Lipman, SGIS and IU panel consider US-Russian relations in the Trump era

Feb. 17, 2017

As the news continued to bubble regarding relations between the US and Russia, a group of experts gathered at SGIS on Feb. 13 to discuss and debate exactly what may be to come with the new US administration’s policies.

The event “US-Russian Relations after the Inauguration” considered the implications of the early actions and the things not yet clear after President Trump took office. The discussion was a formal welcome for Maria Lipman, visiting distinguished fellow of Russian studies and a frequent contributor to the New Yorker and Foreign Affairs. Lipman is teaching a class at SGIS this spring called “Putin’s Russia.”

Sarah Phillips, director of the Russian and East European Institute at SGIS, moderated the panel, which also included SGIS Dean Lee Feinstein, Regina Smyth, project director of the Russian Studies Workshop and associate professor of political science, and Emma Gilligan, associate professor of international studies.

Lipman led off the remarks, noting that the Russian people had high hopes for better relations with the US after Trump’s election, primarily based on the things they saw on television. “Coverage on Russian national television, which is very heavily controlled by the Kremlin, created a sense of joy and enthusiasm among the Russian public,” Lipman said. By January, she said that Trump was the top newsmaker in Russia.

Since the Trump administration has had missteps and questions about dealings with Russia, Lipman said skepticism among Russian leaders has been more prevalent and the public message has changed. “Most recently, however, the tv tone has grown a little less celebratory,” she said.

Smyth said the drive of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s international policy in recent years is a big difference from the time just after the fall of the Soviet Union. Whereas the conditions in the immediate post-Cold War era required much attention on building Russia’s infrastructure and other matters at home, Smyth said the international policy in Russia has “taken on a life of its own.”

US-Russia panel“It’s created internal domestic constituencies for a more aggressive foreign policy and for more military buildup,” Smyth said. “And that’s changed the dynamic. We can no longer say like in the 1990s, Russian foreign policy was going to have to be restrained by Russian domestic politics, which we never had to say about the Cold War era.”

Smyth added that it’s not helpful to compare the current climate to the Cold War. While she said Putin may be trying to build such an environment, it’s not the same. “This crisis is not an ideological conflict,” she said. “It’s not a global conflict. It’s not a struggle of one camp versus another. There is no replacement for communism versus capitalism.”

Dean Feinstein elaborated on that thought, adding that it’s also complicated by the murky nature of the US stance on Russia. “This is a very profound divide,” Feinstein said. “It used to be a divide in which you could reliably say that Putin was on one side and certain right wing forces which until recently were marginalized in Europe were on the same side, and the United States was on the other. But now there’s an open question as to what the views of the United States are.”

That uncertainty about US policy has also made European partners nervous, Feinstein said. The conflicting statements from parts of the administration and the continuing positive tone of the president toward Putin have raised questions among allies. “Mainstream allies in Europe wonder does Trump support the same forces as Putin?” he said.

Gilligan said that it’s also tougher for the pro-democracy organizations that were helpful just after the Cold War to penetrate Russia. She said Putin has classified such organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy as undesirable. ”Therefore, to provide funding to civil society organizations in Russia, has become an extremely difficult and complicated operation,” she said.

Full video of the event is on the SGIS YouTube channel.