At the end, Donald Trump had to capitulate and finally cancel his long-awaited meeting with Vladimir Putin at the G-20 of Buenos Aires. The US President had tried until the very last minute to avoid such an outcome, adopting an ambiguous position toward this new crisis between Russia and Ukraine and trying to somehow blame both sides for it. This position proved untenable and fell under the arrows of several members of the administration and of a broad bipartisan coalition in Congress.
The cancellation of the meeting does indeed signal the possible collapse of Trump’s Russian policy: of the desire to reset and re-launch the relationship between Moscow and Washington, putting an end to a period marked by conflicts, tensions and misunderstandings. This reset was meant to be the fundamental pillar of a putative Trump doctrine: the independent variable of a grand-strategic shift, bound to affect US transatlantic policy, the Middle East scenario and, even, Sino-American relations. This plan lies now in shambles, victim of its contradictions, limits and ultimate lack of realism. Its drivers were many, from the desire to free the US from its inescapable (inter)dependencies with both Europe and China to the shadowy affairs of the Trump organization in Russia.
The collapse of what was meant to be the main grand-strategic novelty of the new republican administration, however, took place primarily within the United States: it was the victim of domestic dynamics and, also, of a friendly fire within the Republican camp and the Trump administration itself. In a nutshell, we can say that three broad fronts converged in sinking Trump’s design: the foreign policy and national security establishment; Congress; US public opinion at large.
The Russian reset was never popular with experts, pundits and diplomats among whom a pre-existent anti-Russian bias mixed with a critique of Putin’s regime that could only intensify as a consequence of Moscow’s authoritarian turn and new imperial actions. Supporters of a rapprochement were always rare or marginal within the State department, intelligence agencies and influential Washingtonian think tanks. They could be found, at most, among original – but hardly influential (or even more hardly pro-Trump) – academics or in fringe media outlets à-la Breitbart.
Clearly, the anti-Russian front had soon the upper hand in the Pentagon, the intelligence community and Foggy Bottom. Their view was shared by a vast majority of Senators and Congressmen, who had long given up on the idea (and illusion) that it would be possible to rapidly integrate Russia into an updated, but still US-centric, global order. The Russian dossier proved to be one of the few issues where an ever more rare bipartisan collaboration could be promoted, as proved by the renewal and intensification of sanctions. This bipartisanship was endorsed, and legitimized, by a public opinion, where republican voters temporarily tempered their critical view of Moscow, but rapidly returned to a more traditional anti-Russian (and sometimes even Russophobic) fold. Pew and Gallup polls tell us that among US citizens unfavorable views of Russia now trump favorable ones 70 to 20; there is a partisan divide on this, but it is way less neat and polarized than on many other issues; more important, among Republicans, the favorable view of Russia plummeted from 40 to 25 in a matter of few months. Americans – to summarize – tend to share the view of their senators and representatives in considering Russia “US main geopolitical foe”, to quote former Presidential candidate (and now Utah senator) Mitt Romney.
Stakes are obviously very high: for the US, its European allies, and the President himself. With the Mueller inquiry entering a new phase and the incoming democratic House ready to fully mobilize its investigative powers, the last thing Trump needed was indeed this new escalation of tensions with Moscow.