THE BLOG
01/30/2017 10:48 am ET Updated Jan 28, 2018

The Significant Downside if Trump Plays Nice With Russia?

In December 2016, businessman and former Trump foreign policy advisor Carter Page presented a lecture in Moscow at the state-run news agency Rossiya Segodnya, where he blamed America for "arrogant foreign policies" towards Russia and talked about "restoration" of the U.S.-Russia relationship under President Donald Trump. Page used the occasion to gleefully share news about Rex Tillerson's nomination as the new secretary of state with the Russians, hours before the president-elect himself had announced the news in the United States.

Carter Page was in Russia because, as he told the audience in Moscow, "There is a high level of interest amongst US as well as European companies to get back to the Russian market. This interest cuts across a diverse array of sectors," according to Russian government-controlled news website Sputnik International.

"The hostile efforts to punish Rosneft (Russia's big state owned oil company) and their senior management team through Western sanctions have primarily hurt Western companies, rather than their intended target," Page said.

The U.S and E.U. applied sanctions against Russia in 2014 after Russia's military interference and eventual annexation of Crimea. Ultimately, the sanctions did impact Russia's economy. By 2016, Russia had recorded its steepest decline in gross domestic product since 2009, with slumping oil prices following as the international sanctions took a toll according to a report from the Guardian. Consumers were hit hardest, and 2.3 million Russians fell into poverty during the first nine months of 2015.

Page, who founded a company called Global Energy Capital as well as former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort and Republican operative Roger Stone are now all under investigation by American law enforcement and intelligence officials. By January 19, the New York Times had reported that U.S. officials had intercepted communications and financial transactions as part of a broad investigation into possible links between Russian officials and associates of President-elect Donald J. Trump.

Throughout his campaign and during his first days as President Donald Trump has advocated for a more schmoozy approach to Russia, telling reporters last month that thawing out the relationship with Vladmir Putin could be a "good thing."

I wanted to better understand why current or past members of the Trump team would seek to chummy up to the Russian Federation in the first place. After all, we now know that intermediaries connected to the Russian government essentially hacked U.S. democracy and waged an aggressive campaign to influence the 2016 presidential election in Trump's favor. Why would the United States realign its interests with the likes of Vladimir Putin's government, a major nuclear power that continues to pose a menacing threat to Eastern Europe and the integrity of NATO, all the while aiding and abetting war crimes in of parts of Syria.

"Renegotiation is normal, but it has almost always had a purpose. How would Trump's proposed realignment advance the American national interest is the bigger question. The move would obviously help multinational oil companies and investment firms, such as ExxonMobil and Global Energy Capital -- that seems obvious," said Ryan M. Irwin, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Albany.

But Irwin says it is worrisome that President Trump surrounded himself with the likes of (former campaign chairman) Paul Manafort, (former policy advisor) Carter Page, and national security advisor Michael Flynn. Irwin tosses secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson into the mix as well. "These are people who've been paid to pursue other countries' national interests in Washington," said Irwin.

The New York Times reported last August that "handwritten ledgers showed $12.7 million in undisclosed cash payments designated for Paul Manafort from former Ukraine leader Victor Yanukovych's pro-Russian political party from 2007 to 2012. The evidence came from Ukraine's newly-formed National Anti-Corruption Bureau. That same month, the Associated Press reported that Manafort helped a pro-Russian governing party in Ukraine secretly route at least $2.2 million in payments to two prominent Washington lobbying firms in 2012, and did so in a way that effectively obscured the foreign political party's efforts to influence U.S. policy.

Rex Tillerson has been friendly with Vladmir Putin and Russia for years. The Wall Street Journal reported on December 6, 2016 that in 2011, ExxonMobil began a $500 BILLION partnership with Rosneft. Two years later, Putin presented Tillerson with the Order of Friendship, one of Russia's highest civilian honors. Tillerson opposed American sanctions of Russia, calling them ineffective. Bloomberg wrote in September 2014 that "the costliest well in the ExxonMobil history had struck oil a mile beneath the icy seas off the Siberian coast. It was what the industry likes to call an elephant--as much as a billion barrels, then worth about $97 billion." But the sanctions essentially halted the ExxonMobil project.

In a January 2017 essay called "The Price of Appeasing Russian Adventurism," Andreas Umland, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kyiv, writes that U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and some of those advising him specifically on Russia, like Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, and Carter Page, hope that U.S. tolerance of Russian freedom of movement in the former Soviet space--in particular, in Ukraine--would make the Kremlin more cooperative in other fields, such as the fight against Islamist terrorism, and in other regions, such as Syria or the Arctic.

But Umland wonders if the new president and incoming administration fully understand what's at stake. He writes that a move by Washington to appease Moscow would be another crack in the splintering international nuclear nonproliferation regime. Acquiescence to Russia's territorial gains in Ukraine would further undermine the already-shattered 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), one of the world's most important multilateral agreements.

Umland told me in an email there may be good reasons for the West to appease Russian imperialism in the former Soviet space because of other more salient interests of the US with regard to Russia: the joint fight against Islamist terrorism, energy cooperation, Syria, the Arctic, etc.

"But apart from the open question whether appeasement will moderate Russia, there is also the question of the costs of such appeasement - if it works - for the other post-Soviet countries and the international non-proliferation regime. In 10, 20 or 30 years, people may come to the conclusion that undermining the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (NPT) for current gains in US-Russian relations was too high a price to pay," said Umland.

But, throughout his presidential campaign, Donald Trump made fighting ISIS and Islamic terrorism a hallmark of his campaign. In July 2016, he told supporters that he would weigh an alliance with Russia against Islamic State militants.

Both Moscow and Washington are deeply concerned about the so-called "spillover" effects of the Syrian civil war, according to Evan Boucher, a foreign policy researcher and political science professor at the University of North Dakota.

Boucher says that between ISIS' Western and Chechen foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria, officials in the United States and Russia are troubled by the possibility of these fighters expanding the scope of violent operations against Western and Russian allies.

He adds that both Russia petroleum companies as well as those in the United States seek higher oil prices. A more amenable White House to lifting sanctions on Russia might be able to work with Putin to help coordinate a rally in global crude oil prices, given signals from OPEC about a similar concern, he says.

"The question for Congress is simple. When U.S. interests diverge from Russian interests, how will President Trump handle this? If Trump were forced to choose between an improved relationship with Russia and NATO's security interests, which would he choose? What are the red lines for Russian adventurism?" Boucher wonders.

He says it is not surprising that Russia interfered in the U.S. presidential election. As we've heard before, Vladimir Putin perceived Hillary Clinton of having interfered in Russia's election 2011 by calling the Russian election "rigged."

"Russia's robust disinformation online propaganda machine is extremely robust and well-documented by various journalists. This apparatus is widely agreed to have influenced the U.S. election by spreading misinformation about Hillary Clinton and, in general, muddying perceptions of truth and fiction throughout the election in which all information became a subjective," Boucher says.

The anxiety in Russia-adjacent states is inversely proportional to the confidence those states feel around NATO's robustness in follow through on its North Atlantic treaty, Article 5 obligations, Boucher adds. "This provision effectively states that any attack against one NATO member is considered to be an attack against all members, but leaves the response mandates relatively open to interpretation."

There's little doubt, over the past few years, tension between the United States and Russia have risen to a boil.

"Stepping back from that level of tension would be welcome, especially at a time when the U.S. faces many international challenges--from the Middle East to the Korean peninsula to the South China Sea," said Russell Bova, professor of political science at Dickinson College.

Bova, who has written extensively about Russian politics, says Mr. Putin specifically wants an end to the existing sanctions; recognition of Russian sovereignty in Crimea; neutralization of Ukraine; removal of NATO forces from Eastern Europe, and recognition of Russian primacy in the post-Soviet space.

"I suspect that part of Trump's strategy is to improve Russia relations in order to be better positioned to confront what is arguably the greater long-term challenge posed by China," said Bova, who teaches classes in international relations and comparative politics both at Dickinson and the U.S. Army War College.

But Edward Goldberg, author of "The Joint Ventured Nation: Why America Needs A New Foreign Policy" argues that China does not pose the sort of threat we see in Russia. "China is much too invested in the system, too economically intertwined with the world to radically shake up the existing order. The Chinese government's mandate is based on prosperity, and among other factors, it needs global stability to maintain that prosperity," said Goldberg.

The United States should not relax existing sanctions on Russia, said Goldberg, who teaches international political economy at New York University Center for Global Affairs.

"The reason for the sanctions is that Russia, against all post World War II norms, broke a treaty that it signed and directly violated the territorial integrity of its neighbor," said Goldberg.

He says Putin, by placating the new Trump administration, which campaigned on a confrontational relationship with China, could be in a position to play the American card against his economic giant to the east.

"But for America, this is a fool's game.There is no economic or political advantage for America to disassociate itself from China, to allow itself to be manipulated by the economically and politically weak Russia," said Goldberg.

That said, one wonders what questions should be asked of incoming cabinet members and perhaps posed to the president as the potentially warmer tie with Russia comes to fruition.

Marcel H. Van Herpen is a security expert specializing in Russia, Eastern Europe, and the post-Soviet states. He is the author of three books on Putin's Russia. Van Herpen says Congress should be asking the new president and his cabinet appointees question such as "Don't you think that accepting the Russian annexation of the Crimea in exchange for an eventual 'cooperation' in the fight with ISIS will have an reverse effect? Will it not be interpreted by the Kremlin as a weakness of the United States and invite more Russian aggression - not only in Ukraine, but also in the Baltic states?

"Recent remarks by the president elect, that NATO is "obsolete" have already weakened NATO and undermined the credibility of Article 5. These remarks have been welcomed by the Kremlin and seen as a weakening of the American commitment and American resolve," said Van Herpen.

Improved relations with Russia are not inherently worrisome; what matters is the conditions under which such improved relations occur according to some experts. In fact, there are a number of worrisome conditions that could arise if the United States does pursue a more friendly relationship with Russia.

University of Puget Sound Professor Seth Weinberger specializes in US international relations and is the author of Restoring the Balance: War Powers in an Age of Terror.

Weinberger says that for a long time, Russia has long been upset about the extension of NATO onto its western border and seeks increased control over the foreign and sometimes domestic politics of those countries.

"By achieving improved relations, Russia could induce the U.S. to lessen, in perception or in reality, its commitment to NATO and the defense of those countries, which would then have little option but to comport their behavior to Russian preferences," said Weinberger.

Examples of this include President Trump's calling NATO "obsolete" and questioning whether the U.S. would live up to its mutual defense commitments. Weinberger says if countries like Estonia doubt the iron-clad nature of NATO's security guarantee, they will have to move to accommodate Russia.

He says the U.S. already finds itself increasingly unable to affect the political situation in Syria; if Russian and Iranian influence continues to increase in the region, one consequence of an improved U.S.-Russian dynamic could be the continued weakening of the U.S. role in the Middle East.

"In my opinion, Russia seeks to return to great power status. I believe China seeks global economic power and regional military dominance. Russia, however, seeks to involve itself globally. This is to a large degree a response to Russian domestic weakness and structural problems in its economy and political structures," said Weinberger.

He points to the annexation of Crimea and the covert invasion of Ukraine as examples of Russia using its foreign policy adventures to distract its domestic population from their ills and to create what's known as a 'rally-round-the-flag' effect.

"Russia has little interest in or ability to develop a sophisticated market and trade-based economy. Thus, there are few overlapping issues of mutual interest, like the U.S. has with China as a result of the economic interdependence between the two," said Weinberger.

The President was scheduled for a phone conversation with Mr. Putin on Saturday, January 28. The world will have to wait and see where that call leads.