The appointment of the widely-respected Lieutenant General HR McMaster as national security advisor follows a week of strong messages delivered to Russia, including in face to face talks. While the US administration fights allegations of Russian influence at home, three of its most senior officials have been abroad sending firm messages directly to Moscow.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson knows from experience what is effective and what is not in negotiations with Russia, and emphasized the defence of American interests ahead of his meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Secretary of Defense James Mattis spoke at NATO of the need to negotiate with Russia ‘from a position of strength’, and for Russia to ‘prove itself’. Shortly afterwards, General Joe Dunford, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, met his Russian opposite number Valeriy Gerasimov in Azerbaijan and poured cold water on Russian hopes for greater cooperation between the two countries’ militaries.
Taken together, messaging like this is at odds both with Donald Trump’s own commentaries on the relationship with Russia and with previous administrations. If senior US figures continue to enjoy leeway to speak plainly to Moscow and approach the Russia problem with realism rather than optimism, this gives cause for guarded hope that the relationship may be better managed than during the Obama period. This would hearten most Russia experts among the US policy community, who after years of the Obama administration ignoring advice on Russia for fear of upsetting Moscow were faced with the prospect of a new administration ignoring it because it seemed intent on implementing Russia’s policy choices for the United States. And reducing the likelihood of a grand bargain between Trump and Putin over Europe’s head can only be good news for the security of both the United States and its allies.
It remains to be seen how far a pragmatic Russia policy can be pursued if it does not coincide with Trump’s own views. When the BBC news website files news of US cabinet appointments under ‘Russia’, it recognizes the extent to which the relationship with Moscow – both above and below the surface – is pivotal to the future of this administration, through the person of Trump himself. But after last week’s messages from Trump’s most senior appointees, Russia’s confidence that his administration could be even easier to manipulate than its predecessor may have been dented. If so, it would explain last week’s sudden and dramatic change in tone in Russian media coverage of Trump and his administration.
The Kremlin will have seen the arrival of Trump as heralding a weakening of US power and influence around the world. This would be achieved in any case if Trump continued a state of open hostilities with his own national security apparatus. Thus the appointment of McMaster is also cause for qualified relief. He arrives in the post with none of his predecessor Michael Flynn’s baggage – of both a suspect relationship with Moscow and a toxic relationship with the US’s own intelligence services. But it remains to be seen if he will be allowed to exert sufficient influence through the National Security Council to bring his undoubted talents to bear.
Last week’s opening gambits by Trump’s appointees must be followed up with consistency. Russia’s subsequent announcement that it would recognize ‘passports’ issued by the Russian-backed separatist entities in eastern Ukraine could be one test of the new US approach. The move drew condemnation from France and Germany, the other two signatories to the Minsk peace accords, but a muted response from the United States. This could either indicate acceptance by the US, or a lack of capacity to deal with it while senior diplomatic and security posts are still in turmoil and a common approach to Russia is still to be determined. Either way, it will encourage Moscow to see where else boundaries can be pushed.
Keir Giles is an associate fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Programme. He is also a director of the Conflict Studies Research Centre, a group of subject matter experts in Eurasian security.