Imagine how Vladimir Putin must be feeling. His government hacks the emails of leading Democrats and his friends at WikiLeaks make sure to drip them out in the final weeks of the presidential campaign. In a shocker, the party the Russians didn’t hack wins. Less than a week after the victory, the incoming president tells him he wants to explore greater cooperation against the Islamic State.
Putin must be experiencing déjà vu. In President Clinton’s second term, the relationship began to fray as the U.S. supported the ouster of Russia’s ally in Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic, and Russia launched a vicious war against Chechen separatists.
Then in 2001, President George W. Bush looked into Putin’s eyes and found the soul of a decent man. Russia and the U.S. cooperated against al-Qaida after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Then Putin turned his attention to his political foes. His agents poisoned a former Russian intelligence officer in London and his army invaded the Republic of Georgia. By the end of Bush’s presidency, the U.S.-Russian relationship was in tatters.
Not to worry. Americans in 2008 elect Barack Obama, who sets out to bring hope and change. For a few years, things seem to be going OK. Russian forces are still in Georgia. But the Russians agree to a new nuclear-arms-control agenda and to cooperate on disarming Iran. Then in 2013, there is a revolution in neighboring Ukraine. Russia annexes Crimea the following year. In 2015, the Russians have set up air bases in Syria and are bombing the rebels the U.S. trained to fight against the dictator Bashar Assad.
It should be said that we’ve never elected anyone like Donald Trump before. He’s not a professional politician. What’s more, Trump has shown some elasticity when it comes to his promises. We are now assured that he does not intend to deport all 11 million people who are in the U.S. illegally. He told “60 Minutes” Sunday that he would like to keep the part of Obamacare that bars insurance companies from denying coverage to people for pre-existing conditions. So it’s early days.
But the early signs do not look good. According to a statement from the Kremlin, Putin and Trump discussed “joint efforts in the fight against common enemy number one” in a phone call on Monday.
One source close to the transition team told me that it’s unclear what this would mean in terms of actual policy. In the broadest strokes, it would entail joint military operations in Syria against Islamic State positions and the lifting of sanctions Obama imposed for Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The policy of ridding Syria of the dictator who is barrel-bombing its citizens will be jettisoned. Trump and Putin will once again reset U.S.-Russian relations.
If Trump would like a road map on how to accomplish this reset, he should talk to Secretary of State John Kerry. In September, Kerry believed he had a deal for a one-week cease fire, which would have built confidence between the various forces in Syria. After that, the U.S. would begin to share targeting information with Russia to go after the Islamic State and al-Nusra, a group that until recently was al-Qaida’s franchise in Syria.
That plan soon fell apart. Less than two weeks after Kerry reached his cease fire, the Russians bombed an aid convoy trying to deliver food and medicine to the besieged city of Aleppo.
Perhaps Trump believes he can succeed where Kerry failed. That’s what Bush and Obama used to say. Just as Bush overlooked Russia’s bloody war in Chechnya and Obama overlooked Russia’s occupation of Georgia, Trump would be overlooking Russia’s annexation of Crimea and aggression in Syria. This pattern gives Moscow the impression that it can wait out the sitting president and wipe the slate clean with whomever replaces him.
Trump may face other problems, too. Already his phone call with Putin has raised alarm bells in Congress. U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee who will vote on Trump’s nominations for top Pentagon posts, issued a rebuke on Tuesday.
“At the very least, the price of another ‘reset’ would be complicity in Putin and Assad’s butchery of the Syrian people,” McCain said in a statement.
McCain’s view is closer to many in Trump’s own party, who were relentless critics of Obama’s reset. As one Republican wrote in 2011, “The results of Obama’s pandering to Russia have been a total disaster.” The author warned about Putin’s plans to create a rival to the European Union with Central Asian countries and excoriated Obama for giving up missile-defense positions in the Czech Republic and Poland. He lamented the fact that Russia had quietly encouraged other countries to oppose the U.S. position on Iran while pretending to cooperate with the U.S.
The man who wrote those words was Donald Trump. They are from his 2011 book, “Time to Get Tough.” The incoming president would do well to take his own advice.