Long before he got elected, Trump talked about having better relations with Russia. Of course he also talked about shooting down Russian planes for buzzing US Navy ships, but generally his attitude was “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could get along with Russia?” Many people on both sides of the political spectrum and with little knowledge of Russia or its ruling class have asked the same question. Is it really so bad to want better relations with Russia? Honestly the answer is no, it’s not bad at all, but the devil is in the details.
First of all, people who tend to advance this argument tend to put all the blame and responsibility on the United States for the breakdown in relations. NATO expansion was “provocative” to Russia, they often say. More brazen defenders of Putin *COUGH*MARK AMES*COUGH* claim that the US was responsible for the Maidan “revolution” in Ukraine which “sparked a civil war.” All of this betrays the mentality that the Kremlin is promoting. All of this is hypocritical and wrong, as well.
For one thing, whatever you think about NATO (and I have my complaints as well), Russia long since recognized the rights of sovereign nations (including those which were in the former Eastern Bloc) to join whatever international alliances or organizations they wanted. It is indeed interesting how these non-interventionists are quick to jump on any example of the US violating the sovereignty of foreign nations, yet they never consider that joining NATO or the EU is also exercising a nations sovereignty. Maybe, just maybe, a better question to ask is why nations like the Baltic states (the only NATO members which actually share a border with the bulk of Russia) wanted to join NATO in the first place. In any case, if you look at NATO spending and US military deployments in Europe up till about 2015, you’ll see how ludicrous it is to claim that NATO was somehow threatening Russia, so much so that it justified invading Ukraine and annexing a part of it just because a corrupt would-be dictator pissed off his own people and then ran instead of abiding by the agreement he signed.
There’s also the argument that the West screwed over Russia during the Yeltsin years. There are certainly real grievances here, particularly economic advice that emphasized free market dogma at the expense of human lives, and looking the other way while Boris Yeltsin illegally and violently constructed an authoritarian system which he would later hand over to Vladimir Putin. But this also ignores the other side of the coin. For one thing, Western governments also provided humanitarian aid during this period. Could they have done more? Definitely. But it’s simply a lie to assert that all the West did was send free market missionaries and sex tourists. Second, this argument about the 90’s totally removes all agency from Russians. The United States didn’t force dishonest people to form organized crime gangs (some of which dated back to late Soviet times), nor did it force people to rob and cheat their fellow citizens so they could become unbelievable rich. The West was, at worst, an enabler in this business. It was not the initiator.
The West did not “humiliate” Russia. In fact it was quite the opposite. It looked the other way as Russia helped create pseudo-states in Moldova and Georgia. It helped negotiate a deal with Ukraine, whereby that country gave up its nuclear weapons and entrusted them to Russia. It acknowledged Russia as the successor to the Soviet Union, thus allowing Russia to take over the USSR’s permanent position on the UN Security Council. Over my long time in Russia, I learned that what many Russians considered humiliating about the 90’s wasn’t what I considered humiliating. If you asked me what was humiliating about that period I would have said the poverty, the crime, and most of all the sexual exploitation, which became so widespread it led to the name “Natasha” becoming a slang term for prostitute in many countries. But the humiliation that many Russians think about today largely ignores that, and instead focuses on the loss of their empire. It was humiliating to have to acknowledge the independence of countries like Kazakhstan or Ukraine. It was humiliating that Russians would have to start learning the language of the titular nationality instead of the latter having to use Russian all the time. If that’s humiliation, then the West is under no obligation to alleviate it.
Lastly there’s the idea that Putin made overtures toward the West, only to be snubbed. I’d say there’s some truth to this argument. I believe that at least in the beginning, Putin did have a sincere desire to bring stability and prosperity to Russia, as well as closely integrate it into the West. You could argue about the Chechen war or the crackdown on media (whose owners were not necessarily objective nor innocent) that took place in the early Putin presidency, but I would say that literally anyone taking over from Yeltsin in that period would have been forced to make tough decisions. The system was already corrupt and authoritarian. I still believe that Putin could have taken a different route in the early 2000s, then if he left power he could have retired as true modernizer and savior of Russia, albeit with controversy. We would look at him the way we look at figures like Pilsudski or Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Yet not only did Western leaders, after a brief flirtation, give Putin the cold shoulder, but this was also the time when Western media seemed to criticize everything Putin did. Things that were ignored under Yeltsin, who was portrayed as the father of Russian democracy, were suddenly controversial and ominous under Putin. And of course, the press almost never failed to identify Putin as the “former KGB officer.”
At the same time, Putin came of age if you will, during the beginning of the War on Terror and more specifically, the war on Iraq. The latter, and especially the Bush doctrine behind it, had huge implications for Putin. For one thing, it ignited massive anti-American sentiment throughout the world, which would remain fresh for exploitation long after the initial invasion. Second, he learned that if you have the ability to project military power, you can do it so long as you make up some supposedly humanitarian pre-text. Bush had WMDs, whereas Putin would later use the excuse of protecting Russian speakers in the Crimea. Lastly, it confirmed a view held by Putin and many of his generation, that the United States doesn’t really believe in human rights or national sovereignty, but that it simply invokes these things as it pleases in order to serve its own interests. While Putin and others who believe this are wrong to think that the United States hasn’t grown and evolved from the monster that it was in the Gilded Age or during the Cold War, there are still plenty of examples of American hypocrisy when it comes to human rights- most notably the war in Yemen.
But the argument that Putin was snubbed by the West can’t totally explain away his own actions and decisions since that time. So Western leaders didn’t accept him as he wanted- did that mean he needed to construct an authoritarian, centralized system of kleptocracy? Wouldn’t it have been better for Putin to simply brush off the cold responses and busy himself with modernizing Russia, creating stable democratic institutions, and establishing rule of law? What better way to get back at leaders like Blair and Bush than by turning Russia into an economic powerhouse, one which actually stood by the principle of respecting national sovereignty? That, sadly, is not what Putin chose to do, of course. He and his cronies decided to use Russia’s natural wealth to enrich themselves at the expense of the country’s future, and rather than build a stable democratic system he created a cult of personality that revolves around him personally. And while Putin would love to point fingers at the West, the whole time he and his pals were robbing Russia, the West was more than happy to accept the dirty money and even invest massive amounts of capital into Russia. So in the end, the argument that Putin became Putin because he was rejected by the West ultimately fails.
Having gotten those arguments out of the way, there’s the ultimate obstacle to better US/Russia relations, which is Putin and his system. They want bad relations with the West and they need bad relations with the West, because the oil boom is over, their gas leverage is waning, and they squandered much of the wealth Russia produced over roughly a decade- the West is the scapegoat. The West, its dastardly fifth column and ultra-secret sixth column is necessary to explain why, in spite of being one of the richest nations in the world in terms of natural resources, Russia has only managed to achieve the economic power of Italy or Spain, but with much lower living standards, salaries, pensions, etc. People have been angry since 2011, and they need to be suppressed, ergo the must be labeled as Western-backed agents of revolution. Putin is literally fighting for survival, and the cult of personality built up around him doesn’t allow him to blink or make concessions. There’s nothing he can really offer in any negotiations.
This is why in the past I have criticized the so-called “realists” who say that the West needs to negotiate with Russia, yet never articulate what exactly Russia is going to give the West in exchange. Vague promises of cooperation are useless. Likewise Russia has shown that its word on treaties is essentially worthless (ask Ukraine). If the Kremlin is really so eager to engage with its “Western partners,” it needs to explain what it can offer in concrete terms.
Since the reality is that Putin will not and cannot actually offer anything of value to the West, and US president wishing to improve relations would have to talk over his head, to the Russian people. This would require a US president with actual knowledge of Russia, its history, and its culture. Ideally it would be a presidential candidate who can actually speak some Russian. But most of all it would have to be a president who is ready to acknowledge the many bad foreign policy choices of the United States so as to avoid the appearance of hypocrisy and head off the Kremlin’s attempts to use its favorite weapon whataboutism.
This US president needs to be sincere, and explain how the United States, over the years, has had to acknowledge the reality of sovereign states, and how it has often failed to be consistent in its application of human rights. They would have to stress that if Russia is serious about being a partner with other leading nations, it must abandon dreams of empire and spheres of influence and join those other nations in securing a world that respects international law and sovereignty. Of course these words must also be backed with action, for example in regards to Saudi Arabia and its war in Yemen. This president could invoke that example to show how the United States is ready to change and isn’t just trying to trick Russia into unilateral concession, as many Russians no doubt suspect. This hypothetical president would have to do all this and more, while also remaining firm about what the West demands of Russia- that it take responsibility for its own condition and stop undermining its neighbors like Ukraine.
Do I even need to point out at this point that Donald Trump is not the president who can do any of that, ever? Hell, I can’t imagine anyone in DC that I know of who could possibly do that. Hillary wouldn’t have been able to do it. Bernie couldn’t have done it. Anyone that has those skills and that knowledge probably has no shot of ever being elected president (I’m not announcing my candidacy at this time).
Therefore someone like Trump has no choice but to accept the same “deal” that the Kremlin has been offering for years now- let us do what we want, and we give you nothing but vague cooperation on “terrorism” and maybe something involving plutonium or missile quantities. Knowing Trump, the master deal-maker, it’s easy to see why his handlers in the White House, State Department, and intelligence communities are careful to limit and monitor his contacts with Putin and other Russians. Not only would he easily be manipulated by a far more intelligent individual like Putin or Lavrov, but he’d probably throw in Alaska if they gave him a gold fidget spinner or something. Then he’d go tweet about how the fake news media and the Dems are criticizing his master deal just because they’re still upset about his big electoral college win.
So to reiterate. Better relations with Russia are just fine, but actually achieving that goal is easier said than done. It would take a very special kind of negotiator, a rare type of politician. It would also require the Russian side to accept responsibility for the deterioration of relations. The West didn’t invade Ukraine and start a war- Russia did that, period. Repairing relations between countries is a two-way street.