Donald Trump believes his personal relations with Vladimir Putin are an asset to be used in a fresh approach towards Russia, and it is in the Kremlin’s interest to feed the idea that if only the Americans would ‘engage’ then deals could be done. Good relations are not, however, a policy in themselves but something realized over time as cooperation over different issues grows. The question therefore is not whether the US should talk to the Russian authorities, which it already does, often crossly, but what can realistically be expected from Moscow’s response?
Washington has yet to develop a coherent set of policies or objectives towards Moscow, or to establish clearly who might be responsible for that task. Putin's Kremlin, by contrast, remains bound by three unchanging convictions. Russia must sustain, indeed strengthen, its ‘power vertical’; insist on its self-defined status as a Great Power; and defend itself against what Putin and his circle see as an inherently malign United States.
The removal of Ukraine-related sanctions would fit the first of the above criteria. This would ease, though not solve, Russia's present economic difficulties. Putin has his own reasons which prevent him from starting to engage with the economic and political changes needed to promote his country's longer term prosperity. But action without sustainable progress towards a Russian retreat from Ukraine would be a victory for Putin and be seen by many in Ukraine and in the Euro-Atlantic policy community as a justification of Russian aggression against that country.
Russia is likely heading for a period of digestion in its efforts to establish itself as a Great Power. The mid- or long-term outlook for Russia in the Middle East following its intervention in Syria remains uncertain. Crimea has yet to be established either as a legitimate part of Russia or an economic asset. Russia's attempt to seize control of eastern Ukraine has not lived up to Putin's initial hopes. The Kremlin's long-standing ambition to compel Ukraine to accept vassal status has yet to bear fruit.
But even if the limits of Russia's reach have been established, at least for now, and Moscow might welcome a tactical improvement in relations with the United States, there is no evidence of a change in the underlying Kremlin perception that Russia is locked into a struggle for power with America. Putin’s inner circle views Ukraine as the object of a geopolitical contest whose fate should be decided between Washington and Moscow, or more grandiloquently though no less falsely, between the West and ‘Eurasia’ (whatever that is). The reality of Ukraine as an independent country under pressure from its citizens to entrench a rules-based political order radically different from the Russian model is one that the Kremlin cannot bring itself to admit. It is however a truth that should be foremost in Western minds. Ukraine is not the West’s to give away.
There is, however, a question as to how or even whether the new US administration will establish a coherent policy towards Russia. This could lead to trouble. Putin and his colleagues will continue to build up Russia's military power. They would welcome dissent in NATO and further difficulties within the EU. Moscow will track tensions between Washington and European capitals with care. The benefits to Putin's Russia of another forgiving US reset are evident enough, but unless one supposes, against the evidence, that patience and smiles will change Putin's Russia in the end, it is not at all obvious what the West will get in return.
Putin decides for himself who is a terrorist, and what terrorism may be. His foreign minister has repeatedly said that cooperation with others must be without importing foreign values, ‘some of which have become tainted’. Efforts to work with the Russians in this sphere have had meagre results. The same is true of other ideas that have recently been aired as possible joint projects, from reaching accords on cyber issues, nuclear or other disarmament, to European security. Russia is hardly likely to side with the US in a putative American attempt to rein China in, or to put greater pressure on Russia's companion in Syria, Iran. Economic ties between the US and Russia have been weak at the best of times and there is no prospect of that changing now.
It may be tempting to believe that US or wider Western concessions over, for instance, Ukraine would induce by good will a desirable and bankable Russian countermove. But experience says that this is not Russia's approach to the art of the deal.
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