Q&A: UVA Expert Offers Helpful Insight Into Future of U.S.-Russia Relations

Putin's face on money

Donald Trump will be inaugurated as the nation’s 45th president on Friday amid allegations that the Russians sought to influence election by hacking e-mails from an operative of the Democratic Party.

Trump’s expressed admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his public rejection of intelligence reports implicating the Russians in the election hacking, among other events, have raised questions about Trump’s future stance toward Russia –­­­ even from Trump’s fellow Republicans.

Jeffrey Rossman, an associate professor in the University of Virginia’s Corcoran Department of History, specializes in the history of Russia and the Soviet Union. He is the author of “Worker Resistance Under Stalin: Class and Revolution on the Shop Floor,” and he received a Collaborative Research Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies for his work with Lynne A. Viola, a professor at the University of Toronto, on reframing the history of Soviet mass violence in the 1930s and ’40s. Rossman currently teaches course on the history of Russia since 1917.

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We recently sat down with Rossman, who has been teaching at UVA since 1999, to discuss the United States’ current relations with Russia and how things could be different as a new administration takes office.

Q. There has been concern about relations between the United States and Russia. From a historical standpoint, have we been at this junction before?

A. The two low points in U.S.-Russian relations in the post-Cold War era were 1999 (the NATO bombing of Serbia) and 2014 (Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea). One would expect that the finding by U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia made a concerted effort to influence the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election would lead to a further deterioration in relations. To the extent that the U.S. has imposed new sanctions on Russia, that could be said to have happened.

At the same time, the president-elect and some of his top advisers seem determined to improve relations. Among at least some of his expected Cabinet members, there are different views.

In the short term, I don’t expect dramatic changes. But there are admittedly a lot of uncertainties with regard to the incoming administration’s foreign policy posture.

Russia and the U.S. will continue to have areas where cooperation serves the interests of both nations, just as they will continue to have areas where their interests diverge. Even after Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and the imposition of sanctions, the U.S. and Russia continued to work together on the Iran nuclear deal because both sides had strong incentives to secure an agreement.

Q. What is the background to Russia’s apparent efforts to influence the outcome of the U.S. presidential election?

A. The post-Cold War expansion of NATO – and to a lesser extent, the European Union – generated a backlash in Russia, which feels threatened by, and resentful of, Western encroachment in its traditional spheres of influence. Russia is too weak to directly challenge the U.S. or NATO. And despite Putin’s efforts to portray Russia as an exemplar of traditional values as compared to the “decadent” West, Russia does not offer a sufficiently attractive civilizational alternative to win global hearts and minds.

So Putin has pursued a policy of supporting anti-liberal groups within Western states and exploiting weaknesses within Western alliances. He’s played a weak hand well. Russian intervention has coincided with – and perhaps marginally aided – the rise of systemically disruptive forces in Europe and the U.S.

Q. What does Russia see as its interests in relation to Syria, Iran and Turkey?

A. Russian-Syrian relations have been close for more than half a century. In 1971, the Syrian regime allowed the USSR to open a naval base in Tartus. Given the contraction of Russia’s global military footprint after 1991, Russia does not want to lose that base. Syria also is an important market for Russian military exports. More broadly, Russia’s apparently effective – if brutal – intervention in the Syrian civil war has increased Russian influence in the region.

A key aspect of Putin’s social contract with Russian citizens, especially in an era of declining living standards, is that he will restore Russia’s role as a major player in global affairs. Although Russia has rightly been denounced for war crimes in Aleppo, Russia’s Syrian intervention has been spun by Russia’s state-controlled mass media as evidence that Russia is (again) a shaper of the international order.

Russia and Iran have significant trade relations and share a common interest in limiting U.S. influence in the region. They also both provide substantial support to the Syrian government.

Trade is a significant factor in Russia’s relations with Turkey. Turkey is a NATO member, and Russia is always looking for ways to exacerbate tensions among members of the alliance. Turkey’s government has taken an authoritarian turn under President Recep Erdogan and, since the coup attempt last summer, the U.S. has become a useful scapegoat for domestic political instability. Putin likewise uses the U.S. as a scapegoat for Russia’s domestic problems (e.g., falling living standards). The rupture in relations caused by Turkey’s 2015 downing of a Russian military jet that violated Turkish airspace has been overcome. Rather than push Russia and Turkey apart, the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey has drawn the two nations into a tighter embrace. For the moment at least, Russian influence in Turkey is rising.

Q. Do the “hacking” allegations have any real effect on the relations between the two countries?

A. Relations are already frosty. Barring new revelations, I don’t see it having a major impact.

That’s not to say that the significance of what happened in 2016 should be minimized. As long as disinformation, fake news and hacking remain low-cost and low-risk ways of advancing Russian interests abroad, we should expect Russia to continue deploying these tools. France and Germany, which have elections coming up, are likely to be the next targets. German intelligence has already issued warnings in this regard.

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Helping our allies defend the integrity of elections and imposing a cost on Russia for its meddling should be priorities for the new administration.

Q. Disinformation was a KGB tactic during the Soviet period.

A. While the KGB no longer exists, its successor organizations employ practices familiar to students of Soviet intelligence services, including disinformation campaigns, support for systemically disruptive political groups and the gathering of kompromat (embarrassing information) about important individuals.

Hacking has been a tool in the arsenal of the Russian intelligence services since the globalization of the Internet. Hackers employed directly or indirectly by the Russian state have disrupted government services in Estonia and taken down parts of the Ukrainian power grid. Nobody should be surprised that Russia deployed hackers to gather information during the U.S. presidential campaign and selectively leaked information to harm one of the candidates.

Q. Could opposition to ISIS and other terrorist movements be considered a shared interest of Russia and the United States?

A. Russia and the United States have had limited cooperation in the field of counterterrorism since at least 9/11. Such cooperation will no doubt continue, at least at the level of selective intelligence sharing.

Q. Putin views himself as a strong world leader. How is he going to react to Trump?

A. Less than three years ago, the West responded to Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea by imposing economic and political sanctions. The global stature of Russia and its president declined sharply. U.S.-Russia and U.S.-EU relations reached a post-1991 nadir.

Observers across the political spectrum thus were shocked when one of the U.S. presidential candidates made admiring comments about Putin. That candidate is about to become president.

Without U.S. leadership, support for sanctions would weaken. I’m not making any predictions other than to say that Putin would be delighted with such an outcome.

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