Vladimir Putin and the nation he leads lurked in the background of the 2016 campaign for months and months, perhaps even shaping the outcome of the race. And now Putin’s preferred candidate, Donald Trump, appears ready to embrace him as an ally — a stunning shift in US-Russia policy.
This is a source of growing alarm among cosmopolitan-minded liberals. Putin is bad, they say, and so are the European far-right parties that are aligning with him — a multicontinental alliance undergirded by Islamophobic politics that alarms respectable opinion throughout the West.
And among political elites there really is a fairly firm consensus that this is, in fact, bad. America’s military leaders have repeatedly called Russia the greatest threat to the US-led world order. Among Republicans, it’s the ones focused on national security who put up the greatest resistance to Trump, and since the election he’s gotten more pushback from Senate Republicans on the Russian hacking issue than on anything else. Hillary Clinton’s campaign clearly sought to make hay out of this, arguing that Trump would be Putin’s puppet.
But the mass public is relatively indifferent to foreign affairs and mostly doesn’t seem to care about this. Foreign policy is the classic sort of issue that doesn’t matter in politics until something goes badly wrong, at which point it starts to matter a lot.
But the Cold War has been over for a long time, and both the US-Russian relationship and Russia’s approach to Europe have changed while most Americans weren’t paying attention. Here, then, is an attempt to answer some of your most basic questions about the contemporary US-Russian relationship and where it might head in the Trump era.
1) What is Russia?
As you have probably seen on a map (especially a misleading Mercator projection), Russia is an extremely large country that occupies the eastern third of Europe plus the entire northern part of Asia. And while the Russian nation and culture are very old, dating back in a broadly recognizable form to the adoption of Orthodox Christianity by East Slavic tribes in the 10th century, the modern Russian state is very new, arising, legally speaking, from the legal dissolution of the Soviet Union in December of 1991.
The Soviet Union itself was a federal state composed of 15 constituent republics constituted roughly along ethnic lines. But importantly, the ethnic subdivisions were themselves highly imperfect. They featured substantial minority populations especially around the Caucasus Mountains and in Siberia. Simultaneously, large Russian minority populations lived in most of the 14 other Soviet Republics, and since Russian was far and away the primary language of the Soviet Union, there were substantial trends toward Russificiation of the local population in many of the other republics. Last but by no means least, as is often the case, the boundary-drawing process did not conform particularly well to the linguistic facts on the ground. There is a Tajik minority in Uzbekistan, a bigger Uzbek minority in Tajikistan, and both Uzbek and Tajik minorities in Kazakhstan.
2) Why is the US-Russian relationship so fraught?
The US-Russian relationship wasn’t always bad, of course. Colonial America had a small trading relationship with Russia, and when the American Revolutionary War broke out, Russia maintained a posture of “armed neutrality” that in a practical sense advantaged the American side by subverting British efforts to stamp out American commerce. According to Frank Golder’s research on Catherine the Great and the American Revolution, the czar “never for a moment doubted that complete separation from the mother-country was the only solution,” and she repeatedly offered her services as a mediator who could facilitate a peace agreement on the basis of independent.
Relations with Russia remained broadly friendly in the days of the early republic. During the great crisis of the American Civil War, when Britain and France often seemed eager to intervene on behalf of the Confederacy, the Russian government took a pro-Union line, and some researchers like Lincoln biographer and scholar of the US-Russian relationship Benjamin Platt Thomas believe Russian diplomacy played an important role in deterring Anglo-French intervention.
Russia had, at the time, a very contentious relationship with Britain related to Russia’s southern expansion in the direction of various elements of the British colonial empire. The czars regarded a strong United States as a useful counterweight to Britain. Similar considerations led, in 1867, to the sale of Alaska to the United States. The Russians had determined they had no feasible way to defend Alaska from an Anglo-Canadian invasion in the event of war with Britain, so they decided they might as well unload it for some cash to a country that could keep it out of British hands.
By the early 20th century, both Russia and the United States had improved their relationships with Britain and France — Russia to the point of going to war alongside them against Germany and Austria in World War I. The United States joined the war on the Allied side in 1917, by which point the czarist regime had already collapsed under the pressure induced by poor military performance. Russia’s new aspirations to a republican form of government seemingly eliminated the main ideological obstacle to a friendly US-Russian relationship while making the two countries allies in war.
Then came Lenin’s October Revolution, in which his Bolshevik faction seized power, took Russia out of the war, and began articulating an ideological vision that entailed the overthrow of essentially every government in the world. The revolution led into the civil war that continued after the Allied victory in World War I, which pitted the new Bolshevik regime against various “White” armies and ethnic separatist groups. The United States backed some White groups with steps up to and including the dispatch of a 40,000-strong invasion force to the Russian Pacific port city of Vladivostok, while a smaller group joined French, British, and Italian troops in the Arctic Sea port of Arkhangelsk.
This episode is not well-remembered in the West, but the White forces came reasonably close to winning at one point before the ultimate Bolshevik victory. American forces withdrew from Russia by 1920, but US-Soviet relations remained poor, and the Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover administrations all refused to recognize the Bolshevik regime. It was not until about a year into Franklin Roosevelt’s term in office that the US established diplomatic relations with the USSR. A few years later, World War II made the US and the USSR allies, but the end of the war turned them into fierce competitors in a decades-long, globe-spanning Cold War.
The Cold War itself is conventionally seen as having ended in the 1989-1991 period when communist regimes collapsed in Eastern Europe. But the Cold War was a multifaceted conflict, and the Russian viewpoint is that the United States essentially never stopped waging it — continuing efforts to roll back Russian influence long after Russia gave up its dreams of global communist revolution.
3) But what’s the dispute about, exactly?
A good way to look at it would be to look back to the 1990s, when Bill Clinton was president of the United States and Boris Yeltsin was president of Russia.
Russia was extremely weak at this point, with its economy reeling from the legacy of communism, some badly botched privatization programs, and a global slump in oil prices. The Warsaw Pact — the military alliance that kept Eastern Europe under Soviet control — had been disbanded. But its Cold War rival NATO, a military alliance formed in 1948 for the explicit purpose of countering Soviet power, did not disband. On the contrary, it expanded to include Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, with preliminary talks underway for other post-communist countries to join the club.
The United States also intervened militarily, twice, against Russia’s traditional ally Serbia, first over Serbia’s conduct in the Bosnian civil war and the second time over its treatment of Albanian-speaking separatists in Kosovo. Under George W. Bush, NATO expanded further to include Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, and — even more provocatively — the former Soviet republics of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.
Concurrently, Russian power recovered considerably. New President Vladimir Putin set about constructing a political system that, though authoritarian, at least featured the kind of capable and functional state institution that often lacked under Yeltsin. Oil prices were generally high, and the Russian economy reconstituted itself as a natural resources exporter. At the same time, the US invasion of Iraq badly hurt America’s international prestige and caused dissension among Western allies.
As Leon Aron, who directs Russia studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, has written, Putinism is essentially a reaction to this experience. Putin’s agenda and political appeal are based on “something that the pro-democracy revolutionaries of the late 1980s and early 1990s tended to disregard: the deep-seated trauma from the loss of their country’s exceptional status and mission that millions of Russians had believed in.” Putin and many other Russians who are perfectly happy to see communism go were nonetheless Soviet and then Russian patriots saddened by Moscow’s decline in global influence under Gorbachev and then Yeltsin. Putin’s agenda, globally speaking, is to reassert Russia’s influence on the world stage.
That’s embroiled Russia in two sharp conflicts with the Obama administration. One is over Ukraine, which elected a pro-Western government in 2014 that prompted a Russian invasion of portions of the country with closer linguistic and cultural ties to Russia. The other is in Syria, where since last fall Russia has deployed warplanes and attack helicopters to help the regime beat back rebel forces. It’s also led Russia to embark on a wide array of information operations — foreign language broadcasts, propaganda websites, hacking, etc. — aimed at breaking up the political consensus in the West in favor of expanding NATO and checking Russian expansion.