Quick Read: Patterns in Russian-American Relations

Dec 17, 2018 | Maria Snegovaya

What distinguishes U.S. policy on Russia under Donald Trump from other U.S. presidents?

A recent Foreign Policy Research Institute analysis argues that the current state of the U.S.-Russia relationship is unprecedented. Donald Trump has overseen a period of continued deterioration of the U.S.-Russian relationship, which, at almost five years, is the longest sustained downturn in relations since the end of the Cold War:

“While the Clinton, Bush, and Obama resets didn’t last, they provided periods of respite in the historically tense ties and allowed both sides to achieve important policy goals,” according to the analysis by Robert E. Hamilton, an Associate Professor of Eurasian Studies at the U.S. Army War College.

Hamilton argues that the Trump’s own affinity for Putin, as demonstrated by his refusal to criticize the Russian president and inability to acknowledge Russian interference in the election, explains much of his failure. The latest example of this affinity was Trump’s muted reaction to the Russian seizure of three Ukrainian ships in the Kerch Strait

Trump’s behavior on Russia has further undermined trust among the U.S. policy community. As a result, Congress and the national security bureaucracy have de facto managed U.S. policy on Russia independently from the president. This has led to a two-track phenomenon, where Trump expresses a preference for Putin, but other institutions keep pushing a tougher policy line:

“Congress imposed sanctions on Russia and restricted Trump’s ability to lift them. The Departments of Defense and State convinced the White House to sell advanced Javelin anti-tank missiles to Georgia and Ukraine despite Trump’s reluctance to go ahead with the sale. Trump was similarly reluctant to expel Russian diplomats from the U.S. as punishment for the use of a nerve agent in the United Kingdom, but was apparently convinced to do so by senior advisors,” the analysis reads.

The assessment concludes on a pessimistic note: Until the Trump presidency ends, a reset is impossible, and the personal relationship between presidents will remain mostly irrelevant.