During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump had promised to improve U.S. relations with Russia. His supporters said it was just the kind of bold move the world needed as escalating hostilities between the two nations stood in the way of solving major global issues from Syria to cybersecurity. Trump's opponents, to this day, see his rhetorical olive branch to Moscow as nothing less than a debt being repaid for alleged Russian meddling during last year's campaign — and who knows what other favors exchanged over the years.
But now, six months into Trump's presidency, the prospect of building a strong U.S.-Russia alliance (for whatever motivation) are looking slim. Vladimir Putin announced yesterday that he was forcing Washington to cut 755 diplomatic staff in Russia in what seems to be a tit-for-tat response to the latest sanctions bill against Russia.
Speaking to the state-run Rossiya 1 television network, the Russian president made his disappointment with Washington clear. "We waited for quite a long time that, perhaps, something will change for the better, we held out hope that the situation would somehow change," he said. "But, judging by everything, if it changes, it will not be soon."
Russia in general, has an irrational fear of weakness.
Putin characterized the measures as "biting," and warned that more options were at his disposal. Still, some analysts have a very different reading of Moscow's counter-sanctions. Quoted in The New York Times, Vladimir Frolov, a foreign affairs analyst and columnist, said this was "the least painful response that Russia could have come up with." AlexanderBaunov, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, noted that the timing made the measures look more "like a response to Congress, not to Trump."
Either way, if the move tells us little about the meanderings of ever-more complex U.S.-Russia (and Trump-Putin) relations, it offers an interesting insight into the Russian president's mindset.
Putin is often described as a "bully" with a penchant for macho poses, whose policy in both Syria and Ukraine are signs of an emboldened and imperial Russia. Yet, this is not the full picture. In a piece penned for Le Monde by Fyodor Lukyanov, Editor-in-Chief of Russia in Global Affairs, explains that Putin, and for historical reasons Russia in general, has an "irrational fear of weakness."
For better or worse, Putin has managed to restore Moscow as a diplomatic and military power to be reckoned with. But to be truly successful, Lukyanov writes, Russia needs "more than military and political force."
A quick glance at the declining rate of U.S.-Russia trade over the past six years, which began even before the first wave of sanctions linked to the Ukraine crisis, can help fill out the picture. From that angle, we can start to understand Putin's mix of tough-guy messages and almost wistful tone in describing relations with the world's biggest economy. Ultimately, for any world leader, the situation on the homefront is what matters most. And, as Lukyanov notes, Russia "is beginning to understand that the efforts it deploys in foreign policy can no longer compensate for its economic and social weakness."