Three decades of rocky Russo-American relations have been the result, mainly, of a lack of planning on the part of Washington. As the West—specifically, the George H.W. Bush Administration—basked in its victory over Communism and the Soviet Union, few appreciated the fact that, unlike the end of World War II in which the losing side became temporary wards of the United States, the end of the Cold War saw the Russians remaining an independent (though substantially weakened) force. Very few Russians viewed the collapse of Communism as anything other than the natural, internal implosion of a horrific ideology. The triumphalism in the West, while morally and emotionally satisfying, was somewhat unfounded.
As the elder Bush prepared for his “inevitable” reelection, he sought to shore up his foreign policy bona fides. Eager to ensure that Soviet troops exited Eastern Europe, his representatives met their counterparts from Moscow and verbally consented to Russia’s demand that NATO not expand into Eastern Europe. Of course, whether Bush intended to keep this promise is unknown. Fact is, that verbal agreement ended the moment Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev and President Bush both lost their grip on power in their respective countries.
In any event, the government of the Russian Federation under Boris Yeltsin believed that the old Gorbachev-Bush verbal agreement on NATO expansion remained in place. It did not. This, more than anything else that has happened since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, is the source of the friction that currently divides the United States and Russia.
The Divide That Ties
NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe—coupled with the European Union’s expansion into that land—brought superior Western firepower and economic might within 800 miles of Moscow. During the Cold War, the distance between Moscow and Berlin (the dividing line between the Soviet Union and Europe at that time) was approximately 1,130 miles. Russia was in a weakened state during the 1990s. Therefore, it could do little to exert its will on the international stage—other than issue diplomatic rebukes. Moscow relied on the promises that the West had made to it following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. To even a liberal Russian leader, like Boris Yeltsin, it became clear that the West would not honor the verbal agreements made between Yeltsin’s predecessor and former President George H.W. Bush.
The memory of extreme weakness and uncertainty, coupled with the perceived humiliation of Russia by the West throughout this period, hardened the Russians in a way not seen since the heady days of the Cold War. The inevitable economic collapse of Russia in the late-1990s ended Russia’s experiment with Western liberalism and returned it to its historical path of autocracy. Yet, thanks to the inattentiveness of George H.W. Bush—and, more importantly, the weakness of Bill Clinton—the Russians not only returned to autocracy, but they also reignited their anti-Americanism.
From the American perspective, it was freewheeling diplomacy between the George H.W. Bush team and Moscow that granted the false hope of no more NATO expansion in the desperate minds of post-Cold War Russian leaders. For President Trump, then, he must recognize that his freewheeling style is his greatest asset…but when dealing with the Russians, it might end up being a vulnerability. This is not to say he should not meet with the Russians this fall in Washington, D.C.—or that his recent Helsinki Summit was a total disaster, as the media claims. In the case of the former, he should meet with Putin in Washington. In the case of the latter, his Helsinki Summit was imperfect but mostly good.
When Trump meets Putin again in Washington, D.C. this fall, he must be less freewheeling with Putin than he’d prefer. The Russian president, like Gorbachev did with Bush, will try to hem Trump in by getting Trump to seem to agree to things verbally. For his part, Trump says things to try to garner favor with his counterpart throughout the negotiation process. Unfortunately, though, verbal agreements are difficult when Russians are involved. In our society, verbal contracts are difficult to enforce. In Russia, where a viable legal framework is lacking, the personal assurances of people are what counts.
When Putin brings up a sticky subject, like preventing space weaponization, Trump cannot ad lib. He should have Secretary of State Mike Pompeo or National Security Adviser John Bolton in the room with him, for the same reason police officers prefer to have backup when raiding a criminal’s home: for protection.
America needs better relations with Russia—but it cannot sacrifice its broader national security for better relations with Russia. Unless Trump can ink a physical agreement with Moscow, his diplomacy with Putin will fail.
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