Why Russian Resets Keep Failing

Geopolitical rivalries do not end because of handshakes or smiling photo ops.

Vladimir Putin
Russian president Vladimir Putin looks out a window in Budapest, Hungary, February 17, 2015 (Facebook/Viktor Orbán)

In short, if it wasn’t one thing, it would have been another.

It didn’t have to have to be a gas attack. It could have been a stray Russian shell in some Ukrainian city, a dead exiled opposition leader on the streets of a Western capital city, a major hacking attack against a critical American target, a crucial NATO ally “flipped” by a Russian disinformation campaign or a released set of Trump e-mails.

It could have been Donald Trump waking up one day to realize the Russians aren’t interested in destroying the Islamic State so long as IS distracts the Americans and grinds down anti-Assad rebels.

It could have been when Trump tried to rally Moscow to support a new round of sanctions or military threats against North Korea.

Perhaps Trump’s bromance might have ended with a shooting incident over Finnish skies or maybe he’d have changed his mind if Russian troops showed up in Libya to prop up Moscow’s increasingly favorited local strongman, Khalifa Haftar.

The fact is, on a long enough timeline, he would have changed his mind or faced an all-out revolt from his cabinet, his generals and his party.

The furor surrounding Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner’s alleged influence over the airstrikes last week is therefore overblown. Presume then that they did not exist and that Steve Bannon continued to whisper pro-Russian lullabies in the president’s ear, even as critical NATO allies like the United States, France, Canada and Germany clamored for action.

How long until the next incident? How long could Trump have kept ignoring his spy and military chiefs because Steve Bannon and his alt-right supporters said to?

Trump is less important than the system he commands

I have long written how Trump is less important than the system he commands. Most presidents do not change the course of American geopolitics; they conform to them.

Woodrow Wilson tried to impose a liberal international order with America’s great armies; he was stymied by the American Senate.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt couldn’t convince his fellow Americans of the threat of Axis militarism until the Japanese proved his point.

Dwight D. Eisenhower famously (perhaps too famously these days) warned of the military-industrial complex while building the military-industrial infrastructure it needed to fight the Cold War.

Jimmy Carter was going to let human rights lead America’s way; he was repaid for that with an Iranian hostage crisis.

George W. Bush was staunchly against nation building; he ended up trying to build two.

Barack Obama called Iraq “the dumb war”; before he left power, he had already sent troops back to fight over once conquered territory.

In each case, national interest overrode the personal interests of each president. Obama desperately wanted to leave Iraq to its own devices, but the Islamic State invasion in June 2014 threatened something much bigger than his moral principles. George W. Bush wanted to focus on “compassionate conservatism”, using a proto-“America First” foreign policy to preserve power; 9/11 put paid to that. Reach back into history, find a president’s inaugural speech and see shattered dreams of a cleaner, less brutish foreign policy.

Thus it is interest that keeps tripping up the utopian geopolitical dreams of each new president. And let us be fair to President Trump: while his hopes for a Russian reset may have involved quiet business deals for himself and his family, the reality is we would all benefit from a Russo-American alliance. It would secure Europe, which with its nuclear arsenals remains the world’s most potentially dangerous continent. It would allow a united Euro-American front to focus on reordering Asia, the Middle East and Africa, regions that desperately need a superpower’s attention to bring about a more permanent peace.

But there can be no reset with Vladimir Putin, nor with the Russia he leads. Trump had to learn that the hard way.

A depressing history of Russian resets

Franklin Roosevelt tried first. In 1933, FDR led negotiations to recognize the Soviet Union. He spent much of the 1930s trying to justify this to his citizens, who saw communist subversion as a genuine threat. He was particularly burned by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact; only in 1941, with the German invasion, did Roosevelt manage to get Americans back on his side for the duration of the war.

Roosevelt famously called mass murderer Josef Stalin “Uncle Joe” and believed the Soviet leader would help build a safer Europe. We know now Stalin’s idea of peace was Soviet control of the continent.

In 1946-47 Soviet troops installed communist satellites throughout Eastern Europe. But many Americans wanted to see these actions through the prism of personality: it was Stalin’s fault, went the thinking, and so when he died, so too would Soviet oppression. Nikita Khrushchev’s rise to power in 1953 and his anti-Stalin inaugural speech heartened these Russophiles. President Eisenhower gave voice to that faction in his 1953 Chance for Peace speech:

So the new Soviet leadership now has a precious opportunity to awaken, with the rest of the world, to the point of peril reached and to help turn the tide of history. Will it do this? We do not yet know. Recent statements and gestures of Soviet leaders give some evidence that they may recognize this critical moment. We welcome every honest act of peace.

But Khrushchev crushed the Hungarian rising in 1956 just as thoroughly as Stalin. It was not leader personality that created Soviet aggression and oppression; it was the Soviet system itself. There would be no reset during the Cold War.

This led to a period of realistic, though dangerous, relations with the USSR. Soviet power was based on expansionism or the appearance of it. American power was based on containment of Soviet influence. The Kennedy, Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan Administrations never doubted this basic tenet of Cold War geopolitics.

George H.W. Bush thus got the first chance for a true reset when the Soviet Union fell. It worked, for a time — first Bush, then Bill Clinton, enjoyed something of warm relations with Russia’s first democratic president, Boris Yeltsin. But the end of the Cold War had switched geopolitical polarities. American power increasingly became based on expansionism, or at least its appearance. Russian power was based on containment of American influence and power.

Thus the United States under Clinton and both Bushes led a NATO surge eastward. They saw the end goal as Moscow itself: a Russo-American alliance, an end to Europe’s security dilemma. But while DC saw security and cooperation, Russia’s elites saw conquest.

This mismatch of perception led to a bizarre media narrative. When Vladimir Putin took power in 1999, one of his first acts was to crush the Chechen rising, just as Khrushchev had hammered Hungary in 1956 and Leonid Brezhnev had smashed Prague in 1968.

Unlike Khrushchev and Brezhnev, the Chechen War did not inspire widespread horror in the West. Western elites, both political and media, largely ignored the war and its portents for the future. For them, the curve of history was toward NATO, the European Union and American power. Having won the Cold War, they felt assured of success.

Even the relatively clean Kosovo crisis got unfair media treatment. When Russian troops took Pristina’s airport, it led to a showdown between American and Russian troops. “I’m not going to start World War III for you,” General Michael Jackson, the British commander, told the NATO supreme commander, General Wesley Clark, who ordered him to retake the airport. Yet Westerners neither ducked nor covered; the story was a two-minute soundbite at best.

Then Clinton gave way to Bush, who infamously looked Putin in the eye:

I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy and we had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul. He’s a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country and I appreciate very much the frank dialogue and that’s the beginning of a very constructive relationship.

It was by then an ingrained American tradition: presuming Russia saw the world as America did, that a Kremlin president would behave like a White House one. By the end of Bush’s second term, his administration had learned their lesson.

First, Moscow refused to authorize Bush’s invasion of Iraq, seeing Iraq as a potential Middle Eastern client just as it saw Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.

Then, Russia invaded the Republic of Georgia in 2008, ending Georgia’s bid to join NATO and forcing the Georgian army to rush out of Iraq and return to a losing war.

These lessons were not passed on to the next president. Obama came in promising yet another reset. Obama believed the problem had not been Russian interest, or Vladimir Putin, but President Bush: change the personality and the geopolitics would shift.

Obama, like Bush, was wrong.

Putin armed the Assad regime as the civil war began in 2011, then hoodwinked the White House when Assad gassed his own people in August 2013. To put the nail in the coffin, Putin invaded Ukraine in 2014. The Obama Administration finally understood: Russia was a rival, not a friend. Like Bush, it took a full presidential term to reach that conclusion.

Yet that did not stop Mr Trump from trying again. Despite the obvious, Trump once more believed that the problem was the American president and not the underlying geopolitical situation.

It was immature criticism, of course: Trump would sway from hitting Obama as weak and then go on to say he’d been too tough on Putin. That had everything to do with America’s broken and increasingly irrational presidential primary system, which did a terrible job of screening candidates this cycle. But in attacking Obama — and not recognizing how national interest propelled behavior — Trump was walking in the well-trodden footsteps of Roosevelt, Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama.

Trump’s blatant conflicts of interest slowed this realization. Russia had, after all, tried to influence the election in his favor. He had extensive business dealings with Russians and his base wanted an “America First” policy that would ignore human-rights violations unless Americans were killed. Trump saw ground for cooperation against the Islamic State; Russian propaganda made the Russian campaign in Syria seem more effective than it actually was.

But the underlying situation did not change. America is expansionist, in both influence and alliance. Russia is trying to contain that expansionism. It is the Cold War in reverse.

Trump came to power promising to end that expansionism. It was only a matter of time before he realized that to give ground to anyone else would threaten American interests. Those states that are not a threat to the United States are already within its system: from NATO in Europe to the Organization of American States in the Americas to the United States alliances in Pacific.

This leaves precious little geopolitical space on the map for ambitious powers.

India is not currently so headstrong. Hence the reason it can work with the United States, despite America’s long friendship with its archrival, Pakistan. Neither is Brazil, another potential great power of the twenty-first century. Even Turkey, whose authoritarian turn alarms NATO democrats, is not seeking to push up against American power just yet.

Russia, on the other hand, must push back. Its current system — even its present borders — may not survive the changes that would come with a permanent American alliance. But it can only push back in places the United States cares deeply about. This is the recipe for conflict.

No one goes down unless they’re forced to

Geopolitical rivalries do not end because of handshakes or smiling photo ops. They end because they must.

France and Britain closed ranks after hundreds of year of brutal war to face a rising Germany; France, Britain and Germany were forced into alliance by the Soviet threat.

The Cold War did not end merely because Mikhail Gorbachev botched reform and Soviet troops refused to shoot Soviet citizens; it also ended because the United States had bled a rusting Red Army in Afghanistan and outspent it on nuclear weapons.

Thus the dream of uniting Russia and America in alliance will take far more than a personality switch. Even if Putin is removed from power, only a seismic internal geopolitical change within Russia will prevent a return to conflict with the West.

George Friedman wrote about this in the book that helped inspire this blog, The Next 100 Years. In it, Friedman, from 2008, writes:

The United States in particular tends to first underestimate and then overestimate enemies. By the middle of the 2010s, the United States will again be obsessed with Russia. There is an interesting process to observe here. The United States swings between moods but actually, as we have seen, executes a very consistent and rational foreign policy. In this case, the United States will move to its manic state but will focus on keeping Russia tied in knots without going to war.

[But] the causes that ignited this confrontation — and the Cold War before it — will impose the same outcome as the Cold War, this time with less effort for the United States… Russia broke in 1917 and again in 1991. And the country’s military will collapse once more shortly after 2020.

If true, the United States will have an opportunity in the 2020s to build a permanent alliance with the shattered remnants of Russia.

If not, it will doom America to another cycle of geopolitical competition and violence with Moscow in some other decade of the twenty-first century.

This story first appeared at Geopolitics Made Super, April 12, 2017.