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  • Collision Rather Than Collusion:Issues in Russian-U.S. Relations
  • Dmitri Trenin (bio)

The election of Donald Trump was welcomed in Moscow in November 2016 as a chance to at least temper the adversity that had beset Russia-U.S. relations since 2014, when President Vladimir Putin used military force to seize control of Crimea and provided support to the rebels in Ukraine's Donbas region. Above all, the Republican victory suddenly relieved Russian leaders of the prospect of continued Democratic control over the White House, which by fall 2016 they had come to view as inevitable. Hillary Clinton, a staunch supporter of the post–Maidan revolution leadership in Kiev and an advocate of a no-fly zone in Syria and possibly U.S. intervention there, was regarded as simply hostile toward Moscow. Trump, by contrast, surprised the Russians by his neutral-to-positive remarks about Putin and his policies.

This essay opens with a discussion of the impact of U.S. domestic politics on Russian-U.S. relations. It then proceeds to analyze the major issue in the bilateral relationship, which is summarized as "confrontation with islands of cooperation." Finally, the essay concludes by describing the outlook for the future of relations between Moscow and Washington.

The New Political Environment in the United States and Its Impact

Trump's victory came laden with serious and persistent allegations of Russian involvement in the election and even collusion between the Kremlin and the new president and his staff. This put U.S.-Russian relations in an entirely new environment compared to anything Moscow had experienced before, even during the Cold War and Senator Joseph McCarthy's 1950s campaigns against Soviet spies and Communist sympathizers in the U.S. government.

What was particularly striking to Russian observers was a surprising lack of self-confidence demonstrated by the U.S. political elite and its palpable feeling of insecurity. The notion that the U.S. political system was vulnerable to outside meddling essentially destroyed, in the Russian assessment, a key pillar of American exceptionalism. Essentially, the United States was like every other country. What was no less striking was the [End Page 33] de facto lack of confidence of the U.S. elite in the American people, who, the allegations implied, could be easily manipulated by a foreign power on the paramount issue of electing the president of the United States. Finally, the toxic status conferred by the U.S. media on Russian officials in the United States, particularly the ambassador, who was portrayed as no less than a spymaster running a ring of agents of influence among senior U.S. officials, betrayed a heretofore nonexistent American fear of contamination by mere contact with Russians. Many Russians concluded with amazement that the United States, in some respects, looked like the Soviet Union of their younger days.

Even if some of these things appeared to be a remake of the Cold War atmosphere, the difference between then and now was enormous. Present-day Russia is not a political, economic, ideological, or even military rival to the United States in the way that the Soviet Union was. The many disparities between the United States and Russia are stark, and virtually all are in the United States' favor. What in the days of the Cold War was understandable in view of the raw power of the Soviet Union, its global drive for influence, and its active championship of Communist and leftist movements around the world looks very different today. To Moscow, all this suggested no less than an advent of political warfare within the United States, very different from the usual political games the two main parties had been playing. As a result, the United States became, in Russian eyes, an unpredictable adversary.

Looking ahead, Russian observers see the unfolding political drama in the United States as much more than the aftermath of the 2016 elections. They assume that Washington has entered a prolonged political crisis that could lead to a major showdown and potentially national upheaval if President Trump is impeached. From being an unpredictable global player, as it is now, the United States could then become an unstable country: something the world last saw in...


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