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US Presidents and Vladimir Putin, The Honeymoons That Never Start

It is premature to assume that the bromance between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin will result in sustained, positive relations between the US and Russia.

18/01/2017 04:59 SAST | Updated 18/01/2017 04:59 SAST
Darko Vojinovic/Associated Press
A dog passes by graffiti depicting the Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and US President Elect Donald Trump in a suburb of Belgrade, Serbia, Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016. The Cyrillic letters on graffiti read "Kosovo is Serbia", as Serbia doesn't recognise Kosovo's independence.

When Putin assumed power in 2000, his American counterparts initially felt optimistic about getting along with the Russian leader, some going as far as being deeply impressed by the former KGB operative. As time wore on, their relationships with Putin gradually deteriorated, due to a combination of mismatched interests and mutual distrust.

Over the last 15 years, the US has come to view Russia as a 'managed democracy' hell-bent on retaining its dominance across the former Soviet Union. Conversely, Russia sees the US as a global police force, determined to interfere in its internal affairs and undermine its geopolitical interests. If President-elect Trump fails to or refuses to accommodate Russia's interests – regardless of their merits – the chances of improved US-Russia relations are slim.

"Putin has enormous potential... I think he's very smart and thoughtful... I think we can do a lot of good with him... He could get squishy on democracy," said former US President Bill Clinton in a telephone conversation with then-UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair, in October 1999. Putin had recently been appointed Prime Minister, but was effectively in full control of his country. Clinton was seeking to improve US-Russia ties following the NATO bombing campaign in Yugoslavia earlier that year, which incensed Russia.

Two months later, after Clinton criticised Russia's second military campaign against Chechen separatists – which caused high civilian casualties – Putin essentially told Clinton to mind his own business. After Putin became President, their relationship remained professional, but it was never warm. Clinton confided his fears about Putin's undemocratic tendencies to his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, saying, "You've got the fire in your belly of a real democrat and a real reformer. I'm not sure Putin has that." In his final official visit to Russia in June 2000, Clinton said to the Russian parliament, "We are not destined to be adversaries. But it is not guaranteed we will be allies." A speech not attended by Putin.

The next US President, George W. Bush, had his first meeting with Putin in Slovenia in June 2001. He famously said afterwards, "I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy and we had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul." However, their relationship steadily worsened. Putin became a vehement critic of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, and its plans to build a missile defence system in Eastern Europe, which he saw as a threat to Russia's military capabilities.

Whereas Western officials viewed NATO enlargement in Eastern Europe and overtures to Ukraine and Georgia as enhancement of security, Putin sensed hostile encirclement. Putin was also alarmed by the US's support for 'colour revolutions' in neighbouring Georgia (2003) and Ukraine (2004-2005), while Russia's military intervention in Georgia (2008) confirmed Bush's worst fears about Russia's expansionist interests. Bush's Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, later lamented, "Perhaps we should have seen it coming, but this Putin was different from the man whom we had first met in Slovenia."

Although Obama was undoubtedly less optimistic about relations with Putin than his two predecessors, he also likely underestimated how far Putin would go to protect what he views as Russia's legitimate interests.

President Barack Obama's attempt to "reset" relations with Russia, with new Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at the helm, was mostly futile. Putin, who had once again assumed the role of Prime Minister, blamed then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for inciting the anti-government protests that started when tens of thousands of protestors took to the streets of Moscow in late 2011, perhaps fearful of a 'colour revolution' in Russia. By the time he returned to the Kremlin in May 2012, Putin was a major critic of the NATO intervention in Libya, and found himself on the opposite side of Obama in the Syrian conflict.

Although Obama was undoubtedly less optimistic about relations with Putin than his two predecessors, he also likely underestimated how far Putin would go to protect what he views as Russia's legitimate interests. This has been best demonstrated by Russia's annexation of Crimea and support for the separatists in eastern Ukraine following the 2014 revolution in Kyiv, which was fuelled by fears that Ukraine was exiting Russia's strategic orbit. As Obama imposed several rounds of sanctions on Russia over the last three years, his relationship with Putin, and by extension US-Russia relations, hit rock bottom.

President-elect Donald Trump has repeatedly praised Putin and called for positive US-Russia relations. He even contradicted traditional US policy by refusing to condemn Russia's actions in Ukraine and Syria, and he has been loudly sceptical of what he sees as an "obsolete" NATO alliance. It appears that a seemingly isolationist Trump may be uninterested in challenging Russia's increasing global influence, which would certainly please Putin, even though any steps towards rapprochement would likely face stiff resistance from an increasingly anti-Russian US Congress.

What could also severely endanger US-Russia relations, however, is Trump's volatile nature, as well as his desire to project strength. For example, last December, after Putin stressed the need for Russia to strengthen its nuclear forces, Trump reportedly said in an off-air interview, "Let it be an arms race... We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all." Similarly, although he responded positively to Putin's Christmas letter encouraging the restoration of US-Russia ties, Trump also alluded to less rosy prospects, adding, "I hope we do not have to travel an alternate path."

If Russia challenges US interests, Trump is unlikely to take a back seat, which has also been stressed by his nominees in various confirmation hearings last week. A long history of hostility between the two world powers cannot be erased easily, particularly by two strongman presidents who show little inclination to compromise.