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Russia reset redux? Trump tries where predecessors failed

President Donald Trump listens during a news conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, April 12, 2017. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON (AP) — It’s a familiar refrain: A new American president seeks improved relations with Russia. And like his predecessors, Donald Trump is running into a thicket of obstacles, new and old, to even maintaining a functioning relationship with Moscow.

For Trump, the grievances inherited from Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have been compounded by Russian-backed Syria’s chemical weapons attacks, retaliatory U.S. missile strikes, election meddling allegations and Ukraine’s unsolved crisis. At the center of each problem is an energized and uncompromising force: Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Things will work out fine between the U.S.A. and Russia,” Trump nevertheless tweeted Thursday, as his top diplomat departed Moscow empty-handed after discussions with Putin and other Russian officials. “At the right time everyone will come to their senses & there will be lasting peace!”

Trump’s optimistic prognosis followed his declaration Wednesday that U.S.-Russia relations “may be at an all-time low,” and that “right now we’re not getting along with Russia at all.” The sudden U-turn underscored long-standing difficulties that have plagued the two nations’ attempts at greater understanding since the days of their World War II alliance. The Cold War may be over, but from Eastern Europe to the Middle East, Washington and Moscow don’t see the world the same way.

“The Trump administration came in with a set of problems and a level of disagreement that are more difficult to just put aside in the way the Bush and Obama administrations had been able to do,” said Stephen Sestanovich, a Council on Foreign Relations expert who was U.S. ambassador-at-large for the former Soviet Union from 1997 to 2001. “The obstacles in the way of a reset now are more serious than you had at the outset of any other administration since the end of the Cold War.”

The list of complaints is long, particularly on the Russian side. They range from NATO’s expansion and European missile defense systems to a fear the U.S. is promoting opposition to pro-Russian leaders and even Putin himself. Trump’s order last week to fire 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian government-controlled air base adds to Moscow’s overriding suspicion that Washington is willing to use force to promote regime change, regardless of who is in the White House.

America’s anger is no less palpable. It sees Russia attempting to undermine NATO and European Union unity, supporting violent separatist insurgencies in Georgia and Ukraine, and propping up a leader in Syrian President Bashar Assad who is responsible for a civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people. The accusation that the Kremlin tampered with the U.S. democratic process only buttresses those who see Russia as America’s greatest geopolitical foe.

As Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said after emerging from a nearly two-hour meeting with Putin, “there is a low level of trust between our two countries.” He added ominously, “The world’s two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship.”

For Trump, it’s a dramatic reversal from his repeated campaign pledges to forge a new U.S.-Russian relationship. Likewise, Obama’s first secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, officially offered Russia a symbolic “reset” button. After his first meeting with Putin, Bush said he “looked the man in the eye” and “found him very straightforward and trustworthy,” getting a “sense of his soul.”

While Bush and Putin shared sentiments about cracking down on terrorism, they soon clashed. Putin chafed over Bush’s support for popular revolutions against pro-Moscow leaders on Russia’s borders, and strongly opposed America’s 2003 Iraq invasion. Bush became troubled by Putin’s increased authoritarianism and assertiveness, culminating in Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia.

Obama had some initial successes, dealing with President Dmitry Medvedev, while Putin spent four years as prime minister. But once Putin returned to the presidency, Obama’s reset crumbled speedily, especially after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

For Trump, the crises have come quicker and the learning curve has been faster. Beyond the expanding ledger of disagreements, Trump has limited ability to offer Moscow concessions at a time U.S. investigators are examining if Russian agents and Trump campaign associates colluded to help the billionaire businessman win last year’s presidential election.

“Every administration tries to improve relations, but there is a very basic fundamental fact: Across the geopolitical chessboard the U.S. and Russia have fundamentally very different interests,” said Harry Kazianis, a senior fellow for defense policy at the Center for the National Interest, a Washington think tank advocating “realistic” foreign policy.

“There is not a common enemy on the scale of the Nazis,” Kazianis said, “but to be in a constant combative mode just doesn’t work. Relations have gotten so bad, it’s important for both sides to take a step and look at what happens if it gets worse.” A pragmatic, transactional relationship, he added, “is the best we can hope for.”

In Moscow, Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said they’d create working groups to smooth over differences on issues where the two countries share common goals. Similar attempts have failed previously.

Sestanovich said new U.S. policies will be needed to prompt new Russian responses.

“You can’t just ask Russia to redefine its interests,” he said, adding that “Putin doesn’t do favors.”

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