The past month in foreign policy was an eventful one and highlighted three crises that are emerging as constants or main fronts in Russian foreign policy, namely, the American, the Syrian and the Ukrainian.
The frenzy surrounding the latest round of sanctions somewhat subsided in the United States when it became clear that Congress will not have enough time to enact them before the congressional election due in November. The Russia-Israel crisis caused by a dangerous maneuver of Israeli forces near the fated Russian Il-20 aircraft underscored the fragility of the international framework for ending the conflict in Syria and forced Russia to close Syrian airspace to the Israeli Air Force. Finally, the presidential election in Ukraine is fast approaching, and the campaign is entering a critical phase, which means even more instability lies ahead.
That the encouraging agreements reached during the Helsinki summit did not lead to sustainable momentum is a failure for Russia-US relations. By all accounts, President Trump’s healthy instincts have been sabotaged by the US establishment of mid-level officials and even some members of the administration. In fact, we are dealing with the most massively disorganized period in the foreign policy process in Washington. The United States has ceased to speak in a coherent voice. The fact that an agreement has been reached with Trump does not mean that it will be accepted by the establishment. Meanwhile, individual members of the administration are exhibiting a kind of teenage maximalism. The most recent symptom includes US Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s comments about blocking the Russian fleet in the Black Sea. However, the Americans are not seeking a protracted crisis, let alone a military conflict. The US has no strategy for Russia. It has only sanctions. And yet many are saying that in the future the United States will need Russia to confront China, even though no one knows how to talk Russia into doing so. But overall, by becoming an issue in the US domestic political debate, Russia is sure to have a harder time normalizing bilateral relations. Disputes of a strategic nature between Russia and the United States, even outside the context of the current political crisis, remain insurmountable. However, rule-based competition between them is quite possible.
Compounding the difficulties are the countries’ asymmetrical perceptions of each other. Russia underestimates the extent to which United States is still reeling from the shock of Russia’s alleged election “meddling.” Many believe it constitutes an act of war. For its part, the United States underestimates the ramifications of the sanctions. Moscow increasingly believes that sanctions are not just an impulsive attempt to send a message to knock off the interference, but the continuation of the classical American policy of seeking to contain and crush Russia.