U.S. presidents have a tradition of entering office and expressing hope for improved relations with Russia. With near perfect symmetry, this is matched by a tradition of presidents leaving office amid friction with Moscow.
Sometimes it takes years for optimism to turn to disillusionment. In the case of President Trump, there are warning signs after just a few months.
“If we could get along with Russia, that’s a positive thing,” Trump said shortly after his inauguration. “It would be great.”
But as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrives Tuesday in Moscow, a place where he was feted just a few years ago, the focus will be growing U.S.-Russia tension over their opposing positions in the Syrian war.
“As it often happens to someone’s foreign policy, events intrude on what you might want to do,” said Alexander Vershbow, who served as ambassador to Russia under President George W. Bush. “Syria has risen to the top of the agenda … and a very different kind of conversation is going to be taking place,” Vershbow told NPR.
It feels very long ago, but after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Russian President Vladimir Putin was the first foreign leader to call Bush, and Russia sent military medical teams as part of the U.S.-led coalition against al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
In Bush’s last year in office, 2008, Putin invaded the former Soviet republic of Georgia and Bush told the Russian leader: “Vladimir, you’re cold-blooded.”
In the 1990s, President Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin always seemed to be hugging at their frequent meetings. Then the North Atlantic Treaty Organization expanded eastward, the U.S. bombed Russia’s ally Yugoslavia and relations got sticky.
Early in his administration, President Obama sent Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to meet her Russian counterpart in 2009 with a “reset” button. Then Putin invaded Ukraine in 2014 and it ended with U.S. sanctions and very public recriminations.
Now it’s Trump’s turn.
His relations with Russia were already entangled by the ongoing investigations into Russia’s meddling in last year’s election and possible ties to the Trump campaign.
Yet in recent days, Trump’s previously complimentary comments about Putin have turned into heated rhetoric between U.S. and Russian officials over the U.S. missile salvo into Syria — a Russian ally where the Russian military is fighting in support of the country’s embattled leader.
That’s expected to make for a tense session in Moscow on Tuesday, a day in advance of a meeting between Tillerson and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov. The Russians have said that Tillerson isn’t scheduled to meet Putin — in contrast to previous U.S. secretaries of state who often met the Russian leader.
Speaking Tuesday at a meeting of G-7 nations in Italy, Tillerson criticized Russia’s long-standing support for Syrian President Bashar Assad and other U.S. adversaries in the region.
“Russia has really aligned itself with the Assad regime, the Iranians, and [the Lebanese group] Hezbollah,” he said. “Is that long-term alliance that serves Russia’s interest, or would Russia prefer to realign with the United States, with other Western countries and Middle East countries who are seeking to resolve the Syrian crisis?”
Tillerson’s remarks point to the fundamentally different world views that often lead to confrontations.
The U.S. sees Russia aligning itself with bad actors in the Middle East. Russia sees the U.S. as trying to drive Moscow out of its one stronghold in the Middle East. Moscow prizes access to the naval base at Tartus and the airfield near Latakia.
The Soviet Union, and now Russia, have been staunch backers of Syria for nearly a half-century, supporting both the current ruler and his father, Hafez, since the early 1970s.
“For Putin, it was a story of misplaced hopes and rejection: he became convinced that, no matter how accommodating he might try to be, Western powers — the United States, above all — had an innate disinclination to treat Russia as a full partner and a respected member of the international order,” David Remnick, Evan Osnos and Joshua Yaffa wrote last month in The New Yorker.
The Cold War may be a quarter-century in the past, yet Putin has never fully accepted the notion of a diminished Russia in the wake of the Soviet breakup, according to many analysts. And he tends to ascribe anti-Russian motives in many U.S. actions.
In his view, the expansion of NATO is not about making Europe safer, it’s about pushing the alliance closer to Russia’s border and jeopardizing its security. When the U.S. talks about democracy and human rights abroad, Putin considers it code for Washington’s intention to oust governments it doesn’t like.
Putin blamed the U.S. for aiding revolutions that toppled pro-Russian leaders in Ukraine and Georgia, and he blamed Hillary Clinton for inspiring Russian protesters when Putin was running for president in 2012.
U.S. and Russian interests do overlap in some areas, such as combating extremist groups, placing limits on their nuclear weapons and missiles, and until a few years ago, working to expand economic ties.
When Tillerson was running Exxon-Mobil, his oil deals in Russia not only earned him an “Order of Friendship” medal from Russia, the agreements also had backing of the Obama administration — at least until Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, prompting U.S. sanctions.
These cooperative efforts tend to be overshadowed by political and military crises, as with Syria.
“It has been a constant challenge for Washington to move forward on a constructive and productive agenda with Russia,” Angela Stent, a Russia expert at Georgetown University, wrote in her 2014 book, The Limits of Partnership, U.S.-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century. “Periods of dialogue, progress, and optimism have been followed by tense periods, standoffs, mutual criticism, and pessimism.”
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent. Follow him @gregmyre1.