01/12/2017 12:32 EST | Updated 01/12/2017 12:33 EST

Trump's U.S.-Russia Relationship Won't Be Built On Mutual Respect


In his first press conference since the election, president-elect Donald Trump claimed that "If [Russian President Vladimir] Putin likes Donald Trump -- guess what folks -- that's called an asset, not a liability."

His comment came in response to questions about the United States Director of Intelligence's unclassified report that concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Russia's intelligence community to interfere with the US presidential election in Donald Trump's favour.

Recent comments by Mr. Trump echo his claim that that the U.S. having a good relationship with Russia is "a good thing, not a bad thing," and that only "stupid" people or "fools" would think otherwise.

President-elect Trump is correct. A better relationship between Russia and the United States would be a very good thing. Unfortunately, his decision to publicly contest the U.S. intelligence community's conclusions and disparage America's spy services will only worsen Russo-American relations.

This is because it appears that the president-elect has confused Russian President Vladimir Putin's preference for him over Hillary Clinton with the prospect of improved relations. President Putin did not want a Clinton presidency because he felt that her administration would vigorously oppose his foreign policy, which involves seizing foreign lands by force and fuelling civil wars in neighbouring states. Putin's office also sought to personally punish Clinton, who Putin accused of inciting protests against alleged elections fraud in Russia in 2011 and 2012.

Clinton has long been willing to confront Putin's administration on issues of national interest. She has surrounded herself with advisers such as Michèle Flournoy (a former under secretary of defence) and considered Admiral James Stavridis to run as her vice-presidential candidate. Both have been advocates of firmly supporting (and arming) the Ukrainian government against Russia's invasion of its eastern territories and Crimean Peninsula.

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(Photo: Getty Images)

Donald Trump, on the other hand, suggested this past summer that he may change U.S. policy and accept Russia's annexation of Crimea. Donald Trump rhetorically asked "does anyone actually believe Hillary would be tougher on Russia than me?" Yes. The people who work in the Kremlin.

From the Kremlin's point of view, a Clinton presidency would vigorously oppose some of the most destabilizing aspects of Russian foreign policy and undermine Putin's efforts to re-establish parts of Eastern Europe and Central Europe as Russia's de facto imperial possessions. Clinton, in other words, would not be pliant. Putin therefore preferred the idea of a president Trump instead.

By ordering Russian intelligence services to infiltrate the Democratic National Committee's servers and spread propaganda through seemingly legitimate media outlets, Putin killed two birds with one stone. If Clinton won, she would have at least been tarnished. Now that Trump has won, his victory is blemished with the charge of foreign interference (and even more salacious through unsubstantiated rumours), and Vladimir Putin has learned valuable information from Trump's response to the affair.

Mr. Trump has not yet taken office, but he has faced his first foreign policy test.

When confronted with a consensus among U.S. intelligence organizations that the Russian government interfered with the election, rather than trusting his fellow Americans who dedicate their lives to defending the national interest, Donald Trump publicly mocked them in what appears to be an effort to defend his own image. Rather than resolutely denouncing a foreign government's interference in U.S. elections, the next U.S. president mocked and figuratively shot the messenger.

Mr. Trump's response suggests to the Kremlin that when faced with a direct challenge to American sovereignty, that president Trump will vacillate and be slow to take resolute action to defend American interests. Mr. Trump has not yet taken office, but he has faced his first foreign policy test. We can only imagine what lessons other governments have drawn from the affair.

This is too bad, and not just for American foreign policy. It's also too bad because the U.S. president-elect is right when he says a better relationship between Moscow and Washington could be good for the world. The two countries could be valuable partners in rolling back North Korea's nuclear weapon program. Both have an interest in stabilizing the Middle East and destroying ISIS. If the U.S. government were to ever take climate change seriously, working with Russia -- the world's third largest oil producer -- would be essential for success.

Only a fool would think it would be good for the United States.

So, while blindly opposing the notion of a better relationship between Moscow and Washington is stupid, the U.S. won't get a better relationship by ignoring the Kremlin's efforts to run roughshod over the most fundamental institutions in U.S. democracy. Doing so sends one message and one message only: that the American president is weak, inviting further interference in U.S. domestic affairs.

This will be a good relationship for Vladimir Putin's Kremlin. But it won't be a relationship built on mutual respect, and only a fool would think it would be good for the United States.

By downplaying Russia's tampering with the foundation of American democracy, Donald Trump isn't offering a plan for better relations with Russia. He's offering a plan for a subservient junior partnership, with Vladimir Putin in the corner office.

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