An expert in US-Russia relations explains how we got to where we are today.
The Trump campaign's alleged ties to Russia have spiraled out into a story that's birthed a thousand conspiracy theories about how and why Donald Trump teamed up with the Kremlin to "hack" the 2016 election. Many Trump supporters dismiss the allegations as a liberal ploy to undermine the president, even as the FBI continues to investigate communications between Trump's associates and people linked to Russian president Vladimir Putin.
What often gets lost in the sometimes paranoid, always partisan debates over Russia is the underlying questions beyond the controversy of the 2016 election. Why would Putin favor Trump over Hillary Clinton? What does Trump's relatively friendly attitude toward Putin mean for US foreign policy and the world? How did we reach this place where Russia is once again seen as America's leading adversary—and is that impression even accurate?
To sort through those questions, I called up Timothy Frye, professor of post-Soviet foreign policy and the chair of the political science department at Columbia University, and got him to to separate fact from wild speculation and explain how Bush- and Obama-era decisions led to what's happening today.
VICE: What's at the root of the conflict between Russia and the United States today? Is it a sort of Cold War hangover?
Timothy Frye: This view that it's a new Cold War is very misleading. The Cold War was global between two blocs of countries where it was ideological; there were two global political systems that were in conflict. None of those things are true today—the US's military budget is about eight times what Russia spends, so there's no sense of military parity apart from the nuclear sphere. So to think of it as some extension of the Cold War is not particularly helpful. But President Putin has been very successful in legitimating his rule in last four or five years by reasserting that Russia is a major player on the world stage, which was a common theme in the Soviet period. Soviet leaders would implicitly say, "We're not as rich as the West, we have a lot of problems, but we are a global player, and that's why you should support us." Whereas President Putin has been much more explicit about that in the last five years as the Russian economy has gone down. That narrative plays well even today, and part of that is a hangover from the Cold War period.
What has brought about this current era of tension between Russia and the West that led to this interference in the US election?
In the last five or six years, or even further back, there has been a sense within Russia that the international system is not reflective of Russia's position in the world and is biased against Russia, and that international organizations like the IMF and the World Bank are not representative of Russia's interests. There's a sense that the rule-based international institutions are biased against Russia, and Russia would much prefer an international system that goes back to the 19th-century spheres of influence model, where Russia is allowed to do what it wants in its own neighborhood.
Europe and the US pushed back against that idea, saying that countries should be able to decide who they want to ally with and that national sovereignty shouldn't be abridged. The second notion is that for Russia, national sovereignty is a paramount concern, so they're especially critical of Western comments about lack of free speech and lack of democracy within Russia. The Kremlin's view is that countries should be able to decide how they run themselves internally.
In 2009, Obama put Clinton, the newly appointed secretary of state, in a charge of his administration's "Russian reset" policy. Could you describe what happened there?
In the last few years of the Bush administration, US-Russia relations had really soured. The Iraq War was something that the Kremlin took very badly. Right after 9/11, President Putin was the first foreign leader to call President Bush, and there was the initial period of good relations between Bush and Putin. That was really spoiled by the invasion of Iraq, which the Russians opposed for a number of reasons. They had an economic interest in trying to develop Iraq's oil. They had some relationships with Saddam Hussein. But they were also concerned about the principle that foreign countries should gang up on an autocratic country and essentially foment a change in regime.
When Obama comes into power in 2008, it's right after the conflict between Russia and Georgia. Relations are really not good, and most people expect Obama not to pay much attention to Russia. He's much more interested in Asia, in the Middle East, in Africa, so the "reset" was an attempt to say: We recognize the relations have been bad, but there are several areas of common interest that we can work on, including arms control, cooperation on defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan, and on the Iranian nuclear program. In those areas, there was a lot of progress made in the Obama administration. There was no great fundamental readjustment in relations between the US and Russia, which would be unlikely to occur under any circumstances given the basic conflicts of interest between Russia and the US, and the conflicts in values between the Putin administration and the Obama administration. On areas where there was some common interest, it was impressive for the first few years.
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But things got worse?
Then a number of things really soured in the relationship—and this is where Hillary Clinton comes into play. There were anti-government demonstrations in Russia following a parliamentary election in December 2011, and many observers think there was a lot of electoral fraud. Shortly after the elections, Hillary Clinton made a statement saying—and I'm paraphrasing here—every citizen should have the right to have their vote counted and elections should be free and fair. Shortly thereafter, there were demonstrations in Moscow, the biggest demonstrations since the fall of the Soviet Union, and President Putin accused Hillary Clinton of fomenting this protest, in part because of her remarks about the election. Of course, she wasn't the only foreign leader to make these sorts of remarks, but the notion that this was being done in the service of the US State Department became a consistent theme for the Kremlin.
I'm curious about 2008–2012, the four years when Putin's protege Dmitry Medvedev was the president. Could you tell me about that?
President Putin was elected in 2000 in what many people regard as a relatively free and fair election for a relatively corrupt and middle-income country. He was reelected in 2004, to another four-year term. Then in 2008, he runs up against the term limits in the Russian constitution. He steps down and basically nominates Dmitry Medvedev to become the president. President Putin becomes the prime minister, the head of government, which is also a powerful position, but not as powerful as the president. There's a lot of speculation that the real power in Russia in this time was still Putin, and it complicated relations with the US a little bit in that US presidential representatives had to meet with the Russian presidential representatives according to protocol, even as Putin was more powerful behind the scenes.
So the move was made purely because of term limits?
It's an interesting question—they could've tried to rewrite the constitution, they could've done a number of things. There were some people who thought Putin was grooming Medvedev as his successor, and that had Putin been happier with Medvedev, and Medvedev would've been able to give him assurances that he would be protected after he stepped down from power, Putin might've given up. But that turned out not to be the case.
I recently interviewed Trump supporters about why they didn't believe or care about the Russia conflict. Most of them didn't understand Putin would want Trump to be president instead of Clinton.
There are two levels on which this works. The clear one is the policy level, where Hillary Clinton's policies toward Russia were rather on the hawkish end, and she was determined to stand up (in her mind) to Putin. She was much more willing to support, for example, the sending of defensive weapons to Ukraine, to help the Ukrainian army in the fighting in eastern Ukraine. She was much more willing to speak out on the domestic political situation in Russia. She was a staunch supporter of NATO, a staunch supporter of the sanctions [against Russia], and criticized Putin's annexation of Crimea.
"The personal history between Clinton and Putin is remarkably bad."
Donald Trump took completely opposite positions on all of these issues. He never talks about domestic policy within Russia, except to praise Putin. He argued that his administration would be willing to review the imposition of sanctions on Russia and said that NATO was obsolete. He said that his administration would be willing to review opposition to the annexation of Crimea.
The second layer is the personal history between Clinton and Putin is remarkably bad. It goes back to her time as secretary of state, her comments around the demonstration in December 2011. She was also in office when the Magnitsky Act was passed, which enacted sanctions on high-level Russian officials who were involved in the death of a Russian whistleblower. This was one of the very few times sanctions had been targeted against specific individuals. The Russians thought they were being singled out by this act. After the Russian annexation of Crimea, Hillary Clinton also said that this is something that Hitler would do, which is not a very solicitous thing to say, particularly given 20 million Russians died in World War II.
"I think a lot of people would like to have better relations with Russia, the question is just on what terms."
When Trump says that he can work with Russia, what would that even look like? What are the mutual goals the US shares with Russia?
There aren't really any easy issues Russia and the US can cooperate on—there's no low-hanging fruit. There's not much trade between the two countries. The political systems are incredibly different, so there's not a common set of values to rally around, which is another way countries build good relations. The basic problem is that there are areas where we can help Russia, such as lifting the sanctions and helping with the exploration of oil and natural gas in very challenging ecological environments, like the far north and the Arctic. In theory, there could be cooperation against terrorism in the Middle East, but neither side is willing to make any concessions to have a real joint effort. I think a lot of people would like to have better relations with Russia, the question is just on what terms. If there'd be a deescalation in fighting in Ukraine, I think it would be much easier to build better relations. That is a real sticking point.
What people are worried about with Mr. Trump is that he really wants to make a deal with Russia and he's not very concerned about what those terms may be. He's floated the idea of lifting economic sanctions on Russia in return for some vague promise to cooperate on terrorism, and most experts think that's not a very good deal. The sanctions were put in place to resolve the fighting in eastern Ukraine and the situation in Crimea. To lift the sanctions without addressing those problems would not be a very good deal for the US.
So what about the 2016 election?
You know, I think Russia was surprised when Trump won. I think they had a preference for Trump winning, just because his policy positions were so compatible with theirs. According to the intelligence community, Russia was cooperating with WikiLeaks to ensure they only released emails from the Democratic side, not from the Republican side. That gives us some sense of what their preferences were. I think it's going to be difficult to show active collusion [between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin] because people who study this say that the Russian government often works with groups that they have very arms-length relations with. It's unlikely these groups have an easily verifiable link either to the Kremlin or to the Trump team. It could also be that they really wanted to see Trump in office, so they did these things without active collusion.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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