Russian Perspectives on U.S.-Russia Relations
On April 21, the Center for the National Interest hosted a discussion on Russian perspectives on U.S.-Russia relations with speaker Dmitry Suslov, Deputy Director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at Russia’s National Research University—Higher School of Economics, and a Program Director with the Valdai Foundation. A summary of the event can be found below.
Russian Perspectives on U.S.-Russia Relations
During a lunch discussion at the Center for the National Interest on April 21, Dmitry Suslov, Deputy Director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at Russia’s National Research University—Higher School of Economics, and a Program Director with the Valdai Foundation, discussed Russia’s evolving perspectives on the U.S.-Russia relationship.
The U.S.-Russia relationship today is unstable, dangerous, and prone to escalation, but confrontation is not inevitable, Suslov stated. Indeed, he said, Russia would like to “normalize” relations and to transition from a Cold War relationship, in which the two nations are systematic adversaries, to a mixed relationship that experiences both cooperation and competition. Suslov argued Russian officials believe this is still possible, even after a recent sharp disagreement over U.S. missile strikes on Syria. According to Suslov, despite the fact that Russia’s perspective of the Trump administration has evolved over the last three months to one of greater skepticism, such a normalization is still much more likely under the Trump administration than it was under President Obama or than it would have been under Hilary Clinton, according to Suslov.
Russian officials and foreign policy analysts initially had a mixed perception of Trump, Suslov continued, incorporating the idea that the Trump administration has a “light side” and a “dark side.” The light side was the “de-ideologization” of U.S. foreign policy—Trump’s promise to do away with regime change and democracy promotion in favor of “America First” policies to advance more narrowly-defined national interests. This would allow the U.S. and Russia to develop a closer understanding of the international order, he said. From Moscow’s perspective, the administration’s “dark side” consisted of the traditional Republican foreign policy agenda, one that doesn’t hesitate to use military force, disregards international law and multilateralism, and has no taste for international institutions or arms control. Despite Russia’s concerns about this “dark side,” Suslov suggested Moscow saw the overall balance in cautiously positive terms, similarly to Moscow’s outlook toward the George W. Bush administration immediately following the September 11 attacks.
At the same time, Suslov said, Moscow saw an opportunity for Russia in the Trump administration’s apparent focus on U.S. strategic competition with China. From a Russian perspective, the Trump administration appeared to want to stabilize U.S. relations with Russia to guarantee Moscow’s neutrality vis-à-vis China. This was “comfortable” for Russia as it could lead to U.S.-Chinese competition over Russia. Washington politics changed this dramatically, Suslov explained, as liberals waged what some in Moscow term a “hybrid civil war” against Trump in which Russia is a weapon. Russia’s foreign policy elite now believes that this has blocked any constructive movement towards better relations, leading to a “mainstreamization” of Trump’s foreign policy agenda driving the White House toward conventional Republican policy approaches.
Suslov explained that for Russia, the Trump administration apparent moves towards a foreign policy supporting U.S. leadership and global hegemony will complicate U.S.-Russia relations. At the same time, the administration may have normalized relations with China, which leaves Russia in an awkward position within the trilateral relationship between the U.S., Russia, and China. These two factors shrink the “light side” of the Trump administration’s approach even as the Syria missile strikes and talk of preemptive war with North Korea expand the “dark side.” Also on the “dark side” are the lack of U.S. interest in serious negotiations on strategic stability and arms control, which Suslov said became apparent during Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent visit to Moscow, and what Suslov described as President Trump’s “emotional nature.”
Suslov explained that Moscow expects President Trump to be a difficult partner with whom Russia may have many crises and conflicts. Nevertheless, he continued, Russia’s leaders and experts don’t see the Trump administration as a systematic threat because they do not believe that the administration will pursue a transformative foreign policy promoting democracy and regime change in Syria, North Korea or Russia itself. Russia’s foreign policy elite had such suspicions regarding the Obama administration.
Indeed, Suslov added, Russia’s analysis of the missile strikes in Syria, including the timing and technical aspects as well as U.S. rhetoric, supports a view that Trump does not want regime change, but rather a symbolic victory to reverse a difficult domestic situation at home. Suslov asserted that the Trump administration used the chemical weapons attack to bully Russia on Syria, and has North Korea to exert pressure on both Russia and China, mainly to secure visible concessions for domestic political purposes. It was striking for Moscow that during his visit, Secretary Tillerson was most specific in calling for Assad’s removal but that this approach seemed to have ended not long afterward.
Suslov suggested that U.S.-Russia relations have partially normalized but that this incomplete process has not eliminated the risks of uncontrollable escalation. At the same time, he said, Moscow sees no clear strategy from the Trump administration towards relations with Russia, unlike at the time of Trump’s inauguration. As a result, the way forward is unclear and likely difficult.