and pro-Russian forces are intensifying their push toward Mariupol. In Syria, the collapse of the ceasefire would leave in place the status quo ante, with Russian firepower directed toward shoring up the Assad government. And in Europe, allies wonder “whether Trump’s definition of a deal entails alignment with whatever conditions Putin may set forward,” Natalie Nougayrede wrote recently for the Guardian.

Putin and Trump spoke on Saturday, January 28. According to the White House, the call was a good start to improved relations. The Kremlin readout was more specific: it stated that the two underscored the importance of mutually beneficial trade relations.

Hard bargaining over Ukraine, clarifying Russia’s goals in Syria, and protecting our allies in Europe are all required before a deal can be cut. Staged sanctions relief could be part of a “reset,” but President Trump should be in no rush to lift sanctions without clarity and movement on these and other issues. “Getting along” is not a foreign policy and should not be a goal in and of itself.