President Donald Trump’s relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the future of U.S.-Russian relations have drawn the attention of the media for months. World Policy Journal spoke with Nina Khrushcheva, the great-granddaughter of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, a Russian expert at the New School, and a World Policy fellow to talk about the state of U.S.-Russian affairs and what to expect in the next four years.
WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: With Donald Trump now securely in office in the U.S., what do you think are the key issues at stake between the United States and Russia?
NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: I think Syria is one of the big issues. Trump has mentioned a number of times that if the Russians want to take on Syria, they’re welcome to, because the U.S. is bogged down and it hasn’t really played out the way they wanted it to. Of course, then the question is when Trump wants to give Russians the upper hand and be taken out of the conversation. The U.S. was not part of the Astana summit. So we’ll see whether Trump continues in this direction or wants to become a partner in this conversation.
Then there is the NATO issue. Trump has mentioned the fact that NATO is an outdated institution that will have to be renegotiated. And Putin himself, of course, doesn’t think NATO is a fair organization—certainly not one that is fair to Russia.
Then there is the Chinese question, which Trump has mentioned many times, saying that China is a currency manipulator and China is a threat to the U.S. Russian President Vladimir Putin has a good relationship with China and it is possible that this is Putin’s introduction back into the Western fold, because most of the West clearly rejects Trump. But Russia’s admission back into the Western fold will be contingent on Putin distancing himself from the Chinese.
These are probably the three major issues, but there is also Ukraine to consider—I think Trump should know where it is by now—as well as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. For now, the United Nations, Russia, and the U.S. are on opposite sides of the latter issue. We’ll see whether this gap can be bridged.
WPJ: Do you think international organizations are in danger at this point in time, given the Kremlin’s expansionist policy and Trump’s potential isolationism? Do you think this is the beginning of a new world order?
NK: Well, in some ways we are already in it. Let’s just leave Russia out of this for a second. In his first few days in office Trump has already announced and withdrew from some international treaties and organizations, at least cancelling their further development. For example, Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia is in grave danger right now. It is a given that the state of the world is in danger.
Trump argues that he is such a deal-maker, that he is always negotiating or renegotiating. I think that this renegotiation of balances of power and of institutional connections are probably going to be something that we will see more and more of. NATO is one example. Putin always argues that one of the reasons he has had to be a strong-handed leader is because in 2001, the U.S. unilaterally withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
Certainly the U.S., Russia, and China are the biggest players. But since the U.S.’s power is on the wane, Europe really needs to develop a stronger voice and take a leadership role in maintaining some sort of Western order.
It’s a combination of many, many issues. Trump just came in, so we can’t say it’s his fault. Putin clearly wants to destabilize certain positions of power, but he is also not the one who began it—it’s just that he decided not to sit quietly and watch NATO expand right up to the Russian border or the U.S. withdraw from the nuclear agreement. Putin is the type of man who, if you take something from him, he is going to fight back twice, three times, 10 times as much. The asymmetrical response is something that we’ve seen him do for a decade, at least.
WPJ: Another thing that has been on Americans’ minds a lot is the actual relationship between Trump and Putin, and all the reports of their friendly relations. What do you think this relationship really is?
NK: I know it is an incredibly sensational theme, but nobody has shown any convincing evidence that there is this type of relationship [between them]. I was talking to one anchor whom I highly respect—she said that [Putin] is a Darth Vader of world politics, which makes him a compelling figure. But for me, this is entertainment—we’re not really discussing news. So I think the reports are probably much greater than the actual relationship between Trump and Putin, which has potential to be great, has potential to be absolutely disastrous—in fact, I’m almost ready to bet on it being disastrous. But it’s also clearly about the mythology of what Russia is in the American imagination, which made the story much bigger than it really is.
Trump is clearly enamored with the Putin power style as many leaders are. Half of the world’s leaders are mini-Putins, including Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the president of Turkey, and Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India. I think the relationship [between Trump and Putin] is more like one between dictators—and I don’t mean dictator in the traditional sense, but rather an authoritarian, power-hungry person who sees another authoritarian, power-hungry person and feels a kinship.
Of course a lot of Trump people have relationships with Russia, especially those in business. A lot of people come to Russia to make easy money, like Rex Tillerson, the former Exxon Mobile executive, who grew up in the Cold War and later did business with Russia. It’s kind of beautifully mythological—they come here to this “Cold War foe,” which has the craziest form of capitalism ever possible and millions and billions of dollars. It’s not just about the money, but also about the image, the perception, the mystery of it—and I think for Trump, that mystery is certainly there.
By the way, I find very interesting that with all of this “bromance” talk going on for six months or even longer, Trump and Putin still haven’t conversed since November. The Kremlin spokesperson keeps saying that they are still negotiating a meeting. At least in Moscow, where I am right now, this is a very suspicious delay, and it speaks to a few difficulties. Putin is waiting for Trump to make the first gesture as Trump did with Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, but Trump cannot. If he does, he will continue to be interpreted as a Russian lackey.
WPJ: What is your stance on the alleged Russian hacking of the U.S. election?
NK: Well, it’s still alleged. In fact, I wrote an article about how unconvinced I am by the report. I can’t say I’m certain because I’m not, but I would be surprised if Russians didn’t do it. I would be even more surprised if Russians only hacked the Democrats. Putin is an equal opportunity offender and if the Russians were hacking the DNC, they were certainly hacking the RNC. Most likely the Kremlin has something on Trump. It is very possible that all these things that Americans couldn’t find out about, like Trump’s business deals and his tax returns, are already in the hands of the Kremlin.
I can’t really say it with certainty, but Trump is a clever man and one of the reasons he was playing nice with Putin, at least until recently, is that he may be aware that the Russians have some information on him and he’d probably like to use everything in his power so that it is not released. There is a complex web of problems surrounding this relationship, any way you put it.
WPJ: What’s the attitude toward the hacking of the U.S. presidential election in Moscow right now?
NK: What is the greatest KGB dream? To be perceived to be taking down American democracy. So yes, even if the Kremlin didn’t do it, they would say that they did—not officially, but with a “wink-wink” as if to say, “you know what we’re capable of, but of course we didn’t do it.”
In some ways it’s a little bit like Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction. Autocratic leaders—and Trump fits into that category as well—don’t admit defeat, they don’t admit that they didn’t do something that any good, self-respecting autocrat would do.
The Russian response is that “yes, we do want Trump because he is our guy, we understand this guy—he loves gold, he loves grandeur, and so do we.” But they also make fun of him at the same time. I actually just posted a remarkable picture that I saw on Twitter—there is a Russian Army department store in Moscow that has a promotional poster of Trump in its window, and it says that on Friday, Jan. 20, in honor of Trump’s inauguration, there will be an extra 10 percent off for U.S. Embassy workers and all U.S. citizens. It’s similar to the old odes to Stalin—every great Russian writer and poet wrote one, but there was always a lot of irony to them. So this is an ode to better Russian-American relations because Putin and Trump are supposedly such buddies, but at the same time, we’re laughing at all of them.
I think Trump wants a better relationship with the Russians. He is a little ridiculous, but we [Russians] totally understand that; we have politicians like that, too. One of them is Vladimir Zhirinovsky [the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia] who like Trump, has said he likes uneducated people. Whether or not they are connected by autocracy or nationalism, politicians ultimately all share a the same very limited formula.
WPJ: With the presidential elections in Russia coming up next year, what do you foresee for U.S.-Russian relations?
NK: There were two schools of thought leading up to Trump’s inauguration: that as president he would put into effect every single word he ever said during the campaign, or that it was just campaign strategy. But he went on: He continued with the wall, the deportations, the pipelines. He seems to be planning to do all of the things that he said earlier. I don’t know how long he will be able to survive if he continues in that direction, because there is either going to be a world crisis of mammoth proportions, or he will do something so unconstitutional that even people from his own party will have to do something about it—unconstitutionality is only going to pile up more each day, and they will no longer be able to normalize him.
Even if their bromance was just a rumor during the campaign, [Putin and Trump] should be talking by now and they are not. All these crazy people at the Kremlin do actually have portraits of Trump and hold parties in his name, but since the cabinet hearings all of these supposedly pro-Russian Trump nominees became very cautious in regards to Russia. And Trump himself has even said that maybe it was the Russians who hacked. Suddenly the Russians are thinking that maybe it’s not going to be such a honeymoon after all—they want him in their pocket and he is not. Trump may just be like any other American president: He comes in, he realizes that he is the leader of the most powerful country in the world, even in America’s very weakened condition right now, and he will behave like all American presidents do. It is going to be “America First” and Russia will have to fight to be in a distant second place.
Since [Putin and Trump] haven’t talked, there has been some reconsideration, at least by Russian officials. The foreign minister spoke [Wednesday] at the Russian Parliament and he said that yes, Trump is great at the art of the deal, but Putin is also not bad at negotiating, and whatever Putin negotiates is going to be very much in the Russian interest. This is a very firm way of saying, “if you want to be friends with us, fine, but we are going to be friends on our terms, it will never be on American terms.” The Kremlin knows how to tone down its rhetoric and Putin himself has always been very, very careful in his praise for Trump.
That’s another thing that really unfortunately was never reported. Putin once said that “Trump is a bright man,” but it was translated to “Trump is a genius.” Now that bright man is in the White House.
WPJ: If there is some sort of détente between the U.S. and Russia, at least in contrast conditions under former U.S. presidents, what do you think that would mean for Russian and American foreign policy?
NK: I’m retranslating, but [on Wednesday, Foreign Minister Sergei] Lavrov said that Russia has ways of getting over the hurt that was brought to U.S.-Russian relations, but that we shouldn’t really expect détente at first, or quickly. The Kremlin has been arguing that it’s because of monumental mistrust with the Americans and their inability to meet negotiating terms that there hasn’t been cooperation. I do think that if the Russians and Americans can figure out how to cooperate in Syria, it would be beneficial to the endless conflict.
I also think the Ukrainian conflict, to some degree, could be worked on. If Trump were interested, America could have a lot of say in Russia’s dealing of Ukraine, but it depends on what type of relationship Trump has with NATO. I don’t think that NATO would condense or change course, but both Trump and Putin’s bellicose rhetoric in regards to NATO could potentially change the landscape.
This is another opportunity to actually look at the world and see what kind of levers of power there are. Trump is always talking about “America First” and while Barack Obama tried a multipolar approach, “America First” is something that is absolutely ingrained in every American.
Putin talks about “Russia First,” too, but also speaks endlessly about multipolarity (although to a great degree, it’s a hypocritical concept). Russia did show that it could work with the U.S.—there was the Iran deal and the Syria chemical weapons deal. Maybe when the tone changes and the conversation changes, the relationship can change. I’m sure it can, I just don’t think that Trump, with all his romancing of Putin, is the man to change it. Ultimately both of them are megalomaniacs, both are exhibitionists, and both can insult people for not saying exactly what they want to hear. I just don’t see how this relationship can be beneficial to the world. Yes, they’re both good at making deals, but whether they want to make deals with each other, that’s a much bigger question.
WPJ: Given your unique perspective on the Soviet Union and on contemporary Russia, what is your advice to the American people now that Trump is president?
NK: Take a deep breath. Don’t think about Salt with Angelina Jolie, just forget Hollywood for a second. I know we [Russians] are a really good enemy—we’re white, it’s politically correct, nobody has to feel bad about it. But instead of feeling absolute rage at how these Russians who lost the Cold War dare to challenge us today, just think of Russia as a country that needs to be dealt with. Barack Obama—and I have great respect for him, I think he was a wonderful president—did not deal with Russia and that was a very big mistake because Putin is deceiving, Putin is secretive, Putin is bellicose, and yet Putin could have been dealt with, talked with, and negotiated with. None of these efforts were ever made. There was an attempt in 2009 with the Russian reset [when the Obama administration attempted to improve relations with Russia under former President Dmitri Medvedev]. But Medvedev, as we all know, was only keeping Putin’s seat warm for him so he could return as president, and that presidential switch was taken at face value.
Unless something else happens, Putin is going to be president for another 20 or 24 years officially, and probably longer unofficially. Russia is a country of 11 time zones, with a huge nuclear arsenal, with great intellectual potential. It needs to be dealt with, so take a deep breath. There is potential.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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[Interview conducted by Natasha Bluth]
[Photo courtesy of Center for the Study of Europe Boston University]