U.S. and Russian leaders at the U.S.–Russia Business Summit in Washington, D.C. in 2010
U.S. and Russian leaders at the U.S.–Russia Business Summit in Washington, D.C. in 2010.

Dangerous Expectations

March 17, 2017
Paul Saunders

Few consider the extent to which hopes and expectations can shape the U.S.-Russia relationship. This is somewhat surprising, in that expectation-laden calculations seem to be a prime mover in American politics, not to mention at Washington’s (and other) cocktail parties. “What can this person do for me?” may well be the most common unspoken question in such circumstances. Human nature encourages individuals to expend greater time and effort in dealing with those from whom they expect—or hope for—the most. It likewise tends to render individuals more grateful for what they expect or hope to receive than for anything already delivered. This sentiment can be an important source of leverage in both interpersonal and interstate relations. Conversely, its absence (or worse, the presence of negative expectations) can free both individuals and governments from many of the constraints that they typically impose on their own conduct. Diminishing hopes for the U.S.-Russia relationship in the Kremlin may be particularly dangerous.

Consider Russia’s policy toward the United States in the fall of 2001, immediately following the September 11 attacks. Russian President Vladimir Putin is widely known as the first foreign leader to contact President George W. Bush following the attacks. He appears to have made a strategic decision to assist the United States in order to pursue a closer relationship. Hoping and possibly expecting that the United States would reciprocate, Mr. Putin accepted a substantial U.S. military presence in Central Asia, contrary to Moscow’s earlier strong preferences and over the objections of some advisors. (Russia also aided the Northern Alliance in its war with the Taliban, though this was consistent with earlier Russian policy.) These steps provided substantial assistance to the United States in pursuing military action against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Simultaneously, and in some ways more strikingly, Mr. Putin reacted quite mildly to President Bush’s decision to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in December 2001. Though Russia’s president described the U.S. withdrawal as “erroneous,” he took no specific action in response to Washington’s move other than proudly asserting that his country “for a long time possessed effective means to overcome missile defenses.” While Russia could not prevent the U.S. withdrawal from the treaty, Mr. Putin likely would have reacted quite differently outside the context of what then reasonably looked like an improving relationship. Eventually, whether Putin’s expectations were realistic or not, the United States did not meet them.

The subsequent evolution of the U.S.-Russia relationship shows the consequences that failed expectations can have. The Kremlin’s hopes for its ties with Washington steadily eroded in 2002-2005, as the United States invaded Iraq over Russian objections (2003), supported NATO membership for the Baltic States and four other countries (2004), and facilitated Ukraine’s Orange Revolution (2004-2005), among other moves. By 2007, President Putin was sufficiently frustrated to deliver a speech at the annual Munich Security Conference denouncing U.S. conduct. It is notable that Russia’s 2008 intervention in Georgia occurred in this environment—and near the end of President Bush’s second term—at a time when Moscow likely expected little from Washington and even less from the outgoing Bush administration.

President Dmitry Medvedev’s tenure (2008-2012) saw renewed hopes in Russia as Washington and Moscow continued to cooperate in Afghanistan and ratified the New START nuclear arms control treaty (2010). Likely due in part to his positive expectations for the future, Mr. Medvedev ordered Russia’s diplomats to abstain from voting on a U.N. resolution authorizing force to protect civilians in Libya (2011). Then-Prime Minister Putin publicly differed with his president over this; Mr. Putin has since appeared to feel vindicated by NATO’s unwelcome ouster of Libyan President Moammar Gadhafi and Libya’s collapse into civil war. Mr. Putin also resented perceived U.S. encouragement of anti-government protests following Russia’s December 2011 State Duma elections, something that may have had an important impact on his expectations for U.S.-Russia relations as he returned to the presidency in May 2012. Mr. Putin’s increasingly negative expectations for U.S.-Russia relations seem likely to have played a part in Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea by encouraging action that the Russian president may have considered necessary in part to demonstrate Moscow’s resolve in facing perceive Western threats. (His expectations regarding the Obama administration’s probable responses were surely an element of this as well.)

None of this is to say that expectations are the sole driver of U.S.-Russia relations. Other important drivers include the overall balance of power between Washington and Moscow, the degree of alignment between American and Russian definitions of national interest, domestic political attitudes toward U.S.-Russia relations and the limits they establish, and gaps between U.S. and Russian political and social values. It is quite difficult to untangle the relative influence of these and other factors.

Nevertheless, common sense suggests that expectations do matter. This deserves special consideration in today’s environment because Russia’s expectations seem to be decreasing rapidly, evidenced by reported Kremlin pressure to tone down and reduce media coverage of President Donald Trump and his administration. These declining expectations in turn likely mean a loss of U.S. leverage in dealing with Moscow. President Trump implied as much during a February 2017 press conference, stating that “probably Putin said, you know—he’s sitting behind his desk and he's saying, you know, I see what's going on in the United States, I follow it closely; it's got to be impossible for President Trump to ever get along with Russia because of all the pressure he's got.” Having written in his book The Art of the Deal that “leverage often requires imagination, and salesmanship ... you have to convince the other guy it’s in his interest to make the deal,” Mr. Trump appears to understand the problems that low expectations can pose—and that raising expectations can help to shape desirable outcomes. Indeed, he may have intended his pronouncements about Russia during the campaign to produce this effect.

What is unclear is whether opponents to Mr. Trump’s stated intent “to find out” whether or not a better relationship with Russia is possible see how their extravagant rhetoric could harm U.S. national interests by weakening America’s negotiating position in dealing with Russia—or worse. Especially important in this is the profound difference between the Kremlin holding low positive expectations or, alternatively, predominantly negative expectations based on perceptions that the United States is unmovably hostile to Russia. If President Putin becomes convinced that he will never be able to build a functional relationship with Washington—no matter what he does or who is in power—American preferences will lose much of their remaining power in restraining Russia’s conduct. Should that day ever come, Russia’s foreign policy is likely to be far more problematic than it is today.


Paul Saunders

Paul Saunders is the executive director of the Center for the National Interest. He was a senior adviser at the Department of State during the George W. Bush administration.

Photo credit: U.S. government work. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.