Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin last month

Alexei Druzhinin/AP Photo

Russia: Friend, Enemy, or Frenemy?

With relations between the U.S. and Russia at their lowest point in decades, President Trump has called for improving ties. But can Russian President Vladimir Putin be trusted?  

You couldn’t dream up a more odd couple: On one side, the world’s oldest democracy, leader of the West, and defender of liberty. On the other, an authoritarian giant that recently invaded one of its biggest neighbors, ruthlessly suppresses its critics, and stands accused of meddling in the 2016 American presidential election.

The United States and Russia hardly appear made for each other. In fact, for most of the past 100 years, the two nations have teetered between mutual mistrust and planet-threatening nuclear confrontation.

Yet President Trump seems set on forgetting the past and making friends with Russia and its autocratic leader, Vladimir Putin. Trump has openly praised Putin on Twitter, calling him “highly respected” and “very smart.” And some of Trump’s public statements have been music to Moscow’s ears: that Washington should stop lecturing other nations about human rights, for instance, and that America’s commitment to defending European allies may not be ironclad.

You couldn’t dream up a more odd couple. On one side is the world’s oldest democracy, leader of the West, and defender of liberty. On the other side is an anti-democratic giant that recently invaded one of its biggest neighbors. It also ruthlessly suppresses its critics and is accused of meddling in the 2016 American presidential election.

The United States and Russia hardly appear made for each other. In fact, for most of the past 100 years, the two nations have alternated between mutual mistrust and nuclear confrontation.

Yet President Trump seems set on forgetting the past and becoming friends with Russia and its autocratic leader, Vladimir Putin. Trump has openly praised Putin on Twitter. He’s called him “highly respected” and “very smart.” And some of Trump’s public statements have been music to Moscow’s ears. For instance, he’s said Washington should stop lecturing other nations about human rights and that America’s commitment to defending European allies may not be ironclad.

Putin has returned the favor, calling Trump “very talented” and orchestrating a frenzy of praise for him in Russia’s state-controlled media. All this mutual admiration has prompted a flurry of jokes on late-night TV about a budding “bromance” between the two leaders. In telephone calls after November’s election, the two leaders quickly set an ambitious agenda for cooperation: on terrorism, Syria’s civil war, Ukraine, Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear programs, and the Arab-Israeli peace process (see “The Six-Day War, Then & Now” ). 

This is an incredible turn of events. In recent years, ties between the two nations have sunk so low that experts have feared that any misunderstanding could trigger an international crisis—or worse. Trump’s embrace of Putin could provide an opportunity to reset the U.S.-Russia relationship. But many analysts say the countries’ fundamental interests are so at odds that it may be hard for the two strong-willed leaders to cooperate without butting heads (see “the U.S. & Russia,” below).  

“Were they to actually pull off a reconciliation, it would enable cooperation in some very important areas and, even more critically, reduce tension that runs the risk of spiraling into a very dangerous situation for the world as a whole,” says Olga Oliker of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. “However, I think the chances of a successful deal are low.”

Putin has returned the favor. He’s called Trump “very talented.” He’s arranged lots of praise for him in Russia’s state-controlled media. All this mutual admiration has prompted a lot of jokes. Late-night TV shows have referred to a budding “bromance” between the two leaders. In telephone calls after November’s election, Trump and Putin quickly set an ambitious agenda for cooperation: on terrorism, Syria’s civil war, Ukraine, Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear programs, and the Arab-Israeli peace process (see “The Six-Day War, Then & Now”). 

This is an incredible turn of events. In recent years, ties between the two nations have sunk very low. In fact, experts fear any misunderstanding could trigger an international crisis or worse. Trump’s embrace of Putin could provide an opportunity to reset the U.S.-Russia relationship. But many analysts say the countries’ fundamental interests are at odds. And for that reason, it may be hard for the two strong-willed leaders to cooperate (see “the U.S. & Russia,” below).

“Were they to actually pull off a reconciliation, it would enable cooperation in some very important areas and, even more critically, reduce tension that runs the risk of spiraling into a very dangerous situation for the world as a whole,” says Olga Oliker, a Russia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. “However, I think the chances of a successful deal are low.”

A History of Tensions

The U.S. and Russia have a long history of tensions (see key dates, below). During the Cold War—a five-decades-long conflict between Soviet Communism and Western democracy—the two superpowers struggled for global supremacy and several times came close to outright war. In 1962, the Cuban missile crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. 

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, a new democratic Russia was born—and it looked briefly like the U.S. and Russia might finally become allies. But Russia—which before the 1917 Communist revolution had been ruled by autocratic czarsfor more than 350 years—had no experience with democracy. The mayhem of the transition period in the 1990s, when prices soared and the economy crashed, left many Russians impoverished and disillusioned with the idea of democracy. So when Putin came to power in 1999 promising security and prosperity, many Russians welcomed the idea of putting a new strongman in charge.

The U.S. and Russia have a long history of tensions (see key dates, below). During the Cold War, they struggled for global supremacy. The Cold War was a five-decades-long conflict between Soviet Communism and Western democracy. The two superpowers came close to outright war several times. In 1962, the Cuban missile crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. 

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, a new democratic Russia was born. It looked briefly like the U.S. and Russia might finally become allies. But Russia had no experience with democracy. (Before the 1917 Communist revolution, Russia had been ruled by autocratic czars for more than 350 years.)

The transition period in the 1990s was chaotic. Prices soared and the economy crashed. That left many Russians impoverished and disillusioned with the idea of democracy. When Putin came to power in 1999, he promised security and prosperity. Many Russians welcomed the idea of putting a new strongman in charge.

Since then, Putin has consolidated power and eliminated his opposition. Life for many Russians has improved, mostly because of global demand for oil from Russia’s vast reserves. In many cities, a new middle class can sip Starbucks lattes, buy Gap jeans, and often speak without fear of reprisal. 

But more than a few of Putin’s serious critics and political rivals have been imprisoned under sketchy circumstances or even killed. A few years ago, Putin’s crackdown included jailing members of an all-female punk band for singing anti-Putin songs. All the while, he’s increasingly portrayed the U.S. as an enemy of renewed Russian greatness.

It didn’t help that Putin and President Barack Obama didn’t get along. Obama once said Putin looked “like a bored kid in the back of the classroom” during meetings. In public, their body language made their dislike for each other obvious. 

Since then, Putin has consolidated power and eliminated his opposition. Life for many Russians has improved. That’s mostly because of global demand for oil from Russia’s vast reserves. In many cities, a new middle class can sip Starbucks lattes and buy Gap jeans. Often they can speak without fear of reprisal. 

But more than a few of Putin’s serious critics and political rivals have been imprisoned under sketchy circumstances or even killed. A few years ago, Putin jailed members of an all-female punk band for singing anti-Putin songs. All the while, he’s increasingly portrayed the U.S. as an enemy of renewed Russian greatness.

It didn’t help that Putin and President Barack Obama didn’t get along. Obama once said Putin looked “like a bored kid in the back of the classroom” during meetings. In public, their body language made their dislike for each other obvious.

Growing Tensions

In 2014, the U.S. supported a revolution in Russia’s neighbor Ukraine that overthrew a government backed by Russia. After Russia invaded Ukraine and seized the Crimean Peninsula, the U.S. imposed economic sanctions on Russia. Things went from bad to worse when Russia sent troops, ships, and warplanes to Syria in 2015. They attacked anti-government rebels, whom the U.S. had been supporting, and bombed civilian areas in rebel territory. Russian involvement has helped turn the tide for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his civil war against the rebels, who are now on the defensive. 

All this aggression has led many experts to conclude that relations between the U.S. and Russia are worse than they’ve been in decades. In fact, some worry that a miscalculation on either side could spark a confrontation.

“We are now in a new Cold War that is more dangerous than the preceding one,” says Stephen Cohen, a Russia scholar at Princeton University. “There are no rules of conduct. . . . We’ve got an exceedingly dangerous situation.”

Enter President Trump, who has repeatedly promised to improve relations. Americans seem increasingly eager to do so: During Trump’s campaign, polls showed a steady rise in American approval for Russia and Putin personally, especially among Trump’s supporters. But many analysts think it’s unlikely that this will translate into a sustained partnership.

In 2014, the U.S. supported a revolution in Russia’s neighbor Ukraine. The revolution overthrew a government backed by Russia. Russia invaded Ukraine and seized the Crimean Peninsula. In response, the U.S. imposed economic sanctionson Russia. Things got even worse when Russia sent troops, ships, and warplanes to Syria in 2015. Russia attacked anti-government rebels and bombed civilian areas in rebel territory. (The U.S. has been supporting moderate rebels.) Russian involvement has helped turn the tide for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his civil war against the rebels, who are now on the defensive.

All this aggression has led many experts to conclude that relations between the U.S. and Russia are worse than they’ve been in decades. In fact, some worry that a miscalculation on either side could spark a confrontation.

“We are now in a new Cold War that is more dangerous than the preceding one,” says Stephen Cohen, a Russia scholar at Princeton University. “There are no rules of conduct. . . . We’ve got an exceedingly dangerous situation.”

Enter President Trump. He’s promised to improve relations. Americans seem increasingly eager to do so. During Trump’s campaign, polls showed a rise in American approval for Russia and Putin personally, especially among Trump’s supporters. But many analysts think it’s unlikely that this will translate into a lasting partnership.

‘We are now in a new Cold War that is [even] more dangerous.’

“I’m not optimistic that the overlap of common interests with Russia is very big,” says Michael McFaul, a Russia scholar at Stanford University in California. “Aside from the bumper sticker of fighting terrorism, there’s not a lot of common agenda.”

Consider the Israeli-Arab conflict, the Iran nuclear issue, and the Syrian civil war—all cited as areas of potential cooperation in early telephone calls between Trump and Putin. Russia is an ally and arms supplier to Iran and Syria, which are both Israel’s sworn enemies. Trump, meanwhile, is a staunch critic of Iran and an unwavering Israel supporter. 

And perhaps most fundamentally, Trump and Putin find themselves on opposite sides of the NATO divide. The U.S. has long been the leader of the 28-nation military alliance dedicated to protecting the freedom of Western Europe. Russia has returned to its traditional role of seeing NATO as an adversary. Currently, NATO is moving troops and weaponry into four countries bordering Belarus, where Russia plans to conduct major military maneuvers this year.

The two nations do have common terrorist enemies, like ISIS, but American military and intelligence agencies are hesitant to share information with Russian officials, who are more likely to see the U.S. as a target to be spied on than as an ally. The two sides might find a common position on Ukraine, where Trump has said he will consider lifting Obama’s economic sanctions—but even there, he may find stiff resistance from Congress, which is far more skeptical of Russian intentions.

“I’m not optimistic that the overlap of common interests with Russia is very big,” says Michael McFaul, a Russia scholar at Stanford University in California. “Aside from the bumper sticker of fighting terrorism, there’s not a lot of common agenda.”

Consider the Israeli-Arab conflict, the Iran nuclear issue, and the Syrian civil war. These were all areas of potential cooperation in phone calls between Trump and Putin. Russia is an ally and arms supplier to Iran and Syria, which are both Israel’s enemies. Meanwhile, Trump is a critic of Iran and a supporter of Israel. 

And perhaps most fundamentally, Trump and Putin are on opposite sides of the NATO divide. The U.S. has long been the leader of the 28-nation military alliance. NATO is dedicated to protecting the freedom of Western Europe. Russia has returned to its traditional role of seeing NATO as an adversary. Currently, NATO is moving troops and weaponry into four countries bordering Belarus. That’s where Russia plans to conduct major military maneuvers this year.

The two nations do have common terrorist enemies, like ISIS. But American military and intelligence agencies are hesitant to share information with Russian officials. That’s because Russian officials are more likely to see the U.S. as a target to be spied on than as an ally. The two sides, however, might find a common position on Ukraine. Trump has said he’ll consider lifting Obama’s economic sanctions. However, he may find stiff resistance from Congress.

Bromance Over?

Any plans for closer ties to Russia have also become complicated by the fact that American intelligence agencies say Russia tried to meddle in the 2016 presidential election to favor Trump over Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton (see “The Hacking,” below). With Congress and the F.B.I. now investigating, Trump’s Twitter comments about Russia have ebbed, as has his talk about cooperation. Russia’s press has stopped singing Trump’s praises. 

Trump’s chief Russia adviser, Fiona Hill, told The Atlantic magazine that a new era of cooperation with Moscow isn’t in the cards. 

“The Russians will get giddy with expectations,” she said, “and then they’ll be dashed, like five minutes into the relationship because the U.S. and Russia just have a very hard time . . . being on the same page.”

If she’s right, the bromance between Trump and Putin could be over almost before it gets started.

There’s also a complicating factor that might prevent closer ties between the two countries: American intelligence agencies say Russia tried to meddle in the 2016 presidential election to help Trump win (see “The Hacking,” below). Congress and the F.B.I. are now investigating. Meanwhile, Trump’s Twitter comments about Russia have decreased. So has his talk about cooperation. Russia’s press has stopped singing Trump’s praises. 

Trump’s chief Russia adviser, Fiona Hill, told The Atlantic magazine that a new era of cooperation with Moscow isn’t in the cards. 

“The Russians will get giddy with expectations,” she said, “and then they’ll be dashed, like five minutes into the relationship because the U.S. and Russia just have a very hard time . . . being on the same page.”

If she’s right, the bromance between Trump and Putin could be over almost before it gets started.

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