In 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush met with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a summit in Slovenia. After the summit, Bush said he had “looked the man in the eye” and gotten a “sense of his soul.” By the end of Bush’s presidency, Russia had invaded Georgia, and the U.S. was installing missile defense batteries in Poland. In 2009, early in President Barack Obama’s first term, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov a reset button to usher in a new era of U.S.-Russia relations. By the end of Obama’s presidency, Russia had invaded Crimea and was propping up Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria. Last week, U.S. President Donald Trump met with Putin in Helsinki in an attempt to improve relations that the Russian president said were “worse than during the Cold War.” The question no one is asking is: What will U.S.-Russia relations look like by the end of the Trump administration?
A Claustrophobic Russia
For over 100 years, the issue of Russian expansion in Eastern Europe has dominated U.S. strategic thinking. The U.S. entered World War I in part because of the Russian Revolution. Allowing Germany a dominant position on the European continent was untenable – as was leaving a power vacuum the Soviet Union might fill. In World War II, the power vacuum couldn’t be avoided – the U.S. needed Soviet help to defeat the Germans. The cost was ceding Eastern Europe’s fate to Moscow. In effect, the staring contest across the Iron Curtain was the real frontline of the Cold War – not Korea or Vietnam or the Middle East.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, there was hope that this long-running disagreement between two global heavyweights might finally be put aside. But hope could not change the strategic reality of the U.S.-Russia relationship. The U.S. was eager to welcome former Soviet states in Eastern Europe into the liberal world order – a world order that had triumphed over communism – in part because there was a lot of money to be made in the former Soviet states, and Western businessmen were eager to make it. But the U.S. also saw an opportunity to nip any potential challenge from the new Russian Federation in the bud by creating a strong, pro-Western buffer between Europe and Russia.
Russia immediately began to feel claustrophobic. Without Russian control over Eastern Europe, Napoleon and Hitler might have succeeded in conquering Russia. Taking this region away from Russia would be like taking away the oceans from the United States.
It was that loss of control that in part led to the rise of Vladimir Putin as Russia’s newest czar. The corruption and economic privation of the late 1990s played a significant role as well. Putin represented (and still represents) a need for order at home and power abroad. U.S. presidents have come and gone, but Putin has remained, and that is not a coincidence. The Russian Federation was not structured to profit from the world order the U.S. had created, and Russia’s brief experiment with behaving like a liberal democracy made that abundantly clear. There is opposition to Putin inside Russia, but there is far more fear about a return to the instability that preceded Putin than there is discontent with the way his regime has behaved.
Successive U.S. administrations have sought to make amends with Russia – and have failed spectacularly. The Obama administration failed not so much because of what it did, but because of how it reacted to an unpredictable event – the Maidan revolution, which ousted Ukraine’s pro-Russia president. In Maidan, the seeds of a more serious U.S.-Russia confrontation were sown. Losing Eastern European states like Poland or Hungary as a buffer was one thing, but losing Ukraine, which borders Russia and is so culturally linked to Russia, was a bridge too far. For all of Russia’s efforts to prevent Ukraine from turning to the West, Putin was left with Crimea (a financial black hole for a government that isn’t awash in expendable cash) and two separatist uprisings in eastern Ukraine. In effect, Putin failed to do what should be any Russian president’s top duty: to defend Russia’s interests in Europe. He has not forgotten this, primarily because no Russian leader can last long in office if key buffer territory is suddenly populated with NATO troops and advanced U.S. weaponry.
This is not a problem Russia can solve by force, at least for now. From a military perspective, Russia could probably defeat Ukrainian forces, but it would be an extremely costly endeavor. And occupying the territory after conquest would be another risky affair: The farther west Russian forces extended, the more difficult holding the territory would be. Not to mention the crippling economic sanctions that would inevitably follow. Even if the U.S. and its allies didn’t intervene, it’s unclear that Russia would be able to repeat the success it had in Georgia – Ukraine is a much larger country with more concerned neighbors.
Russia, therefore, can’t afford to be the instigator. Any Russian aggression is bound to unite Russia’s enemies, which Moscow can’t afford right now. Instead, Russia must bide its time. It must rebuild and modernize its military forces. It must ease the financial burden – even if that means touching the third rail of Russian politics, pension reform. And to keep its rivals at bay, it must sow divisions in the Western world.
Ukraine Is Everything
But this strategy can work only if the threats on Russia’s borders appear to be under control and Moscow appears to have a handle on Russian security interests. And there is no place where that hold is more tenuous or more important right now than in Ukraine. It’s impossible to know what Trump and Putin talked about in their one-on-one meeting in Helsinki, but one doesn’t need to know what they were talking about to know what’s on Putin’s mind – because it’s what would be on the mind of any Russian leader in his situation. Ukraine is tilting toward the West, and a Ukrainian presidential election is coming up in March 2019.
According to polls, Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister and fierce rival of Russia-backed former President Viktor Yanukovych, is the frontrunner (although the election is still eight months away and Ukrainian polls are hardly the most reliable). No matter who emerges as the winner, Russia can’t allow a staunchly pro-West candidate to hold office in Kiev. What political persuasion such a candidate might come from is impossible to predict. It may be a Ukrainian populist candidate who supports joining the EU and NATO to protect Ukraine from Russian revanchism – essentially willing to give up sovereignty in one aspect to preserve it in another. Whatever the case may be, if something like this happens, Russia will face a very difficult choice, and judging from the disposition of Russia’s military forces right now, it is a contingency Russia is preparing for.
Or perhaps a candidate acceptable to Russia will be elected, and Moscow will continue to bide its time. In this scenario, Russia will slowly repair the damage done in 2014 by offering money, political support or resources to pro-Russia voices in Ukraine, which remain a significant faction in the country. Even having a pro-West candidate win office in Kiev would be tolerable for Moscow as long as Ukraine maintains a pragmatic relationship with Russia and does not engage in outright hostility toward Moscow and its interests.
After getting back from Helsinki, Trump attempted to justify his comments at the press conference to his domestic audience. Putin, however, warned of a serious risk of escalation in southeastern Ukraine at a meeting of Russian ambassadors. He also leaked an alleged proposal he made to Trump in Helsinki about a referendum in eastern Ukraine to resolve the frozen conflict. (The leak also included details about Putin’s agreement not to discuss the plan publicly so Trump could consider it privately first.) For the U.S., Ukraine is important. For Russia, Ukraine is everything. Russia can accept the status quo of the current frozen conflict, but this cannot be a permanent state of affairs, nor can Russia tolerate any further displays of weakness on this issue. This will be the center of gravity of U.S.-Russia relations for the rest of the Trump presidency.
As long as the U.S. and Russia are competitors in Eastern Europe – and there’s little to suggest that over a century of history is about to reverse – no summit, reset button or deep look into Putin’s eyes will change the nature of U.S.-Russia relations.