Tensions are heating up between the Kremlin and the Obama administration, which imposed new
sanctions on Russia on Thursday in response to Russia’s alleged and unprecedented interference
in the U.S. presidential election, mistreatment of U.S. diplomats and cybertheft.
Yet despite Russia’s deliberate cyber-assault on our democracy, on U.S. sovereign domestic
affairs, it’s likely only a matter of weeks before the standoff gives way to another attempt at a
“reset.” On Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced he wouldn’t expel U.S. diplomats
from Russia in retaliation, saying that he’d wait to take his cues “from the policy pursued by the
administration of D. Trump.” And the cues from President-elect Donald Trump are looking good. He
has repeatedly declared admiration for Putin. Last week, after receiving a letter from Putin about
the need for both countries to beef up their nuclear weapons programs, Trump announced that it
was "A very nice letter. … His thoughts are so correct.” Trump’s advisers have close and
continuing contact with Russian oligarchs and Putin associates; and he and his team have
expressed opinions about NATO, Ukraine and Syria that appear aligned with the Kremlin’s
perspective. As far as the recent election hacking, Trump has thoroughly rejected the fact of
Russia’s actions, although after he said Thursday, “It’s time for our country to move on to bigger
and better things,” he said he’d get intelligence briefings on the situation again.
Giving Putin the reset he wants would be a big mistake.
U.S. interests and the international system that has protected and enriched America for decades
are fundamentally at odds with what the Kremlin would expect from a full reset: the chance to
rewrite the rules of international order in a way that would let Russia change borders through
military force, violate the Geneva conventions and murder political opponents with impunity both in
and outside Russia. Ceding these rights to Russia in return for a few small gains will be damaging
Just as worrisome is the fact that such a reset with Russia will likely be short-lived. Given Russian
economic realities and its 2018 presidential election, I expect any thaw to last only about a year,
when Putin will turn up the anti-American volume to previous levels, and defy Washington on one
issue or another. At that point, if Trump lives up to his pro-Russia rhetoric, he will have given Putin
much of what he wants—largely gains in geopolitical influence which will be slow to reverse; while
America’s reset benefits, mostly less permanent economic and diplomatic gains, will be easy for
Moscow to unravel.
America will be left standing amidst the rubble of the post World War II world order, while Putin can
retreat happy with the damage he has caused.
Trump won’t be the first president to attempt to find common ground with Moscow. Every
commander-in-chief since the fall of the Berlin Wall has started his tenure with a fresh, positive
approach to America’s former nemesis. Bill Clinton made a point to woo Boris Yeltsin. After that,
George W. Bush looked into Putin’s eyes and was reassured (because he saw a soul there). Most
recently there was President Barack Obama’s 2009 “reset”—the first one to claim the name
There’s a reason none of these numerous fresh starts has lasted very long: The ideal Kremlin
reset has typically entailed concessions that the U.S. was unprepared to give.
This has been especially true in the past decade. Ever since Putin’s Munich Security Conference
speech in 2007, Moscow has railed against a U.S.-led international order, insisting that Russia be
recognized as a major power, on par with the United States and with a sphere of influence in the
Soviet Eastern Europe and Central Asia. The Kremlin expects Washington to cede them this 19th
century prerogative and to stay out of domestic affairs (especially when it comes to human rights)
in Russia and also in countries like Ukraine, which Russia claims for its sphere.
Given these demands, Obama and the Kremlin would never see eye to eye. In 2008, then-
President Dimitri Medvedev proposed a European Security Treaty, which would have given Russia
a greater say in European affairs, but also would have competed with or eliminated the need for
NATO, something firmly rejected by the White House. Moreover, while Obama recognized Russia’s
superpower legacy through the negotiation of the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty, he
later dismissed Russia as “a regional power,” and stood by those fighting for freedom in Ukraine
and Syria, at least to the extent necessary to prevent outright Russian victory. Putin blamed
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the 2011 demonstrations against him after his re-election and
parliamentary elections which were widely regarded as rigged for Putin allies, claiming her criticism
of the elections gave a “signal” to his opposition to head for the streets. And he blamed Obama for
the Magnitsky Act, passed by Congress in 2012 to punish Russians accused of murdering Russian
lawyer Sergei Magnitsky and for other human rights violations. Putin retaliated in 2012 by expelling
the U.S. Agency for International Development from Russia, halting some bilateral non-proliferation
cooperation, banning Russian adoptions by foreigners and clamping down on Russian non-
governmental organizations receiving U.S. and other foreign funding.
The “reset” wasn’t a complete failure. Obama achieved some key objectives: the New START
treaty; a much-needed alternative transit route for troops and equipment to Afghanistan through
Russia; a signed agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation; Russia’s abstention in the Security
Council on the vote to bomb Libya in 2011; and Russia’s accession to the World Trade
Organization. But there were sticking points, too. Russia still refused to share intelligence on
counter terrorism or illicit narcotics trafficking, and even in the run-up to the Sochi Olympics would
not coordinate with U.S. security officials. And then in the aftermath of the ousting of the Kremlin-
backed Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovich, Russia illegally annexed Crimea and started a war
in the Eastern Donbas region of Ukraine. The reset was off life support; it was dead.
One might expect a Trump reset to be deeper and more lasting. After all, the president- elect
seems prepared to deliver far more to Russia than Obama did. He has questioned the relevance of
NATO and dismissed Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and ongoing operations in Eastern
Ukraine. (His advisers removed language from the Republican platform at the convention calling for
lethal defensive weapons for Ukraine.) He has also trumpeted his interest in cooperating with
Russia in Syria to fight against terrorists, while ignoring Russia’s atrocities in that country. In fact,
spreading democracy and protecting human rights doesn’t appear to be a priority at all for Trump,
who has also dismissed Putin’s brutal domestic tactics, including murder, torture, unlawful detention
and seizure of business assets aimed at journalists and opponents of his government.
That’s a good start for the Kremlin, but Putin wants even more than that from Trump. His number
one objective—and the most achievable—is probably an end to all sanctions. The Kremlin will not
accept a reset deal without the sanctions relief; and it’s also a move that Trump’s pick for secretary
of State, Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, has supported.
The United States would be also expected to halt the new military deployments to the eastern
portions of NATO territory, and to end NATO expansion entirely. This would ensure Russia a
military buffer zone—but also reduce the threat posed to the Kremlin by the positive allure of
democracy and free market capitalism, especially in Ukraine, which the Kremlin considers an
extension of Russia. Russia would also expect Washington to withdraw its military and political
support for Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and all of the former Soviet republics (except the NATO-
member Baltics), leaving those countries at the mercy of Russian pressure, subversion and
aggression. Finally, Moscow would expect a free hand in Syria and an acceptance of Bashar al
Assad as the country’s leader into the foreseeable future.
Trump appears prepared, at a minimum, to consider giving all this to Putin. In return, Trump will
likely demand that Russia use its airpower and other military assets to fight ISIS and other terrorists
in Syria, as defined by his administration. He may also seek Russia’s acquiescence and assistance
in renegotiating the nuclear agreement with Iran. If so, in exchange Moscow will likely demand the
dismantlement of the missile defense installations in Poland and Romania as well as the Aegis
deployments to Europe. This missile defense system is aimed at addressing the Iranian and North
Korean missile threats, but is regarded suspiciously (and erroneously) by the Russians as
potentially countering Moscow’s missiles. And Trump will also look to Russia for help on North
Korea. The new administration is likely to be tested early by North Korea (Obama was greeted in
February 2009 with a nuclear test by Pyongyang), and may need Russia to get China to rein in Kim
Jung Un, especially if the U.S.-China relationship is strained.
The professionals in the Trump administration may also demand, as part of any deal with Putin, a
serious dialogue with the Russian government about its reliance on nuclear weapons and its
escalation doctrine, which calls for risky action to scare or dissuade adversaries from a fight. U.S.
officials could, and should, insist on frank conversation about strategic stability—the military
balance between the United States and Russia— and the latter’s fears of military encirclement and
defeat. And Trump should demand Russia come back into compliance with the Intermediate
Nuclear Forces treaty, ditch first use of tactical nuclear weapons and the escalation doctrine. This
could result in greater understanding and reduced risk of miscalculation.
Finally, the Trump administration would expect the Kremlin to cease using the United States as a
public scapegoat for Russian economic and political problems and of course to halt
cyberespionage and operations against the United States. Moscow would have to tone down official
anti-Americanism, and end its current deplorable treatment of U.S. diplomats and officials in
Russia, given President-elect Trump’s demonstrated sensitivity to criticism and deliberate public
Trump’s gains under this robust reset deal won’t, however, compensate for the giant harm it would
cause. If Putin gets everything he wants—including a free hand in Ukraine—the United States and
the world would be in a far more dangerous situation. From the U.S. perspective, security, trade
and political relationships with its closest allies would suffer a massive crisis of confidence and
erosion of trust, which could lead to misunderstandings and miscalculations among them and with
Russia—and in the worst case, to military clashes. A large scale war could also break out between
Russia and its non-NATO neighbors, like Ukraine, whose governments and people will resist these
new reset terms, adding to existing refugee flows and economic instability in Europe. In cases like
these, damage occurs quickly, but recovery—rebuilding trust and institutions—is difficult and slow
work. That’s all for a few gains—increased trade with Russia, a re-negotiated Iran agreement,
some cooperation fighting terrorists in Syria, reining in North Korea and China, progress on the INF
Treaty and some kind words—which could easily be undone by Moscow at any time.
At the same time, Russia’s gains—lifting of sanctions, freedom of action on its geographic
periphery, the deciding vote on Syria’s future, maybe even changes to U.S. missile defense—would
all provide quick benefits to the Kremlin, the effects of which would take some time to reverse.
Put simply, it’s a bad deal. Whatever perks the U.S. stands to get from a full reset with Russia, they
will never be worth the price: Almost certain erosion or collapse of the international order in Europe
that has served U.S. interests and values for decades, and the abandonment of our adherence to
democracy, sovereignty and human rights.
It’s only a matter of time before a Trump reset is put to the test. With oil prices down and sanctions
ramped up, since 2012 Putin has failed to prevent a decline in the economic standard of living for
ordinary Russians, and pointing to the economic gains during his first turn as president in the early
2000s hasn’t been enough to keep him in popular. Instead, Putin has held on to power by
preaching Russian neo-imperialism coupled with patriotic anti-Americanism. Unless Russia’s
economic situation improves dramatically due to higher oil prices or as a result of new energy deals
after sanctions are lifted—which is not likely—Putin will need to use America as a scapegoat for
Russia’s growing economic problems before long. Especially approaching Russia’s presidential
elections in 2018, Putin will be tempted, perhaps forced, to adopt an anti-American stance to
bolster his popularity.
And then there’s the issue of Trump’s sensitivity to criticism: Putin will be mindful that any misstep
by his government, any move that makes the U.S. president look foolish or like a “loser” could bring
reset crashing down.
For these reasons Moscow will push for fast implementation of its reset, or “deal” with Trump. Putin
will want to demonstrate to his public that Russia is winning on the international stage, but he will be
aware that very soon he may want or need to pivot away from America.
And when the reset does come to an end, it will have been well worth it for Putin. He will have
gained international stature from his friendly relationship with Trump and will have pocketed
influence gains in Eastern Europe. For Trump, the robust reset described above will have been a
loser. The foundations of European security since 1945—trust built through institutions and mutual
commitments—will be left shaken. The United States’ only operational alliance—NATO—will be left
weak or dismantled.
It’s a potentially disastrous situation; but a warming of relations with Russia need not end this way.
There is an alternative to the robust reset on Putin’s terms—something that could provide the
United States with some gains, without consequential losses. This alternative would be a
transactional (and hopefully more lasting) Trump reset that addresses a few of Putin’s key
concerns without risking U.S. interests.
The Kremlin’s primary objective is to keep Putin in power. If Putin is to be prevented from switching
in advance of the 2018 Russian elections to the anti-American, neo-imperialist message, he needs
to offer the Russian people economic hope, if not results. To pave the way, Trump could offer
lucrative business deals, including those Arctic energy agreements Exxon has been forced by U.S.
sanctions to put on ice. And he could agree to lift sanctions if Moscow removes some or all of its
troops from Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. Admittedly, this is a deal the Kremlin will not want to
make at the outset. Trump could sweeten the deal by offering some tweaking of missile defense—
for example, resurrecting Robert Gates/Leon Panetta-era proposals for joint NATO-Russia
information (not operations) centers to increase transparency and reassure Russia about the
targets of missile defense. Washington could also propose other military confidence-building
measures, such as limits on a future U.S. “prompt global strike” precision-guided conventional
missile system, designed to deliver a weapon anywhere in the world within one hour.
The transactional Trump reset will certainly require U.S. concessions. For example, it would require
the U.S. to keep some distance from democracy in Russia—a sad side effect. But it would also
require a big shift in Kremlin policy away from the neo-imperial vision of the “Russian world” and
“the near-abroad” of buffer states.
A deal of this nature, if it is possible, might be the best outcome in a world where, as Trump’s
Rolling Stones campaign theme song reminds us, “you can’t always get what you want.” A full reset
will require American interests and values to fundamentally align with Russian interests and
values—something impossible with the current crop of KGB-trained officials controlling the
government. In the meantime, though, just maybe, President Trump will get what we need.
Putin is Pimping Trump and
Trump does not have a clue