In the run-up to the July 16 Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki, I was reminded of a May 13 article for The New York Times Magazine entitled “The Quiet Americans Behind the U.S.-Russia Imbroglio,” in which journalist Keith Gessen sought insight into the current parlous state of U.S.-Russian relations by examining the thinking and career paths of some well-known American “Russia hands.” Based on his interviews with various prominent specialists, Gessen tended to divide them into two camps: older Russia hands, generally with many years of U.S. government service, who incline toward a fairly tough approach toward Moscow (for example, Victoria Nuland and Daniel Fried); and a mostly younger group skeptical of America’s democratic “missionary impulse” and more inclined to see some merit in the Russian perspective (for example, Michael Kofman, Olga Oliker, and Samuel Charap). Individuals who somewhat defy this dichotomy, such as Thomas Graham or Michael McFaul, ironically found themselves, as senior U.S. government officials, overseeing sharp declines in U.S.-Russian relations despite their best intentions and efforts. Gessen summarized the dilemma with the following apt observation: “And yet the mystery is this: After all the many different Russia hands who have served in the United States government, the country’s relations with Russia are as they have always been—bad.”
Compared with the movers and shakers profiled by Gessen, I hardly qualify as a Russia hand at all; I am at best a knuckle, or perhaps a fingernail. Nevertheless, let me make one observation about Gessen’s profile of American Russia experts that I think sheds some light on the “mystery” of chronically fraught U.S.-Russian relations and underscores the likely limits of Russian-American summitry.
The grizzled hardliners tend to be those of us who have struggled for decades to secure Russian cooperation in various undertakings, generally with considerable frustration and limited success. Whether the issue is European security architecture, WMD proliferation, human rights in third countries, the functioning of UN or OSCE missions, or cleaning up after the Wars of Yugoslav Succession, few experiences will suck the optimism out of an American policymaker more thoroughly than trying to reach a consensus with the Russians. There have been a few exceptions to this rather dismal track record: cooperation in space, the Northern Distribution Network for Afghanistan, and the Middle East peace process (at least in the 1990s, when a viable peace process still existed). Still, even though the Cold War is long over, Kumbaya moments between American and Russian officials have been few and far between.
The optimistic Russia hands, conversely, tend to be people in academia with at most episodic experience in government—typically somewhere like the State Department’s Policy Planning staff with responsibilities that do not involve close daily engagement with the Russians to advance specific policy agendas. This factor also helps explain the serial bullishness of successive incoming U.S. administrations about the prospects for improved relations with Russia. Each new U.S. President, along with key members of his team, appears confident of the ability to “avoid the mistakes” of the previous administration and set U.S.-Russian relations on a firmer footing. This mindset found an echo in grand bilateral initiatives like the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission, where American and Russian leaders could agree in principal about the need for cooperation across a broad swath of issues, but working-level “bureaucrats” somehow never managed to hash out the practical details and progress, by either side’s definition, remained elusive.
In fact, the theoretical commonality of purpose across a laundry list of issues—counterterrorism, non-proliferation, regional security, and so forth—was superficial and largely evaporated once the two sides set about trying to flesh out a joint action plan. Over the course of my own career, I watched various American officials, both career and appointed, set out eagerly to forge a consensus with their Russian counterparts to advance some aspect of our bilateral or multilateral agenda, only to conclude ruefully after lengthy, fruitless discussions that—notwithstanding reasonable expectations seemingly rooted in shared interests—there was precious little common ground. Conversely, I have yet to see a curmudgeonly American official whose cynicism toward Moscow was dispelled by a fulsome Russian spirit of cooperation and compromise, or the quick and easy elaboration of a common U.S.-Russian approach to any given issue.
The problem is not sheer bloody-minded intransigence on the part of the Russians (or the Americans, for that matter). Americans can cooperate effectively with countries that share either our values or our interests. The most productive cooperation occurs with countries with which we share both values and interests. With Russia we increasingly share neither—and have shared little since the early 1990s. Even where we share some identifiable broad interest with the Russians (like countering Sunni jihadists), we find ourselves with different perceptions of the common problem, as well as different priorities. This U.S.-Russia disconnect has been more glaring at times of outright tension, but it has been operative even when relations were ostensibly smooth. Whatever chumminess or mutual admiration Trump and Putin might demonstrate in Helsinki does not reduce this fundamental problem one iota.
Even with a dearth of shared interests, priorities, or perceptions, Americans and Russians could still, in principle, advance their relationship by taking a transactional approach. Although Americans are not much inclined to foreign-policy horse-trading, the election of Donald Trump gave rise to the notion of some package deal that would resolve a host of problems through mutual concessions and set bilateral relations on a solid businesslike footing in one fell swoop. Speculation inevitably centered around tradeoffs principally involving Ukraine and Syria. Although no such grand bargain ever took shape, news of the impending Trump-Putin summit has reignited the hope—and the dread—of a high-level package deal that would, depending on one’s perspective, either reverse the deplorable slide in U.S.-Russian relations, or undermine Western solidarity and resolve in the face of Russia’s global war against liberal democracy.
Actually, neither of these outcomes is likely. As was the case a year ago, there is simply no objective basis for a package deal involving Ukraine and Syria. Moreover, the experience of a generation of American Russia hands (and presumably, of Russian America hands as well) demonstrates the difficulty of translating any agreement in principle by the leadership into practical cooperation at the working level. At their final press conference, Trump and Putin can pat each other on the back all they want and crow about their mutual appreciation of the importance of U.S.-Russian cooperation on x, y, and z. Subsequent implementation of any concrete measures, however, is likely to prove a formidable undertaking.
In any event, discussions in Helsinki about Ukraine are likely to amount to wasted breath. The U.S. assessment of Russia’s culpability is well-known, and Trump is clearly not inclined to belabor the point. Neither, despite his track record of Putinophilia, is Trump likely to adopt the Kremlin’s blinkered perspective on Ukraine. Judging by Russian commentary, there appear to be few specialists in Moscow who really grasp Russia’s fundamental problem in Ukraine, or have a game plan beyond blaming the West for creating the “fascist junta” in Kyiv and working to facilitate the “inevitable” collapse of the Ukrainian government and state. Putin will receive no comfort in Helsinki on either point. He is probably too savvy to engage in a Ukraine blamestorming exercise in his meeting with Trump, but he might seek to drive in some wedges. One possibility that comes to mind is a confidence-building measure floated by at least one presumably well-intentioned Western observer: that the West demonstrate its goodwill and reassure Moscow by preemptively ruling out future NATO membership for Ukraine.
With the bluntness of which he is singularly capable, Trump should rebuff any such suggestion. Russian-Ukrainian negotiations—the only means to resolve the conflict—might well result in a Ukrainian renunciation of NATO membership, but it is incumbent on Moscow to provide the requisite assurances to Kyiv that NATO membership is no longer necessary for Ukraine’s security. It is Russia’s unique responsibility to make Ukrainian NATO membership superfluous. Preemptive declarations by the United States or other NATO members would only undercut Kyiv’s leverage in negotiating the scope and terms of Russia’s withdrawal from occupied territories. It is Kyiv, not Washington, that has agency over Ukraine’s policies and destiny, and any indulgence of Moscow’s propensity to seek Western blessing for a Russian sphere of privileged interests would be counterproductive.
Putin and Trump might conceivably declare their agreement in principle on some Ukraine-related matters, such as the utility of a peacekeeping force in the Donbas, but it would be empty rhetoric, since the devil is in the details and there is virtually no likelihood of achieving an actual working arrangement. Trump could best demonstrate Western goodwill by assuring Putin that the United States would not object to any Russian-Ukrainian settlement to which the parties themselves have freely agreed. Beyond that, there’s probably not much to talk about.
If Ukraine offers little prospect for even limited, practical U.S.-Russian engagement, let alone a breakthrough, Syria presents a complex but potentially more promising picture. Trump, like his predecessor, appropriately concluded that the United States can play only a narrow role in Syria, focused on defeating ISIS. Unlike his predecessor, Trump has actually sought to enforce compliance with Syria’s agreement to forego chemical weapons, and he has authorized missile strikes when presented with credible evidence of chemical attacks by the Syrian government. It is a policy that Trump should unapologetically uphold with Putin, particularly in light of Moscow’s longstanding practice, dating back more than 30 years, of obfuscation about Syria’s chemical weapons program. If the Kremlin’s protestations of Assad’s innocence ring hollow to the West, it’s only because of Russia’s proven record of dissimulation on the subject.
In addition, since the fall of Aleppo in December 2016, Russia has negotiated several deconfliction zones in areas still controlled by anti-Assad forces. Subsequently the Russian military has assisted Syrian regime forces and their Iranian and Hezbollah allies in crushing anti-Assad resistance in these areas one by one. The regime is now making moves toward the opposition-controlled enclave in the southwest of Syria, where the deconfliction zone was negotiated by Russia, the United States, and Jordan. As with Syria’s chemical weapons, Trump could usefully hold Putin accountable for enforcement of a deconfliction agreement to which both Russia and the United States are parties.
Aside from underscoring the American expectation that Russia will actually uphold the agreements it has signed, Trump could conceivably explore whether the growing differences between Russian and Iranian interests in Syria present an opportunity for even limited U.S.-Russian cooperation.
Since the onset of the Syrian civil war, Russia and Iran have pursued complementary policies in support of the Assad regime, but for quite different reasons. Moscow has sought to preserve a long-time client and underscore the Kremlin’s invidious comparison between ostensibly responsible Russian policies to promote stability and order vs. the supposed American propensity to sow chaos with color revolutions and regime change.1 In addition, Russia stands to gain heightened prestige as a Middle East power broker, preserve Syria as a platform for regional intelligence-collection, and possibly expand its modest basing arrangements. Iran, on the other hand, is vitally interested in the survival of the Alawite regime in Syria in order to maintain an unbroken arc of Shiite states stretching from Iran to the Levant, ensuring Syria as a conduit for arms transfers to Hezbollah and a platform for attacks against Iran’s arch-nemesis, Israel.
For seven years it mattered very little that Russia and Iran pursued different goals in Syria as long as those goals did not conflict. However, now that the anti-Assad forces in Syria are essentially beaten, Israel has moved with increasing vigor to counter the threat posed by Iran. Long content to maintain a wary neutrality between Assad and his equally distasteful Islamist opponents, Israel is now being drawn militarily into Syria precisely because Assad’s victory over his domestic opponents has resulted in an unprecedented level of Iranian influence in, and military penetration of, the Levant.
The situation is a potential catastrophe for Russia. With anti-Assad forces in Syria routed, Putin should now be running his victory lap, basking in the glow of a successful Syria campaign, bringing some of the troops home, and building on the Syria intervention to enhance Russian influence elsewhere in the Middle East. Instead, the prospect of a large-scale Israeli-Iranian conflict in Syria threatens to set back Moscow’s arduous efforts to stabilize the Assad regime, to wreak further destruction in an already devastated country, and even to make Russian forces in Syria potential collateral damage. All of a sudden, Iranian overreach in Syria risks undermining everything that Russia has worked seven years to accomplish there.
One can only speculate what sharp words the Russians and Iranians might currently be exchanging in private, but Russia’s remarkable restraint in the face of recent Israeli air operations against Iranian forces in Syria speaks volumes. Can Trump and Putin, notwithstanding their different national priorities and perspectives, find common ground in the need to bring Iran down a couple of pegs in Syria, thereby diminishing the threat to Israel and averting an Israeli-Iranian conflagration? Recognizing their inability to exercise control over all the internal and external players in Syria, can the two leaders nevertheless agree on a set of measures to diminish the risk of Syria becoming an Israeli-Iranian battleground? It would be a worthy endeavor.
One hopes that the Trump-Putin summit will bring no further jarring, off-the-cuff remarks such as Trump’s recent pronouncement about bringing Russia back into the G8 “because we’ve got a world to run.” The statement was off-putting on many levels, not least of which is the fact that the whole thrust of Trump’s foreign policy is supposed to be getting the United States out of the business of trying to “run the world.” An America that no longer seeks to play the role of sheriff has no need for a Russian deputy.
Whatever rhetorical excesses or flights of fancy may occur in Helsinki, if the summit can nevertheless manage to make Syria a less horrific or dangerous place, it will have accomplished something worthwhile. If the United States and Russia can identify a congruence of interests in preventing an Israeli-Iranian war from being fought in the ruins of Syria, and elaborate a joint strategy to this end, they should seize the opportunity. The doleful experience of a generation of American Russia hands suggests that such opportunities are few and far between.
1In fact, some clear, substantive differences have become apparent between the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 to remove one regime, and Russia’s engagement in Syria since 2011 to support another one. Both Syria and Iraq have been wracked by civil war, suffered widespread destruction and economic devastation, been subject to various degrees of hard or soft cantonization, and seen hundreds of thousands of their citizens killed and millions displaced. The primary difference is that, at the end of the day, the dictator in Iraq who used chemical weapons against his own people is gone, while the dictator who did likewise in Syria is still in power. Largely as a consequence, conditions for the return of refugees and displaced persons are being created in Iraq, while they are still far off in Syria.