Center Spotlight | The U.S.-Russia Relationship under President Trump

For this month’s Center Spotlight we talked to Fellow Stephen Wegren, Professor of Political Science & Director of International and Area Studies at SMU. Dr. Wegren, a Russia expert, teaches several political science courses, including one examining the historical relationship between U.S. and Russia. We asked him a few questions about the direction of that relationship under President Trump.

TC: President Trump had a private meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Helsinki summit. What was your initial reaction to the summit and the following press conference?

Dr. Stephen Wegren

Dr. Wegren: I found many things to be concerning. To name a few: Summits are usually meticulously planned and have a substantive reason. This one did not. The fact that the summit was hastily convened and lacked specific purpose suggests that it was intended as a distraction to Trump’s domestic political troubles. It is positive to be talking to Putin, but not if it creates the possibility of misjudgment down the road. That said, Trump is hardly the first president to use foreign policy as a distraction from domestic political trouble.

At the end of a summit there is usually a communique issued that summarizes points of agreement. This one did not. We have a rough idea of what was discussed from the press conference, but we still don’t know what was agreed to in the private meeting. The fact that there is no written record of what was agreed to allows Russia to control the narrative and puts the U.S. diplomatic service at a severe disadvantage.

Trump did not get any concessions from Putin. He essentially signaled that “bad behavior” in Crimea and Ukraine is tolerable and without cost. This implied position has to worry the Baltics, Georgia, Montenegro, and Ukraine. The problem is that unless Trump really is agnostic about Russian foreign policy behavior, it can lead to miscalculation on the part of Russia and make conflict more likely.

President Putin often talks about restoring Russia to its former levels of greatness. If he achieves this goal, is that something Americans and Westerners in general should be worried about?

Putin’s first order priority is for Russia to be treated with respect in the international community and recognized as a global power. To the extent that the U.S. political psyche can accept Russia as an equal, there is a basis for a cooperative relationship. Recall former President Obama’s dismissive “Russia is a regional power in decline” – that is the type of attitude that enrages Putin.

There is no inherent reason why a strong Russia, a return to greatness, is a danger to the U.S. Russia is not an expansionist power. (Crimea was a defensive move borne out of insecurity about what the U.S. was up to). Russia and the U.S. do not have any inherent bases for conflict—disputed territory, religion, ideology—but at the same time periods of good relations have been short and temporary while periods of antagonism have been long and enduring. So there is something in the relationship that obstructs long-term cooperation.

Do you think it’s important for President Trump to acknowledge and condemn President Putin for his coordination of cyberattacks against the U.S. preceding the 2016 election? This is something the media puts a lot of focus on. Does it deserve that attention?

Russian meddling and the use of cyberattacks is being lumped into one category when in fact there are at least two. It is one thing to use social media, fake accounts, etc. to spread propaganda. The U.S. has “meddled” in foreign elections in this manner and related ways for decades. Nothing too odd about that. I think the U.S. population and political system can withstand foreign propaganda and false information.

But if it is true that Russian meddling also involved trying to hack into voting machines and change the vote, that is extremely serious and cannot be tolerated. The fact that President Trump won’t acknowledge this second form of cyberattack is extremely dangerous to national security and has implications for political stability if electoral outcomes are perceived to be manipulated and not reflect the will of the people. It basically means the de-legitimation of U.S. democracy. The president has an obligation to do everything he can to ensure the integrity of elections and electoral outcomes. In this case, the media is doing the nation a service by keeping our attention on the danger that cyberattacks represent.

In your opinion, is the Trump presidency having a positive or negative effect on the U.S.-Russia relationship? On the one hand, President Trump has imposed tougher sanctions and now tariffs on Russia, but publicly he consistently praises Russia’s leader for being strong.

President Trump is correct that good relations with Russia is better than bad relations, but the problem is that he does not have a coherent Russia policy. His saying “no one has been tougher” than him is exaggeration and hyperbole. He conveniently leaves out the fact that he refused to implement even tougher sanctions that Congress adopted.

There are, in fact, areas where the U.S. and Russia can and should work together—anti-terrorism, Syria, Ukraine, climate change, nuclear proliferation, human and drug trafficking—but progress will be illusory if President Trump is mainly interested in self-promotion and stroking his ego.