Liberal Russophobia has become a powerful force responsible for deterioration of U.S.-Russia relations. The coalition of liberal Russophobes include those in Congress, media and think tanks who believe that Russia aims to destroy the U.S.-centered “liberal” international order and that President Donald Trump’s attempts to negotiate with the Kremlin do more harm than good.
Those sharing these views also believe in Mr. Trump’s treacherous “collusion” with the Kremlin and want to take away from the president the prerogative of conducting relations with Russia.
The identified coalition within the U.S. establishment has emerged as especially influential since the second term of Barack Obama’s presidency. The beginning of the term was marked by Congress passing the Magnitsky Act, named after a tax adviser of a businessman William Browder. Mr. Browder is wanted in Russia for evading $16.8 million in taxes, but in Washington he succeeded — while holding British, not a U.S. citizenship — in lobbying for the act and obtaining support from Sen. Benjamin Cardin, Maryland Democrat, and others in passing the act. Without any proper investigation or trial, the act made possible to impose sanctions on broadly defined charges of human rights violations against Russian officials presumed responsible by denying them visas and freezing their assets.
The success of anti-Russia groups is partly predicated on a weak presidency. Mr. Obama showed his desire to work with Russia on a number of issues, but couldn’t overcome support for the Magnitsky Act in both chambers of Congress. Vladimir Putin’s return to presidency in 2012 further complicated U.S.-Russia relations and energized the anti-Russian coalition in Washington.
Mr. Trump’s election as president in November 2016 further empowered the coalition of liberal Russophobes. From a tool for pressuring the White House on foreign policy issues the coalition has become a force to undermine the already fragile Trump domestically, ideally by removing him from the office. The idea that Mr. Trump is a Putin proxy was implied by Mr. Trump’s competitor in the U.S. presidential elections, Hillary Clinton, and repeated by a number of liberal commentators. The Russia issue became toxic and the anti-Russian message has now greatly broadened its appeal within the establishment to include those who don’t care about Russia but who are willing to play the Russophobia card in the interests of hurting Mr. Trump politically.
As a result Mr. Trump all but lost the ability to conduct relations with the Kremlin. His two meetings with Mr. Putin in Hamburg and Helsinki in 2017 and 2018, respectively, were failures. Each was met with an obstruction within Washington and was accompanied by new rounds of sanctions against Russia. The majority of foreign policy experts in Russia now oppose any meetings with Mr. Trump as making relations worse. Mr. Trump recently cancelled his scheduled summit with Mr. Putin in Buenos-Aires — officially in protest over Russia’s handling of Ukrainians vessels and sailors during the Kerch incident, but likely as a response to potential problems at home.
In the meantime, there is hardly a sign that the American approach that favors pressures over dialogue is working. The fact that the Kremlin refrained from interfering in U.S. congressional elections in November 2018 was likely an invitation to negotiate, not an indicator of effectiveness of U.S. pressures. In the late 2016, Moscow also refrained from responding to the United States expelling Russian diplomats as a way to engage with the newly elected President Trump. However, in July 2017 the disappointed Kremlin ordered 750 members of the U.S. embassy staff to leave Russia.
Today, the Kremlin continues to favor meetings and dialogue over Ukraine, Syria, nuclear and cyber issues, but it takes two to move the relationship forward. In the absence of reciprocal efforts, Russia will take more unilateral actions to protect its interests. The likely results will include a nuclear-arms race in Europe, resumption of large-scale hostilities in Ukraine, and new provocative behavior in cyber space and other areas. Whether one likes Russia or not, it has demonstrated a sufficient resolve and asymmetric yet powerful capabilities to not yield to American pressures.
Liberal Russophobia won’t succeed in making Russia to comply with American pressures, but it is likely to cause new, potentially more sever crises in bilateral relations. These relations are already extremely tense and are constrained by the countries’ different interests, deeply held mistrust, as well as by Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin’s incompatible claims of status and beliefs in great power nationalism.
Still, a dialogue with Russia remains a strategic necessity and the only way to stop future degradation of bilateral relations. A dialogue is not a sign of weakness and does not amount to U.S. willingness to concede, much less compromise on vital American interests. The fact that this simple point is now lost in Washington’s irrational Russia discourse speaks more about Washington than about Russia. It indicates just how dangerous U.S.-Russia relations have become and may yet become in a near future.
• Andrei P. Tsygankov teaches politics and international relations at San Francisco State University. He is the author most recently of “The Dark Double: U.S. Media, Russia, and the Politics of Values” (Oxford University Press, 2019).