Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Why is Russian President Vladimir Putin still so eager to court U.S. President Donald Trump?

Like all Russian leaders, Putin wants a privileged relationship with the U.S. president. Such a relationship shows off Russia’s status as a great power. In his dealings with U.S. counterparts, Putin insists on Russia’s equality with the United States, and seeks understanding—i.e., respect for Russian interests—from them.

Putin and Trump speak the same language of national interest and are fully comfortable with transactional relations. Both men eschew politics based on ideology and moral values.

Trump is actively disrupting the post–Cold War U.S.-led liberal global order, which Putin also vehemently rejects. The Kremlin sees Russia’s toxic reputation in the United States as the consequence of U.S. domestic political strife. It also believes that stronger economic ties between the two countries would enhance Russia’s brand in the United States.  

What does the Kremlin think of Trump?

Over the past two years, Moscow been disappointed by Trump’s ability, and even willingness, to improve relations with Russia. Today, the Kremlin is anything but a Trump fan club. They see the U.S. president as a self-centered person, essentially guided by instincts, who prides himself on making deals.

Yet the Kremlin also recognizes that the intensity of current political warfare in the United States severely limits Trump’s freedom to maneuver. Putin recently said that Trump might well be reelected in 2020, and that Trump still wants to stabilize U.S. relations with Russia. This does not mean, however, that Putin is somehow wedded to Trump, or is betting that he can deliver on things like sanctions relief.

Was Russia surprised that Trump pulled out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty?

The INF Treaty has been in trouble for several years. First, former U.S. president Barack Obama’s administration accused Russia of violating it. Moscow, in turn, leveled counter-accusations of its own. Support for the 1987 arms pact had long been waning in the U.S. Congress, so the only surprises were that Trump took the initiative and the timing of his move.

Is Russia pleased that the United States will be blamed for the treaty’s collapse?

Yes. The fact that the United States pulled out of the treaty first gives Moscow a psychological and tactical advantage. It also complicates Washington’s relations with its NATO allies. Those in Russia, particularly in the defense community, who for years had argued that the INF Treaty was not in Russia’s national security interests, are emboldened by Trump’s decision.

A View From Washington

Putin, however, urges a dialogue with Washington on the fate of the INF Treaty. This would allow him to engage the United States in talks on strategic stability, and could give him a better idea of what the United States is actually up to after its withdrawal from the treaty.

Putin does not have any illusions about saving the treaty, which is probably already dead. But he wants to be seen as the treaty’s defender, and to be prepared for whatever practical steps the United States will take as a result.

Are people in Moscow concerned about returning to an arms race?

The U.S.-Russian arms race is already back on. What Russians are most concerned about is the possibility of seeing U.S. intermediate-range nuclear missiles moved into positions with a short flight time to Moscow. This would deal a crushing blow to strategic stability.

 

Alexander Gabuev, senior fellow and chair of the Russia in the Asia-Pacific Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

How does the Kremlin think about China?

Ties between Russia and China are very unlikely to deteriorate in the foreseeable future. From the Kremlin’s viewpoint, three fundamental factors are driving the countries closer.

First, there is a financial imperative to avoid tensions along the 4,200-kilometer border between China and Russia. Decades of costly military deployments along the border, and the more pressing security challenges that Russia faces elsewhere, have taught leaders in Moscow that a friendly relationship with China has plenty of benefits.

Second, China is a natural market for Russian exports. Catering to the resource-hungry Chinese economy could help Russia compensate for its losses in the West.

Third, the two authoritarian regimes understand each other well. Their respective human rights records will not poison the relationship. The Kremlin doesn’t fully trust China, but it knows that the national interests of both countries coincide in many areas and that China will be a predictable and pragmatic partner for years to come. By contrast, Moscow sees U.S. leaders as unpredictable and untrustworthy.

How does Moscow feel about U.S. attempts to pressure North Korea on denuclearization?

The Kremlin sees North Korea’s efforts to develop a nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile as an unwelcome yet inevitable by-product of Pyongyang’s desire to protect itself against possible hostile moves by the United States and its allies.

Moscow believes that no pressure will make North Korea surrender this life insurance policy. It judges that the last chance to denuclearize the country was lost after the war in Libya. In Moscow's view, the North Koreans have no illusions about what happens to dictatorships that abandon their weapons of mass destruction.

At the same time, hawks in the Russian military establishment think that Washington is using the North Korean nuclear problem as a pretext to build up its military presence in northeast Asia, and thus put pressure on Russia and China. Moscow is coordinating its moves with Beijing very carefully since the Chinese have much more skin in the game.

On nearly all North Korea–related issues, Russia will play in tandem with Team China. The Kremlin knows that helping the United States on North Korea will not bring it any tangible benefits.

By contrast, cooperating with China will help Russia to withstand U.S. and EU sanctions. Beijing is rewarding Russia economically with lucrative deals for sanctioned companies. And when Russia and China work together, it makes it harder for the United States to take action alone.

Why is the Ukraine crisis heating up again?

It’s not immediately clear that the Kremlin is altering its strategic approach to Ukraine. But the recent skirmish, in which Russian forces fired on and seized three Ukrainian ships, is precisely the kind of dangerous incident that could escalate into something more serious.

The core of the problem is a deadlock over Crimean sovereignty. Moscow has not reneged on its 2003 treaty with Ukraine on the shared status of the Sea of Azov. The treaty allows both Russian and Ukrainian ships to pass undisturbed through the Kerch Strait.

What has changed since Russia’s annexation of Crimea is that Russia now views the Kerch Strait as its own territorial waters. It also claims territorial waters around Crimea. Some Russian officials appear to be worried that Ukraine could even mount an attack on the expensive, recently opened Crimean Bridge.

To deal with these challenges, Moscow and Kiev had developed informal protocols that allow the passage of Ukrainian naval ships under the Crimean Bridge. But this time, the protocols seem to have broken down for reasons that are still unclear. This led to a show of force by Russian border guards who chased Ukrainian military vessels out of what Russia claims to be its territorial waters.

Moscow likely intended to escalate things in order to force Ukraine to accept the new situation on the ground, so that Ukraine would no longer seek passage through the Kerch Strait without approval by Russia. But ramming, shelling, and seizing Ukrainian ships and sailors was a clear overreaction. Moscow and Kiev should return to the status quo that was in place just two months ago.

Is Russia worried about new rounds of U.S. sanctions?

U.S. sanctions are becoming a permanent feature of Russian economic life. Following Congress’s near-unanimous vote on the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) in summer 2017, senior leaders in the Kremlin became convinced that Western sanctions are likely to stay in place forever. The economic toll is unpleasant, but not nearly as bad as the “maximum pressure” facing countries like Iran and North Korea. Still, sanctions have dampened economic growth, made Western investors more wary of putting their money in Russian businesses, and made it harder for Russians to tap Western capital markets.

However, so far the regime has managed to weather the sanctions, and Putin’s political base has rallied around him. With nearly a half-trillion dollars in reserves and an economy centered on the export of dollar-denominated commodities like crude oil, the Kremlin has ways to cushion itself from the next round of U.S. sanctions.

At the same time, it’s important to understand that there are numerous groups in the Russian elite that actually benefit from the sanctions. The people who will benefit most are those in charge of domestic security and industries that are trying to replace the products that Russia used to buy from the West. These groups are now pocketing huge government subsidies, buying distressed assets from oligarchs who have fallen out of favor, and taking advantage of the heavily monopolized nature of the Russian economy in areas such as government procurement.

 

Alexander Baunov, senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center and editor in chief of Carnegie.ru.

What does the Kremlin want the United States to do about Syria?

Russia’s first goal has been the same since the beginning of its intervention in Syria—and, in fact, since the first years of Putin’s rule, during the war in Chechnya and after September 11. It wants to convince the United States to recognize that, despite their differences, they are allies in the war against Islamist terrorism.

The Kremlin’s theory is that recognition of a common enemy—or even loose cooperation on terrorism—would not just help to bridge the gap in bilateral relations. It would also send an important message to the international community that, while Russia may be tough and perhaps a bit unsavory, it is far better than the other really bad guys.

The second important thing Russia wants from the United States is the recognition that regional powers should be allowed to sort out crises in their neighborhoods. Since the 1990s, when a crisis was resolved or a war ended, the West has always had the last say. No significant conflict has been dealt with without the West taking the lead role.

What Russia wants in Syria and elsewhere is for regional powers, rather than a single superpower, to resolve conflicts. Russia, together with partners like Iran and Turkey, has carved out a leading role on the political stage in Syria. It sees no need to rely on the United States. Having saved Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Russia now wants the West to recognize that the so-called Astana process (the Syrian peace talks in Kazakhstan, in which Russia took a leading role) is central to a long-term political solution. Moscow is also betting that Washington does not want to become more involved militarily in the conflict. 

Is Russia worried about an open-ended U.S. presence in Syria and greater U.S. pressure on Iran?

Russia is absolutely not happy about the Trump administration’s recent pronouncements that its presence in northeastern Syria is more or less indefinite. But compared to the prospect of Assad’s Russian-supported regime being defeated, or of opposition fighters (or the self-proclaimed Islamic State) controlling most of Syria, that is not the worst outcome. Helping Assad restore his control over areas in northeast Syria or in Idlib Province, where the United States and Turkey have a significant ground presence, would be a difficult task. Now, there is an excuse not to go there.

Russia and Iran are allies in Syria, and create a bulwark against U.S. pressure. But there are plenty of differences under the surface. Trump’s desire to portray Iran as the United States’ main enemy puts Russia in a relatively favorable position and helps keep it off a collision course with the White House.

Finally, it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for Russia to defeat the Islamic State and to create a viable exit strategy without the United States. One of the main reasons why Russia is in Syria in the first place is to destroy the Islamic State and prevent its revival. Russia would find this goal unachievable if it were to rely only on the Assad regime and its other regional allies.