The Foreign Policy Price of Trump’s Russia Scandal
Those of us immersed for decades in Washington political life have never seen the rival of today’s hysteria gripping the nation’s capital. Never before have the mainstream media experienced such a collective nervous breakdown. Perhaps the over-the-top demonizing of all-things-Donald-Trump, the inconsequential as much as the crucial, cannot be avoided as the US political class debates what to do about a president so widely regarded as failing the nation’s minimal needs. In this view, Trump was not supposed to be elected. His behavior has shown why he must be driven from office, whatever the cost.
The nation has survived many trials and will survive today’s, which center on the character and antics of the president. In terms of impact on American politics and society, Watergate pales in comparison. But even if the current political drama must play out this way for the ultimate good of the country, there will be unwelcome collateral damage, notably to the effective conduct of the nation’s foreign policy, beginning with a clear assessment of America’s national interests.
That judgment applies most obviously to US relations with Russia, which are at the center of charges swirling around Trump. For months if not years, it will be virtually impossible for the United States to do what is necessary to promote its interests regarding Russia and related security issues, notably in Europe and the Middle East, and to avoid a new cold war that is in neither side’s interest.
In today’s political maelstrom, it’s difficult to make clear-headed, unemotional judgments about US interests in and policy toward Russia. Moscow most probably intervened in last year’s US presidential election by hacking and leaking emails from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign. How much damage these leaks did to her campaign will be long debated and can never be resolved. But one thing is clear: Russia’s role was not just mischievous, it was “worse than a crime, a blunder.”
Then there’s Trump’s prior associations with Russian leaders and the close Moscow ties of some Trump campaign officials. Trump has also failed to appreciate that his declared intention to explore possible changes in relations with Moscow made him vulnerable to charges of a “new Yalta” and “collusion” by American opponents of any alternative to flat-out Russia-West confrontation. Interactions by Trump’s first national security advisor (and others) with Russian officials after the election and before the Inauguration were also both inept and inappropriate—though not unique for new administrations.
Feeding the Scandal
The Russia scandal has taken flight for four basic reasons. One is Trump’s desire to adopt some different but as-yet-unspecified approach to dealing with Russia’s challenge after his two predecessors failed either to limit Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions, flagrantly demonstrated in Ukraine, or pursue a modus vivendi with Moscow that would also fully protect US interests and those of European allies and partners. Trump is also swimming against a tide of emotional resistance in much of the US foreign policy establishment to the Russian Federation’s inevitable emergence from the equivalent of Chapter 11 bankruptcy, into which it collapsed when the Soviet Union lost the Cold War, and its demand again to be taken seriously as a major power.
Russia’s interference in the US elections, Putin’s arrogance in word and deed, and Washington’s inability to find a means of engaging Russia in the outside world without its inherently threatening significant Western interests also play two other roles in current American politics. One is to deflect attention from Hillary Clinton’s inept presidential campaign, inflating Russia’s role as bugaboo to help shift responsibility. The other is to invoke a hated foreign devil as a cudgel with which to beat Trump night and day and perhaps push him from office. Trump’s own words and actions have fed these narratives, but they already had a life of their own in shaping core American domestic politics and foreign policy.
Freezing possibilities to explore new means for dealing with Moscow would be primarily an “inside the Beltway” matter if not for the fact that what happens with Russia is fundamental to Western security. Efforts to explore alternatives to the degenerating relationship and heightening tensions with Moscow cannot be put off while the United States copes with its domestic travails.
Also feeding the Trump-and-Russia scandal is the almost universal notion here that the collapse of hopes that “things might have been different” with Russia is all its fault and particularly Putin’s. As principal legatee of the Soviet Union, Russia was bound by the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, which provides for the sanctity of national borders in Europe. Along with the United States and United Kingdom, the Russian Federation itself signed the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, agreeing to “respect the Independence and Sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine [and never to use] weapons …against Ukraine except in self-defense.”
Putin’s Russia violated these agreements by seizing Crimea in 2014, by engaging in conflict elsewhere in Ukraine, and by its unwillingness to help resolve conflict there, as provided in the 2015 Minsk II Agreement. It has also intimidated NATO allies in Central Europe, been party to cyber and other forms of “hybrid warfare,” and now, for good measure, has exploited incoherence in US policy toward the Syrian civil war to re-engage in the Levant, competing with the West and, as was inevitable, reasserting Russian great-power status both in the Middle East and generally.
In response to Russian aggression in Ukraine, NATO has strengthened military capacities and even put forces in some Central European states. NATO’s last two summits, in Wales and Warsaw, have thus focused on sending clear messages to Moscow and shoring up confidence in Central Europe.
Origins of Russian Pushback
But almost never discussed in the United States is that Moscow did not adopt policies at odds with and in many instances hostile to the West out of the blue. Perhaps this was bound to happen; perhaps Moscow’s assertiveness, lack of respect for other countries’ security requirements, meddling in foreign politics, and unwillingness to abandon the classic notion of spheres of influence are part of Russian DNA. But seeing whether Russia could be induced to play a constructive role in mutually beneficial security and other arrangements, beginning in Europe, was not adequately tested. For too many people in the three US administrations preceding Trump’s, Russia once put down was to be kept down, however untenable that proposition always was and at variance with the West’s core needs.
It didn’t begin that way. In 1989, US President George H.W. Bush proposed an unprecedented grand strategy for a “Europe whole and free” and at peace. He understood that Russia must not be treated as Germany was by the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, which sowed the seeds for German revanchism and World War II. Bush’s vision was translated into a set of interlocking steps. Central Europe was taken off the geopolitical chess board, and Russia was offered a chance to play a major and respected role in the future of European security.
But even before Putin came to power, Washington lost interest in Bush’s vision. After NATO added three Central European countries to the alliance in 1998—in part to “surround” Germany with NATO to reassure everyone that the German past was well and truly buried—the United States pressed for more expansion, up to the Russian frontier. The George W. Bush administration unilaterally abrogated the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, one of the few remaining symbols of Russia’s great power past and likely future. Then, most consequentially, the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest declared that “Ukraine and Georgia will become members of NATO,” thus violating a tacit bargain reached when NATO first took in new members from Central Europe. At that time and as a necessary complement to NATO’s expansion, it negotiated with Russia a Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation, and Security. And to underscore that Ukraine would not become a pawn of great-power politics, NATO also concluded a Charter on a Distinctive Partnership with Kiev. It was understood that Ukraine would not be considered for NATO membership, at least without first seeing whether European security arrangements, supplementing NATO, could be developed in which Russia (and Ukraine) would be full partners.
With its 2008 Bucharest declaration on Ukrainian and Georgian membership, NATO thus provided Russian nationalists with evidence that the United States was seeking to “surround” Russia. (The 2016 NATO summit recommitted the alliance to the folly of prospective Georgian membership, even though few if any allies would be prepared to honor the resulting security commitment if Georgia were attacked.)
Matters came to a head in early 2014, when Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovych, rejected a European Union association agreement in favor of economic support from Russia. In addition to popular resistance (the “Euromaidan” protests) that forced him to flee the country, the United States actively worked to install a prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, sympathetic to the West. Russia’s seizure of Crimea followed soon thereafter—whether provoked by US actions or merely excused by them. Ironically, the US intervention in Ukrainian politics (following Russia’s influence with Yanukovych) was more consequential than what Russia did in the 2016 US elections. But global politics is littered with double standards. The problem arises when they get in the way of calculations about how to build relationships that have a chance of meeting the legitimate needs of all parties.
Russia’s seizure of Crimea, aggression elsewhere in Ukraine, and other pressures in Europe cannot be excused. Nor can Russian interference in the US presidential election campaign be justified by the fact that the United States has itself for decades actively and regularly intervened in the politics and elections of dozens of countries around the globe. But the “Russia scandal” enveloping President Trump, however much he has contributed to it, is depriving the United States of the chance to explore whether there can be a true “reset” of relations with Russia, fully consonant with US and Western interests.
Ironically, Donald Trump has shown a better understanding of the need for a new, mutually acceptable basis for relations with the Russian Federation than did either George W. Bush or Barack Obama. His valuable instinct, however, is now being buried beneath the fundamental debate about his presidency, which is feeding so much of the Russia scandal, in major part for US domestic political reasons. In this context, the interests of the United States and the West are clearly losing out.
Robert E. Hunter
Robert E. Hunter served as U.S. ambassador to NATO in 1993-1998 and was on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration.