What does it say when the biggest story to come out of a meeting between the president of the US and the Russian foreign minister is a spat over whether a Russian photographer should have been allowed into the Oval Office? That, at present, the relationship between Moscow and Washington is more about optics and unwarranted optimism than any real substance.
From the morning when it became clear that – certainly contrary to Moscow’s expectations – Donald Trump had defeated Hillary Clinton (a foreign ministry insider had confidently told me beforehand that “the American establishment won’t let that happen”), the Russians have been nervous about what this meant. For all Trump came into office talking up the prospects of an improvement in US-Russian relations, Moscow prefers predictability to this attention deficit disorder presidency, and expected that things would go bad quickly.
They have, in part because of the president’s need to shore up his flank amidst Democrat Party attempts to paint him as the “Siberian Candidate”, but above all for one simple, fundamental reason: in this age of “Art of the Deal” geopolitics, there is terrifying little Moscow can offer that Trump values.
When US cruise missiles slammed into Syria’s Al Shayrat airbase in response to a chemical weapons attack, that same Russian official admitted that their every nightmare had come true: that they faced an American president who changed policy at a whim, felt no need to telegraph his moves in advance, and had a much lower threshold for deploying force. In short, Trump scares the Russian foreign policy and national security establishment.
Hence, in part, the strange ambiguity about Russian policy. President Vladimir Putin, for example, is notoriously prone to keeping guests waiting for meetings, not least as a power play. When US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Moscow the week after the cruise missile strike, the invitation to meet with Putin only came at the eleventh hour – but when it did come, Tillerson was subjected to no repetition of the three-hour wait that had faced his predecessor, John Kerry.
On the one hand, Moscow is, as usual, trying to identify the new administration’s red lines, its core interests, its knee-jerk responses, and its limits. Typically, it does this by a mix of calibrated provocations – buzzing a warship here, some over-the-top rhetoric there – and an equally-calibrated charm offensive.
With dawning horror, though, the Russians have realised that all the old geopolitical tradecraft is only of limited utility in the era of Trump. Today’s red lines are not necessarily tomorrow’s: if one were being cynical, one would suggest that it all depends on the headlines on Fox News. The US’ interests are intensely personal, about Trump’s ego and his and his friends’ and families’ businesses. Its limits are, worryingly, unclear.
At the same time, though, Moscow and Washington cannot ignore each other. The irony is that both would probably love to make deals with the other. The tragedy is that neither can offer the other what they would want.
The White House casts a far, far longer shadow over the Kremlin than vice versa. For a Russian government desperate to be considered a “great power” – whatever that really means – then it clearly needs to ensure that America, the world’s only superpower at the moment, pays it attention. Part of the reason for its intervention into Syria in 2015 was precisely to force the US to stop trying diplomatically to isolate Moscow. Russia, after all, can at least try and harness the power of irritation, to intrude into areas important to the West, to worsen situations, and then offer to fix them, or at least to back away, for a price.
What really matters to Putin is getting Russia acknowledged as “sovereign”, which to his mind means free of foreign interference, including international law, and also “great”, which incidentally includes a sphere of influence encompassing the post-Soviet states apart from the Baltic states.
Whether or not Washington could grant this, it is hard to see any reason why it would. Dodgy Russian businessmen may have invested in Trump’s commercial empire – frankly, that’s where you go for investors, if you’re something of a serial chancer with an erratic record – but Russia itself is not a serious economic player. Moscow may have hoped that the appointment of an oilman as secretary of state might have led to a drive for hydrocarbon opportunities, but global prices are too low and options elsewhere too appealing for this to give the Russians any great leverage.
In Syria, the Americans don’t need Moscow’s permission to bomb whom they will. The cruise missile strike, and the Russians relatively mild response to it, is proof enough of that. The real prize is Bashar al-Assad, and although the Russians have little real affection for him, they cannot afford to surrender him without a major concession in return. The only suitable prize would be in Ukraine, whether an acknowledgement of the annexation of Crimea, or pressure on Kyiv to accept Moscow’s writ. Neither is conceivable at present.
What else could Moscow offer Washington? About the only thing would be to agree to stop interfering with European politics, but there is no evidence Trump really cares about that. Indeed, no friend of the European Union, he may even derive some small satisfaction from some of the fallout from Russia’s antics.
Trump is looking for some easy, flashy triumphs, and his willingness to talk to strongmen, from North Korea’s Kim Jong-un through to Philippine’s Rodrigo Duterte reflects not just his own predilections, but also an awareness that they can provide results more quickly and easily than democrats. This was also evident in his initial warm words about Putin, apart from being a way of trolling Clinton during the campaign.
Yet Russia is now a toxic topic for Trump, and more to the point the lack of opportunities for any meaningful deal has become clear. Trump wants to be seen as the global broker, and Putin wants to portray Russia and Washington in the same frame, hence their shared willingness to work on the optics of some kind of rapprochement. Some on both sides still also hold unrealistic hopes of some scope for bargains, such as over Syria. A US diplomat with whom I spoke recently advanced the notion that “maybe Russia can help on North Korea” before even he had to admit “not that there is anything they can do, if the Chinese aren’t on board”.
Ultimately, though, it is hard to see any real mileage in this relationship. Moscow and Washington will continue to talk, of course. There will be summits and démarches, visits and initiatives. That is better than a sullen refusal to communicate. But unless and until there is some substantive policy shift in either capital, it will be activity as an alternative to strategy or progress, simply work on the “axis of emptiness”.
Mark Galeotti is a senior researcher at UMV, the Institute of International Relations Prague, a visiting fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations, and the director of Mayak Intelligence. He blogs at In Moscow’s Shadows and tweets as @MarkGaleotti.