Trump and Putin shaking hands
Credit: Shealah Craighead/Flickr

Donald Trump is likely to go down as the president who lost Russia. Not for lack of trying to make good with Moscow. In fact, it is because he has tried so hard to make it right and to pursue a personal and respectful relationship with Vladimir Putin that his ability to make any meaningful deals with Russia is doomed.

The result is an American foreign policy that is stuck with a confrontational posture and caught in a tit-for-tat policy trap preventing the pursuit of real U.S. interests with Russia. The reason is an underlying popular belief that President Trump has been incapable, at best, and, at worst, actively curried personal and political favor from Moscow over the years—regardless of what the Mueller report says or how it is interpreted.

From his 2016 campaign fumbles to his presidential summit stumbles, Trump has made an unending string of unforced errors that have caused Americans to question his motivations. That perception and reality actively limit his latitude for dealing with Russia.

Every president comes to office with both perceived and real strengths and weaknesses that inhibit his ability to pull off sage and sane American foreign policy. Brutal campaigns and opposition politics reveal every candidate’s blemished personal history, career choices, financial records, political trajectory, family fortune, spousal relations, racial, ethnic, and religious makeup. Negative narratives spun during campaigns and in office narrowly define leaders, put presidents in a box and demarcate their policy options.

Bill Clinton came into office hobbled with suspicions of strategic weakness regarding U.S. military power. His Vietnam War deferral, the “gays in the military” kerfuffle once in office, the question of whether as commander-in-chief he knew how to crisply salute and insubordination by officers willing to express their disrespect all limited his options to deploy the military. His credible and successful use of force—as in the Kosovo War bombing campaign—was met with criticism and suspicion that his ordering kinetic activity was a “wag the dog” distraction.

Unfair? Yes. Inaccurate? You bet. A real limiting factor in his ability to conduct and pursue a full-spectrum foreign policy? No question.

Would Rwanda have received an early and robust military response if Clinton’s motivations and abilities were not actively questioned?

Presidents Obama, Bush 41 & 43, Reagan, Johnson, Kennedy—there is an endless list of modern presidents hamstrung from conducting a clear and coherent foreign policy unconstrained by their own human limits, political liabilities and popular perception.

Russia is Trump’s Achilles’ heel. Regardless of the merits of collaborating with Moscow on multiple fronts—from global terrorism to transnational drug and people trafficking; from shared Arctic stewardship to uniting as a strategic counterbalance to a newly strident China—any attempt by this president to seek solidarity or sign Putin pacts is undermined. These limits on Russian partnership are not because of Democratic opposition politics, but as a result of Trump’s own ill-advised Moscow mollycoddling. He canoodles ex-Communists and fails to call out Russian misbehavior both at home and around the world. Trump has been willing to trade American values, interests, diplomats, and dignity for a false promise of friendship.

Trump has inadvertently jeopardized any real potential for negotiating and partnering with Russia. Instead of leveraging America’s power and strength, he inexplicably constrains America from using its multiple diplomatic and military tools because he thinks his personal charisma and self-inflated super-negotiating skills can garner a better outcome from an otherwise weak Russia tightly run by a cannily scrappy Putin. The result: Anything Trump says or does to reach out to Putin or deal with Russia is suspect.

Dangerously, this suspicion—warranted or not—has given political friends and foes a distaste for, and a fear of, a healthy Russian relationship or reset. Putin’s documented interference in American elections adds to popular wariness and Congress’s generally cautious approach to the president’s unorthodox and obsequious style of deal-making.

Unsurprisingly, Russia inserts itself into tough situations in Syria, Venezuela, North Korea, and anywhere else Putin can get a toehold, making already tough global problems even more difficult for the United States to manage.

America’s economic sanctions and stiff warnings aimed at Russia come as a result not only of Putin’s Crimea occupation, Ukrainian war, Georgian bullying, or Syrian support, but because Trump is not trusted to do the right thing when dealing with Russia. The cloud that hangs overhead is dark and darkening every time he meets or calls Putin.

America’s policies toward Russia are likely tougher than they need to be, with diplomacy at a low point. At the same time, Russia is seeking succor and an increasingly shared destiny with another of America’s strategic competitors: China.

If Trump’s personal weaknesses and behavior wind up leading to a newly invigorated Sino-Russian alliance, Trump may just go down as the president who lost Russia.

Markos Kounalakis

Markos Kounalakis is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is a former NBC Radio Moscow correspondent and the author of Freedom Isn’t Free: The Price of World Order (Anthem Press, 2022).