Previous Presidents have attempted to charm the ex-KGB agent into a better relationship. They wound up with little to show for it. President Obama's feckless handling of Russia has been so embarrassing that it may have emboldened Putin to annex Crimea, and terrified NATO allies along Russia's border
When Trump takes office on January 20, he will have to contend with a slew of issues that demonstrate the extent to which Russia and America are strategically interdependent: from arms control to China, from radical Islamic terrorism to cyber threats and from nuclear proliferation to the price of energy. For all of the liberal media's mockery of Trump, he's right that dialogue with Moscow is essential, although dialogue with Moscow will be productive only if we talk about the tough issues we disagree on.
Getting along with Russia is a worthy goal, so long as the purpose is to attain a specific set of ends, not friendship for friendship's sake. In international politics, going along to get along can be deadly. Just ask the inhabitants of Czechoslovakia in 1938, Georgia in 2008, or Crimea in 2014
. That does not mean eschewing engagement, abandoning confrontation, or reflexively utilizing one to the exclusion of the other. Instead, engagement and confrontation should each be seen as tools to be used to advance our interests.
In order to have a more productive relationship with Russia, we need to realize four things. First, Russia is still reeling from its loss of great power status. While Winston Churchill famously said
, "Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma," our problems with Moscow are driven by its search for prestige, and its loss of relative military and economic power.
Second, do not expect any reset to resemble a resurrected German Ostpolitik
or South Korean Sunshine policy
. Even a successful reset will not see a Russo-American relationship resemble our relationship with Britain. We may, however, be able to cooperate with Russia on some issues, like terrorism, arms control, and perhaps stabilizing Central Asia. We may differ on others, such as protecting our allies in NATO, or on Russia's misbehavior in Ukraine.
Third, despite Russia's relative decline, the Kremlin has a series of instruments at its disposal that give it leverage. For example, because of Obama's position on Syria, Russia may be calling the shots
there, and may try to leverage this in other sensitive regions, such as the Baltics.
And fourth, America does not have a Putin problem. Putin is a fairly typical Russian authoritarian leader, although more effective than most. If he were to pass away or be overthrown tomorrow, his successor would likely pursue a substantively similar foreign policy. America has a Russia problem, in that we have a difference in interests.
In conclusion, President-elect Trump is right: it would be nice if we got along with Russia. Every President since the end of the Cold War has had a similar sentiment. It is important to see dialogue and engagement as tools for achieving our objectives, not ends in and of themselves.
If flattery can grease the wheels of cooperation, Trump should continue as planned. But we must never lose sight of our primary objective -- the pursuit of a policy that puts US interests first. We must not forget that Russia is driven by a desire to restore its former status. America and Russia share some interests but not others, and even a successful reset will see bouts of disagreement. While leaders matter, Putin is not an anomaly for Russia.
One thing is for sure -- anything would be an improvement over the disastrous Obama policy vis-à-vis Russia.