Marcos Brindicci, Reuters

International Reports

Talking Much, Changing Little

by Claudia Crawford, Philipp Dienstbier

Relations with Russia in the Wake of Trump

The inauguration of Trump has not led to a radical shift in the way the United States and its European partners conduct policy in the post-Soviet space. It is true that Trump’s rhetoric expresses a sense of rapprochement that at times borders on admiration for Moscow. Yet, driven by Congress and large parts of the cabinet, the US has a second policy towards Russia that continues to pursue the fundamental elements of its traditional foreign policy. Despite a few differences, continuity prevails.

Politicians in Germany and across Europe were shocked when Donald Trump was elected US president. He led a strident election campaign that seemed to question the cast-iron principles at the heart of transatlantic relations. A striking element of this campaign was Trump’s apparent admiration for the Russian president Vladimir Putin and his policies. The future US president also acted more like a businessman than a politician during the campaign – for example, when he threatened to demand more money from NATO allies and the EU, and his desire to reduce US spending on other countries’ security.

Hence, President Trump sparked concerns that the US would gradually renege on its security commitments in Europe and elsewhere and focus more strongly on domestic interests. At first there was uncertainty about whether or to what extent the US would continue working to uphold the post-Cold-War order in Europe and support the stability and development of the other post-Soviet states in Eastern Europe: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. However, halfway through President Trump’s current term in office, it seems that the most existential concerns have in fact been unfounded.

On the one hand, US policy vis-à-vis Russia and the states of the former Soviet Union, especially Ukraine, has focused far more on continuity than was initially expected. There has been no real strategic change in the interplay of US, German and European policies in the former Soviet space. The differences between the goals and interests of the United States and Germany are no different to those that previously existed; President Trump simply enunciates them more bluntly than was the case for his predecessors in the White House.

Concerns that President Trump was pushing for a US policy of entente towards Russia have also proved to be only partially justified. When he first took office, there were fears that Trump’s attempts to move closer to Moscow could drive a wedge into the Western alliance and undermine German and European interests and goals in Eastern Europe and Russia. However, so far, this has been mainly talk and no action.

Indeed, significant differences have emerged between the president and many members of his administration in terms of their attitude towards Russia. This has been the case even more for Congress. No practical steps have been taken to bring the US closer to Russia at the expense of other allies. Congress and members of his cabinet who continue to be critical of Russia have instead thwarted Trump’s verbal liaison with “strongman” Putin. Also, there have been no real changes to the US’s solidarity with its traditional allies in Western and Eastern Europe. Despite differences on certain issues, the US, Germany and Europe have largely acted in concert when it comes to the post-Soviet space.

German and US Goals and Interests before Trump

How should we deal with Russia? Any assessment of the interests and objectives of the Western partners with regard to Russia reveals different answers to this question within and between Germany, its European partners and the USA. In turn, this has an impact on relations with the post-Soviet states of Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

The main difference has always been that, due to the history of bilateral German-Russian relations, its economic interdependencies and the German geostrategic position in Europe, Germany has tended to be more inclined to seek common ground and areas for cooperation than the United States. This also applies to certain EU members in Central and Eastern Europe, whose prevailing view of Russia is as a strategic rival and threat to their security. This has only ever been a question of degree, however. Germany has no doubts about the paramount importance of the transatlantic alliance and prioritises it over cordial relations with Russia. Fundamental policy approaches such as NATO’s eastward enlargement therefore remained unaffected by this at times divergent view of Russia.

Since the annexation of Crimea, Germany has moved away from its generally cooperative attitude towards Russia.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the conflict that began in Eastern Ukraine in 2014, have also led to a convergence of German, European, and American goals and interests in the post-Soviet space. Increased unity in the face of Russia’s confrontational, divisive policies towards the EU and NATO tipped the scales in favour of a more hard-line approach supported by Germany and its transatlantic partners.

Despite this, Germany, Europe, and the US have a complex mix of objectives. It is possible to identify four main strands that run through their common policy on Russia and Eastern Europe and where their interests virtually overlap; though they differ greatly in the detail. These strategic goals include maintaining the rules and principles that underpin peace in Europe; creating a stable, democratic and prosperous European neighbourhood; deterring Russia and defending themselves against hybrid warfare; and, finally, economic cooperation and establishing energy security. These various objectives are all intertwined, and some of them can be viewed as complementary. Furthermore, prioritisation between these objectives is partly different on both sides of the Atlantic.

Germany, the EU and the United States agree that Russia has massively violated the rules and principles of the European security order, and that these must be defended. The main focus is on the right to sovereignty, the renunciation of violence and the immutability of existing borders in Europe according to the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 and the 1990 Charter of Paris. The White Paper on German Security Policy and the Future of the Bundeswehr and the Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign and Security Policy, both dating from 2016, explicitly refer to the main goal of defending the European security order in their dealings with Russia and the latter’s interventionist stance towards its European neighbours.

Comparable US documents also emphasise the primacy of international obligations and principles but expand on this under the premise of a general call on Russia to be a more responsible global actor. In this context, Germany, the EU and the US all stress that compliance with arms control treaties is an integral part of the post-Cold War order.

The interest in having a stable, democratic and prosperous neighbourhood to the east of the European Union is particularly reflected in the Eastern Partnership (EaP) initiative under the umbrella of the EU’s European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP). The EU is looking to use the opportunity that has arisen from the changes in the former Soviet Union to contribute to the positive development of its Eastern European neighbours – largely out of self-interest. This goal includes Russia, which was offered an opportunity to join the ENP. However, Russia rejected this in 2003 and since then has been trying to form its own alliances to compete with the EaP. The US is pursuing the goal of promoting the development of the EU’s eastern neighbours, too, albeit at bilateral level. The stabilisation and development strategy also involves extending NATO and EU membership to include the states of the former Soviet Union. Nevertheless, there is agreement on both sides of the Atlantic that it is not currently feasible for Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO because of the “frozen” conflicts on their territory, and admission to the EU is also currently off the agenda.

Germany and the US also agree on the importance of curbing Russia’s hostile activities, particularly in the area of hybrid warfare. Germany’s White Paper and the latest Worldwide Threat Assessment by US intelligence agencies cite cyber threats and influence and disinformation campaigns on the part of Russia as the greatest global threats. It names the containment of Russian influence on elections and of its support for populist parties in Europe as key objectives. To that effect, there is agreement on both sides of the Atlantic that defence must involve building resilience and security cooperation, particularly through the military assurance of NATO members in Central and Eastern Europe vis-à-vis Russia. In pursuit of their interests, German, European and US policies are focused on de-escalation and the inclusion of Russia in the Normandy format while simultaneously implementing a coordinated sanctions regime and deterrence within the framework of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence. This approach is formalised through NATO’s dual strategy as a balance between deterrence, dialogue and détente.

Détente with Moscow? Policy towards Russia since the Election of Donald Trump

The election of Donald Trump to the presidency and his inauguration in 2017 posed an important question – would there be fundamental changes to the aforementioned pillars of US policy on Russia and consequently to the common foreign and security policy objectives of Germany, the EU, and US allies? During the election campaign, in addition to countless other populist manoeuvres, the new president drew attention to himself with his conciliatory attitude towards Russia. For example, he proposed a wide-ranging collaboration with Russia in the “War on Terror”, reaffirming it with the words: “If we could actually be friendly with Russia – wouldn’t that be a good thing?”

His positive statements about Putin and lack of criticism of his policies leave Trump looking biased.

There is nothing novel about a US president striving to make a positive, fresh start in the country’s relations with Russia. Since Bill Clinton, every American president has started his term with lofty ambitions of making a fresh start. However, Trump’s much touted policy of détente towards Russia is different because it is heightened by concerns about a fundamental paradigm shift in US-Russia relations. This is based on signs of a possible link between Trump’s campaign team and representatives of the Russian government, along with well-founded allegations that Russia interfered in the US elections. The latter is evidenced by a report published in January 2017 by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the results of which were subsequently confirmed by the relevant US Senate Committee. In the report, the US intelligence services confidently assert that President Putin interfered in the US presidential elections, with the aim of undermining public confidence in the US democratic process, defaming presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and favouring Trump. As a result, special investigator Robert Mueller III indicted members of the Russian Military Intelligence Service (GRU) and employees of the Russian Internet Research Agency. What is more, the American press repeatedly presented evidence of meetings between individuals who belonged to or were close to the Trump campaign team and direct or indirect representatives of the Russian government. However, no evidence of this has been made public, yet.

Against this background, suspicions of Trump being biased persist due to his worrying proximity to Russia, as evidenced not least by the meeting of the two presidents in Helsinki in July 2018. During their joint press conference, Trump refused to acknowledge Russian intervention in the US election campaign. The bilateral meeting also suggested that there was symbolic parity between the two countries and that a wide variety of political issues such as cyber-attacks and the Ukraine crisis were negotiated with Moscow as an equal partner and above the heads of affected states. The fact that the US’s traditional partners were relegated to the role of bystanders also gave the impression that the United States was turning its back on its allies. Trump’s accommodating rhetoric during the meeting, exemplified by his failure to denounce Russian interference in the US election or to condemn the annexation of the Crimea, also created the impression of an insufficiently critical stance.

Based on this, it seems that Trump’s policy involves a clear shift of US goals and interests vis-à-vis Russia and an abrupt decoupling of positions previously shared with Germany and Europe. The US position no longer appears to focus on defending the European security order, providing a joint deterrent to Russia with its NATO partners, nor any kind of defence against hybrid warfare.

President Trump is certainly trying to push ahead with this new strategic orientation, but at present it is little more than rhetoric. Nevertheless, political discourse always has real-life consequences, as reflected by the growing sympathy towards President Putin amongst Republican voters, who have traditionally tended to adopt an anti-Russia stance. It should, therefore, not be underestimated. Having said that, the president’s changed rhetoric has not yet manifested itself in concrete policy, because it has garnered little political support – particularly outside the White House.

As a result, the US currently has a second Russia policy. This was and remains decisively influenced by former Defence Minister Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and former National Security Advisor Herbert Raymond McMaster. Trump’s current National Security Advisor John Bolton takes a generally sceptical line on Russia, too. In addition, the 115th US Congress has held more than 20 hearings on Russia-related issues, including interference in US elections and similar campaigns, which also demonstrates a critical stance in parliament. The goals and interests supported by these representatives of the executive and legislative branches are much more closely aligned with the aforementioned traditional pillars of transatlantic cooperation in the post-Soviet space and in relations with Russia. Among other things, this is demonstrated by the newly adopted sanctions and handling of Russian hybrid warfare.

A cornerstone of transatlantic cooperation on the Russian issue was the coordination of sanctions with the aim of punishing and thus containing Russia’s confrontational actions. Irrespective of the President’s rhetoric, the aforementioned actors have continued to drive forward with this during Trump’s term. Since Trump’s inauguration, the US has imposed sanctions against more than 200 Russian targets, including close associates of Putin. In response to Russian retaliation against these American sanctions, the US government has again responded with tougher countermeasures, including the closure of the Russian consulate in San Francisco and other Russian diplomatic institutions in the US. In 2017, the US Congress also adopted the existing sanctions relating to Ukraine and cyber-attacks as a codified law, which extended these measures and established a review by Congress of any attempts by the president to limit or abolish sanctions.

The US government’s argument for maintaining sanctions is consistent with that of its German and European allies. For example, Germany has repeatedly emphasised that lifting or terminating the sanctions regime is only possible if the reasons for the sanctions – Russia’s behaviour – change; while former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also repeatedly affirmed that the Ukraine sanctions would not be lifted “until Moscow reverses the actions that triggered them”. Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley also argued that “Our Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns control over the peninsula to Ukraine.” Hence, the US’s objectives and rhetorical legitimisation with regard to the containment of Russian interventionism in the post-Soviet space still coincide with the agenda and arguments put forward by Germany and its European allies, even during Trump’s term of office.

In other areas, too, there is evidence of close coordination of sanctions and retaliatory measures against Russian hybrid warfare. For example, in the wake of the poisoning of Julia and Sergei Skripal, which has been attributed to Russia, the US showed solidarity with the UK by expelling 60 Russian diplomats and closing the consulate in Seattle. Alongside a number of other NATO and EU members, Germany also deported four Russian diplomats. The Countering Russian Influence in Europe and Eurasia Act passed by the US Congress provides 350 million US dollars in aid to (future) NATO and EU members between 2017 and 2019 to build resilience against and counter Russian disinformation campaigns and cyber-attacks. This shows that, notwithstanding President Trump’s appeasement, the US government outside the White House still seeks to work with Germany and its allies to counter Russia’s destabilising actions.

Trump’s Transactional Politics: Abandoned Partners in the East?

In addition to Trump’s supposedly Putin-friendly attitude, his transactional approach to foreign policy and international alliances has also stoked concerns that he will break away from the interests previously shared by the US and the EU in the post-Soviet space. The “America First” mantra of the election campaign and the associated transactional view of international policy espoused by former businessman Trump aims to maximise benefits for the United States while minimising the provision of costly security concessions or other support without getting something in return. This is seen as a threat to the common policy on Russia.

This concern is symbolised by Trump’s repeated statements during his campaign and particularly when he first took office, in which he declared NATO obsolete, as well as the refusal at his first summit in May 2017 to explicitly affirm the duty of collective defence as set out in NATO Article 5. This general dispute on security policy between the United States and its allies has a particular impact on the transatlantic alliance in dealings with Russia and its neighbours. Trump’s altered rhetoric calls all the aforementioned pillars of transatlantic cooperation into question. For instance, an “America First” policy casts reasonable doubt on the extent to which the US is prepared to continue upholding the European peace order and international law; whether it is committed to creating a stable, democratic and prosperous European neighbourhood; and whether it is prepared to provide a deterrent to Russia through the collective security and military reassurance of NATO members. Moreover, it is questionable to what extent a strictly self-interested US policy would tolerate the aforementioned autonomous paths taken by Germany and Europe with regard to economic cooperation with Russia and energy security.

However, transatlantic cooperation has continued in two respects on these issues since Donald Trump’s inauguration. Although the US administration has discussed putting more pressure on NATO allies to pay for their own collective security, this was already the case for the Obama administration, under which the widely debated two-per cent target was negotiated. More importantly, the US continues to cooperate in the context of NATO despite the initial verbal irritations. US troops continue to participate in all NATO military exercises in Eastern Europe and in neighbouring Russian states, as well as in naval manoeuvres in the Black Sea, and US forces are still involved in joint NATO exercises with Ukrainian troops; something that is considered a key element for deterring hostile action on the part of Russia. Continuity is also reflected in the USA’s support for further NATO enlargement with Montenegro’s accession to the alliance, and the invitation to North Macedonia to begin accession negotiations – despite criticism from Russia.

The example of Ukraine also shows an ongoing commitment to the stability and development of the Soviet successor states, which are not formal allies themselves. In September 2017, both chambers of the US Congress approved a 350 million US dollar aid package to enhance Ukraine’s defence capabilities. Former Defence Minister Mattis recently announced that the US is helping to train Ukrainian forces in Western Ukraine. What is more, Washington has agreed to two arms sales totalling some 90 million US dollars. The most recent of these – Javelin anti-tank missiles – involved lethal defensive weapons for the first time, a step that even goes beyond the military assistance the Obama administration was willing to provide to Ukraine. Far from neglecting the EU’s Eastern European neighbourhood in line with the principle of “America First”, the US is thus committed to continued support of the reform processes and expanding Ukraine’s military capabilities. Even though this objective already goes beyond German measures with regard to arms supplies, it bears testimony to an ongoing coherence between German, European and American positions on Ukraine.

Trump is particularly bothered by the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany.

The most obvious manifestation that the US administration is adopting the feared transactionalist approach under Donald Trump is the arms control that is so important to relations with Russia. The treaties on limiting nuclear weapons, in particular the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) and the New START Treaty on strategic nuclear weapons, form a central building block of the European peace order by inhibiting a nuclear arms race in Europe. At beginning of 2019, Trump and National Security Advisor Bolton have initiated a unilateral withdrawal from the INF Treaty. In addition, a non-renewal of the New START Treaty 2021 is looming. On the one hand, this is based on accusations that Russia, with its land-based SSC-8 cruise missile, has had a weapons system since 2016 that experts believe undermines the INF Treaty. The US is also unhappy that the Treaty does not include China, on the other. However, at least in the discussion about the extension of the START Treaty, the strategic consideration is that the US is currently in a better economic and financial position to modernise its nuclear arsenal than Russia. Exploiting this strategic advantage – Trump has already announced a nuclear modernisation – would cause considerable damage to arms control and the European peace order, and would also effectively enable Russia to build up its stocks of medium-range nuclear missiles. Termination of these arms treaties is not exactly in the interests of Germany and the EU, and therefore nuclear arms control is an area in which the interests of the USA vis-à-vis Russia are most likely to differ from those of Germany. Here too, however, it should be noted that Trump has not brought about a radical policy shift. The previous Obama administration also repeatedly criticised Russia for breaching the INF Treaty and questioned its effectiveness. The George W. Bush administration even unilaterally withdrew from the ABM Treaty in order to establish a ballistic missile defence system in Europe.

The greatest divergence of German and American goals and interests in Eastern Europe and Russia are apparent in the area of economic cooperation and energy security. Traditionally, Russia has invariably been a more important economic partner for Germany than it could ever be for the US. Despite a decline in trade after 2015, Germany remains the second largest exporter to Russia after China. The percentage of Russian imports by its three main EU trading partners – Germany, France and Italy – (together around 20.5 per cent in 2016) is almost four times the size of that of the USA (approx. 5.5 per cent). In addition, Germany, like other EU members, is dependent on stable energy supplies, especially Russian gas. Consequently, the US is more willing to put these economic interests on the line than Germany, and this is where Trump’s policy of self-interest becomes particularly clear. One example of this conflict is Nord Stream 2, the gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, against which Trump has levelled strong criticism. His comments on the sidelines of the Helsinki Summit were a stark illustration of the business logic behind his assessment of the Nord Stream 2 project: the US has an interest in selling American LPG to Europe as an alternative to Russian supplies. Nevertheless, here too Trump, the “dealmaker”, did not cause a sudden split in relations between Germany and the US. On the contrary, Nord Stream 2 had already revealed clear differences of interest in the transatlantic alliance before, with both President Bush and President Obama voicing sharp criticism of the geostrategic implications of the project.

Outlook: Common Russia Policy in the Second Half of Trump’s Term

All in all, Trump has not caused a radical break between the policies on Eastern Europe and Russia espoused by the US on one hand and Germany and the EU on the other. It is more a case of the US pursuing two policies on Russia. There is the rhetoric that focuses on rapprochement and even appeasement towards Moscow, driven by President Trump. Then there is the second policy that is actually implemented, in which Congress and the majority of the cabinet press ahead with the fundamental principles of transatlantic cooperation that were adopted before Trump came to power. Both sides of the Atlantic are still effectively pursuing the common goals of defending the European peace order, deterring Russian aggression and supporting Europe’s eastern neighbours. There are certainly differences on individual issues and topics, but they stem less from a break in the formulation of American interests due to Trump’s “America First” mantra than from traditionally divergent views that already existed under previous presidents.

Nonetheless, Trump’s erratic behaviour and rhetoric still present a risk. Despite this being balanced out by other actors, and the checks and balances that are inherent to the US’s political system, the president still has considerable power and the potential scope to wreak damage. One example of this is media reports about Trump passing on top secret information to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at a meeting in the spring of 2018. Donald Trump’s willingness to dismiss members of his administration who disagree with him also harbours the risk that those officials who are committed to continuity in relations with Russia will be fired, too.

However, in the medium term it seems more likely that there will be continued stability with regard to transatlantic cooperation in the post-Soviet space and on Russia. After the midterm elections, Trump’s influence has further dwindled after losing the House of Representatives to the Democrats. This could lead to non-White House government institutions exerting greater influence over foreign policy issues.

– translated from German –




Claudia Crawford is Head of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung’s office in Moscow.

Philipp Dienstbier is Desk Officer for the Konrad Adenauer-Stiftung’s Europe and North America Department.




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