In his first press conference as president of the United States, Donald Trump said no fewer than seven times that it would be “positive,” “good,” even “great” if “we could get along with Russia.” In fact, for all the confusion of his policies toward China, Europe, and the Middle East, Trump has enunciated a clear three-part position on Russia, which contrasts strongly with that of most of the U.S. political elite. First, Trump seeks Moscow’s cooperation on global issues; second, he believes that Washington shares the blame for soured relations; and third, he acknowledges “the right of all nations to put their own interests first,” adding that the United States does “not seek to impose our way of life on anyone.”
The last of these is an essentially realist position, and if coherently implemented could prove a tonic. For 25 years, Republicans and Democrats have acted in ways that look much the same to Moscow. Washington has pursued policies that have ignored Russian interests (and sometimes international law as well) in order to encircle Moscow with military alliances and trade blocs conducive to U.S. interests. It is no wonder that Russia pushes back. The wonder is that the U.S. policy elite doesn’t get this, even as foreign-affairs neophyte Trump apparently does.
Most Americans appreciate the weight of past grievances upon present-day politics, including that of the United States’ own interference in Iran in the 1950s, or in Latin America repeatedly from the 1960s through the 1980s. Yet there is a blind spot when it comes to U.S. interference in Russian politics in the 1990s. Many Americans remember former President Bill Clinton as a great benefactor to Russia as the country attempted to build a market democracy under then-President Boris Yeltsin. But most Russians see the United States as having abetted a decade of degradation under Yeltsin’s scandal-ridden bumbling. Washington, they believe, not only took advantage of Moscow’s weakness for geopolitical gain but
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