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Guessing Game: Decoding Trump's Russia Policy

As Donald Trump prepares for the Oval Office, foreign policy analysts have struggled to understand how his administration's policy towards Russia will take shape. We speak with two experts

Visiting Media Fellow Michael Moran speaks with Olga Oliker, a Senior Adviser and Director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, and Paul J. Saunders, an Executive Director at the Center for the National Interest and a former Deputy Secretary of State for Global Affairs during the George W. Bush administration about how the Trump administration's policy towards Russia will take shape.

MORAN:  Welcome to Episode Eight of Diffusion: Russia in Focus, which this week looks at what new page Russia-US ties may be turning as the Trump administration takes office. I’m Michael Moran, Visiting Media Fellow for Peace and Security at the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Joining me in this edition are two leading American thinkers on Russian affairs.

Olga Oliker is a senior adviser and director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Paul J. Saunders is Executive Director of the Center for the National Interest and a former Deputy Secretary of State for Global Affairs during the George W. Bush administration.

Let me begin with you Olga. The President Elect’s statements on Russia have diverged strongly from what might be called the Washington foreign policy establishment view, which takes in both Republicans and Democrats. How will that tension shake out in US-Russia relations over time? 

OLIKER: We don’t know. The short answer, the long answer – we don’t actually know what the Trump administration’s Russia policy is going to look like. We have a President-Elect who has said some things that suggest an admiration for Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, and for his ways of doing business – he’s also expressed doubts about intelligence community assessments that the Russians sought to influence the election, in part through the release of hacked information. On the other hand, we have some appointments, like General Mattis, the prospective Secretary of Defense, who do not necessarily share this view on Russia, and others who might, including a split-ticket at the state department. We don’t actually know what the administration’s policy will be even coming in. We do know that there are people on the Hill and elsewhere who are preparing for a Trump administration that might seek to improve relations with Russia by getting rid of sanctions, changing policy to Ukraine, and so on and so forth, but they also don’t know. On the Hill, I think people are thinking about how they would stop it. In the Executive Branch, there are probably thinking about how they would slow-roll certain initiatives. Folks at the Pentagon may be thinking about the European reassurance package and how far along it is, whether it could actually be reversed, wondering if the Trump administration would want to reverse it, since another piece of the election rhetoric has been about strong defense. We’re still in the place where it’s hard to parse. I think one of the things a lot of us have focused on is the President Elect’s comments about being able to work with the Russians which, combined with the way he often talks about deals, has made people think what a deal with Russia would look like.

MORAN: Paul Sanders, you spent a good deal of time dealing with Russia during your tenure at State under George W. Bush. Will the cooling trend that’s been notable during the transition survive Trump’s assumption of office? 

SAUNDERS: It’s too early to tell. Frankly, my sense is that most of our debate about the President Elect’s policy towards Russia is not based on policy, it’s based on assumptions around what his policy might be. There hasn’t really been clear definition from the President-Elect of what his policy for Russia will be, but I think that the attitudes of many of the people who are expressing concern, to me seem a little bit premature. In any event, it certainly speaks to the enormous political sensitivity surrounding the relationship with Russia in the United States, particularly now with all of the charges that are flying around regarding Russian hacking.

Let’s talk about the hacking for a moment. It seems that Trump administration, for a variety of reason, would like to put that to one side. But Congress is not playing ball, and of course Democrats are furious. Can we really have a straightforward relationship with Russia under those circumstances?

OLIKER: I think it’s going to be a challenge. The Russians are going to continue to deny having had anything to do with this. The United States is going to have to decide who in the United States is going to keep pointing fingers, how much information they’re going to reveal, what we’re going to know that points to the Russian government, and what we’re not going to know. From my perspective, I have heard the Russians say, and I’ve actually heard President elect Trump say, ‘this could be anybody, there’s no proof that it’s actually the Russian government.’ So, understanding what makes some experts believe it’s the Russian government and then attribute certain goals to the Russian government in doing it is important. It’s important to separate the hacking, an intelligence operation, which countries honestly do, from the release of information via Wikileaks which is the effort to influence, which is a lot less normal. That is an operation that is seeking to have some sort of political effect, as opposed to just collect intelligence. So, I do think that’s important to do, and I think that will maintain tension with the Russian federation as it goes on. But, if it’s not done, it’s not as though people who believe very firmly the Russian Federation was meddling in the US election are going to back away from it.

Let’s say for a moment we do get past this issue – that someone the new president’s unwillingness to accept the intelligence community’s assertions on this allows both countries to move on. In that case, are we in a position to do deals, as Mr. Trump is fond of saying? There’s certainly a lot of talk about Grand Bargains going on.

SAUNDERS: Generally speaking, I would say that grand bargains are pretty difficult to reach because they incorporate so many elements and so many of the elements are quite complex. If you talk about the US-Russia case, there are obviously differences over Syria, there are differences over Ukraine, added to that is the issue of US sanctions, there’s the Russian presence in Crimea that the United States will be unlikely to be able to reverse any time soon. There are a variety of very difficult and challenging issues, so I guess I’m a little bit of a skeptic of the idea of a grand bargain particularly in the political environment that exists right now in both countries. Again, there’s a great sensitivity in the United States surrounding the relationship with Russia, and President Elect’s Trump’s possible policy toward Russia. On the Russian end, there are similar in type, but different in content, concerns about NATO and its implications for Russian security, about America’s and Europe’s roles in Russia’s internal politics and affairs and so forth for opposition forces there. Not to make that equivalent with the charges about what Russia may have done in the United States but those feelings certainly exist in Russia, so I think it would be really quite difficult at this point to get any kind of a grand bargain.

MORAN: Olga, do you agree this talk of grand bargains is unlikely to come to fruition? 

OLIKER: I think the ‘grand bargain’ notions are predicated on, I would argue, a bit of a misunderstanding of how Russia sees the world, and I think that’s one of the reasons they tend to work so poorly. If you do a line-by-line Russian interest, Western interest and so forth and so forth and then try make a deal out of that you already have a problem, and that problem is that Russia believes that the United States can speak for and deliver its NATO allies and even countries in Europe that are not its NATO allies, that the only country Russia needs to make a deal with on European security is the United States. The United States, of course, even if it wanted to, cannot actually deliver NATO, the European Union, or other non-member states. Any effort to do so would probably destroy NATO and it would lead to unforeseeable but very likely very unpleasant repercussions for European security. If what you’re trying to do is strengthen security in Europe, this is by all means a bad idea. The other part that I want to emphasize is the notion that if you just agree to a few things with the Russians everything will be fine – whether that’s spheres of influence, or something else. The problem there is that Russia is historically very difficult to reassure. There’s a tendency to continue to look for problems. Russia is not alone in that. Most countries do a lot of worst-case scenario planning. They look around the world and see threats. If there aren’t existential threats around, they inflate threats to their interests and treat them as though they were existential. Expecting Russia to do otherwise is a bit naïve, moreover Russia has spent the full 25 years almost of its independence convinced that the United States and the West as a whole is trying to weaken it. Convincing Russia otherwise would be very difficult, short of the United States abdicating any leadership in Europe whatsoever, though I suspect the Russians would think even that was some sort of plot. Then again, you have this problem of a vacuum in European security, which I don’t think Russia is prepared to fill. This idea that there’s a bargain that can easily be struck that solves all these problems ignores that the United States isn’t able to make the deal on its own, and B: the fact that Russia may be unhappy even with a deal that it’s dictated. I suspect the United States would be unhappy with a deal, for the reason that I outlined, it wouldn’t actually deliver European security. Then you have the additional problem that you’ve made a deal that you don’t like. If both sides make a deal they don’t like and they start blaming the other, you can easily see the relationship get worse, and spiral worse even than it is now. 

MORAN: Paul, last word to you. If there is not prospect of a grand bargain involving, say, Syria and Ukraine, where is progress possible on a scale less grand? 

SAUNDERS: Looking at the Middle East, to the extent that Mr. Trump has defined an agenda for the US-Russia relationship, it’s really focused on ISIS and focused on how Washington and Moscow can jointly fight that threat and the broader threat of extremist terrorism in the Middle East. Certainly that looks like it will likely be a big focus for the incoming administration, incoming security advisor General Flynn, and the incoming Secretary of Defense, General Mattis, that is a region and a set of issues where they both have had a significant focus during their careers. There’s a lot of experience there. Operationalizing US-Russia cooperation in Syria however is going to be an easy thing in no small part because our two governments will continue to face the same obstacles that we’ve faced before the election, which is that the United States is supporting various groups in Syria that are fighting against the Assad government, and they are geographically intermingled with some of these other forces, whether they’re ISIS or al-Nusra which are viewed as more extremist forces and that forces us to confront again this same issue. Will the United States accept Russian air-strikes on extremist forces that also inflict damage on forces that we’re supporting? Will we succeed in ways  that the Obama administration wasn’t able to in encouraging those forces to separate themselves from the extremist forces so that they are not in the areas that Russia is conducting strikes, or will the United States take some other different kind of approach to address that issue? I think those are the big questions that we have to look at and the answer to issues like Syria difficult.

If you look a region like Asia, the President-elect has already somewhat stirred up things in Asia through his decision to talk to the Taiwan president, which China reacted, of course, quite negatively to. The President-Elect is also indicating concern about some of China’s policies economically, in trade, and elsewhere. Certainly to the extent that he wants to make China a priority for the United States and for his administration a better relationship with Russia would help because it would limit to some extent China’s freedom to maneuver diplomatically and in other ways. That’s a big question we have to watch moving forward: is there a strategic logic that the Trump administration sees connecting Russia and China.

In Europe there are a range of other very complicated issues, mainly centered around Russia’s involvement in eastern Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea. There are also some broader questions of what Russia’s role is and can or should be in Europe’s security architecture, and I think what we’ve seen over certainly the last ten years is a Russia under Vladimir Putin and, to a lesser extent, Dmitri Medvedev, that has been very frustrated with its role in Europe, and it has been striving in various different ways to communicate to the United States and to European governments that it wants a different role, that it feels a different role is necessary in guaranteeing its own security objectives. The United States and NATO have thus far very strongly resisted giving Russia under its current government any kind of a different role in European security affairs. Moving forward, that broad question will define whether the Europe-Russia frontier is a stable and peaceful one, or not.

MORAN: Thanks to both of you.

And thank all of you for listening to this edition of Diffusion: Russia in Focus. Join us next week when we examine where the dispute over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may be going as a new administration congeals in Washington. My guests will be Samuel Charap of the International Institute of Strategic Studies and Harvard’s Timothy Colton. For now, on behalf of my colleagues at the Carnegie Corporation of New York, this is Michael Moran. Thanks for joining. 

Diffusion is the podcast of Carnegie Corporation of New York, promoting the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding around issues of peace, education and democracy.