No foreign policy question loomed larger during the bitter presidential campaign than U.S. relations with Russia. Hillary Clinton painted Russian President Vladimir Putin as an aggressive autocrat who threatens U.S. national security, while Donald Trump treated him as a strong and decisive leader with whom Washington could do business. Putin, a Soviet man from head to toe, has always chafed at what he sees as U.S. post--Cold War triumphalism. He has never welcomed claims by Americans that the U.S. is an indispensable and exceptional nation with a responsibility to promote Western values everywhere, including across Russia's neighborhood and inside Russia itself. Putin likes Trump in part because he believes that the new President has no interest in asserting that privilege.
He's right. Trump isn't going to criticize Putin for building a Potemkin democracy at home. His Administration will see no value in challenging Russia's claim to Crimea or in going nose to nose over the broader question of Ukraine, an issue Putin cares deeply about. Nor is he going to fight Putin over the future of Syria's Bashar Assad. Trump wants to destroy ISIS, preferably with Russian help, and he doesn't care about the Syrian strongman's use of chemical weapons against civilians. Trump isn't going to treat Putin like a thug and his country as a second-rate power.
That's why, once Trump takes the oath, we should expect improvement in U.S.-Russian relations. He might even ease U.S. sanctions against Russian businesses and individuals. And there is value in this for the U.S. Both Democrats and Republicans in Washington have a bad habit of picking fights that other powerful states care much more about than Americans do. That creates costs and risks for U.S. policymakers and taxpayers with little promise of a successful return.
The U.S. could benefit from better relations with Russia in managing growing tensions with Europe, coordinating to help stabilize Middle East hot spots and even dealing with problems in Asia. Trump has a point that confrontation is pointless and that there is surely something to gain from toning down what might become a dangerous escalatory spiral in cyberconflict.
A new approach to Moscow might even appeal to those who mistrust Putin most and despise his government. Russia now faces a long period of economic decline, one brought about more by technological change in energy markets and Moscow's own failure to modernize and diversify the Russian economy than by Western pressure. Perhaps the shortest path to change in Moscow is to deny Putin a foreign scapegoat as Russia's economy becomes encased in rust.