It’s likely to be some time before we know the truth about allegations of wrongdoing in the interactions between Russia and the Trump team. It may emerge that simple self-interested deal-making explains much of Donald Trump’s affinity for Russian president Vladimir Putin, or that something more troubling was going on.
But another factor is often lost in the swirl of accusations: Mr. Trump and his advisers seem to have thought they could orchestrate a major strategic realignment with the Russians. Seeing Mr. Putin as a potential ally may have been profoundly naive—I certainly think so—but it was evidently a key part of their plans.
Mr. Trump’s longstanding fascination with Russia’s leader is no secret. He has been lavishing praise on Mr. Putin for more than a decade. In October 2007, for instance, Mr. Trump told talk-show host Larry King, whether “you like [Putin] or don’t like him—he’s doing a great job...in rebuilding the image of Russia and also rebuilding Russia, period.” As a candidate in the 2016 race, he repeatedly expressed admiration for Mr. Putin’s tough-guy image.
Since becoming president, Mr. Trump has taken a more measured stance on Mr. Putin’s personal qualities, but he has frequently returned to his desire for a stronger bond between the two countries. “I hope that we do have good relations with Russia,” he said in August. “I say it loud and clear. I’ve been saying it for years. I think it’s a good thing if we have great relationships or at least good relationships with Russia.”
Mr. Trump’s frustration that this shift hasn’t materialized is palpable. He insists that the Russia investigations in Congress and by special counsel Robert Mueller have undermined potential diplomatic cooperation with the Kremlin on containing North Korea’s nuclear threat, fighting Islamic State and other issues, which could, in Mr. Trump’s words, save “millions and millions of lives.” As he now seems to concede, near-unanimous congressional support in July for new Russia sanctions, as well as the raft of bad news from the Mueller investigation, have effectively tied his administration’s hands on this front.
Yet none of Mr. Trump’s rhetoric provides a strategic rationale for why the administration would work so aggressively to relaunch relations with Moscow. One of the few public statements that does can be found in an October 2016 New York Times interview with Michael Flynn, who would soon (if only briefly) be Mr. Trump’s national security adviser. In it, Mr. Flynn said that the U.S. and Russia were united by a common enemy: radical Islam. “We can’t do what we want to do unless we work with Russia, period,” Mr. Flynn claimed.
Recently revealed documents from the government case against Mr. Flynn indicate that his ill-fated outreach in late December 2016 to then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak was part of a wider diplomatic gambit. Mr. Obama had announced new sanctions and the expulsion of Russian diplomats as retaliation for Russian interference in the election. In a leaked email written at the time, Trump transition adviser K.T. McFarland, a month away from becoming Mr. Flynn’s deputy, said that Mr. Obama’s move was intended to “box Trump in diplomatically with Russia” and curtail the new president’s freedom to try to maneuver Russia away from its allies Iran and Syria.
Russia, she wrote, is the “key that unlocks [the] door.” Ms. McFarland’s message tracks with other evidence that Mr. Flynn, Jared Kushner and others attempted to persuade the Kremlin to help contain China.
Mr. Flynn’s request to the Kremlin not to overreact to the imposition of new sanctions by the Obama administration was a stunning break with the well-established protocol of not interfering with the actions of a sitting administration. It also raises troubling questions about what the Trump team might have offered in exchange. Sanctions relief? Reconsideration of U.S. support for Ukraine and other countries that have been victims of Russian aggression?
Given widespread reports at the time about Russian cyber and information operations seeking to influence the 2016 campaign, these efforts would have sent an unambiguous message to the Kremlin: The Trump team was relaxed about Russian meddling and eager to get down to business.
But what exactly could the Trump team hope to achieve in these efforts, even after demonstrating such an accommodating attitude? The ostensible strategic aims behind this outreach reveal, at a minimum, a remarkable naiveté about Russian foreign-policy objectives.
In Syria, rather than negotiating a Russian-American alliance to fight Islamic State, Trump’s team soon had to face up to the reality that Russian and Iranian military intervention had already transformed the war in favor of the Syrian regime, decimating U.S.-backed rebels in the process. The notion that Mr. Trump could disrupt the Russia-Iran relationship also proved fanciful. Tehran and Moscow are firmly united in opposing actions by the administration that threaten not just the Iran nuclear deal but a balance of power in the Middle East that serves the interests of both countries.
As for plans to put distance between Russia and China, Mr. Trump’s apparent strategy fared no better. On issues such as North Korea’s nuclear program, Mr. Putin is comfortable serving as Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s junior partner; both countries resist what they see as U.S. agitation for regime change in Pyongyang. More fundamentally, Mr. Putin is loath to antagonize a wealthier and far bigger neighbor with whom he shares a 2,600-mile border that was, not so long ago, heavily militarized.
Nor did Mr. Trump have the leverage to offer meaningful incentives to Mr. Putin beyond sanctions relief. His national security team seems to have persuaded him that the war in Ukraine must be ended in order to achieve his goal of normalizing relations with Moscow, but the U.S. has little in the way of diplomatic or military pressure to apply there.
Against this discouraging backdrop, it’s hard to imagine a major improvement in U.S.-Russian relations. Mr. Trump may try again, depending on how the various investigations unfold. But his troubled dealings with Russia have already proved what other administrations learned over a much longer period: In dealing with the Kremlin, across so many divergent interests, there are no easy fixes or grand bargains, even for Mr. Putin’s self-declared friends.