Commentary | 13 November 2017

Russian denials and the Donald Trump paradox

Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

The fleeting encounters between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin at the Danang APEC summit were strangely symbolic of the dismal state of US-Russia relations. Their exchanges appeared cordial enough, they signed off on a joint statement on Syria, and Trump claimed – again – that he believed Putin's assurances that Moscow did not meddle in last year's US presidential election.

But far more telling was that there was no formal bilateral meeting between them, despite the Kremlin's best efforts. It seems Trump was persuaded that there was nothing to discuss. Or, rather, that there was plenty to talk about, but minimal prospect of making substantive progress.

The mood could hardly have been more different from a year ago, when Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in a bitterly fought general election. Then there was a feeling – of hope or fear, depending on your perspective – that a major shift in the US-Russia relationship might be about to happen. Trump had made no secret of his admiration for Putin, and had condemned the Obama administration's failure to "get along" with the Kremlin. The scandals surrounding Moscow's interference in the US democratic process, and the Trump camp's ties with Russian intelligence agencies, only reinforced the commonalities.

Plumbing new depths

And yet over the past 12 months the US-Russia relationship has plumbed new depths. Forget talk of a new Cold War, today's reality is even worse – more fluid, more unpredictable, and above all more dangerous. Great power confrontation was thought to have been consigned to the dustbin of history. Instead, for the first time in three decades, it has become a real possibility, as the scope for misperception and miscalculation has grown exponentially.

At the heart of this extraordinary turn of events lies what might be called the Trump paradox. The current crisis in relations is occurring under the most pro-Kremlin US president in history. Trump and Putin not only agree about the undesirability of NATO, the folly of liberal interventionism, and the virtues of "my country-first" realpolitik. They also partake of an authoritarian tradition that prizes the exercise of power over the rule of law, and where values exist mainly for decoration and exploitation.

Such like-mindedness, however, has been for naught. Trump has tried to ingratiate himself with Putin. But meanwhile American sanctions against Russia have been strengthened. The United States is actively boosting NATO's capabilities in Eastern Europe. Missile defence deployments in Poland and Romania are proceeding apace. Co-operation on counter-terrorism is non-existent. And the Russia-related scandals around Trump have intensified, with "Putin Inc." becoming the most toxic of brands in Washington. For its part, Moscow has abandoned any hopes of a real improvement in relations. Putin remains publicly sympathetic towards Trump, but the air of condescension – and fatalism – is all-pervasive. Even the optimists are hoping for little more than to avoid disaster.

The unsuccessful president

Another aspect of the Trump paradox is that despite his "can do" pretensions, few American presidents have been less successful in implementing their agenda. Nowhere is this more apparent than on Russia. During and after the election campaign, Trump spoke of "making a deal" with Moscow, while putting "America first". He has failed utterly on both counts. The crushing votes in Congress to expand sanctions against Moscow highlighted his impotence. Trump's personal involvement in policy initiatives has become a sure-fire guarantee of their failure.

Much of the Western commentary on Russia has identified Putin as the international bogeyman – naturally enough, given Moscow's annexation of Crimea, military interventions in Ukraine and Syria, and interference in various foreign elections. It is ironic, then, that the harm caused by such actions pales into comparison with the damage wrought by Trump since he became president. In just a few months he has done more to undermine Transatlantic relations, US global leadership, and the liberal world order, than Putin has attempted in nearly two decades. Trump, not Putin or Chinese President Xi Jinping, represents the greatest threat to Western-led norms, values, and institutions.

One might imagine that the chaos in the White House and American political system would be the cause of some celebration in the Kremlin. But the crowning paradox is that Putin and the Russian political elite now crave a return to relative "normality". Moscow's early schadenfreude at the discomfiture of the Washington establishment has given way to growing consternation. Trump has not only proved a big disappointment in terms of delivering desired outcomes, but his erratic behaviour threatens to unleash consequences the Kremlin cannot manage – on the Korean peninsula, in the Middle East, and in Eastern Europe.

The interests of Russia, no less than those of America's allies, are endangered by a US president for whom delinquency has become the standard. Although Trump and Putin share a loathing for the liberal world order, the similarities between them only go so far. Trump has demonstrated that he is above all a destructive force – seeking at home to trash every aspect of his predecessor's legacy, and, internationally, to bring about a dog-eat-dog world in which rules are for losers, and the United States can please itself. By contrast, Putin seeks not disorder, but a new world order. This would be more "equal" than the US-dominated system that emerged after the Cold War. But it would be based on clear principles, such as equilibrium between the great powers, and characterised by predictability instead of the anarchy that Trump offers.