Russian Perceptions of the Trump Administration and the Future of U.S.-Russia Relations


On February 27, the Center for the National Interest hosted an informal breakfast conversation with Dr. Andrey Sushentsov, a scholar of international affairs and U.S.-Russia relations at Russia’s prestigious Moscow State University for International Relations (MGIMO). Dr. Sushentsov is also a managing partner with Moscow’s Foreign Policy Advisory Group, a consulting firm, and a program director with the Valdai Foundation. The discussion covered topics ranging from Russian views of and expectations from the Trump administration to Russia’s interference in the U.S. election. A summary of the event can be found below. Center Board and Advisory Council members Richard Burt, Zalmay Khalilzad, David Keene, Dov Zakheim, and Susan Eisenhower attended. Center Executive Director Paul J. Saunders moderated.

Russian Perceptions of the Trump Administration and the Future of U.S.-Russia Relations

One of Russia’s leading scholars in the fields of international relations and U.S.-Russia relations emphasized that the Kremlin—though cautiously optimistic—is adopting a wait-and-see approach towards bilateral relations and scaling down expectations of a rapid improvement, thereby demonstrating an appreciation of the domestic political challenges facing President Donald Trump in his first months in office. According to Dr. Andrey Sushentsov, President Putin’s administration traditionally values stability and predictability above all else when it comes to bilateral relations, while Trump’s surprise victory has generated greater uncertainty.

In discussing Russia’s expectations, Sushentsov cited President Putin’s response to a question in October about his perceptions of then-candidate Donald Trump—in which he claimed Russia would always support those in favor of improving relations and would be willing to work with whomever occupied the White House—as a signal that the Kremlin was ready for a “normalization” in bilateral relations at a new lower level following an expected Hillary Clinton victory. According to Sushentsov, Moscow had viewed a potential Clinton administration as perpetuating a predictable, though negative, dynamic—a less than ideal situation for which Russia could nevertheless plan.

Though the Kremlin remains cautiously optimistic about the future trajectory of bilateral relations under Trump, according to Sushentsov, officials are increasingly concerned that the significant domestic political resistance facing Trump could paralyze his government. Sushentsov added that Moscow is fully aware that cooperation with Russia may not be viewed as an asset for Trump in a domestic climate marred by accusations of secret Trump-Russia ties, though he claimed that Russians do not understand these conspiracy theories and observe them with fascination.

Given this state of uncertainty, Sushentsov said that the Kremlin is in stand-by mode and is not expecting any significant actions on the part of the Trump administration anytime soon. Anticipated personnel turnover—both within the new administration and the Russian embassy in Washington—further encourages caution on Moscow’s part. According to Sushentsov, the Russians are expecting Trump to prioritize shoring up his political position in the near term before possibly approaching Russia to propose discussions on a relatively neutral issue, such as the Arctic. The belief in Moscow is that this may occur by late summer, said Sushentsov.

The Trump presidency, according to Sushentsov, has created a window of opportunity to stop the negative trend in relations between the two countries. While the Ukraine crisis—representing the culmination of this negative trend—may be difficult to defuse, there is potential to pursue mutual disengagement in the cyber sphere and to cooperate on North Korea’s nuclear program. There is also hope in Russia that Trump can sell mutual strategic disengagement from competition in Central Europe as a success to the American public and as an American reinforcement of security guarantees to Europe, Sushentsov said.

Just as Trump’s stances on Putin and Russia during the electoral campaign were unanticipated by the Republican Party establishment, so too were they for the Russian public, according to Sushentsov. He described how the Russian people could naturally emphasize with a figure such as Trump—one who fits into the archetype of a lucky Russian merchant or a successful Russian businessman of the 90s—in contrast to Hillary Clinton who appeared to the Russian public as an “artificial communist bureaucrat” who espoused politically correct views.

Many participants put forth the idea that Russia has become a conduit for attacking Trump, and that the press and anti-Trump politicians have bought into the conspiracy linking the President with Russia’s leadership or intelligence agencies. In light of these developments, some suggested it would be beneficial for Putin to unilaterally bring something attractive to the table in order to show that Russia’s government is truly interested in normalization, thus undermining the ability of the media and anti-Trump politicians to use Russia as a vehicle for attacking the White House. However, according to Sushentsov, Moscow’s lowered expectations mean it is less willing to sacrifice anything significant in order to please American political opinion. Sushentsov argued that Russia is not as opportunistic as many in the West believe and that Moscow’s desire for stability and predictability in its relations with the U.S. would be impossible to achieve if they made any attempt at manipulation.

With regards to accusations of Russian hacking of the DNC and interference in the U.S. election, Sushentsov asserted that those actions were likely not a consequence of a direct order from Putin, as they could have created more instability and uncertainty in relations with the U.S.—again, something Sushentsov argues the Kremlin has sought to avoid. Since Moscow expected a Clinton victory, a cyber-attack would have only spoiled relations with the new U.S. administration before it even entered office—a move Sushentsov claimed runs contrary to Russia’s cautious approach.