Josh Cohen


What has come between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin?

The downturn in the US-Russian relationship, at odds with the warmth of the US presidential election campaign, could drive Russia into China’s arms, writes Josh Cohen

What has come between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin?

During his presidential election campaign, Donald Trump’s verbal affection for Russian president Vladimir Putin so puzzled the Washington establishment that some speculated that Mr Putin had either “recruited Mr Trump as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation” or that Trump was simply a “useful fool” for the Russians.

But 100 days into Mr Trump’s presidency, this seems anything but true. After the US retaliated for the Assad regime’s chemical weapons attack in Syria, Washington and Moscow are engaged in a harsh war of words.

Washington blames Russia for the gas attack, while Moscow accused the US of breaking international law and suspended a Russian-American agreement to co-ordinate air operations over Syria. Mr Trump now says US-Russian relations “may be at an all-time low”, while Mr Putin says the relationship has become worse since Mr Trump took office.

While Republican hawks and even some Democrats praised Mr Trump’s about-face on Russia, let’s be clear about one thing: Whatever differences exist between the US and Russia, an improved relationship with the Russians is good for America. Here’s why.

With more than 14,000 nuclear weapons between them, Russia and the US have the ability to destroy each other — not to mention the rest of the world — many times over. Both sides are modernising their nuclear arsenals to make them even more lethal, and the risk of an accidental nuclear war is growing.

But, from Mr Trump’s “let it be an arms race” comment to his apparent denuciation of a treaty that caps US and Russian deployment of nuclear warheads, the president seems to be ignoring this risk.

If Mr Trump truly believes in an ‘America First’ foreign policy, he should focus on reducing the risk of a US-Russian nuclear war — something that can only happen if Washington talks to Moscow.

Both the US and Russia want to combat global terrorism. As the recent suicide attack on a metro train in St Petersburg and the January bombing of an Istanbul nightclub showed, an increasing number of Russian speakers from the former Soviet Union are becoming radicalised.

An estimated 5,000 to 7,000 of them fight with Islamic State (IS) — including 2,400 from Russia itself.

The US also needs Russia to help resolve — or at least contain — various crises in regional hotspots.

In Syria, for example, Russia’s relationship with the Assad regime means that no solution to end the civil war is possible without Russian assistance, especially if the Trump administration now wants Assad removed from power.

Russia has deepened its economic links with Pyongyang, and, as one of five permanent members of the UN Security Council, can either help or hinder further US efforts to squeeze North Korea either economically or politically.

Unfortunately for the US, though, Moscow just blocked a draft US statement in the UN Security Council condemning the latest North Korean missile test — once again demonstrating its ability to impact American national interests.

Washington and Moscow also share a mutual interest in reducing the risk of a Nato-Russian military confrontation in Europe. Unfortunately, most channels of Russian-American communication are on hold since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, increasing the risk that even a minor incident between the two sides could spiral out of control.

Russia’s strategy of threatening to use nuclear weapons as a way of forcing its enemy to back down increases the chance of a disaster.

Finally, the US will suffer if Russia and China align against it. During the Cold War, then-secretary of state Henry Kissinger pursued so-called triangle diplomacy where Washington sought to develop better relations with both Beijing and Moscow than the two communist giants had with each other.

The current downturn in the US-Russian relationship could drive Russia into China’s arms, making the US the odd man out in a new triangle. With China set to become America’s leading geopolitical rival in the coming years, Washington should try to avoid this scenario — something that an improved Russian-American relationship could help do.

Major hurdles to enacting this strategy exist. Many of Mr Trump’s senior appointees — such as his nominee for US ambassador to Nato, Richard Grenell, his new national security council Russia expert Fiona Hill, and his national security adviser HR McMaster — are more hawkish than Mr Trump was during his campaign.

The ongoing investigation into the Kremlin’s involvement in the election makes it politically difficult for Mr Trump to pursue better relations with Moscow, even if he wants to.

Some speculate that Me Trump’s newly hardened stance on Syria is partially driven by the administration’s desire to counter the perception that Mr Trump remains overly cosy with Russia.

Even if Mr Trump can overcome these obstacles in Washington, there is still no guarantee he could agree with Mr Putin on many key issues. From missile defence to Syria to Ukraine, the two sides’ views may be too far apart to bridge.

Josh Cohen is a former USAID project officer involved in managing economic reform projects in the former Soviet Union. He contributes to a number of foreign-policy-focused media outlets

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