All new American presidents desire a fresh start, regarding both domestic policies and foreign diplomacy. That’s part of the reason that we elect new leaders; we want change. But applying this impulse to Russian-American relations today serves Putin’s interests, not ours. This prescription for improving our bilateral relations implies a false sense of shared ownership for past causes of conflict. That’s wrong. It has been Putin’s actions, not decisions taken by Presidents Barack Obama or George W. Bush, that have contributed directly to the most contentious issues in U.S.-Russia relations today, as well as the tensions between Russia and many of our allies. To pledge to forget about these problems created by Putin lets the Kremlin off the hook without generating any positive outcome for the United States in return. That’s a bad deal for the American people and our allies. In fact, it’s not a deal at all – it’s a perfect gift to Putin.
Most obviously, Putin solely created the contentious “question” (Tillerson’s euphemism, not mine) in our bilateral relations regarding Russian interference in our 2016 presidential elections. Obama did not spark this confrontation; Putin did so single-handedly. To remove this issue from the agenda of U.S.-Russia relations in the name of fostering future cooperation is complete capitulation. Trump and Putin can agree to disagree about policies, but we cannot agree to disagree about facts, especially when those facts concern the violation of American sovereignty.
Similarly, Putin created our current bilateral impasse over Ukraine, not Obama. Putin made the decision to occupy and annex Crimea, and intervened in eastern Ukraine to assist the separatist movement there. Obama, our NATO allies and other world leaders who believe in international law reacted to Putin’s actions, not the other way around. To pretend that the United States and Russia are equal, neutral partners in trying to resolve this crisis today, or equal culprits in creating the conflict in the first place, is simply not true. Trump and his administration cannot just forget this tragic recent history that Putin himself made in the name of better relations with Putin.
In Syria, Putin did not start this horrible conflict, but his actions most certainly contributed to the problem, both inside that broken country and between the United States and Russia. At the beginning of the Arab Spring, Putin could have used his influence to help push out Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, leaving intact parts of the government, not unlike what Obama did regarding longtime American ally Hosni Mubarak in Egypt in 2011. To be sure, those of us hopeful for democracy in the wake of Mubarak’s ouster have been deeply disappointed. But Egyptians are much better off today than Syrians; who knows what carnage might have erupted in Egypt had Obama doubled down in support of Mubarak. But that’s exactly what Putin did with Assad, sparking first a civil war and then an even wider war with foreign terrorist organizations participating on both sides. And when Assad began to lose, after killing hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, Putin intervened militarily to save his Syrian ally. To forget about this history or, worse yet, to suggest that Russia’s approach to Syria is better than ours — as the Trump administration has now done — ignores Russian participation in these crimes.
For any other American president, Putin’s erosion of democracy within Russia might be another issue of contention in U.S.-Russia relations again created by the Kremlin, not the White House. Trump’s complete indifference to this issue, however, means that he already has removed this agenda item from U.S.-Russia relations.
There may be some marginal grievances from the Obama administration that the Russian government would point to and might say have to be forgotten in the quest to improve relations. Putin might bring up the signing of the Magnitsky Act in 2012 to punish human rights abusers. He might point to Obama’s refusal to cooperate with Russia on missile defense, because he would not agree to put limits on U.S. systems. Or Montenegro’s membership in NATO. Or Obama’s refusal to release Russian criminal Viktor Bout from an American jail. Note, of course, that all these outcomes served U.S. national interests and values. But these Russian grievances are small compared to Putin’s messes. And neither Putin nor his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pledged in Hamburg to forget about past differences as a step toward cooperation today. Putin is happy to accept our concessions without giving anything in return.
There are some difficult agenda items in U.S.-Russia relations not of Putin’s making, including addressing North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. The two presidents must seek to cooperate in addressing this truly confounding challenge. Moreover, Trump and Putin can work to develop a common agenda based on mutual interests regarding other economic and security issues. But we can do so without wiping the past slate clean and without pretending to forget who caused these previous contentious issues in the first place.