During the 2016 presidential campaign and in the run-up to his inauguration, President-elect Donald Trump consistently expressed his desire to improve the severely frayed U.S.-Russian relations.
In his first news conference in nearly six months, Trump on Wednesday denounced newly released and unverified reports that Russia compiled tawdry information to compromise him and that his campaign officials colluded with Russian intelligence.
Undeterred by a recent intelligence report pointing to Russian meddling in U.S. elections, Trump told reporters that even if President Vladimir Putin supported his candidacy over Democrat Hillary Clinton, he would be tougher in dealing with the Russian leader on the world stage when he assumes power next week.
“Having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing,” Trump had said in a series of rapid-fire tweets over the weekend, reiterating his long-standing position. “Only ‘stupid’ people, or fools, would think that it is bad! … When I am president, Russia will respect us far … more than they do now and both countries will, perhaps, work together to solve some of the many great and pressing problems and issues of the WORLD!”
However, many veteran Russia watchers in the U.S. question Trump's emerging policy towards Russia and his stated admiration for its leader. Over the last two years, White House and European Union officials have introduced a range of economic sanctions in response to Russia's annexation of Crimea and the Kremlin's support for separatists in Eastern Ukraine.
Writing in Foreign Policy magazine, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, charges that "while being clear about his desire to befriend Putin, Trump has been very unclear about what foreign-policy objectives he seeks to achieve in U.S.-Russia relations.”
“Better relations' should never be the goal of U.S. foreign policy toward Russia or any country in the world … better relations must always be understood as a means to advance American security and prosperity,” he wrote.
Other experts describe many difficulties a Trump-inspired détente with Russia would encounter.
“Russia's efforts to undo the post-Cold War order in Europe clash with the United States’ long-standing commitments to the principles of sovereignty, territorial inviolability, and democracy,” wrote Jeffrey Mankoff, deputy director and senior fellow with the CSIS Russia and Eurasia Program, in Foreign Affairs magazine. Deep distrust between U.S. and Russia, he said, have only derailed attempts to find a political solution in Syria in 2016.
Some experienced Russia hands do see restoring trust and improving relations between U.S. and its Cold War adversary as a stepping stone to achieving American foreign policy goals and defending national interests.
Thomas Graham, managing director at Kissinger Associates, a political consultancy established by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, acknowledges a number of “serious issues” and “conflicting interests” that divide U.S. and Russia.
In an exclusive interview with VOA's Russian Service, Graham (whose name has been floated in recent weeks as a candidate for U.S. ambassador to Russia under the Trump administration) said he favors “normalizing relations” and “establishing communication channels" between Washington and Moscow.
"Wide-ranging discussions" with the Kremlin about the changing global environment would allow the U.S. to formulate "a Russia policy that advances our interests, taking into account the real Russia we're facing, and not some idealistic Russia that we may have hoped for 25 years ago when the Soviet Union broke up — and certainly not a demonic Russia that's portrayed in much of the Western press today.”
The 2014 crisis in Ukraine, Graham added, was a seminal event that pushed U.S.-Russian relations to their lowest level since the Cold War. To resolve the crisis, he proposed a series of measures including a step-by-step lifting of sanctions in exchange for Moscow fulfilling its obligations under the Minsk agreement.
Other proposed measures would entail freezing NATO expansion and having “Ukraine remove itself from the geopolitical struggle” between U.S. and Russia, along with finding a “creative solution” to legalize Crimea's status under effective Russian control while safeguarding Ukraine's security and economic interests.
“It's a very pragmatic approach based on a hard-nosed understanding of what our national interest is, with the expectation that Russia would pursue its national interests vigorously and energetically,” he said.
Graham, along with Kissinger and other former diplomats and academics, belongs to the so-called “realist school” of U.S. foreign policy (although Graham himself prefers to call his approach "pragmatic"). Kissinger's recent meetings with Trump indicate this “realist” thinking could prevail in the Trump White House.
Reading tea leaves
Experts caution, however, that the precise course the new administration would take is far from certain. Stephen Sestanovich, a former U.S. ambassador-at-large for the former Soviet Union, and now a professor at Columbia University and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, points to some of the cabinet-level appointments Trump already made as a possible source of tension.
“These people hold different views and have different experiences,” Sestanovich told VOA's Russian Service. “Some have worked in the intelligence community, some come from the military, some were business people, and some have worked in the diplomatic corps. They hold different views, and once the new administration actually commences working, they would have an opportunity to present those views to the president.
“Until the cabinet gets down to business and its members gather around the table in the White House, it's very difficult to predict what the results would be,” he added. “Each new president starts out having certain opinions, which were formed during the course of his career and experience. But when formulating policy, these opinions are the starting point, not the final destination. Before policy is formulated, these opinions would be filtered by professional experts and federal bureaucracy, as well as debated by the president's key advisers.”
According to Sestanovich, this process might take up to six months, which is “normal.”
Robert Legvold, emeritus professor of political science at Columbia University, points out yet another hurdle to the emerging Trump rapprochement with Russia: resistance in Congress and in the media.
“A number of U.S. senators, led by John McCain and Lindsey Graham, have declared that they will stand firm against any new ‘reset’ with Russia,” Legvold told VOA by telephone.
In addition, U.S. media routinely refers to Putin as “an international bully” or a “thug.”
“This anti-Russian consensus is deeply rooted even among Trump supporters and the U.S. political establishment,” Legvold said, adding that it could be difficult to overcome.
Many observers of U.S.-Russian relations agree that the path forward remains uncertain, and that much would depend on the success or failure of initial steps taken by the Trump administration.
This report was produced in collaboration with VOA's Russia Service.