Trump’s Impact on the World: Timothy J. Colton on Russia

Harvard Professor of Government and Russian Studies Timothy Colton discusses the fraught relationship between the US and Russia under the Trump administration.

Image of Tim Colton and Melani Cammett at the orientation panel

This is the third blog post in a series of edited transcripts from a panel on Trump's presidency held during our orientation in August 28, 2018. Our three panelists were Christina L. Davis, Melani Cammett, and Timothy Colton. 

Since the panel took place, the following events have occurred. The investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election has intensified, with more indictments and sentences handed down to President Trump’s associates, bringing the total number of indictments and guilty pleas in the investigation to thirty-three.

In October, the Justice Department filed criminal charges against several Russian operatives, accusing them of conducting “information warfare” during the US midterm elections. In a constitutionally questionable move the day after the midterms, President Trump replaced Attorney General Jeff Sessions with Matthew Whitaker, who is serving as acting attorney general overseeing the investigation until an official replacement is confirmed.

Further, Trump’s abrupt announcement in December that he would be withdrawing American troops from Syria prompted the sudden resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. The troop withdrawal was praised by Vladimir Putin, who analysts say can now work more strategically with Assad to form a dominant power alliance in the region.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Talk delivered by Timothy Colton:

So let's talk about Trump and Russia. 

This is a tangled tale. I sat down last night to try and update my sense of this. I've written a few op-ed pieces, but I think it's very hard to do scholarly work that comes to the point of publishing really scholarly papers, let alone books, on this subject because it changes almost from week to week. 

Once we have some distance in time, we may be able to make better sense of it than we can just for the moment. It is a tangled tale, and it also has been rendered. You [Melani Cammett] mentioned cable television. So cable television, of course, is on this story, but often in a rather simple-minded way, it seems to me. And it would be nice to improve on the media interpretation, but it's hard to come up with an alternative one that's more grounded in normal scholarly frames. 

I was involved in a conversation—I think it was last fall, probably in this room—about Trump's impact on the world. There were a couple of other panelists, who are not here this year. And what I remember is that they placed quite a bit of emphasis on this balance, as Melani referred to, between radical promises or radical rhetoric and often rather modest changes in actual behavior. 

As far as the broad spectrum of issues in American foreign policy are concerned, it seemed like it was sensible a year ago to strike the balance in terms of not that much has changed. So there was a lot of talk, a lot of it coming out of the campaign experience and dramatic things like repudiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But when it comes to most other issues, the style had changed. The rhetoric had become more barbed, for sure. The body language was different. Trump had made one of his first European tours, for example. But the substance of it was the same. 

Trump was reaffirming the importance of NATO. Trump was entering into negotiations on NAFTA, but this was largely for show. Trump was talking tough with Japan. So we'll hear more about that later, but that wasn't really changing that much, either. 

I think a year later it may be a little bit harder to make that case. Now we have maybe the spectacular case of North Korea, where it's true that a lot of talk has changed, but the substance hasn't changed very much. 

Russia presents a more puzzling, particular case because what has happened, I think, in the last year is that the situation has become more confused and confusing. Bob Putnam wrote famously a generation ago about two-level games in foreign policy. I think we're now talking about a multilevel game, where it's not even limited to two players on the American side, and then on the international side, even more complex. 

To put this in the context of Mr. Trump and his behavior, one of the few promises that he made on the campaign trail was to improve the relationship with Russia. And the reasons for this concern on his part are still not altogether clear. Some of it was pure contrarianism, I think. Since this relationship went downhill under Obama, then ‘once I'm there, I will clean things up and move things in a positive direction.’ 

There's a lot of talk in the media about his admiration for Putin. This is largely speculative, but it may play a certain role. He likes what he perceives as strong leaders who get things done, and I'm sure other reasons. There's often reference made to his business involvements or at least interest in doing business in Russia as somehow motivating him to move in this direction. 

Whatever the motivations on his part personally, he did say repeatedly on the campaign trail that ‘once I'm in office, I'm going to work to improve this relationship very quickly.’ It had been on a downward trend since 2011 or 2012. To go back even a bit further, in 2009, President Obama and the new interim Russian president, Medvedev, who was Putin's lieutenant there for four years, announced a "reset," of Russian-American relations. 

They wanted to improve the tone, to do something about cooperation on specific issues. And, you know, they actually made some progress. A comprehensive nuclear arms treaty was signed in 2010. The two governments certainly did a lot more by way of talking with one another, so that the two presidents—the White House and the Kremlin—set up fourteen bilateral presidential commissions that worked on a very regular basis. I had something to do with some of these. 

There was a lot of communication going on. There was talk about reviving US-Russian trade, more cooperation in space. But then things started to go wrong. 

I think the first major difference was over the Arab Spring and what it meant; Putin's extreme displeasure with our intervention in Libya in 2011; the eruption of the Syrian Civil War; and then the intersection between Russian domestic politics and American foreign policy and domestic politics, having to do with the fact that some members of the Obama administration—including Secretary of State Clinton—made it clear that they personally preferred, and the United States government essentially preferred, that Mr. Putin not return as president. This was a point that was made by Secretary Clinton and by Vice President Biden. 

It was not well received by Mr. Putin. 

He comes back to power in the winter of 2011 and 2012 as a result of a presidential election. That election was preceded by a very hotly contested parliamentary election in the fall of 2011, where there were mass protests in Moscow. I think Putin's system was fairly close to destabilization at that point. He pulled it back from the brink, but came away with a strong sense that the United States was lending its moral support to those who would like to see fundamental political change within Russia. 

So he's inaugurated for the third time in May 2012. From this point onward, the chill is in the air. One issue after the other, including the famous Magnitsky Act in late 2012, leads to a souring of relations, and then 2014, the Ukraine crisis. 

Trump comes into this and says, somehow, I'm going to improve things. But as we all know from CNN and Fox News, from the very first day, his talk of moving in this direction was impeded by a combination of his own actions and also of Russian actions. We still don't know to what extent there was, as they say, collusion between these two. 

So on this particular issue, I think he was working with a much weaker hand than he was on pretty well any other one, so it is ironic that on an issue where he seemed more committed to making change than on any other, that he was able to make the least difference. One could have said this a year ago. The weak hand has to do, again, with the lack of domestic support for an improvement in relations with Russia, which would mean making compromises on some concrete things. This is linked to the strong perception that the Russians themselves helped install Trump in power. 

Whether that was factually true, of course, is not an easy thing to sort out. The hardest link in the causal chain is between Russian behavior and the electoral outcome, and that probably can never be resolved. In any case, it is widely assumed that that chain exists, and Trump must lean against it, must tack against it, by demonstrating repeatedly that he's not beholden to the Russians, that he's not their puppet, as the cartoonists sometimes put it. 

He feels this pressure, clearly, but other Republicans feel it even more strongly. So it's not in terms of our domestic politics, just the usual arrangement of Democrats versus Republicans. But many on the Republican side, in Congress in particular, feel the same need to lean against what they think is the perception that Trump is beholden to Russia and therefore that any attempt on his part to improve the relationship must be viewed with deep suspicion. 

So it's for this reason, or cluster of reasons, that the two leaders didn't even meet for a private conversation until July of this year. Trump was inaugurated in January 2017. He had his dance with the Arabs. He met with Mr. Abe, three or four times already, with President Xi a number of times. He's been to Europe. Has talked to Merkel three or four times. 

Quotation by Timothy Colton on the US-Russia relationship

But he didn't actually sit down with Putin, the object of his affection, one might say, until halfway through his second year in office. By this time, a lot of other things had happened which were more a manifestation of the underlying tendency than anything radically new. Nonetheless, they have worked in the direction of the attenuation of the relationship between these two countries. 

This is asymmetric by its very nature because Russia is much weaker in terms of most conventional measures of power. Nonetheless, it has been able for the last decade to punch above its weight. It is a growing concern. 

It is the second or third weightiest military power in the world. It's not a country to be trifled with. We ought to be interacting with Russia. It's in our interest to do this on a regular basis. 

But the institutional foundation for these interactions has been severely eroded. This had started before, of course, in 2016, but it's been deepened despite Trump's obvious wish that this not happen at all. It's been something that's been more or less imposed on him by wider political forces, including forces in Congress and also in American public opinion, more generally. 

Concretely, this has meant that talk of reviving the presidential commissions and returning to the spirit of the reset has been set aside more or less completely. For months there was no contact at all, political contact, to speak of between the White House and the Kremlin. 

This has changed a little bit since John Bolton became national security advisor a couple of months ago. Even though he's a hardliner on virtually every political foreign policy issue, he has been tasked by President Trump to set up shop with his Russian counterpart. They have now started what seems to be intended as a series of regular meetings. So this comes out of the Helsinki summit. 

But on other fronts, again, attenuation, is the key. And you see this even at the level of diplomatic contacts, which have really been squeezed to a minimum. In July 2017, as retaliation for a move that reflected American unhappiness with electoral meddling to cut Russian diplomatic representation in the United States, Putin ordered that American embassy-related personnel in the country be reduced from 1,200 to 450. 

A lot of these were local employees. They weren't all American Foreign Service officers or other public servants in the embassy. A lot of American positions were eliminated. Our consulate general in Saint Petersburg was closed last summer, which leaves—outside of Moscow—only two American representations, in Vladivostok on the Pacific and in Yekaterinburg in the Urals. 

At the same time, we have closed Russian consulates in San Francisco and Seattle, which leaves only New York City and Houston. So there's a certain symmetry. They have been actually rather ginger and careful in deciding what to cut. I could talk about that if you like. 

In the executive branch, the Trump people are trying to minimize the damage, but nonetheless it is considerable. The New York Times had a story just the other day about American intelligence gathering on Russian intentions vis-a-vis our November elections. And you should read it. It's a little bit risque in terms of the use of information, frankly, but what it says is that in the good old days, when we had 1,200 diplomatic personnel, including a certain number of intelligence officers, that we had access to sources of information that are now closed to us. We don't have people there to gather this information, even through standard diplomatic channels. We were able to learn, according to this story, the Obama administration was informed by Russians what some of these Russian hackers were up to. 

This flow of information has now stopped completely. That may be partly because the hardliners in the Kremlin are raising the price of sharing this sort of information with foreigners—I wouldn't be surprised if that's the case—but also because we have much less contact with them. So, the Trump people will continue to resist this. 

They talk about deals. The Russians have said, for example, that they're ready—they said this last year—to talk about understandings of principles and norms governing mutual interference in the other guy's political affairs. And we have not taken them up on that offer. 

This would not be a simple thing—believe me—because what the Russians perceive as interference won't necessarily be our definition, but there's been no progress on that front. At Helsinki, they apparently talked about Syria and Ukraine. 

What they said concretely is not known. The leaks don't really tell us very much. But there probably is room for... call it cooperation, compromise, at least a lowering of the rhetorical tone on these issues and on others. 

On certain other issues one might say that Russia's position is closer to that of some American allies than it is to that of the United States, and Iran is certainly the case in point here. I mean, the Russian policy is aligned with the European partners in the 2015 agreement. They do not want the 2015 pact to be overturned. On this point, they are actually much closer to the British, French, or German position than they are to the American position. 

Just to sum up, this is a very fraught relationship. I think it's harder to trace a single narrative line. The two sides are hovering, to some extent, trying to stay in place and make modest improvements in terms of channels of communication. 

On the American side, I think the politics have been immensely complicated by this neverending scandal over Russian electoral meddling in 2016. So Congress's role in forming and reforming American policy towards Russia is now much greater than it used to be. The best example I can give you of this is probably well known to many people in this room, and that is the fact that Congress has now stepped in and converted into legislation what had been economic sanctions that were levied strictly by presidential directive under Obama and Trump. This means that once Congress has set this in stone, it's very hard to undo these sanctions. 

A president who really wanted to get around it could probably make some progress, but this is not an area where Trump is willing to pay a very high price. So enormous complication on the American side.

In Russia, of course, the politics are so much simpler, but not totally simple. I think Putin's hand in terms of his freedom to maneuver in foreign policy is a little bit more constrained than it was since last year at this time, since his reelection this past spring. 

Because of economic setbacks and because of certain moves that the government has made in social policy, his confidence ratings within the population have gone down quite significantly in recent months. This may give him incentive to make compromises on Ukraine in particular and dealings with us, but he's got to have somebody to negotiate with. For the time being, one really can't think of these as partners across the negotiating table. 

They're sort of out there. Every now and then, they're talking across one table or another, but very little positive is coming of it.

The following section refers to the beginning of Tim Colton’s talk where he gives a summary of his current research:

I have mostly done the domestic internal politics of what's now the Russian Federation, as well as comparisons between it and its neighbors. And the forthcoming book that Michele mentioned is an outgrowth from that, actually working on the intersection between internal affairs, domestic politics, comparative politics, and international relations, which is the direction that my work has taken over the last decade or so. 

This forthcoming book actually has come forth. It was published in 2017 by IISS, which is a think tank, so it's not a purely scholarly book. And it's on the Ukraine crisis as it erupted in 2014 and where it came from. And it's kind of revisionist. 

One of the reviewers said we do equal-opportunity criticism. So we're certainly critical of Russian behavior, also of Ukraine's own political leadership, such as it is, and of Western policy, more the EU than the United States. I think there's a lot of blame to go around. We make some modest recommendations on how the situation might be improved, to be updated if it ever moves in the direction of positive change. 

But I'm also involved in a collaborative project here at Harvard, anchored, in fact, in the Weatherhead Center, which is about world regions and how they can usefully be compared. There are eight of us involved in this—eight faculty members and three or four different faculties, which is one of the great benefits of working under the Weatherhead umbrella. 

And we're asking a rather grand—grandiose, even—set of questions which we know we have to pare down eventually when we get to the bottom line. They have to do with what we mean by “region” in the twenty-first century—where regions come from, how to deal analytically and conceptually with the fact that, perceived or imagined, regions, as the cliche goes, often overlap, and what this means for international politics and for the international order more generally. I work on a region which many of the leaders of the countries that are said to constitute that region deny even exists. 

That is to say Eurasia is something which is seen as a positive thing for maybe half of the governments in the post-Soviet space, but the rest of them don't want to have anything to do with Eurasia that's one particular power. The Middle East, of course, is next door, is riven by conflict. But it somehow coheres as a region despite the fact that everyone is at everyone else's throats. 

I spent six months last year in Southeast Asia, based in Singapore, where the actual degree of cooperation among the ten countries that constitute the ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, is pretty modest. Nonetheless, it's definitely an improvement on the alternative, which would have been a very high-conflict region, perhaps, you know, an Asian, Middle East, or Balkans. The sense of region—at least at the elite level—seems to be slowly growing. This organization is now fifty years old. Some of the comparisons we want to do, we don't want to limit ourselves to organization building or institution building, which has been the kind of mantra of the political science work on Europe, on Southeast Asia, on the Middle East, and elsewhere. 

So that's what I'm doing. This is going to take a while to come to fruition. I'm happy to answer any questions that people have about that. 

Weatherhead Center Faculty Associate Timothy J. Colton is chair of the Canada Program Faculty Steering Committee; chair of the Weatherhead Research Cluster on Regions in a Multipolar World; Harvard Academy Senior Scholar; and the Morris and Anna Feldberg Professor of Government and Russian Studies at Harvard University. His research covers political leadership in post-Communist countries; parties and mass politics in Russia; and the interaction between domestic and international politics in the post-Soviet space.


1. Image of Timothy J. Colton, taken at the Weatherhead Center Orientation panel on August 28, 2018. Credit: Lauren McLaughlin

Also in the “Trump’s Impact on the World” series: