In an Aug. 3 tweet, President Donald Trump had this to say: “Our relations with Russia are at a historic low, and very dangerous.”
But is it? Or is it actually no different than it’s ever been, except that the current administration implied for a brief period of time we might see the relationship repaired?
Trump essentially blames Congress for a supposed deterioration in relations. And it’s true, Trump signed into law new sanctions against Russia, which spurred Moscow to respond with claims it amounted to full-scale trade war, and that the Trump administration had demonstrated “utter powerlessness,” in the words of Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev via Facebook.
But let’s take a moment to examine Trump’s own dealings with Moscow. It’s important to note first that President Vladimir Putin and Trump have no relationship — not really. So much of the so-called mutual respect was promoted before the two had even met in person, and emerged by way of soundbites during the campaign and after.
More general optimism about the U.S.-Russia relationship filtered out through press briefings or interviews, including my own with the Rostec CEO Sergey Viktorovich Chemezov — reportedly a long-time associate with Putin. None of the commentary about great potential for future cooperation was spurred by policy. It was politics. Moreover, it was rhetoric.
For Trump, Putin was a provocative symbol early on of what his negotiating skills could supposedly accomplish, and how he would turn Obama doctrine on its ear. For Putin, Trump has been a pawn — someone to bolster to the advantage of Russia influence and policy, perhaps through illegal means, as the antithesis of Hilary Clinton.
Many would actually like to see improved relations with Russia, whether for the sake of countering extremism, further repairing relations with China, or managing the threat of North Korea. Perhaps even military co-development, as far-fetched as that may seem in the current environment. But the practical challenges get in the way. Whether it’s an impasse on Syria or Ukraine, or just the general distrust that exists between the two nations — common ground has been elusive.
None of that changed with the Trump administration. And nobody would have expected that it would, if the president hadn’t hung his hat on the great potential of the relationship. In fact, some might argue that such implications, along with claims of mutual respect, only made matters worse. When the same old issues emerged, as they did with the recent sanctions, the relationship got nastier. Now Trump finds himself in quite a quandary, not living up to claims made to the American people or to expectations of Moscow.
So then, are relations with Russia at a historic low? Not really for the U.S. But perhaps for the president.