If history continues to repeat itself, a possible honeymoon period in U.S.-Russia relations at the start of Donald Trump’s presidency could turn into a new crisis by the end of it.

Portraits of U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Union Jack pub in Moscow, Russia. Photo: AP

In the final months of Barack Obama’s presidency, U.S.-Russian relations have hit a new post-Cold War low. The most obvious sign of this, of course, has been the inability of the U.S. and Russia to reach any type of lasting solution for either Ukraine or Syria. In many ways, though, this is nothing new if one takes into account the historical cycle of U.S.-Russian relations over the past 75 years.

The fallout over Syria, which now includes fears that the world’s two nuclear superpowers could be “sleepwalking” into a hot conflict, is the most recent dramatic episode of U.S.-Russian relations, which has long followed a pattern of reconciliation and deterioration. Given U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin, is it possible that Washington will be able to break out from the vicious circle of ever deepening escalation with Moscow?

The cyclical nature of U.S.-Russian relations

Ever since the end of World War II, U.S.-Russia relations have followed a pattern of a new leadership starting out on a high note, and ending in failure. This has been the prevailing dynamic of the post-Cold War period. Under Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, relations moved from being wartime allies to Cold War archenemies in the shortest possible time.

After Stalin’s death in 1953, the new Soviet leadership under Nikita Khrushchev tried to re-engage with the U.S. This led to the end of the Korean War, rejection of Soviet territorial claims on Turkey, and withdrawal of Soviet troops from Austria in 1955. However, Khrushchev’s period ended with the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the most dangerous points of the Cold War.

The new leaderships of the two superpowers - Richard Nixon in the U.S. and Leonid Brezhnev in the Soviet Union - began their relations with detente. This included the first comprehensive agreement to control the nuclear arms race signed in 1972. But the end of Brezhnev’s rule was again marked by deterioration after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Reagan’s “Evil Empire” rallying cry. During the Cold War, the mutually antagonistic ideologies of the two superpowers restrained their abilities to reach a lasting improvement in their relations.

The real breakthrough came with Mikhail Gorbachev’s brief rule in 1985-1991. Gorbachev’s renunciation of the old style zero-sum games in favor of politics based on common interests ended the Cold War, but also saw the end of the Soviet Union. In the new era of Pax Americana, a greatly diminished Russia played a peripheral role.

Recommended: "Why Russia has no reason to celebrate a Trump presidency yet"

In the post-Cold War era, relations followed a familiar pattern. The first President of Russia, Boris Yeltsin, was a darling of the West in the early 1990s, but he grew increasingly frustrated with the U.S. by the end of the decade. His grievances ranged from U.S. criticism of Russia’s war in Chechnya, to NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia in the face of Russia’s objections. On his last foreign visit in December 1999 to Beijing, Yeltsin lashed out at U.S. President Bill Clinton “for forgetting for a minute, for 30 seconds that Russia is a nuclear power,” insisting that “we won’t let the U.S. determine the rules for the rest of the world.”

It’s virtually forgotten now, but Putin’s first years in office were one of the warmest periods in U.S.-Russian relations. The high point came in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks, when Putin was the first foreign leader to call President George W. Bush to offer help, leading to Russia’s agreeing to NATO’s presence in the Central Asian republics to support its operation in Afghanistan. In this honeymoon period, Putin hinted that Russia one day might join NATO, while Bush claimed to have looked into Putin’s soul and “found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy.”

Then the relations gradually deteriorated. The U.S. withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2001, a key part of the original 1972 Nixon-Brezhnev deal; announced expansion of NATO into the post-Soviet space; invaded Iraq in violation of the United Nations charter in 2003; and supported the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004. Putin’s plans for a strategic relationship with the U.S. came to naught as he realized that the U.S. simply didn’t consider Russia important enough to do any deals with.

The new U.S. National Security Strategy of 2002 (which set out the Bush doctrine) stated that no other country was to be allowed a sphere of influence, even in its own neighborhood. Putin now believed that America defined its national interest as weakening Russia, and that other means were necessary to make Washington recognize Moscow’s national interests. By the end of Bush’s second term, Russia went to war with Georgia in August 2008, a de facto U.S. client state at the time.

A reset followed under U.S. President Barack Obama. At the inaugural meeting with her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, U.S. State Secretary Hillary Clinton presented a symbolic reset button. Unfortunately, the State Department misspelled the Russian word for “reset” and wrote “overload” instead. At the end of Obama’s second term, “overload” is indeed the most apt term for describing U.S.-Russian relations, which seem to be a short step away from a direct military clash.

Fundamental problems

What are the underlying problems in U.S.-Russian relations, which seem to drive these countries along the road of a seemingly never-ending downward spiral?

There are three levels. First are the specific hot points where Russian and U.S. interests clash: These include Syria, where they support opposing sides in the civil war, and Ukraine.

The second level pertains to more general questions of the post-Cold War order in Europe. In particularly, these have centered on the post-1991 enlargement of NATO. The question of further NATO expansion into the post-Soviet space, particularly to Georgia and Ukraine, were critical factors behind the 2008 and 2014 crises in Georgia and Ukraine, respectively. A related issue is the U.S. unwillingness to accept Russia’s plans to retain a sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space. Finally, the U.S. program of constructing an anti-missile defense in Europe (ostensibly aimed at neutralizing the threat from Iran’s nuclear program) is seen in Russia as aimed at upsetting the U.S.-Russia strategic parity in nuclear deterrence.

The third level is about fundamental differences in their understanding of the international order (for the U.S. it reflects its status as a hegemonic power and for Russia as an inspiring regional power). Russia, since its failure to integrate into the Western value system after perestroika, favors a pluralist approach to international affairs. Such a view holds that states, like individuals, have different interests and values, while the international order should be limited to creating a framework to allow them to coexist on the best possible terms.

The U.S. champions what is known as the solidarist approach. It views humanity as a single whole evolving towards the ultimate goal of human emancipation, embodied in the idea of democracy and human rights. The task of the more advanced members of international society (i.e. the West) is to help this latent solidarity of values to become reality.  

In practical terms, this is expressed in their disagreement on limits of legitimate interference. Russia holds that sovereignty, which is understood as non-interference in domestic affairs of other states, is the fundamental building block of the international order. Hence, it supports Assad’s regime as technically the only legitimate government of a sovereign state. The U.S., on the other hand, argues that human rights trump sovereignty and the international community can intervene to protect those rights. This was the logic for the intervention in Yugoslavia in 1999 and Libya in 2010.

A couple kisses in front of graffiti depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, on the walls of a bar in the old town in Vilnius, Lithuania. Photo: AP

What difference could Trump make in U.S.-Russian relations?

There is certainly some room for improvement on a personal level and perhaps also on an ideological level. Russia is challenging the liberal world order in the international sphere at the same time as there is a growing domestic populist backlash in the West against the dominant liberal paradigm, which propelled Donald Trump to the White House.

As Putin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov remarked, their foreign policy approach seems very similar as they both put the national interest of their countries above abstract values such as human rights or democracy. Given a weakening of public support for U.S. global involvement, perhaps there is a possibility to create a new world order based on agreed-upon pluralist principles, which would not presuppose a conversion to American values.

However, it is doubtful whether America is indeed ready and willing to abandon its traditional role as the custodian of the liberal world order from which it benefited enormously. This role is supported by a powerful strand in American national identity, which sees the U.S. as the exemplar of democracy with a mission to spread universal values of freedom and democracy in the world. The internal clash between an optimistic America that believes in its inevitable greatness of universal values, and a country in decline which needs to make itself “great again” is by no means over with Trump’s victory.

Regardless of how the U.S. views itself, the recent failure of the Russia-U.S. ceasefire showed their limited power over actors in Syria. This won’t change even if President Trump decides to focus exclusively on defeating the Islamic State of the Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) with Russian help. It’s difficult to see a solution to Syrian quagmire without some sort of a grand conference of great regional powers – Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia – plus Russia and the U.S. This, even in the best of scenarios, will be a long and uncertain process.

Similarly, in Ukraine there could be some agreement that takes into account the positions of both sides. For example, Trump insisted on removing a paragraph from the Republican manifesto on supplying lethal weapons to Ukraine. The basic issue is again lack of power over local actors. It is impossible for the current Ukrainian authorities to implement the political part of the Minsk deal, which envisages an autonomous status for the breakaway regions, without causing a major political crisis. So, there is unlikely to be a significant breakthrough there either.

At the second level, further expansion of NATO is already a non-starter. The Alliance’s hand wringing over a perceived threat to the Baltic States clearly shows that there is no appetite whatsoever to take on additional security responsibilities that might lead to a direct military conflict with Russia. And as events in Georgia and Ukraine showed, this is almost inevitable if any other ex-Soviet countries tried to join NATO. The missile defense project is likely to remain an insoluble issue, particularly given the Republican Party’s obsession with it and Trump’s own support for it.

The issues that have dogged U.S.-Russia relations, such as democracy promotion in Russia’s near abroad, enforcement of human rights, or NATO expansion are unlikely to be a priority in Trump’s foreign policy. However, Donald Trump arguably manifests the rise of an ethnoreligious form of American nationalism. If not moderated by the traditional pragmatism and realism in the U.S. political culture, this could lead to a dangerous form of nationalist unilateralism in international affairs. This strand in American thinking holds that American national sovereignty should not be subject to any outside control, such as the UN or other international treaties.

To enforce that, the U.S. is required to be militarily stronger than any other country so as to retain absolute freedom of action. Trump has vowed to significantly increase military spending, already by far the largest in the world – in fact, bigger than the next seven countries combined.

The corollary to these views is the idea that the U.S. should prevent any significant region from falling under the domination of a hostile country. This goes against Russia’s key foreign policy objectives of maintaining a zone of privileged interests in the post-Soviet space.

There are further limits to U.S.-Russia cooperation. The key country for the U.S. to deal with in the 21st century will be China, which Trump often referred to during his campaign for presidency. Russia’s relations with China are strategic, and became more important after Russia’s fallout with the West over Ukraine. It’s unlikely that Putin would in any way undermine this relationship to please Trump. Similarly, Russia is carefully constructing its relations with Iran, another top target for Trump’s foreign policy.

The Russians think that by taking out the moral dimension from the foreign policy, Donald Trump will remove the main obstacle to the deeper U.S.-Russia cooperation. However, it is not clear whether focusing on the narrowly defined national interests will necessarily make it easier to deal with the U.S. This is particularly so as Trump represents a unilateral strand in the U.S. foreign policy thinking, while the Republican party at large continues to view Russia with utmost suspicion.

It’s quite possible that Trump will simply repeat the established pattern in U.S.-Russian relations. A honeymoon period at the start of his presidency will turn into a new crisis at the end of it, as structural differences of conflicting national interests and public pressure at home drive the two countries to a new phase of confrontation. And given Trump’s unpredictable nature, it might well be that the master of the Kremlin will soon wish that “The Donald” remain a one-term president.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.