Only Putin Holds the Key to U.S.-Russia Gridlock

As long as Putin’s in charge, a U.S.-Russia reset will have to wait.

By Samuel Rebo

April 24, 2017

Photo: Kremlin.ruPhoto:

President Donald Trump is right. It would be great if the United States and Russia could just get along. Unfortunately, Trump clearly underestimated the barriers inherent to getting along with Russia, and his recent decision to bomb Syrian military bases underscores that difficulty. But even “difficult” understates the obstacles. The primary hurdle to a reset is not the inclinations of American and Russian leaders, but rather each country’s conception of its core interests. 

A reset would require either the United States or Russia to redefine its interests, but Trump, constrained by both public opinion and Congress, has little wiggle room to do so. However, on the Russian side, neither public opinion nor any other branch of government constrain President Vladimir Putin. Putin can change Russian foreign policy. This means the onus is on Putin alone to shift Russia’s position and reign in U.S.-Russia brinksmanship.

In Russia, Putin wields absolute power over the direction of all major policies. Yet in Western circles, it’s fashionable to discuss Russian oligarchs and the broad influence they exert. Indeed, many oligarchs have control over multi-billion-dollar industries and are just as, if not more important, than any local officials in the regions their factories occupy. However, one of Putin’s first tasks as president in the early 2000s was to re-establish Kremlin control over oligarchs that did not toe the state line or operated outside of the law. After removing oligarchs who were unwilling to submit to the state from control over critical media, natural resources, and banking enterprises, Putin established a system where no one questioned his authority. Under this system, Putin makes the call on U.S.-Russia relations, and there is minimal room for dissent.

Despite policy differences between the United States and Russia, Moscow hoped the election of Donald Trump could usher in a new U.S.-Russia dynamic based on realism and common interests. After all, Russia may have helped him get elected! But Trump, for better or worse, has little flexibility to act, and his recent decision to strike Syria demonstrates the continued influence of the American foreign policy establishment. Even if Trump hadn’t decided to bomb Assad’s forces, the small window of opportunity for cooperation between Moscow and Washington was shrinking by the day, and simple ways to work together like intelligence sharing looked more and more farfetched. While both countries share an interest in eradicating the Islamic State, neither side can agree on who should be in control of a post-civil war Syria.

In Ukraine, too, the United States looks unlikely to move first. Any whisper of removing sanctions against Russia kindles fury in the U.S. Congress, whose members see Ukraine as the frontline against Russian territorial expansion. Meanwhile, neither Ukraine nor Russia have fulfilled their portion of the Minsk Agreement, and unilateral sanctions removal runs the risk of making the new administration look weak.

So, while the United States can hardly make the first move, Putin’s lack of constraints means he can change Russia’s foreign policy with little domestic blowback. In fact, his return to the Russian presidency provides ample evidence that this is the case. Upon reassuming the presidency in 2012, he rectified what he felt was an overly lenient policy toward the United States led by his predecessor Dmitry Medvedev. The U.S.-Russia reset ushered in under then President Barack Obama and Medvedev in 2009 fell apart over a law barring adoption of Russian children by Americans, Russia granting asylum to Edward Snowden, and the annexation of Crimea.

Putin is not simply operating within the confines given to him by Russian society. Russians are not inherently opposed to working with America. During the Obama reset’s heyday from 2008-2010, Russian disapproval of U.S. leadership was halved. In fact, Putin’s popularity today is significantly higher than in 2012 – 64% then versus 84% today. If Putin shifted Russian foreign policy priorities in 2012, he could do so in 2017 as well.

Could events transpire to force Putin to cooperate with the United States? Some argue that Russia’s tanking economy will force Putin to cooperate to stave off economic strife. This isn’t quite so. Despite a recent downtown, the Russian economy has stabilized thanks to tight fiscal and monetary planning, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) now predicts Russian GDP growth of 1.4% in 2017. Others argue that Trump’s erratic decision making could force Russia to cooperate in Syria. While more likely than Russia’s economy forcing Putin’s hand, analysts overstate the probability of deeper U.S.-Russia cooperation in Syria. Trump himself might be erratic, but his foreign policy sounds more like Obama’s everyday as American institutions force the White House to conform. The United States could force Russia to cooperate, but this possibility isn’t any more likely than under the previous administration given the high risks of such a move.

President Trump would like nothing more than to bring back the trophy of fixing U.S.-Russia relations. Some cooperation, if in each country’s interest, can happen. Renewal of the New START nuclear arms control agreement, for example, could happen because each state has an interest in its extension. Still, a true reset across all issues is unlikely since American and Russian interests simply don’t align, and nothing is pushing either leader to the negotiating table. Undoubtedly Putin wants better relations too, but better relations would require just as many, if not more concessions from the Russian side than he could stomach. As long as Putin’s in charge, a U.S.-Russia reset will have to wait.

Samuel Rebo is a member of the 2016-2017 CGI Rising Experts Program and a Eurasia and Global Macro Researcher at Eurasia Group, where he focuses on U.S.-Russia relations and Russian domestic politics. Previously, he worked for former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul at Stanford University, where he organized the European Security Initiative. He is also a member of the Younger Generation Leaders Network for Euro-Atlantic Security.

The Center on Global Interests does not take institutional positions. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect those of the affiliated institutions or individuals.

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