"I hope that we do have good relations with Russia. I say it loud and clear, I've been saying it for years: I think it's a good thing if we have great relationships, or at least good relationships with Russia."
That was President Trump at the White House, Monday.
At first glance it's hard to disagree with President Trump's desire to work with Russia. Two nuclear powers with major interests around the world, surely we can better advance peace and economic growth by working together rather than separately? And surely the risks of war demand that we seek amenability towards one another?
Sadly it's not that simple.
The underlying problem is that we have very different interests on a wide range of different issues. In Europe, for example, the United States seeks the stability and independence of pro-western democracies. Conversely, Russia seeks to maintain Europe's continued reliance on its energy exports, alongside assuring that no pro-western nations sit on its borders. The distinction renders itself in situations such as Russia's invasion of Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014.
In relation to China and Pakistan, Russia seeks trade but does not care about human rights or terrorism-related concerns in those nations. In contrast, the U.S. seeks the promotion of democracy and international security, alongside trade. Our understanding, or at least the understanding of U.S. policymakers, is that long-term stability requires durable reforms.
Russia's understanding is that the national interest is best served by mercantilism. This is encapsulated by the diverging U.S. and Russian strategies towards China's island construction campaign in the South and East China Seas. Where America sees that activity as a destabilizing assault on the freedom of navigation, trade, and international law, Russia happily ignores it so as to earn China's economic favor.
But perhaps the best example of where our interests divide is Syria. Here, President Trump believes that the U.S. and Russia can work together to defeat terrorist groups like the Islamic State. And to be sure, President Putin works hard to cultivate this American understanding. The Russian sales pitch on Syria makes everything so simple: "if only you stopped supporting Syrian rebels, then we could work with the true moderate, Bashar Assad, to crush ISIS."
Unfortunately, it's a distinctly crazy lie. After all, Assad and Russia have little interest in confronting ISIS, instead, they seek only to ensure their own interests are maintained. And as time goes on, the decision by President Trump to sacrifice U.S. support for moderate rebel groups will only empower ISIS.
In many ways though, Syria is just a microcosm for the broader differences between the U.S. and Russia in the Middle East.
Take Iran, where, at first glance, the U.S. and Russia seek to ensure Iranian compliance with the nuclear accord. But when it comes to the crunch, we have very different strategic interests.
Where the U.S. wants to ensure Iran does not develop a ballistic missile program that can threaten our allies, and to prevent Iran from funding and supporting terrorism, Russia is happy to have the opposite outcome. Seeking economic rewards born of an understanding of loyalty, Putin helps Iran develop its military capabilities and strengthen the hardliners.
As I say, on paper, Russia and the U.S. have shared interests in working together. The problem is that when we see what actually happens around the world, it becomes clear that Russia has very few interests that align with ours.