Jeremy Shapiro is Research Director at the European Council on Foreign Relations. He was a member of the U.S. State Department’s policy planning staff, where he advised the secretary of state on U.S. policy in North Africa and the Levant. He was also the senior advisor to Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Philip Gordon. This piece is part of a special RCW series on America’s role in the world during the Trump administration. The views expressed are the author’s own.
Donald Trump has a starkly different view of Russia than previous American presidents. Trump’s mysterious relationship with the Kremlin and its leader has already created massive upsets in U.S. politics and in global affairs. But the president-elect’s more benign view of Russia does offer at least one intriguing opportunity. Maybe Washington and Moscow can finally agree on a new European security order and end the various frozen and not-so-frozen conflicts on Russia’s periphery.
This is an important task and a golden opportunity to bring peace and stability to a region that has suffered greatly from U.S.-Russia competition in recent years. Alas, contrary to indications, there is considerable reason to believe that Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin are precisely the wrong people to bring about such a change.
It Sucks to Be in the Middle
The last 10 years have seen a dramatic deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations. This has not been good for the United States, Russia, or the world at large. But it has perhaps been worst for the “countries in between,” those states sandwiched between Russia and the West. These countries have increasingly become geopolitical pawns of the Russian-Western confrontation. Their political and economic futures are held hostage to a larger struggle.
So frozen conflicts and not-so-frozen wars persist and even grow in and among countries such as Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, while Belarus stagnates. The region continually threatens to explode and rarely ever progresses economically or politically.
The solution to these conflicts has never resided in the various peace processes between the local parties. As long as the larger struggle persists, these various conflicts, to include the war in Ukraine, will never find a compromise, because Russia and the West will support their proxies and give them hope that they can emerge victorious against their local enemies.
The solution has always been for the United States and Russia to reach an agreement that both sides can accept on how to treat these countries. But in an atmosphere of profound mistrust, even paranoia, about the intentions of the other side, such an agreement has long seemed elusive -- even impossible. A drift into a new Cold War has seemed the inevitable result.
People Power and Donald Trump
One reason the United States and Russia have reached no agreement is the Western belief that the peoples of the region would never accept any compromise on their ability to independently determine their own futures and their own geopolitical alliances. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s inauguration speech in 2014, in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, contained a promise never to compromise on pursuing closer ties with the West. In a time of “people power," many in the West believed that some of these countries would never accept the level of influence in their domestic affairs that the Russians were demanding.
Compromise between the West and Russia would not result therefore in stability, but rather in perpetual popular uprisings as these countries continued their struggle against Russia, with or without Western assistance. A solution, in this view, could never be found over the heads of the local populations. The only path to stability was therefore to support these countries in their aspirations to join the West, even in the face of determined Russian opposition and profound Western apathy.
This was always a questionable proposition. But even before Donald Trump takes office, his attitude toward Russia has already pushed local actors to accept that compromise may now be necessary. In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Victor Pinchuk, a wealthy Ukrainian industrialist and a philanthropic pillar of Ukraine’s European aspirations, pre-emptively threw in the towel.
In contemplating Trump’s new approach, Pinchuk advocated that Ukrainians make “painful compromises for peace” of the kind Poroshenko vowed never to accept, including eliminating the goals of EU and NATO membership. In other words, he now accepts the geographical calamity of Ukraine’s unfortunate placement next to Russia.
Pinchuk, of course, doesn’t speak for all pro-Western Ukrainians. But his change of heart dramatically demonstrates how critical U.S. support for Ukraine’s Western aspirations has always been to Kyiv’s ability to resist infringements on its sovereignty. It turns out that even if Ukrainians were the main victims, the West and Russia were always the key actors.
Macho Is as Macho Does
This is the logic that leads people to believe that a new European security order may now be possible. So what’s the problem?
In short, Trump and Putin themselves, and the likely dynamic between them after Trump takes office, is what stands in the way. Trump’s views on Russia, and indeed on most every foreign policy issue, derive from his views about himself. Pay little attention to any of his many contradictory pronouncements on specific policies. His main goal is to create an image of himself as a strong leader and a “winner” who deserves and receives respect from whatever audience he finds himself in front of. Putin, while more subtle, has a similarly macho-based approach to policy.
In other words, what matters to both of them is not just that they win, but that they are seen as winning. However, in the zero-sum game of superpower competition, it will be very difficult for both of them to be seen as winning. The Kremlin and the Russian media rarely resist opportunities to gloat over American travails, and they held true to form both before and after Trump’s election.
Putin has long based his domestic legitimacy in part on his resistance to the United States and his determination to secure the revival of Russia’s superpower status, particularly on Russia’s periphery. So if, for example, Trump concedes that Crimea is part of Russia, Putin will be very unlikely to not gloat and to claim victory in very public ways. Worse, because the existence of the American enemy helps justify the Russian economy’s dismal performance and sustain his popularity, Putin may not be able to afford a deal at all.
In this sense, much like Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama before him, President-elect Trump seems destined for disappointment with Putin. Unlike them, however, he is much less likely to react to the types of geopolitical humiliations that Putin likes to inflict with the grace that comes from a sense of one’s own strength and purpose. Capricious and quick to offense, Trump’s reactions may well create even greater competition between Russia and America within the “countries in between.” Perhaps in future years, we may find even pro-Western Ukrainians longing wistfully for Barack Obama’s cool detachment from their problems.