What do the Russians want? And how does this affect what Trump can achieve in foreign relations?

Trump is hamstrung. The Russians have noted the new situation in Washington and we hear from Russian elites more and more every day just how they plan to proceed on the international stage in the new circumstances.

What do the Russians want?  And how does this affect what Trump can achieve in foreign relations?


by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.


The notion that the United States sets the world’s political agenda is a shared assumption both among those who support Trump’s plans for tearing up U.S. foreign policy and starting anew, and among those in the Establishment who vigorously oppose change. In this context it is important, nay essential to follow closely what is coming out of Moscow these days, because Russia’s ambitions set limits to what is achievable either way that Washington turns.

 Vladimir Putin is identified by some of our leading media as the most powerful man in the world.  And yet we tend to ascribe to him only the most simplistic ambitions. Our Establishment experts on Russian affairs have been saying for years that he wants to re-create the Soviet empire. His success in taking control of Crimea in March 2014 by deploying “little green men,” with no fatalities and hardly a shot fired indicated that Russian military prowess can now support such pretensions if they ever existed. And we, the United States, with NATO allies have responded to this perceived threat with a military build-up in the Baltic States, in Poland, Romania and Bulgaria that has brought us to Cold War II in relations with the Kremlin.

This Establishment view of Russia clearly serves the purpose of giving NATO a reason to exist, to re-arm and re-deploy from the war theaters in the Middle East, where it has failed, to the more promising and traditional geography of Central and Eastern Europe.  But otherwise it is a crude misrepresentation of reality. It entirely misses the point of the kind of competitor or adversary which Russia truly is.

Even if it did not trigger a global war, which today it would, a Russian incursion into or seizure of, say the Baltics, is not of the slightest interest to even the most rabid and ambitious of Russian nationalists.  They know full well that there are no assets worth owning in these lands and that the price of occupying such hostile territory is totally unacceptable.  The idea of a Russian wish to attack Poland is even more absurd to anyone doing cost-benefit analysis.  If we refuse to accept that the Russian leadership might do just that and act rationally, if we assume insanity rules in Moscow, then we and humanity are doomed to extinction in a coming nuclear war and the reader need not follow my argument any further. 

Meanwhile, on the other side of the aisle, the policy lines of Donald Trump are just taking shape.  The President himself spoke repeatedly during the campaign about his hopes for striking a deal with the Russians. We heard about “a deal,” not about many small deals.  There was more than a hint of possibilities for détente.

Amidst the whirlwind of attacks on the President from his political opponents focused on some as yet unproven Russian connection that would explain his electoral victory, Donald Trump has stepped back from change in policy on Russia and attended to other pressing political challenges, like repealing and replacing Obamacare or pushing the confirmation of Judge Gorsuch as the next member of the Supreme Court. His cabinet members and UN ambassador have in recent weeks gone out of their way to reiterate the policy positions of the Obama administration with respect to Russia, underlining the point that at this time nothing has changed. For its part, Congress has gotten down to business in the new McCarthy-ite hearings about Russian meddling in the 2016 elections and collusion with the Trump camp that opened yesterday.


The Kremlin has duly noted these changes in Washington.  The breakthrough in relations that some hoped for is now dismissed as improbable.  On the other hand, while the United States tearing itself apart in partisan fighting over foreign and domestic policy, Russia gets a much-needed breather from the constant ratcheting up of pressure from the West that it experienced over the past three years.

We hear from Russian elites more and more every day just how they plan to proceed on the international stage in the new circumstances. I use as my sampler of the thinking of these elites the authoritative news and commentary programs that appear each Sunday evening on the state television channel Rossiya 1.

The byword is self-reliance and pursuit of the policies that we saw forming in the past couple of years while the confrontation with the United States escalated. These policies have nothing whatever to do with some attack on The Baltic States or Poland.  They have nothing to do with subversion of elections in France or Germany.  Their commonality is furtherance of domestic defense capabilities, furtherance of political alliances with China and a host of Asian countries that together can oppose the power of the West in all dimensions, and, as a result, furtherance of a multi-polar world.  Note:  it is precisely multi-polar, i.e. not a return to the bipolar world of two superpowers, which Russian elites see as unattainable given the diffusion of power in the world in the intervening period and Russia’s own more limited resources.  That is to say they are trying to describe the contours of a world order that harks back to the nineteenth century.

That is the big picture.  In terms of details, the Russians are now inseparably wed to China for reasons of mutual economic and security interest on the global stage.  The same is becoming true of their relationship with Iran at the regional level of the Greater Middle East.  But then again, these elites also take pride in the budding military, economic and geopolitical relationships with countries as far removed as Libya, Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan and Thailand.  News about breakthroughs with each of these countries is heralded on daily television programming.

Russian elites note that the United States has misunderstood their position in Syria from the start of the civil war there.  They insist that their priority was never to keep the Assad regime in power. Put narrowly, it was to maintain their naval base at Tarsus, which is an important support to their presence in the Eastern Mediterranean.  Put broadly, it was and is restore Russian influence in the Middle East that was grown over decades in the post-World War II period, including by training cadres of future government and military leaders at Russian universities, but which vanished following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the economic and political chaos in Russia during the 1990s.

Russia’s loss of Eastern Europe is also not forgotten, though American hegemony there is acknowledged as a reality of our times. However, as they say, nothing lasts forever, and the Russians expect to be back as a major force in that region. Not by military conquest, but by virtue of economic and strategic logic which favors them in the long term.  Though their elites have been bought off by the United States and the European Union, these countries have all been massive losers from the American led post-Cold War order. They have undergone de-industrialization, large-scale emigration to EU countries, reaching to as much as 25% of the general population in some countries.  They have little to offer to Western Europe other than tourist destinations, whereas their shared potential for trade with Russia is immense.

Like our own Neocons, Russians are willing and able to give historic trends a helping hand.  This past weekend Russian television news carried images of demonstrations in Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova that you did not see on Euronews. The object of popular wrath was George Soros and his freedom-promoting “Open Society” affiliates in all these countries.  Russian news commentary explained that these demonstrations under the banner of “Go Home Soros” became possible now that the Trump administration has dropped U.S. support for him.  It would be naïve not to see official Russian assistance to these coordinated demonstrations across a large swathe of Eastern Europe. But the Russians were merely administering an antidote to U.S. sponsored subversion of the legitimate Euroskeptic governments in these countries through Soros and similar NGO proxies.

The original Cold War was characterized not only by military and geopolitical rivalry of the world’s two super-powers of the time, Russia and the Soviet Union. It was characterized by an ideological rivalry between free market capitalism and parliamentary democracy versus planned economies and monolithic top-down Communist Party rule.  Starting with President Richard Nixon, a policy of détente was put in place which embodied the principle of co-existence of these competing principles of organizing human society for the sake of world peace.

There are those who maintain we have no Cold War-II today because the ideological dimension is lacking. To be sure, there are differences over principles between the socially liberal USA/EU and socially conservative Russia. But they hardly constitute full-blown ideologies. The real area of contention which might well be called ideological is in how each side today conceptualizes global governance.  On this level, it makes sense to speak of an ideological divide, because there is a vast body of thought to underpin the competing views which include globalization versus sovereign-state; values-based foreign policy versus interests-based foreign policy; global peace maintained by the all-out victory of parliamentary democracy over all other forms of national governance versus by balance of forces; Realism versus Idealism.  

On the campaign trail and once again in his Inaugural speech, Donald Trump spoke in Realist terms which suggested that the U.S. would abandon its official Idealist ideology of the preceding 25 years and do business with Russia and with the world at large on the basis of the principles that the Russians have been promoting ever since they began their public push-back to the United States in 2007.


Given Trump’s retreat in foreign policy in recent weeks, what we may be left with is something akin to the re-set that Obama introduced at the start of his rule in 2009 which never went as far as détente/co-existence. It was limited to cooperation in isolated areas where U.S. and Russian interests were deemed to coincide.  The only difference we might see, and it is a difference of major importance for avoidance of war, is resumption of bilateral contacts at many levels that were cut when Obama decided to penalize Russia for its intervention in Crimea and the Donbass in 2014. Add to that a more polite and diplomatic tone. All of this is to the good, but does not amount to the onset of the Golden Age.

The great scaling back in our expectations from the Trump administration for improved relations with Russia is justified by another reality that has become clear now that his team of advisers and implementers is filling out, namely that there is no one in his ‘kitchen cabinet’ or in his administration properly speaking who could guide the neophyte president as he tries to negotiate a new global order, to do a “big deal” with Vladimir Putin such as he may have hoped to strike.

His son-in-law Jared Kushner lacks the experience. He may or may not be a good political operative but he in no way may be classed as a world-class strategic thinker.   His Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is the perfect choice of manager to downscale the State Department by 30% or more, and to provide civilized diplomatic counterpoint to the more brutal assaults that Trump practices. But Tillerson is not a strategic thinker, only an implementer. 

There was talk of guidance coming from Henry Kissinger, but he has not been seen or heard from recently, and it is doubtful that at his advanced age and frailty he could provide consistent counsel. It is not even clear whether he can today see beyond the illusion of splitting Russia from China. Kissinger’s proteges, who are more than eager to fill the gap, do not come up to his intellectual achievements when he was still in top form.

Under these circumstances, we must be grateful for small crumbs, for a change in tone if not in the content of U.S. foreign policy until and unless Trump clearly wins out over his domestic adversaries, until and unless he brings on board advisers with the strategic depth that is currently missing in his entourage.  And should that moment come, he will have to deal with a Russia that is even further along on its path of challenging the U.S. hegemony and still further locked into the deals it is making with partners today to counter U.S. influence in the world.  It will take enormous vision and talent to strike a “big deal.”  And at that point, such a deal, let us call it “Yalta-2,” will almost certainly have to be triangular: between the U.S., Russia and China, rather than bilateral. 



© Gilbert Doctorow, 2017



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Gilbert Doctorow is a Brussels-based political analyst. His latest book, Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015.