Analyzing the future U.S.-Russia relationship


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Photo of a gala concert held in Red Square to mark the 70th anniversary of the former Soviet Union's role in WWII. Stanford scholar Norman Naimark said that "strategic constraints" will set in for the incoming Trump administration as it begins to understand some of the fundamental differences between Moscow and Russia.
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Reality stands in the way of a quickly transformed U.S.-Russia relationship, Stanford historian Norman Naimark said. Naimark, an expert in Russian history and faculty affiliate at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), anticipates that "strategic constraints" will set in for the incoming Trump administration as it begins to understand some of the fundamental differences between Moscow and Washington.

The relationship between the two longtime global rivals may not change as fast or dramatically as some suggest, Naimark said. In fact, “deals” may be harder to make with the Putin regime in Russian than Trump anticipates.

CISAC recently interviewed Naimark on the subject of future U.S.-Russia ties:

How might the election of Donald Trump change the U.S.-Russia relationship?

There are many important things we do not yet know about the future Trump administration. How will his foreign policy team reflect (or not) the views of the Republican establishment, including the vice president, on issues towards Russia? How wedded is Trump to his campaign rhetoric and promises about Russia? How influential will the new president be in the making of foreign policy, when his interests and self-proclaimed competence clearly relate to domestic issues? How ready will the Trump administration be to reverse long-standing U.S. treaty and alliance obligations, both formal and informal?

Answers to those questions would help us assess the range of possibilities for any changes in Russian-American relations, which are presently worse than at any time since the beginning of the 1980s, the period of what some call the “second Cold War.” If Hillary Clinton had won the election, one could have been fairly certain that relations would have continued at their present parlous, if steady state, with both sides taking actions to undermine the other, while criticizing the other’s motives. Some commentators have suggested that the Trump victory opens a door for concessions on the part of the Americans – on Crimea, on Ukraine, on Syria, on sanctions, on NATO troops in the eastern member nations – that might encourage Putin to respond accordingly, improving the tone and content of Russian-American relations.

But I would caution against thinking that this will come fast, if it comes at all, or that the impact will be groundbreaking or of significant duration. There are some fundamental differences between Moscow and Washington that reflect deep and abiding issues. For example, both look at Russia’s “sphere of influence” from opposite perspectives: while Putin seeks to expand and consolidate it, the U.S. follows a revived containment policy. “Deals” may be harder to make with Russia under these circumstances than Trump anticipates.

If U.S. foreign policy establishment generally holds skeptical views of the Putin regime, how difficult will it be for Trump to strike off on his own in reshaping the relationship?

The history of American foreign policy since the Second World War has demonstrated that the president and his immediate advisors can have enormous influence on the flow of events. Again, nothing happens at once, independent of a cumbersome process of formulating and executing policy changes. But profound shifts do happen and they can alter the trajectory of American foreign policy. Still it is important to remember that Putin’s determined anti-American stance has Russian domestic political determinants that will impede change, even if President-elect Trump initiates steps to improve the character of the relationship.

What are the biggest flashpoints or challenges between Russia and the U.S.?

Ukraine, Syria, and the lifting of sanctions are probably at the top of the list, though the recent slippage of the arms control regime is a matter of great concern. The problems associated with Ukraine – both the issue of the illegal annexation of Crimea and the Russian destabilization of and military interference in Donbass – have been “handed off” by Washington to the Europeans in general and Germany, with Angela Merkel in the lead, in specific.

The Minsk II sanctions are a European initiative to get the Russians to conform to international norms on a Ukrainian settlement. Trump could hardly make a deal with Putin about Ukraine without serious European input.

Syria is different, though the constraints here also seem extremely difficult to overcome, given the U.S.’ principled opposition to strengthening Assad in power. Secretary of State John Kerry’s dogged attempts to come to an agreement with the Russians about Syria involved, as best we know, a number of important American concessions. Though both the United States and the Russian Federation are deeply hostile to ISIS, and it makes sense for both to join forces to attack the terrorist entity, the maintenance of the Assad regime would be very hard for the U.S. foreign policy and military establishment to accept.

Why does Putin seemingly think Trump is better for Russia than Hillary Clinton would have been?

Some of it is personal: Trump and Putin have said positive things about one another, though these exchanges were based in part on a mistranslation of a supposed compliment to Trump by Putin. Trump has been more conciliatory about dictators and has explicitly promised better relations with Russia. But the issues go deeper. Trump has indicated that he would reduce the United States’ support of NATO and reevaluate U.S. support of Ukrainian interests, both of which would weaken the American position in Europe, one of Moscow’s major foreign policy goals.

The Russian president also welcomes Trump’s readiness to recalibrate American involvement in Syria. Meanwhile, Clinton was seen as having tried to undermine Putin’s election to the Russian presidency in 2012 and as supporting an aggressive democratization program in Russia. She is the personification for him of the liberal, internationalist, and interventionist wing of the Washington foreign policy establishment that advocates, in his view, the Americanization of the international order.

With this said, Putin is surely nervous about Trump’s inconsistencies and volatility, which could exacerbate rather than calm Russian-American tensions.

What does history tell us about the U.S.-Russia relationship and what may happen in the future?

Since the beginning of the Cold War (some might argue since the Russian Revolution, almost a century ago), the relationship between the U.S. and Russia has been fraught with deep tensions and mutual hostility. The Cold War was a very dangerous period of relations, when proxy wars, dramatic international crises, and the potential use of nuclear weapons dominated the relationship. One of the major disappointments of the post-Cold War period is the unsuccessful integration of the Russian Federation in the international system as a force for peace and stability. Putin is an important part of the story. But there are also deep historical and structural reasons for this problem and they will not be solved by the waving of an American president’s magic wand. Though both countries are changing, we may have to wait a good long while for the Putin-era enmity to disappear.

Naimark is also the Donald Andrews Whittier Fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center, the Robert and Florence McDonnell Professor of East European Studies in the history department, a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution and an affiliated faculty fellow at the Europe Center at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. He recently published a new book, Genocide: A World History.

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Norman Naimark, Center for International Security and Cooperation: (650) 723-2674,

Clifton B. Parker, Center for International Security and Cooperation: (650) 725-6488,