President Donald Trump seems to take the importance of improving US-Russia relations to heart. On 18 April, the US Justice Department published the final report on the “Russiagate” scandal after a multi-year investigation. The findings, viewed as favorable to Trump, contributed to increased domestic political space for the president to pursue his Russia policy and emboldened him to hold out an olive branch of détente and cooperation to Russia at the May 3rd summit dialogue with his Russian counterpart. The next week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had long conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian Foreign Minister at Sochi on Russia’s Black Sea coast on 14 May. A comprehensive reduction in tensions seems almost certain. However, given the overall political circumstances, although the two nations do have shared interests across multiple realms, the prospect for improved bilateral relations still faces difficult, if not insurmountable obstacles.
The first obstacle concerns economic relations and trade. Trump’s proposition that the US will increase trade with Russia is more of a subjective desire, or mere lip service paid to improve the current bilateral climate. In practice it is nigh impossible to implement.
In late July 2017, the US Congress enacted new sanctions against Russia with overwhelming majorities in both Houses of Congress. The new law explicitly provides that the US will never recognize any Russian move to change the territorial status quo by force and that before making any decision to lift sanctions the US President must report to the Congress, which holds the power to veto the president’s decision. In this situation, both goods and credit traded between the two countries are under stringent restrictions. As a result, it is impossible for US-Russia trade to expand quickly. Furthermore, Trump himself does not hold the power to lift those sanctions.
The second obstacle is Ukraine. Arguably the recent worsening of US-Russia relations since 2014 was primarily caused by Russia occupying Crimea during the Ukraine crisis and supporting pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. An anti-Russian stance has become the “politically correct” view with bipartisan support. In this vein, Trump was fiercely criticized by both the majority and opposition parties for saying during the June 2018 G7 summit that Crimea belongs to Russia since the residents there speak Russian. He further drew fire for claiming, during a meeting with Putin at the sidelines of the July 2018 G20 summit in Finland, that Russia did not interfere in the 2016 US presidential election. Moreover, to prevent Trump from turning his isolationist tendency into real policies by abandoning principle on Ukraine and deserting European NATO allies, the House of Representatives passed — with an overwhelming majority of 357 to 22 — a bill on January 2d, 2019 to prevent the president from withdrawing the country from NATO.
In the current situation, while Russia refuses to make any substantive compromise on Ukraine, it is impossible for Trump to alter the establishment’s preferred policy. US-Russian antagonism over the Ukraine issue constitutes the largest obstacle to improving relations.
Third, the conflicts in Syria and Venezuela. Defense Secretary Mattis quit at the end of 2018, revealing divisions within the Trump administration on Syria policy. Establishment forces within the executive branch and Congress worry that isolation is a policy of weakness harming the US and its allies. If Trump insists on his isolationist stance, and even if the US only seeks to contain terrorist and Iranian influences in Syria, the country still faces numerous difficulties with Russia — only limited cooperation is possible at best. Trump himself made a tough statement that Russian forces which entered Venezuela in late March must be withdrawn. Up to now no further action has been taken by the US. Some analysts believe that the Trump administration has still not made up its mind as to what the extent of US involvement in Venezuela should be. For this reason, US and Russian policy positions are actually frozen on this question.
Fourth, the North Korean nuclear issue. Both Russia and the US seek the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. But as Russia has no substantive influence over this issue, the US has no dependence on Moscow. Limited cooperation in this regard will not mean much for improving bilateral relations.
Fifth, nuclear disarmament questions, particularly over the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Further reducing nuclear weapons stockpiles, ensuring strategic stability, and avoiding a new nuclear arms race is the greatest common interest between the two countries. But such negotiations often take a long time and will thus hardly contribute directly to improved relations in the near-term.
In short, based on his anti-establishment and isolationist perspective, and with a view to focusing on China as the primary strategic challenger, Trump is making efforts to stabilize US-Russia relations — and thereby reduce the amount of US national strength and attention consumed by conflicts with Russia. However, with ongoing profound differences between the two countries and existing legislative constraints, Trump’s Russia policy will at best freeze US-Russia conflicts without resolving them. Neither full detente with Russia nor joining hands with Russia against China will be possible.