President Trump meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in the White House on May 10. (Russian Foreign Ministry via European Pressphoto Agency)
On Tuesday, President Trump sent a round of startling tweets, apparently in an effort to justify his unprecedented decision to share highly sensitive intelligence with the Russian foreign minister as a move to secure Russia’s cooperation in the fight against the Islamic State and terrorism. It’s unclear whether this signals a rapprochement between the two countries — but here’s the bigger question: Could an anti-terrorism alliance lead to a U.S.-Russian detente?
Establishing close relations with Russia was one of the defining foreign policy goals of Trump’s campaign. But since the start of his presidency, his pledge to partner with Russia on issues such as fighting terrorism has been mired in the escalating “Russiagate” scandal and the drift in U.S.-Russia relations in Syria and elsewhere — culminating with U.S. retaliatory airstrikes after the Syrian government’s chemical attack in April.
Even without the “Russiagate” scandal, from a purely analytical standpoint there are three major obstacles to such a reconciliation between the United States and Russia.
1) Russia’s strategic interests diverge from those of the United States in key areas.
In Syria, the top U.S. priority is to fight the Islamic State. But Russia’s core interest is to preserve a regime that cannot unify the country or enforce a stable order throughout its territory. Moreover, analysis of Russian military action in the region concludes that Russian assistance in Syria would add little to U.S. efforts to stabilize the country. A recent Atlantic Council report, for instance, concludes that Russia’s only military advantage over its Western counterparts in Syria and elsewhere is that it can bomb civilians with impunity. These bombings stir further grievances across the Muslim world and compound Europe’s migrant problem.
In counterterrorism circles, there is growing evidence that the Kremlin may be more interested in preserving radical groups such as the Islamic State in the Middle East than in destroying them. Here’s why: As long as the Islamic State threat exists, Russia and its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, can justify and leverage their presence on the ground in Syria. At home, President Vladimir Putin has explicitly defended the Syria intervention as part of Russia’s domestic counterterrorism effort, asserting that Russia must fight extremists in Syria to avoid fighting them at home.
This is not a convenient excuse but an extension of the Kremlin’s “push-out-and-shut-the-door” counterterrorism strategy. This strategy envisions emptying Russia of potential terrorists by encouraging them to leave and fight in places like Syria, where they might be easier to kill, contain or turn into someone else’s problem.
2) The concessions Trump would have to make to secure a U.S.-Russia partnership are costly.
European and U.S. security officials and diplomats, along with Russian security experts, tend to agree that Putin’s main goal is the acceptance of a Russian “sphere of influence” in the former Soviet Union. He is also likely to publicly demand that Western sanctions be lifted. From a realpolitik point of view, accepting such demands could lead to more, not less, conflict.
Above all, such concessions may stimulate Moscow to aggressively enforce its sphere of influence by crushing resistance in countries such as Ukraine — and create additional “gray zones” of conflict as wedges against future Western influence. They could also undermine U.S. alliances, possibly prompting the most exposed European nations to seek alternative deterrents against Russian aggression.
Over the long run, these moves could tempt countries like Poland to seek nuclear weapons capabilities, as Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the chairman of Poland’s ruling party, has hinted. And a final point — if the United States accepts Russia’s forceful establishment of a sphere of influence, hawkish officials in Beijing, Tehran or elsewhere might ask themselves: Why shouldn’t China, Iran or other powers try to get away with similar strategic maneuvers?
3) Putin sustains his high popularity at home by posing as a strongman, defending Russia against Western encroachment — and closer U.S.-Russian ties would take that away.
As I discuss in recent work, Russian popular consent for Putin’s regime has always been tied to a broad demand for a strongman uniquely capable of stabilizing Russia after its catastrophic decline in the 1990s — and capable of standing up to the West. But success in “normalizing” countries after a collapse makes the authoritarian strongmen who see it through redundant, a point originally made by Samuel Huntington in his treatise on democratization.
As a study by the Center for Strategic Research in Moscow indicated, this was the key reason Putin’s domestic support plunged from 2011 to 2013. The shift, according to this analysis, occurred when people began to realize that the unaccountable authoritarian regime that had stabilized Russia was now becoming an obstacle to further economic development. After Russia’s December 2011 parliamentary elections, these sentiments led to an unprecedented protest wave that shook the foundations of Putin’s system.
The interventions in Ukraine and Syria that followed soon after, along with the confrontation with the West, have been widely recognized by foreign policy experts as diversionary and meant to resurrect a sense of an the “existential threat” to Russia. This threat, in turn, helps justify Putin’s tightfisted rule.
Against this backdrop, an end to Russia’s military interventionism abroad and a long-term normalization of Russia’s relations with the United States could be suicidal for Putin’s regime. With Russia’s economy in long-term stagnation even before the Crimea annexation, analyses of Russian popular opinion show that the Kremlin has become utterly dependent on stirring limited conflicts abroad and rekindling rivalries with the West to demobilize dissent at home. The unexpectedly large and widespread protests in Russia on March 26 were another reminder of this dynamic.
These trends appear to leave little room for a historic U.S.-Russian rapprochement. But not engaging the increasingly insecure and assertive Kremlin diplomatically — in a coherent fashion — could also have grave consequences, as the cumulative experience of dealing with Russia and the Soviet Union suggests.
The Cold War experience, in fact, suggests that a working relationship with an authoritarian Russia didn’t evolve from amity or personal chemistry among leaders. It primarily relied on a consistent, long-term U.S. policy that carefully balanced strategic patience and deterrence of the Kremlin’s aggressive impulses, while highlighting the promise of U.S. values and principles — and seeking pragmatic engagement on issues of common interest.
Aleksandar Matovski is a postdoctoral fellow at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University and will be a postdoctoral fellow in the department of political science at Williams College beginning this fall.