US-Russia policy shaped by war in Washington

The incoherence in US-Russian relations has many causes, from mutual misunderstanding to Trump’s own spur-of-the-moment style. But a key factor, writes security expert Mark Galeotti, are the three political guerrilla wars, currently being played out in Washington.

by Mark Galeotti

So Donald Trump was going to meet Vladimir Putin at the APEC summit. Then he wasn’t. Then they happened to be next to each other for a photo op, but didn’t talk. Then they had an informal chat. They agreed on progress on Syria. Or maybe they didn’t. The incoherence in US-Russian relations has many causes, from mutual misunderstanding to Trump’s own spur-of-the-moment style, but a key factor is the political guerrilla war – indeed, wars – currently being played out in Washington.

Tête-a-tête Putin and Trump during Apec-summit in Vietnam. Photo Kremlin.

There is the war between the political establishment and the Trump team. Although technically the Republicans hold both Congress and the White House, in effect three-party politics have come to the USA: Democrats, Republicans, and Trump. The country is in the hands of a coalition government, with all the tensions and compromises that entails.

While Trump continues to stick to his claims that Russia played no role in the presidential elections, believing Putin’s denials over his own intelligence community, Congress and, indeed, the bulk of the US government apparatus beg to differ. The way the most recent sanctions bill had added to it a clause specifically preventing the president from being able to lift them demonstrates a fundamental lack of confidence in Trump even among Republican lawmakers on the Russia question.

Likewise, conversations in Washington during a recent trip there time and again demonstrated to me the concerns that government officials have about Trump’s perverse continuing fascination with Putin. The fear is not, it seems, that he is truly a Russian 'agent of influence' or that he could deliver America’s allies or interests to the Kremlin. Rather, it is that he is, in the words of one Department of Defence official, a 'consistent spoiler', whose baleful and unpredictable presence makes it hard to plan and execute a meaningful strategy towards Russia.

The second war is that within Trump’s White House. It is not just that he appears to place unseemly and undue authority on his family and his favourites of the moment, but with Trump’s government looking eerily like a 1970s Pravda cartoon – all businessmen and generals – it is perhaps not surprising that policy is still being managed poorly. The wider tensions between political leadership and government machinery over Russia policy are also played out here. But there are also disputes between individuals and factions in Trump’s circle which, even if not directly related to Russia, create further policy chaos.

Finally, there is the war within Trump himself. A creature of whim and ego, he is clearly driven by pursuit of short-term flattery and long-term economic interest. Quite what is behind his Putinophilia remains to be seen, whether it is anything more than his evident appreciation of strongman rulers (witness his flattery of others, from Turkey’s Erdogan to Duterte in the Philippines) and a bloody-minded refusal to acknowledge mistakes. However, his fundamental incapacity to frame and articulate any serious policy beyond Make America Great Again sloganeering means that he has failed to resolve the basic tensions between treating Russia as a potential ally – after all, he repeatedly invokes it as a part of the solution to the Syrian and North Korean crises – and yet also defending the USA’s traditional partnerships in Europe and beyond.

Not a good place for deliberation

A battlefield – let alone three – can never be considered a good place for careful deliberation and even-handed compromise. As it is, US policy towards Russia is essentially lacking a clear strategic direction. Is the goal containment or coexistence? Regime change or pragmatic engagement? Everyone has their own idea, but without a clear, coherent and broadly legitimate line from above, the result is often contradictory and piecemeal.

Furthermore, exasperation with Trump’s line contributes to suspicion about Russia, its intent and capabilities. I found the mood in Washington increasingly hostile towards the Kremlin, in part for entirely understandable reasons, but also, I suspect, as a side-effect and symptom of a more generalised frustration and outright anger at the Trump presidency and the commander-in-chief’s often cavalier treatment of US expertise and institutions. With the State Department in crisis, with the intelligence community traduced, and with even the military disconcerted by Trump’s attempts to wrap himself in their flag, no wonder, as one Congressional staffer said to me, that 'people need a punching bag to get it out of their system, and Russia is a damn convenient one.'

This is also a problem because it contributes to the Russians’ own miscalculations. It is clear that Putin and his closest allies have a tendency to misunderstand democratic politics and systems. This was clear in their assumption that Hillary Clinton was bound to win the presidency (and thus needed, in their eyes, to be weakened), in their mishandling relations with both Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, and their belief that Kyiv would quickly capitulate once they had triggered rebellion in the Donbas.

Above all, they tend to fall prey to the very human weakness of mirror imaging, of assuming their realities apply to others. From the vantage points of a hyper-presidential, de-institutionalised system such as their own, they assume controversy and conflict weaken constraints on the executive. Their initial hope, after all, was that Trump could deliver on some bargain with Moscow. They failed to appreciate the extent to which in the US system this division actually deadlocks policy rather than expediting it. With Trump lacking any clear vision on a Russia line, or the constituency to apply it, then instead policy devolves to the current sullen stagnation.

This is not good for the USA, but it is ultimately far worse for Russia. Today, it may make Putin look more pivotal a global figure, given the USA’s abdication of global leadership. However, by empowering adventurism, it blinds the Kremlin to the more fundamental dynamics. Sanctions are the new normal, pretending to an interventionist policy means acquiring commitments the Russian economy cannot ultimately afford, and Moscow risks becoming a global pariah. Politics is not zero sum: Trump is making neither America nor Russia great again.

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