The sanctions were supposed to have been lifted. The two nations were supposed to take on ISIS in Syria together. Nuclear treaties were expected to be updated. Pressure on Russia over its aggression in Ukraine was supposed to be eased. So far, none of that has happened. Donald Trump in the White House isn’t exactly going the way the Kremlin must have hoped it would.
When the real estate mogul turned television star entered the White House, relations between between the two nations were supposed to have improved immediately. That hasn’t happened. The stifling economic sanctions former President Barack Obama enacted are still in place and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future. Defense Secretary James Mattis said the two nations’ militaries will not participate in joint exercises.
Trump’s United Nations Ambassador, Nikki Haley, recently said Russia should “never be trusted.” Several of Trump’s key cabinet picks are Russia hawks. Two weeks after Trump’s inauguration, the Russian media, much of which is controlled by the Kremlin, turned on him, as Vanity Fair notes:
In January, Trump scored 202,000 mentions in the Russian media. Putin landed just 147,000. Then, in early February, less than two weeks into Trump’s presidency, that figure started to slide.
Soon after, the Moscow tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda called Trump’s position on NATO “contradictory,” and Interfax, the AP of Russia, quoted Valery Garbuzov, head of the United States and Canada Institute, a government-backed think tank, saying “mutual trust” between Russia and the United States had been “completely lost.” Then, Kremlin stooge-slash-Duma deputy Alexey Pushkov, reacting to the all the resistance Trump was facing, tweeted: “It looks like Trump didn’t expect such a powerful opposition to his decisions and plans.” Over the last week or two, the state-run news service RIA Novosti has portrayed Trump as besieged by enemies at home. Then, in late February, the news service quoted Sergei Ivanov, the former chief of staff of the presidential administration, saying that the Russian media, which had formerly been “overly optimistic” about Trump, had assumed a more “pragmatic” approach.
During his first phone call with Putin, Trump wasn’t even able to discuss the New START nuclear treaty (he didn’t know what it was), an area where the two presidents were supposed to have found immediate common ground. Indeed, even Putin doesn’t want the world to end. One has to wonder if he is thinking, “What the hell have they gotten themselves into?”
To add insult to injury, the former KGB officer is getting a taste of Trump’s reality at home. Thousands of Russians in more than 80 cities are hitting the streets in protest against him and the corruption running rampant in the country. The protests’ organizer and top Putin critic, Alexei Navalny, was arrested in Moscow and sentenced to 15 days in jail.
When Russians waged anti-government protests in 2011 that lasted for nearly three years, Putin blamed former secretary of state Hillary Clinton for funding political opposition parties via American NGOs. Subsequently, this led to the Kremlin banning foreign NGOs he deemed “undesirable.” But, even more, those protests shook Putin so much that it is what many Russia observers, myself included, believe led him to orchestrate a hack into the DNC that helped sway the 2016 election to Trump’s favor.
But Clinton is not in office, so Putin can’t blame her for the protests; Trump is in the Oval Office. And Russians, like, 60,000 of them, are still protesting Putin. Trump’s presidency wasn’t supposed to start out this way. At this point, Trump was supposed to aggressively push to lift sanctions. That hasn’t happened. His aides were supposed to be Russia doves. Many aren’t. Basically, as one expert told Vox, the stance towards Russia hasn’t changed:
“There has been very little interaction between the administration and Russia,” Ivo Daalder, former US ambassador to NATO and current president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, tells me. “There is no deviation from the line that existed prior to January 20.”
What Russia does have is a U.S. president who has no Russia policy, which for Putin is just as bad as having Clinton in the White House. To be sure, Clinton would have been a thorn in Putin’s backside (or, likely, much worse). But to have a someone in the Oval Office who does nothing to significantly reverse the policies of his predecessors is pretty much like overseeing a frozen conflict: Don’t make it worse, but don’t make it better. So far, that is exactly what is happening with Russia-U.S. relations.
That surely was not what Putin had in mind.