Notes from Trenin lecture ‘U.S.-Russian Relations Under the Trump Administration’

Monday evening, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center Dr. Dmitri Trenin gave a lecture at my university’s school of public policy.

I won’t try to give my own analysis of his remarks, but I will report them here for your reading and discussing pleasure.

Present state of U.S.-Russian relationship

According to Dr. Trenin, the present state of relations can only be described as ‘confrontation’ (defined here as a state of relations in which collision is possible). We no longer have a crisis in U.S.-Russian relations; since July of 2014 the two countries have settled into a new paradigm.

Trenin takes issue with those who call this the “New Cold War.” He says the current confrontation differs from the old days in three distinct ways:

  • It is asymmetrical. The Cold War was fought between two superpowers/relatively equal military blocs. The “New Cold War” pits the U.S., which has a vastly greater hand than its opponent, against Russia, which does not want to lose.
  • It isn’t static. During the Cold War, the Berlin wall and the division of Europe were immobile and effectively shielded each bloc from the influence of the other. In the 21st century, confrontation has spread to the information space (‘propaganda’), the global economic space (sanctions), and cyberspace (hacking).
  • It is waged without mutually accepted rules and norms.

Controlling confrontation

It goes without saying that we need to do whatever it takes to minimize the danger of kinetic collison. Trenin opines that since the U.S. election, U.S.-Russian confrontation has been “put on hold”, but the idea that Trump would usher in a new reset or detente should be taken with a large grain of salt. According to Trenin, the Russian government was all but bracing for a Hillary Clinton victory.

Trenin’s recommendations for how to control confrontation:

  • reopening channels of communication between the U.S. and Russia
  • meetings between U.S. and Russian defense chiefs to reduce incidents between U.S. and Russian armed forces
  • Confidence-building measures (and here my notes become sloppy; it had something to do with scaling back aggressive training exercises on Russian border in anticipation of an invasion of the Baltics)
  • End the media/demonization barrage on both sides – the longer it lasts, the more difficult it will be to deescalate tensions

Future of U.S.-Russian relations

The future relationship between the U.S. and Russia lies somewhere between managed adversity and mismanaged adversity. There isn’t a constituency in either country willing to work wholly to improve the relationship. However, cooperation between the U.S. and Russia is still possible in certain areas:

  • Nuclear arms proliferation – the question is whether this will remain part of the relationship or become a nonregulated strategic environment
  • space
  • combating terrorism – but Trenin thinks a Russian-U.S. coalition to fight ISIS is unlikely. The Pentagon wouldn’t accept Russia as a partner. (He also mentioned that Russia wants the coalition primarily because it would give Russia status and respect. That seems simplified at best.)
  • Iran
  • trilateral discussion between U.S., Russia, and China on strategic issues. China’s assumed nuclear potential is less than that of U.S./Russia, but it remains a major military power. It is in the interests of both the U.S. and Russia to strengthen stability in East Asia.
  • political transition in Syria
  • Afghanistan – mutual interest in preventing the country from becoming an ISIS romping-ground.
  • Libya – against extremists; for political settlement
  • North Pole
  • Russian Far East; Siberia

Trenin asserts that Russia has neither the will nor capacity to act as a superpower, and also that whatever future cooperation between the U.S. and Russia will have to occur within the existing framework of confrontation and adversity.

Thus concluded the lecture.

Questions from the audience

Yes, yours truly stayed for the Q&A, which tends to be the most disastrous part of any Russia-related lecture. In actuality, this particular Q&A wasn’t bad!

Opinon on the recent anticorruption protests in Russia

Trenin says there are several sides to the issue (although he only explains one).

  • people in Russia are becoming less tolerant of corruption. In the recent past, corruption among officials was not seen as something completely abhorrent. Because “for the first time in their long history, the Russian people were left alone by their government.”
  • The corruption material on Medvedev came from a very authoritative source: the FSB (did it? That also begs the question of why they’d pass it off to Navalny of all people – J.T.)
  • Revelations could be a manifestation of elite competition – different economic visions for Russia within the administration
  • Mass demonstrations have occurred across Russia for the first time in almost five years.
  • Russian elections are about confronting people in power, not changing them. So even though elections won’t be held until 2018, it’s safe to say the election year has already begun.
  • Potentially, this could become dangerous, as with anything in volatile Russia.

How will Russia and China maintain their political “friendship”?

  • The Sino-Russian partnership is best characterized as “good neighborly relations”.
  • There isn’t much suspicion of China in Russia, despite glaring imbalances within each country.
  • Russia is stong militarily, but lacks China’s economic and demographic heft. China is an economic superpower and one of the most populous countries of the world, but lacks Russia’s military might.
  • No two countries can be each other’s direct equals. The key is to construct a relationship which won’t lead to unilateral concessions.
  • Russia’s problem is that it cannot accept any other country’s leadership over its own. In Trenin’s opinion, refusal to join a larger organization coupled with inability to defeat it can be costly.
  • The relationship is complicated. Trenin doubts Russia will accept Chinese leadership. Unlike the U.S., China wisely knows how to treat Russia with a modicum of care.

Population decline and demographic changes in Russia

  • One of the most important issues facing Russia today, in Trenin’s opinion.
  • Due to improvements in life expectancy and birthrate, projections have become somewhat less dangerous for Russia.
  • Still, Trenin believes the real issue at hand isn’t numbers, but the declining body of the workforce.
  • Ways of dealing with it: 1) Increase productivity. Currently the productivity of the average Russian worker is 25% of that of an American worker. 2) Improve healthcare. 3) “open up to others”. (A few million guest workers have come to Russia from FSU countries.)

Russian economic development policy

Basically, there isn’t one. Trenin says the Russian government has merely coasted on high oil prices, and when oil prices fell, the economy went into recession. He distills Putin into two things:

  • keeping Russia in one piece, and
  • restoring Russia’s status in the world as a great power

Neither one dealing with economic policy. Trenin pins hope for real economic development on the post-Putin era.

There’s a postscript to this little exercise in dictation that can’t be resisted, and you can make of it what you will:

In the entirety of this two-hour lecture (including student questions), Trump was mentioned by name exactly one time.

I suppose I should be thankful.



  1. Thanks a lot, J.T. for this report! Trenin is notoriously half-brilliant and smart, half- biased liberast with a tunnel vision of his own ideology. Everything he says should be taken critically. Just because he might be right in some of his points, doesn’t make all of what he says a Holy Truth. His take on “anti-corruption protests” (in reality – a bunch of Navalny cultists and school children who, when asked by the reporters to define the term “corruption” fail epically) is pulled out from his ἀφεδρών

    “However, cooperation between the U.S. and Russia is still possible in certain areas:

    – Iran”

    What about Iran? Russia has friendly ties with it. Russia does not believe for just one second, that its run by insane fanatics bend over on Israel’s destruction. The US does not like Iran, has antagonistic attitude towards it and truly, honestly believes in everything the Zionist lobby tells them. Trump wants to scrap “Iran deal”, but has nothing to replace it with. What kind of cooperation Trenin is talking about here? It all depends on the USA to remain rational here. We can’t influence that.

    “political transition in Syria”

    USA basically admitted that (officially) the regime change is off the book. What political transition? On whose behalf does the US is speaking here? On behalf of the Kurds, currently annihilated by the US ally Turkey? On behalf of elusive (and, frankly, un real) “Moderate Opposition”? What’s to talk about here, if the stated line of Russia had not changed from the Day One of the Civil War in Syria, i.e. that it’s up to the Syrian people to decided their future.

    “Afghanistan – mutual interest in preventing the country from becoming an ISIS romping-ground.”

    Yes, but, apparently, this does not include making it less heroin producing – at least, the US does not want it to become one.

    “Libya – against extremists; for political settlement”

    ISIS in Libya are dead and gone. Now it’s a “vanilla” civil war between the West-backed Interim government and Hafthar, supported by Russia and Egypt. What to talk about here?

    “Russian Far East; Siberia”

    And the US fit into this… how exactly?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Regarding Afghanistan. As far as I understand Russia is already for some time trying to reach to some kind of peaceful understanding with Taliban considering it a lesser evil there. Lesser even than US backed government . If that is indeed true any kind of cooperation over Afghanistan becomes difficult.


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